Twyla Alston

In Your Kitchen

Twyla Alston and family in their Anacostia home. Clarence, Janay, and Trey are at the table with everything good. Photo: Annette Nielson

Growing up in Washington, DC, with a family of cooks, Twyla Alston says she likes to create all sorts of things, not only food. Her dining room shows her creative flair, from heartfelt sayings on the wall to beautiful fabric strips draped from a modern-style crystal chandelier.

Alston and her husband Clarence moved to Anacostia almost 10 years ago. For nearly a decade Alston has worked as an IT management professional, now enjoying the time between contracts to prepare her son for a transition to preschool. In a cheery, sun-dappled kitchen that looks out onto her garden she makes multitasking look easy – talking about her family, how she wants to transition her garden to one with four-season growing, describing the recipes she’ll prepare, and checking in with her two young children, Janay and Trey, ages six and two.

Alston says that when she was in elementary school her grandmother always seemed to want her help in the kitchen. “My father had a few things he would make, too – and when he brought out the air popper for popcorn, it made an event. I always had fun cooking with my dad, whatever it was.” She recalls that her mom’s biscuits were legendary. “Her cornbread and corn muffins were really delicious. However I haven’t been able to get them exactly right, the way she prepared them. My love for her cornbread and quest to recreate it has sort of fueled my passion to taste and make delightful food.”

Alston’s sister, Kim, studied culinary arts at Burdick Vocational School and used to invite her to taste gourmet dishes from restaurants where she worked. As she learned new skills, she’d share them.

As a young adult, Alston also worked at area restaurants. “I had waitressing jobs at places like Heart and Soul Café, Cheesecake Factory, and Hogate’s. I really learned so much about different palates like Creole, Southwestern, French, Asian, and Italian, what sort of spices should be used or what edible garnishes should accompany a dish – it took my interest in cooking to the next level. I learned about eating good food and serving good food.”

Alston has adopted a vegan diet but says, “I try to stay away from the extremes – while I like eating live food, it’s important overall that it’s good food – I try to juxtapose the ridiculous with the sensible and maintain a balance in all that we eat.”

She began a ministry at Metropolitan Baptist, but she now serves as an associate minister at the East Friendship Baptist church where her husband is also a deacon. It was at a fellowship supper that she first tasted a dish called corn soufflé. “There was a really long line for this particular dish and it was served with a pico de gallo. While it is egg based, it’s not puffy like a traditional soufflé. It’s really an easy dish to make and always seems to come out perfectly.” 

Alston’s children like to help her in the kitchen. She instructs daughter Janay how to scoop and level dry ingredients, letting her know that three teaspoons is equivalent to a tablespoon. Janay’s younger brother, Trey, is thrilled to be up on a stool where he can turn on the standing mixer (with careful handholding by his mom) and pour in the corn.

As the meal is served, it’s a feast – similar to one you’d have at Thanksgiving with braised chicken, the corn soufflé, and a vibrant kale salad. Like other dishes in Alston’s repertoire, the kale salad is modeled after a version she enjoyed at a restaurant. For a seasonal riff on the pumpkin pie she baked a pumpkin cheesecake for dessert, using pumpkin purée. She serves the meal on the dining room table, decorated with seasonal linens, pumpkins, and gourds, while Trey recites the blessing.

Alston adds, “I am a foodie because I like to eat and I love that cooking is elemental. If you bring together the right ingredients, you get something amazing. It’s a myth that manufacturers do something magical that consumers can’t achieve. Before I began this culinary journey I thought that the best cakes, pancakes, hot chocolate, sausage, etc. came from mixes or the store. As I learned that nothing all natural in the grocery store is beyond my reach, I felt empowered.” She’s passionate about bringing wholesome, fresh, and affordable meals to her family. “I see my kitchen as a place from which to hug and heal my family.”

 

Corn Soufflé

Yield: 10-12 servings
28 ounces frozen yellow corn kernels, thawed
6 ounces (1½ sticks) butter, melted
1/3 cup sugar
10 ounces heavy whipping cream
5 eggs
1 tablespoon baking powder
5 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Add melted butter to a large bowl. Blend in sugar (about 4 minutes at medium-high speed, if using a standing mixer).

