Francine Bryson Knows Pit Bulls and Peanut Butter Balls
Francine Bryson burst into my consciousness when I turned on the CBS show The American Baking Competition. This blonde powerhouse had energy and I was smitten. She appeared to be kind, smart, funny and she definitely knew how to bake! She finished, as runner-up but was the crowd favorite. With over 200 wins from national and local baking competitions under her belt, it made perfect sense that a publisher scooped her up for her premier book, Blue Ribbon Baking from a Redneck Kitchen. Francine and I chatted about grandmothers, peanut butter balls, pit bulls, 50 Shades of Grey and fondant. If it seems like there is an abundance of exclamation points it is because we were both having an incredibly enthusiastic time during this convo.
Dédé Wilson: Francine! I am so excited to finally speak with you. I was rooting for you on the baking competition!
Francine: Well, thank you Dédé! I was just putting away groceries from the farmer’s market.
Did you find anything great?
Oh I picked up my vegetables and fruit. This market has been around for 100 years and I go all the time. But it was so hot my hair started curling and it was time to come home!
(Laughs) Yes, it is hot here in the northeast, too. (Francine was in South Carolina).
I’m getting ready to go up into the mountains to a cabin with some girlfriends for 4 days and we are gonna eat and bake and make pies and do nothing but hang out!
That sounds like a plan! You know Francine I was drawn to you on the show and also through your book because you really like food! Your recipes are about taste and flavor and that’s the way I think about it too. All my books have the same approach that you gravitate towards.
What books have you written?
Well, my first book was The Wedding Cake Book – I’ve written two wedding cake books – and even in those books I want the food to taste good! Your recipes are packed with flavor too, which really attracted me. For instance, the worst thing anyone could say about my wedding cakes is “Oh that looks too good to eat!”. I want them to say, “I can’t wait to taste that!” For instance, I never use fondant.
Oh, me neither! I mean you see these cakes covered in fondant and you tell me, have you ever heard anyone take a bite of a cake covered in fondant and say, “Oh that tastes great!” No, of course not! Ewe! Now, that’s gross!
Francine, we are speaking the same language! Tell me about writing the book did you have a blast?
I did! But here’s the thing, I have been writing this book since I was 6 years old. I’m 46 now but I was in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother since before I was born! And then I was propped up on a pillow in the kitchen! Our lives revolved around food. We were mill workers and had to stretch food…biscuits were made 3 times a day…life revolved around food! I was raised to bake! People tell me I’m crazy when I say I never read Mother Goose or any of those classic children’s books. I learned to read by reading Mastering the Art of French Cooking!
I was the same way and still am! I take cookbooks to bed, in the tub…
People love reading Harlequin romances and 50 Shades of Grey. That’s the way I read cookbooks! I love reading recipes – you can picture them in your mind…our family had a book – we called it the “bible”…it was recipes from my maternal grandmother…it included handwritten recipes, recipes from women in the church, clippings out of newspapers…the first recipes that I made were outta that book. This book (her book) is the book I wanted to write. I want to write cookbooks. I want the world to see food through my eyes. I want it to be adventurous and fun. Don’t be scared! I want to encourage people to get into the kitchen and bake! Get in there and try a recipe! If it don’t work, start over!
Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?
Oh, tons of them! I’m a southern girl and I love a pound cake. It’s so simple but I love ‘em. And the cola cake! I grew up with that one and will make it forever. But I guess the (Aunt Thelma’s) Peanut Butter Balls in the candy section. That recipe is so near and dear to my heart. It was never written down…when I was 6 or 7 my Aunt Thelma taught me how to make them. So took me aside and she said, “There is not recipe for these so you watch and then you don’t tell anybody!” I have been making them ever since. She passed a few years later and I’m the one in the family that makes them…last Christmas I think I made 3000! Unbelievable. But it’s my ultimate favorite; simple but it means so much to me…once I was grown my uncle gave me her written recipes…
So it was written down!
No! It wasn’t in there! I am the first to write it down in our family. Listen, there are probably thousands of recipes for peanut butter balls, but this is ours! If someone says to me, “make me a goody!” I don’t make a cake or cookies, I make these because they are phenomenal.
We are going to feature your Blue Ribbon Pumpkin Cake, the Turtle Cake Roll and the Chocolate Gravy. Talk to me about the rolls. A jellyroll is such a simple thing and it intimidates people. Give us your tips.
Everybody loves that roll!
