Deserted Dwellings to Cozy Cottages

Ms MAg Jan 2015Mississippi Magazine
January/February 2015

When Chris Rakestraw left the University of Mississippi with a bachelor’s degree in finance in hand, he never intended to become a designer. In fact, the seed wasn’t planted until a few years later when Rakestraw purchased his first “fixer upper.” Less than a year later, he sold the house for a profit and began the search for another house he could redesign.  By then, he knew he had found his true calling. Shortly after, he left his job as a credit officer at a local bank and enrolled in design school at Mississippi State, where he received a bachelor’s in design in 2010.

One of Rakestraw’s latest endeavors has been the renovation of three, one bedroom shotgun houses in the heart of downtown Tupelo on North Green Street.

“I passed these little houses all the time while out running errands. They had been vacant for years and I just kept watching them decay. I remember after a really bad storm one of the front porches fell off,” he recalls. “Something about these houses spoke to me.”

In 2012, Rakestraw was just completing one of his biggest projects to date when he learned the price of the three cottages had been reduced by half. After giving it a lot of thought, he called his real estate agent and was able to secure a deal for the properties within 2 hours.

The homes – each ranging from 700-750 square feet – were constructed in 1936. While unsure of their exact origins, Rakestraw believes they were built to house displaced families after a devastating tornado hit the area. He admits the 76 year-old-houses were the oldest he had ever worked on. No surprise, they came with their fair share of problems.

“Sometimes when you purchase a house, you assume a certain level of risk,” says Rakestraw, who purchases 75-80% of his homes at auction. “You have to do your due diligence. The houses had a lot of issues, things we take for granted. Every inch of these houses had to be redone.”

For instance, none of the dwellings had central heat and air. The plumbing, electrical, roof, and foundations had to be completely overhauled. When it came to designing the interior, Rakestraw tried play off the uniqueness of each unit.

Says Rakestraw, “Each house had a different personality. It tried to keep things simple to appeal to a wider variety of tenants.”

Because the houses were in such terrible shape, much of the original details had either been scrapped or were not salvageable. However, in the unit known as the Tupelo House, Rakestraw discovered original heart-of-pine floors and ceilings. He chose to compliment the wood with neutral light grey walls accented with darker grey trim and moulding. He also removed an out-of-place coat closet in the living room and replaced it with a built-in desk. All of the doors in the cottage had to be replaced since none met today’s codes. However, instead of tossing the original doors, Rakestraw refurbished them into a mantle for the fireplace.

The original layout of each house was somewhat awkward by today’s standards, so Rakestraw decided to redesign the floor plans to improve the flow. This included swapping the kitchen and the bedroom. Typical shotgun-style plans include rooms stacked one behind the other – living room, bedroom, and kitchen in the back. Rakestraw didn’t feel like tenants would want to walk through their bedroom to get to the kitchen. Since the house had to be completely rewired anyway, crews were able to complete the transformation in just a few days. The kitchen was updated with marble countertops, new stainless steel appliances, and a moveable island topped with butcher block.

In order to maximize space, Rakestraw chose sliding barn doors to transition from the kitchen to the bedroom. A queen sized platform bed gives tenants extra storage underneath. The bed’s high headboard is adorned with the numbers 1936, a nod to the year the cottage was constructed. Rakestraw also incorporated a proper bathroom with a walk-in closet and washer and dryer into the redesign, eliminating the lean-to addition that served as the home’s only bathroom previously.

Outside, a few architectural details were added to give the cottages the curb appeal they needed. New front porches were constructed, beautiful arbors were added, and each cottage received new siding and a fresh coat of vibrant paint. Lush landscaping, including a courtyard with seating tucked away between two of the cottages, adds the finishing touch. Since completion in early 2013, Rakestraw has had 100% occupancy.

“I really wanted to design a high caliber home with these units. The style is a little eclectic, transitional, with influences of modern,” Rakestraw adds. “I am absolutely pleased with how these turned out. I have always loved these cottages and the turned out wonderfully.”