Gradually stir in cream. Continue stirring and add beaten eggs. Whisk together flour and baking powder in a separate bowl; add the flour mixture to the wet mixture and stir well.

Add thawed corn. Pour mixture into a 3-quart baking dish and bake for 45 minutes or until the top is golden brown with crisp edges. The soufflé should be sizzling and bubbly. Increase the surface area to get more crisped parts by using a larger, 9 x 12-inch pan.

Best served right away; good warmed over.

Option: Pico de gallo (fresh salsa).

 

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Yield: 8-10 servings
Prep time: 15 minutes
Inactive prep time: 4½ hours
Cook time: 1 hour
 
Crust:
20 graham crackers, crumbled (two whole packs from a box)
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon of melted, salted butter
 
Filling:
3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, at room temperature
15 ounces fresh puréed pumpkin* (see note below)
3 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
¼ cup sour cream
1½ cups sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground clove
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger (optional)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
16 whole pecans (for garnish)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

For crust and water bath:

To crumble the graham crackers and mix crust you can hand crumble or place crackers in a food processor and pulse 20 times. In a medium bowl combine crumbs, sugar, and cinnamon. Add melted butter. Press down flat and up the side of the pan, about 1/3 the way up the 9-inch spring-form pan. Oil the pan above the crumb crust with cooking spray.

Prepare the pan for the water bath. To keep water from seeping into the pan use aluminum foil to cover the bottom of the spring-form pan at least 2 inches up the side. Lay the foil flat and then center the pan in the middle. Use your hands to contour the foil by pressing the foil against the pan from the bottom up.

Place the prepared pan in the center of an empty shallow pan (use a roasting pan or cookie sheet). Fill the shallow pan with an inch of water, taking care to keep water from entering the foil covering. 

For filling:

Beat cream cheese until smooth. Add pumpkin purée, eggs, egg yolk, sour cream, sugar, and spices. Add flour and vanilla. Beat together until well combined.

Pour into crust. Spread out evenly and place the cheesecake with water bath into the oven for 1 hour. Turn off the oven and open the door for 1 minute and then close for 30 minutes. The cheesecake will be slightly browned with minimal jiggle (do not fork). Remove from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 hours. Arrange pecans on top for garnish.

Note: If you’d like to prepare your own pumpkin purée, Twyla Alston offers an easy way to enjoy the seasonal bounty of pumpkin – to use now or freeze for later use.

 

Pumpkin purée
4-5 Pie Pumpkins (15 ounces is needed for the cheesecake) or one medium or large pumpkin of another variety
shallow baking sheet
cooking spray or non-stick foil
container with tightly fitting lid (bowl or blender pitcher with lid)
food processor or blender
paper towels

Clean the Pumpkin.Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cut the top from the pumpkin and discard. For smaller pumpkins, cut into quarters. For medium to large pumpkins, cut into eight pieces. Using a spoon scrape the inside to remove the seeds and pulp. Reserve the seeds for roasting if desired.

Bake.Spray a baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray or line a sheet with non-stick foil. Place the pumpkin pieces skin-side up on the sheet and bake for 45 minutes or until the skin softens and separates from the flesh and the flesh is soft (like a well-cooked potato). When forking the flesh the texture will not be fibrous and dense but smooth and flexible. Remove the pumpkin from the oven and, once it is cool enough to touch, peel the skin from the flesh. 

Drain.Purée in a food processor (in batches if needed) until smooth. To remove excess water open the container (bowl or pitcher with lid), place the cloth in the bowl with the sheet draped over the edges. Place the pumpkin on the sheet and raise it so it is suspended like a hammock with space for the water that will drain (2 inches or so). Hold the hammock by hand until you can replace the lid to keep the pumpkin suspended. You can use a glass bowl or blender pitcher to do this, and place it in the refrigerator for 2 hours to drain. Be sure to use sturdy, full-sized paper towels (not perforated).

Separate 15 ounces for the cheesecake. Pumpkin purée can be refrigerated for up to one week or frozen for up to three months.