Well, what’s not to love? Chocolate, caramel, nuts…
If you don’t like chocolate there is something wrong with you!
I take it a step further and say if you don’t like dogs and chocolate then I am not sure we can be friends.
(Laughs) I’m here right now with my dear old pit bull, Xena, at my feet. She and I are inseparable! My husband says he knows where he is on the ladder! (laughs). My husband can’t fit in the bed because of her…I’m thinking maybe after she is gone I want a mini bull.
I grew up with bull terriers! We are kindred spirits! I can help you find a mini, no problem!
(Ed. Note: At this point we went on a long tangent about mini bull terriers, good breeders and anti-pit bull legislation and why it is just so wrong and ill-conceived. I mention this only to give you a flavor as to how warm and friendly Francine is. She truly is a best friend in the making, even if you never get to meet. The conversation flows).
OK back to the roll…you recommend using a boxed cake, and those are always moist, so there is less chance of them cracking (upon rolling), which is what scares people.
Yes, I wanted to make it less scary and since you have to roll it, I thought, well, I will start with a cake mix to make it easier. You can make a scratch cake, of course. I do when I make it…I do what Nana always said, you have a clean tea towel ready – not a kitchen towel, a tea towel. You sprinkle confectioners’ sugar on the towel, then you unmold the warm cake on the towel and roll while cake is warm – not when it cools because it will crack. If you do it after it cools, you might have snacks but you won’t have a nice rolled cake. So roll it while it is warm and pliable and then let it cool all rolled up!
You know I love that you make the distinction between tea towels and kitchen towels…I think we need to do a side-by-side pic for our readers.
Oh I love to going to Marshall’s and TJ Maxx to hunt for tea towels…I was there one day and I am scooping up the tea towels and this woman says to me “what do you want those for? You can’t dry a dish with those!” And I said, “these are tea towels! You cook with them! You don’t dry with them! Have mercy people, have you never used a tea towel?”
(We both dissolve in laughter).
I want people to have success, so I am recommending the boxed cake. The words “homemade” and “scratch” scare people. I wanted to adapt this recipe for the average person – take the fear away!
Tell me about the pumpkin cake! How did you come up with those flavors and textures? (The cake combines pumpkin, chocolate, lemon yogurt, spices, eggnog and cream cheese).
I love pumpkin and chocolate and people are like, “you don’t do that”! And I say, “yes you do!” I was getting ready for a pumpkin cook-off in Transylvania County (in North Carolina) and they do a big Halloween event. I’ve won it 3 or 4 times in a row and I was thinking I gotta do something different. I had a package of Oreos I was snacking on and I thought, “I’m going to put the crumbles on the bottom of the cake!” Most of the good stuff happens by accident!
And how about the lemon yogurt? Were you starting with a buttermilk-based cake in your mind and then adapting?
Yes, and I wanted something a little sturdier. Listen, you bake with what you got on hand. That’s what our grandmothers did…I look in the fridge…that’s where it (inspiration) comes from – playing! This isn’t scientific, there is no exact process here – not in my kitchen. It’s trial and error! Believe me a lot of the recipes in the book didn’t happen the first time. I made 4 suckers of that upside down pie (Upside-Down Apple-Pecan Pie) before I got it right! It’s not about perfection out of the gate. Perfection comes with time; I bake just about everyday.
Give us some tips for the home baker…
I do what my Nana told me – KISS – keep it simple stupid. And don’t get scared…don’t let the food intimidate you! If it isn’t right the first time, try it again, there is always room for improvement. Don’t give up. That’s a big thing. People on Facebook and Twitter write me and say, “I tried this or that and it didn’t turn out. I’m not doing it again.” You have to try again!!!! There’s no reason to be scared. It’s an oven! Don’t let the ingredients scare you. You are in charge!
How has the experience of writing the book been? And your post TV show life?
Oh, so exciting, I’ve gotten to visit Wrigley Field and cross that of my bucket list and New York City at Christmastime and the Magnificent Mile in Chicago and Hershey World. I went to LA and met Rebel Wilson in a restaurant! I have gotten to go to so many places that I wouldn’t have normally. I swear in NY I walked 5000 miles all over the city. I went to Little Italy and ate in Bobby Flay’s restaurant! I am loving every minute of it.
Well, Francine, if you ever get up north I want to know! I would love to meet you in person.
That would be great, Dédé. Maybe I will get to NYC again!
I wish you so much luck with your book, Francine. You are going to rock it out when you take your book to QVC!