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The Cake of Christmas Past

December January 2015

eat.drink.MISSISSIPPI
December 2014/January 2015
Article, recipe and photos

When I was asked to write an article about the Amalgamation Cake, I had no idea that this grand dame of Southern desserts would prove to be so elusive and mysterious. Here in the South, a family recipe is almost as treasured as the family Bible. Often, there is no recipe. Just a technique passed down generation to generation. If a recipe does exist, sometimes it is nothing more than a hastily written list of ingredients and vague instructions. Many recipes are closely-guarded secrets that certain members of the family are sworn by blood to protect.

The Amalgamation Cake is one such recipe. I began my investigation by asking friends, family members, and even perfect strangers if they knew our cake in question. Half of those I polled had never heard of the dessert. The other half all told similar stories. Each had a family member – father, brother, uncle, grandfather – who considered Amalgamation Cake to be their favorite dessert. And each had a mother, sister, aunt, grandmother who made it every year – usually around the holidays. The origin is unknown. States all across the Southeast each claim her as their own.

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However, when I began my research for a tried-and-true Amalgamation Cake recipe, I discovered dozens and dozens of recipes, each one varying widely. Ingredients ranged from 5 eggs to ten. Jam or no jam for the filling. Some recipes included detailed instructions while others were so vague they didn’t even list a baking time or temperature. One thing they all agree on – freshly grated coconut was best.

I finally settled on this recipe. It seemed to have all the necessary ingredients and step-by-step instructions. The more involved I got in the process, the more I understood why this decadent dessert only makes an appearance once a year. It is a labor of love to create, requiring many steps and just as many mixing bowls. Merriam-Webster defines amalgamation as, “to unite two or more things into one thing.” I can only assume the cake got its name from the process required to combine raisins, coconut, and a whole lotta butter and eggs.

I have to admit, once my creation was complete, it’s an impressive dessert. Tall, regal, sugary sweet and flanked by sweet potato casserole or your Grandmother’s recipe for cornbread dressing, this lady would look right at home on a Christmas dinner table.

Amalgamation Cake

For the cake:

  • 2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup whole milk, room temperature
  • 5 egg whites, room temperature

For the fruit filling:

  • 5 egg yolks, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup sweetened grated coconut
  • 1 cup chopped pecans

For the boiled white frosting:

  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 2 egg whites, room temperature

For the cake:

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans. Set aside.

Place butter in the bowl of an electric mixer. Cream on medium-low speed and gradually add the sugar. Continue mixing until pale yellow.

In a medium mixing bowl, sift together 3 cups flour, baking powder and salt.   With the mixer on low, add about a third of the dry ingredients. Follow with half of the milk. Repeat the steps, ending with the remaining dry ingredients. Continue to mix, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, until ingredients are thoroughly combined.

In another clean mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, about 3 to 5 minutes. Take a cup of the beaten whites and whisk it into the batter. Then gently fold the remaining whites into the batter. Divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake until the tops are pale golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Invert the cake layers onto a rack to cool completely.

For the filling:

Combine the egg yolks, sugar and butter in a medium, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture is thick, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the raisins, coconut and pecans. Set mixture aside and keep warm.

For the frosting:

In a small, heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, water and cream of tartar. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar has dissolved. Increase heat to a boil. Do not stir anymore. Boil, washing down sides of pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water from time to time to prevent the sugar from crystallizing, until a candy thermometer registers 240 degrees, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk the egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form, about 2 1/2 minutes.

Remove the sugar syrup from the heat when the temperature reaches 240 degrees. Pour the syrup in a steady stream down the side (to avoid splattering) of the bowl containing the egg white mixture, with the mixer on medium-low speed. Beat frosting on medium speed until cool, 5 to 10 minutes. The frosting should be thick and shiny.

To assemble the cake, place one of the cooled cake layers on plate. Spread the top with half the fruit filling. Top with the second layer, bottom side up, You may have to trim little of the rounded part off the top of the cake to ensure it sits flat and secure.  Spread the remaining fruit filling over the top of the cake only. Ice the sides of the cake with the reserved boiled icing.

Serves 14