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5/100 Pender County Blueberry Lemon Cake

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Inevitably every year I find myself in a bit of a culinary rut during the months of March and April. After the bustle of the holidays, the excitement of roasting root vegetables, and the inevitable sugar high of National Pie Month (religiously observed in our household), the remaining months of winter feel slow and uninspired. I grow weary of eating root vegetables, of slow cooking meats. I’m ready for FRESH and the wait is difficult. This is all to say that when the blueberries start flooding the market in the beginning of summer, I indulge. I help myself to pints and pints of blueberries, shooting my antioxidant intake through the roof and top every dish, from pancakes to pork chops, with blueberries. They’re a little, compact, tart sign from nature that the tides are turning and that summer’s bounty is coming. I, for one, fully embrace signs from nature.

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It is fortuitous, perhaps, that I now find myself living a short 36 miles from Burgaw, the home of the North Carolina Blueberry Festival, which celebrated it’s 10th anniversary this June. A few weeks ago we packed into our car (which is not unlike a blueberry in shape and color) and headed up Highway 117, our only expectation being the consumption and celebration of blueberries. Okay, maybe we were also hoping to see someone dressed as a blueberry, a la Willy Wonka. But other than that, we were in it for the ride.

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As promised the festival was wonderful. Everything was blue, there was an abundance of blueberry-related foods and crafts and games, and (best of all) farm stands were selling out of pints of berries all over the festival grounds. Hundreds of people gathered to eat and drink and dance in the small town of Burgaw, all in celebration of this fruit. It never ceases to amaze me how food can bring us together.

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Pender County is located just north of us, situated between Duplin, Onslow, Brunswick, Bladen, Columbus, New Hanover, and Sampson Counties. It’s home to our favorite place to take Kaylee for a hike, Poplar Grove, part of Topsail Island, Burgaw, the home of the blueberry festival (and Pender’s County seat), and much more. Named for William Dorsey Pender, a Confederate general who was mortally wounded in the battle of Gettysburg, it spans over 930 miles, 62 of which is water, and has a population of around 50,000 people.

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Pender County was one of the first counties to reach out to me after I launched Tasting North Carolina with recipes from their cookbook of award winning NC Blueberry Festival recipes. After careful consideration I decided to try my hand at a Blueberry Lemon Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting, a recipe submitted by Kelly Griffin of Wallace, NC, and was delighted to  have a chance to make it with fresh Pender County blueberries. It was a smash hit around the house, and certainly tasted better than it looked (not really a skilled cake baker over here). Dan has put in an official request for more cake. Perhaps now that we’re seeing more and more stone fruit in the market I’ll indulge him with a peach pound cake.


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This post is part of the ongoing series, Tasting North Carolina. Read more about the project here.


Blueberry-Lemon Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from Kelly Elaine, Griffin Wallace, NC

2 c flour

1 pint fresh blueberries

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

1 c. whole milk

1 ½ c. sugar

2 tsp. vanilla extract

4 lg. eggs

1 tsp. grated lemon peel

1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter (room temp)

-Preheat oven to 350°.

-Butter three (9 inch) diameter cake pans with 1 ½ inch high sides. Butter pans and dust with flour.

– Sift flour, baking powder, and salt into medium bowl. In a separate bowl toss blueberries in a bit of the flour. Set remaining flour mixture and blueberries aside.

-Stir whole milk, vanilla extract and grated lemon peel in small bowl.

-Beat butter in a large bowl until light and creamy.

-Gradually add sugar, beating until mixture is light and fluffy.

– Add eggs one at a time.

– Add flour mixture to egg mixture a little at a time, alternating with milk.

– Fold in blueberries and divide batter equally among pans.

– Bake  25-30 minutes or until golden brown.

– Cool cakes in pans on rack for 10 minutes. Run knife around pan sides to loosen. Turn cakes out onto racks to cool completely.

– Layer cakes with frosting spread generously between layers  and on top.

Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting: 

2 (8-oz.) pkgs. Cream cheese (room temp)

4 c. powdered sugar

Juice of 1 lemon

1 tsp. lemon zest

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter (room temp)

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl until light and fluffy.  Gradually beat in powdered sugar.  Add vanilla, lemon zest, and lemon juice.

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Blackened Red Drum

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For the past five weeks I’ve been working on a big freelance project that  has utterly consumed me and everything around me. I’ve been eating (literally) sleeping and breathing this project, and while I’m so excited about it and enthusiastic about it I’m also overwhelmingly exhausted. Tired in that way I wasn’t sure tired existed. Tired in that way where I almost forgot my own birthday. That kind of tired.

