Virginia’s Piedmont region, which is directly west of Washington, D.C., is a land of horse farms, winding country roads, and serious money. It has been this way for a long time.
One morning a few years ago, on a visit to watch a million-dollar thoroughbred be put through his paces, I declined a ride back up the hill in a very long BMW on the grounds that I didn’t want to get it muddy, only to be told not to worry about that, this was the dog’s car. It’s that kind of place.
There’s always been great food around there: the Leathercoat restaurant was the real deal farm-to-table spot before we knew what to call it; the Red Fox Inn is older than America; L’Auberge, in White Post, is as French as French can be without being in France. The area is the opposite of a food desert, not a garden, with plentiful abundant availability, but a formal garden, in which you are not really supposed to touch anything, much less eat it. A garden made of white tablecloths and thin-stemmed glasses of chardonnay. A food conservatory, just be sure to bring a jacket, trust me, you’ll need it.
Brian Noyes turned that around a bit in the little town of Marshall, Virginia, with his Red Truck Rural Bakery. Around the turn of the century, while still the art director for the Washington Post, he entered his signature peach & ginger jam in a contest at the Arlington County Fair and took four prizes, including Grand Champion. He also, thankfully, took it as a mandate. He had a bright red 1954 Ford truck and a weekend house in Orlean, Virginia. He made granola and breads and pies and delivered them to stores in the region.
It was almost a decade before he started looking for a space to open a retail business. The bakery opened in 2009 and, despite the precarious economy, thrived and is a favorite of former president Barack Obama and other celebrity customers. And now, thanks to the release of the new book, The Red Truck Bakery Cookbook, you don’t even have to go to Virginia or wait on line for Noyes’ dishes but can make them in the comfort of your own home.
No doubt, the book will become a bestseller in Beltway and beyond. Part of the secret to its success lies in the story that opens the book, which has got to be on the short list for best all-time ledes: “John Wayne made me a tuna sandwich.”
I think you should get the book to find out how that particular event came to happen, but here’s the key to the Duke’s sandwich: “Before adding the top slice of toast, he looked right at me and smashed a fistful of potato chips into the tuna filling, commanding in his drawl ‘This is why you’ll like this.’”
Noyes’ take on this: “John Wayne’s lesson sticks with me forty years later: there are no rules.”
The recipes here are all charming and more than a few of them live up to this non-traditional ideal, such as the New Year’s Tamales with black eyed peas. Sometimes it’s just a little tweak, like the Sweet Potato Pecan Pie (called “The Presidential Pie” since Obama likes it; see the recipe below).
Other recipes would make traditionalists cry. It was with great trepidation that I approached the Skillet Cornbread with Pimento Cheese Frosting. Noyes knew he was asking for trouble, he says it right at the top of the page: “It’ll terrify Southern cornbread purists.” It’s got more all-purpose flour in it than it does cornmeal, and it’s got—okay I’ll just say it, I’ll just jump in and say—sugar. It’s also really, profoundly, good. (That sound you heard was Sean Brock dropping his coffee cup.) It’s light, flavorful, and moist and works almost as well without the bakery’s gilding of sorghum glazed bacon and the pimento cheese frosting as it does with it.
But not all of the book’s recipes are so unorthodox—Rooster’s Red Pepper Jelly is straightforward and delicious. I was very glad, however, that no one was home when I made it. Suffice to say that if you’re not quite used to making jellies yourself, you need to be patient and you need to hover over the pan. When they say “tall-sided pan” take them seriously, but don’t use anything you would be too heartbroken to lose. The whole debacle was entirely my fault, and had nothing to do with the recipe, but I’m still finding spots of pepper jelly on the walls. Now that it’s in jars in the fridge, I love it. It’s the sort of unexpected, over-the-top homemade item that seems much more difficult than it is.
As we cruise into the long winter months, I find myself turning back to the Red Truck Bakery Cookbook for fortifying dishes. I want to make the recipe for Ham Jam and invite over a bunch of friends for a long casual brunch. I want to make the peach milkshake cake. My son wants me to make that cornbread again.
The reason it all works is because Noyes isn’t restrained by tradition any more than he is restrained by some overlay of the overtly hip. He elevated the sorts of things a rural bakery might actually make. I get the feeling that he’s diligent. These dishes demonstrate a remarkable level of attention, intelligence, and sophistication while remaining homey and cheerful. It’s a great addition to the shelf, and it’s the right time of year to have it on hand.
Sweet Potato Filling:
- 1 cup Cooked and mashed sweet potato flesh (from about 3 large sweet potatoes)
- 1 Tbsp Unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup Granulated sugar
- ¼ cup Packed dark brown sugar
- 1 Large egg, beaten
- ¼ tsp Ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp Ground ginger
- ¼ tsp Ground or freshly grated nutmeg
- 2 Tbsp Heavy cream
- 1 Tbsp Bourbon
- ½ cup Granulated sugar
- 2 Large eggs, beaten
- ¼ cup Sorghum syrup
- ¾ cup Light corn syrup
- 1 Tbsp Bourbon
- 2 Tbsp Unsalted butter, melted
- pinch Ground cinnamon
- pinch Kosher salt
- 2 cups Unsalted pecan halves
1 Pie crust
- Roll out your pie dough into a 13-inch round, fit it into a 10-inch pie pan, trim, and crimp the edges. Chill for 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F. Place a raised wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet.
- Make the sweet potato filling: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the sweet potato on medium speed until fluffy and smooth. Swap the whisk attachment for the paddle attachment and add the butter. Mix well to combine. Add the granulated sugar, brown sugar, egg, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg and beat on medium speed until creamy. Scrape down the sides. Add the cream and bourbon and mix on medium speed until thoroughly incorporated.
- Make the bourbon filling: In a large bowl, whisk together the granulated sugar, eggs, sorghum syrup, corn syrup, bourbon, melted butter, cinnamon, and salt until thoroughly combined. Don’t overbeat; you don’t want the mixture to get thick and foamy.
- Pour the sweet potato filling into the pie shell, filling it halfway (you may have some left over). Smooth evenly with a spatula or the back of a spoon.
- Pour in half the bourbon filling, spreading it evenly. Scatter the pecans over the filling. Add the remaining bourbon filling on top of the pecans, using your fingers to make sure each pecan is coated.
- Carefully place the pie on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour 10 minutes, turning the baking sheet after 30 minutes. Give the pan a light shake; if the filling seems too liquid, bake for up to 20 minutes more, until the bourbon filling is firm. Let cool on a raised wire rack.
Reprinted from Red Truck Bakery Cookbook. Copyright © 2018 by Brian Noyes. Photographs copyright © 2018 by Andrew Lee Thomas. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.