Jockey. Librarian. Dermatologist. Britney Spears. What do these things all have in common? Probably not a whole lot besides the fact that they were all typical responses given by me, at one time or another, to the age-old question: what do you want to be when you grow up?
For me, this list could go on and on, with dream jobs and various professions that ebbed and flowed right along with whatever phase I was was in at a particular time in my life – as is the case for just about every child on the planet, I would imagine. However, there was one “when I grow up” job that seemed to always have a placeholder beside it’s name – it was permanently dogeared – even when I entertained alternative options, like becoming the next Britney Spears or opening my own small chain of restaurants that ONLY served variations of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Yes, becoming the future editor-in-chief of Southern Living Magazine seemed, to me, to be the ultimate dream job. I figured that this job title would allow me to flip through the pages of the ubiquitous Southern glossy as much as I darn well pleased, and get PAID FOR IT. I spent an inordinate amount of time reading SL when I was growing up, but mostly just the last bit of each issue … because as any culinarily curious Southerner would tell you, that is where all of the magic happens.
On a daily basis, I would fix myself something to eat in my parent’s kitchen and snag a copy of Southern Living to devour right along with my food. Bypassing the articles on the South’s best travel destinations, the house plans, and the gardening section, I’d start right at the end of each magazine, knowing full well that there would be a wealth of food photos, articles, tips, tricks, and step-by-step recipes for my reading pleasure.
“Why are you reading it backwards?” My brother asked me one morning, when he happened to take notice of my ritual.
“Because the recipes are all in the back.” I told him, explaining that it was just easier to start at the end and read backwards rather than try to figure out where the recipes started inside the magazine. I’m sure he tuned me out before I finished my explanation.
Whether I’d read every single recipe twenty times, which I often did, or was enjoying something for the first go round, I digested those pages like most people do their favorite novels. Over and over and over again, never tiring of the repetition, I soaked it all in. This is why I can make you a perfect hush puppy, buttermilk biscuit, or tray of hot water cornbread today without the help of a recipe. From summertime succotash and maque choux to banana pudding and real deal red velvet cake, I had an ever-expanding card catalogue of recipes in my head that I still reference today (note: traditional red velvet cake does NOT have cream cheese frosting, contrary to popular belief). I suppose this is why so many of my recipes have a Southern influence to them, or were at least inspired by a Southern dish. I can’t help it; those roots are in deep.
The recipe to which I turned most often, from my Southern Living days and well on into college, grad school and even the early years of my marriage (we just celebrated eight years), was the classic Southern Living crab cake. With its perfect combination of sautéed aromatics, herbs and spices, those crab cakes always earned me rave reviews and therefore contributed heavily to my love of cooking that still burns so strongly today. But for the sake of honesty and forthrightness, I should probably come clean here and admit to the fact that I never made the crab cakes with actual crab. What with it’s higher-than-I-could-swing-as-a-college-student price tag, I could never justify purchasing a pound of jumbo lump crab meat with which to prepare my beloved crab cakes. So, with head held high and as much swagger as I could muster, I served my crab cakes with imitation crab (gasp!). Funny thing is, I rarely told anyone this tiny detail and no one seemed to notice. Perhaps it was a placebo effect situation: tell people they’re eating crab, make it smell and look like crab, and gosh darn it, they will think it’s crab. Worked for me, at least. I received a lot of praise for those faux crab cakes, many people saying that they were the best they’d ever had. If that’s not a testament to the power of a placebo, I don’t know what is.
Yes, when it comes to the recipes that are closest to my heart, the Southern Living crab cake is a definitive founding father.
Living in Maryland now, I have access to some pretty incredible crab – a fact of which I have failed to take advantage since moving here a year ago. So, during a recent day trip to Annapolis with my family, I made a point to park my rear end in a seat at one of the city’s most popular seafood establishments and order a crab cake – a crab cake sandwich, to be exact. It was fresh, it was slightly sweet as good crab should be, and it was “all killer, no filler” or something like that, according to the t-shirts for sale up by the restaurant’s entrance. Risking exile from my current Maryland residence, I am going to openly admit that I actually like a little bit of filler in my crab cakes (again, gasp!). The added flavor that the onion, bell pepper, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce contribute is great and certainly nothing to scoff at, in my opinion. If I want to eat unadorned crab with no filler, then I will order it in some other fashion, be it soft-shelled or giant crab legs or what have you. In my version here, I use Ritz crackers rather than saltines because I love the flavor and the same goes for my choice of Dijon mustard over mustard powder. I also forgo sautéing the bell pepper and onion, as my original Southern Living recipe would have you do, and I just add them raw to the crab mixture and let them cook through with the cakes in the pan.