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Last week was my birthday; 27. That makes 27 years on this earth, which feels like many, many years from where I’m standing.  I can’t complain, 26 was a good year, maybe the best one yet. We accomplished an amazing amount, I feel so much more settled and happy and centered than I did last year. We had a great birthday weekend– fireworks, a trip to Topsail with friends, a whole lot of cooking, drinks and bluegrass and cannolis with my mom. It was a good way to celebrate, and I’m excited for what’s to come.

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Most of what I’ve been cooking has been for the project, but I’ve managed to squeeze in a few recipes here and there that are just for us. On the way home from Carolina Beach on the 4th we picked up some local red drum and blackened it along with a medley of root vegetables I picked up from the farmer’s market. It was the perfect meal, light and fresh. All the reasons to love summer blackened with spices and served up on one plate.

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4 red drum filets, skinned and deboned

1/2 stick butter, melted

blackening spices:

1 tsp chipotle

1 tsp oregano

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp cayenne

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

Mix together spices. Heat a dry cast iron pan over a medium-high stove. Dredge filets first in butter, then in spices, making sure to coat well on both sides. Cook in hot skillet 2-3 minutes per side, until blackened and cooked through. Serve hot.

Tip: This was super incredibly smoky, so my advice would be to try it on the grill if you can.

Roasted Root Vegetables

1 bunch baby carrots (young carrots, not the cut adult carrots)

10-12 small red potatoes

1 tbsp fresh rosemary

2 tbsp olive oil

Salt & pepper

Halve potatoes. Clean carrots and cut off stems. Toss potatoes and carrots in olive oil with rosemary (minced), salt, and pepper. Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes or until potatoes are tender.


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Blueberry Ginger Lemonade

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Wilmington is known for many things. Its Civil War History, its incredible beaches, its thriving film industry, and its rich collection of fossils. Thanks to a perfect storm of sea level rise, hurricanes, and time treasure hunters flock to Wilmington to search the sand dunes and the sea floor.

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A lot of what is desirable and available are megalodon teeth, giant teeth belonging to prehistoric sharks that lived between 25 million and 1.5 million years ago. The predator megalodons would follow whales to shallow water and attack, shedding hundreds of thousands of teeth in the process (shark teeth break off like our fingernails break off and are constantly regrowing). These then-shallow waters now sit 25+ miles offshore in 90+ feet of water and every hurricane that blows through knocks a bunch of new teeth up for discovery.

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This is all to say that last year the Capt’n (Pappie) acquired some dive site locations for Wilmington megalodon ledges and is taking full advantage of our proximity to these ledges. He’ll be doing dives out of Wilmington throughout the summer, which means we’ll be seeing a lot more of him this summer than I have since I was 19. Which I’m pretty psyched about.

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One Saturday while he and my stepmom were here he offered to do a dinner cruise around Wrightsville Beach on his boat Tortuga, so we invited some friends to join us and headed out for a lovely night on the water. I made fried chicken, shrimp & grits, cole slaw, s’mores bars, and vodka blueberry lemonades. We (my stepmom and I- she is a great sous chef, by the way) also made a beautiful cobb salad but we left it at home. C’est la vie!
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We met our friends Angie and Kevin shortly after we moved and we’ve loved getting to know them. Angie is from Raleigh and we share a lot of favorite childhood memories in places like Jordon Lake and Shackleford Banks and Dan and Kevin share the displaced-Northerners outlook on life in the South, which makes for interesting conversations when we start talking culture. It also helps that Kaylee is obsessed with their dog Mink.

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We putted along, talking food and family and sharing stories. Dad cruised us past the yacht club where his parents lived and worked when he was born, which brought all new meaning to my favorite anecdote of my grandma’s. Apparently that summer when she was pregnant with my dad she’d have my grandpa dig a hole for her in the sand so she could tan her back (sunbathing was a favorite pastime of hers), garnering questions from friends about whether or not she was trying to “fry that baby to (her) backbone.” If I recall correctly he was born past his due-date, so maybe their questions had merit.

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(I know, the ponytail is epic right now)

One of the things that I was most excited about in this move back to North Carolina was getting to spend exponentially more time on the water. And while eventually we’d like to get a boat of our own (we need to get a 4 wheel drive  vehicle first, which will probably only happen once we have kids and officially outgrow our tiny hatchback) I’ll be taking full advantage of having Tortuga Charters docking in our neck of the woods.

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Blueberry Lemonade

Serves 6

Juice of 12 lemons

1 pint blueberries

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

2″ fresh ginger



Heat sugar, water, and ginger in a saucepan. Simmer until sugar has dissolved. Cool completely.

Muddle your blueberries in the bottom of each glass and top with 1oz simple syrup, 1 oz lemon juice, and 2 oz vodka. Mix well. Top off with tonic, adding more or less depending on how strong you’d like it. I made these in mason jars and stuck them (lids on!) in the cooler, which was the most fantastic way ever to bring mixed drinks on the boat. We’ll be doing this again when we picnic!

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