Charleston Hobotee

Innovative Charleston and Savannah chefs seem finally to be discovering perloo, awendaw, Huguenot torte, and any number of other distinctive dishes that once figured prominently in Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry cuisine. But, so far, not one seems to be even aware of this superlative curried meat custard that probably graced both breakfast and dinner tables during the plantation era. I can remember eating hobotee at the old Fort Sumter Hotel in Charleston and hearing my grandmother tell about fixing it for breakfast and elaborate fish dinners. A recipe for the dish is included in the classic cookbook Charleston Receipts, but other than that, the only recorded method for making hobotee I know of is this sacred one my mother inherited from her mother, who no doubt inherited it from hers. Served with glasses of semidry sherry as a starter to any seafood meal, small ramekins of hobotee make for a unique culinary experience that should never have been allowed to almost disappear.

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Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • cups finely chopped cooked beef, veal, or pork
  • 1 slice white bread, soaked in milk and squeezed dry
  • 2 tablespoons chopped almonds
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 3 large eggs
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • Dash of white pepper
  • Small bay leaves

Method

Preheat the oven to 300°F.

In a skillet, melt the butter over moderate heat, add the onion, and cook, stirring, till softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the curry powder and cook, stirring, 2 minutes longer. Transfer the onions to a mixing bowl, add the meat, bread, almonds, lemon juice, one of the eggs, the sugar, and salt and blend thoroughly.

Butter six ½-cup ramekins and divide the meat mixture among them. In another bowl, combine the remaining 2 eggs, half-and-half, and white pepper and whisk till well blended. Pour equal amounts of the cream mixture into the ramekins, garnish the tops with a bay leaf, and bake till golden, about 25 minutes. Serve hot.