So anyway, there I sat in The Boatyard Grill, delighting in the perfection that was their prized crab cake sandwich, when it dawned on me that it had been years since I’d made one myself. I must’ve been quiet for a while as I pondered this truth.
“Are you gonna blog about this? You’re gonna blog about this. You SHOULD blog about this. I can see the wheels turning in your head,” commented Lucas, who knows me so well it’s scary sometimes.
Laughing as I polished off the last tartar sauce-laden bite, I nodded in admission. This time around though, I thought to myself, I’ll spring for the real thing. Yes, when deciding whether to crab or not to crab, I like to take my whereabouts into consideration. When we lived in St. Louis, for example, I might have gone with the ole’ placebo trick. But we ARE in Maryland now, after all. So today, we crab.
Fresh Crab Cake Sandwiches with Spicy Tartar Sauce and Homemade Sesame Seed Buns RECIPE
for the crab cakes:
*adapted from Southern Living
1 lb fresh crabmeat
8 Ritz crackers, crushed (or something comparable)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup green or red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Freshly black pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Butter for cooking
Spicy tartar sauce (recipe below)
Sesame seed buns (recipe below)
Toppings of your choice: Lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced red onion, etc.
DIRECTIONS: Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
Drain the crab meat and break up the pieces into flakes, checking for any bits of shell as you go. Combine the Ritz crumbs and next 9 ingredients. Gently fold the crab meat into this mixture. Shape into 6 round patties.
Add a couple tablespoons of butter to the pan, swirling to melt and coat evenly. Cook the crab cakes in batches for about 4 – 5 minutes per side or until a nice golden brown.
Transfer the crab cakes to a sheet tray and pop in the preheated oven for about 5 minutes (max) just to ensure that they are cooked through. Serve on the homemade buns with a generous amount of spicy tartar sauce and the toppings of your choice.
for the spicy tartar sauce:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2.5 tablespoons finely chopped dill pickles
1 tablespoon capers
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons spicy brown mustard
Several dashes of Tabasco sauce (I use a lot because I like it spicy, but you can add as much or as little as you like here … or none at all)
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste (I use about 1/2 teaspoon)
DIRECTIONS: Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir until very well combined. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.
for the homemade sesame seed buns:
* adapted from Chef John on allrecipes.com
1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
3.5 cups all purpose flour, divided
1 cup warm water (around 105 degrees F)
2 eggs, divided
3 tablespoons butter, melted
3 tablespoons white sugar
1.5 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
Place the yeast into the bowl of a stand mixer, and whisk in 1/2 cup flour and the warm water until the mixture is smooth. Let this stand for about 10 minutes, or until it looks frothy (the yeast will cause things to bubble and foam up a bit).
Into this yeast mixture, whisk one egg, the melted butter, sugar, and the salt. Add the remaining three cups of flour.
Using the dough hook on your mixer, knead the dough on low speed until well combined, soft and slightly sticky (about 4 or 5 minutes). Scrape the sides of the bowl as needed. If the dough seems too sticky (as in, it sticks to your finger when you poke it), you can add a bit more flour to get it to come together in a ball.
Transfer the dough onto a smooth, lightly floured work surface. Form the dough into a smooth, round ball. Clean out the mixer bowl and add the teaspoon of olive oil to it, rubbing it around with your fingers to evenly coat it. Add the ball of dough to this oiled bowl, cover with a kitchen towel and let it rise in a warm place for about 2 hours, or until it has doubled in size.
Transfer the dough back to your floured work surface and cut it into 8 equal pieces. Form each piece into a round ball, tucking the ends underneath as you go. Use your hands to gently pat the dough rounds into flatter disc shapes, about 1/2″ thick.
Spray a baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray. Arrange the buns about 1/2″ apart on your prepared baking sheet and dust lightly with flour. Drape a sheet of plastic wrap over the buns (don’t seal them or wrap tightly) and let them rise until doubled, about 45 minutes.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F. Beat the remaining egg with the tablespoon of milk. Brush this egg wash gently onto the buns, being careful to not deflate them. Sprinkle each bun with some sesame seeds.
Bake the buns until golden brown on top, about 16 – 17 minutes. Let them cool completely once they’re out of the oven (it’s okay if they stick together). Tear the buns apart from one another if they’re stuck together and slice them in half, crosswise to serve.