Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Martha and Me: Baby Sweet Potato Cakes with Sticky Caramel Sauce and Pecans

I’ve been struggling a bit lately writing a post that I feel is worthy of reading. When I learned yesterday that Jack LaLanne had died, I knew it was time for me to dust one off that I had written a while back, so here it is. I hope you enjoy it.

I come from a long line of “tough stuff, suck it up, get your stuff together, you're going to school” women. I’m not kidding. In my family if you don’t have fever, can’t produce visual signs (I won’t go any further) of illness, you ARE going to school. That vague headache or stomach ache stuff that some children enjoy getting away with, never worked for me, so if I got to stay home I savored every moment of it.

I even enjoyed watching 1970’s mid- afternoon television and watched anything without complaint knowing full well that I was an unwelcomed guest in my mother’s house at 1:00 in the afternoon and my visa was subject to revocation at any moment. Thank goodness that even though my mom liked her afternoon soaps, she loved watching Julia Child and Graham Kerr. I liked watching them too and learned that even though I loved my mom’s recipes, there was much more to cooking than chicken fried steak and coconut cream pie.

Even though my mom was a great cook in her own right, Julia’s style was much different than the south Texas fare that we were used to eating. Julia inspired both of us to give something new a try. In fact, at fourteen, the first main dish that I prepared all on my own was Julia’s recipe for braised turkey breast. I watched her prepare it one afternoon and for some reason it must have sounded especially delicious to me or we had all of the ingredients . . . no, strike that, no one ever had a turkey breast sitting around their kitchens in the 70’s, but I was determined to give her recipe a try.

My dear mom must have kindly taken me on a turkey breast hunt in our little town because we did manage to scare one up. I’ve since tried Googling the recipe so I could recreate it with no luck. Anyway, as I recall it consisted of a turkey breast sliced at an angle every 1” or so and sandwiched with a mixture of sautéed onions, carrots and celery. Wrap all of this in cheese cloth, sear it, then bake until golden brown and delicious and turn the pan drippings into gravy. Thanks to Julia, my maiden voyage into cooking was a success and a lifelong love of cooking was born.

Ten years later, I found myself working at a beautiful little boutique hotel in Houston while I attended college. Anyone who was anyone and came to Houston usually had the good taste to stay in our hotel. I worked in the beautifully decorated cocktail lounge that was attached to the bar and grill. In addition to some of the finest wines and spirits we also served wonderful cheese, seafood and caviar.

The lounge was reminiscent of a paneled study in a country home with intimate little rooms furnished with cozy sofas, arm chairs and overstuffed pillows. I loved working there. You never knew from day to day who might be sitting in your station when you arrived for your shift. I never asked anyone I waited on there for an autograph and I kick myself to this day for not doing so. I mean, all they could have done was say no, right? What would it have hurt? I guess I just wanted them to feel like a guest in my home, at ease and free to relax.

On one regular day, with tray and cocktail napkins in hand, I climbed the stairs to the lounge, looked up and found Julia Child and her husband, empty glasses in front of them just waiting for my arrival. I don’t remember what she ordered, but I do remember (besides her having a pretty good buzz on) she was snuggled up next to her husband, head on his shoulder, smiling, holding his hand. I can also tell you something else, they were both sweet and gracious to their cocktail waitress.

Anyone who works in the service industry will probably agree with me that you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat someone who is paid to serve them. Why didn’t I tell her about my braised turkey breast at fourteen and ask her for her autograph? She probably would have loved it. Oh how I wish her autograph was on a Remington Hotel cocktail napkin hanging in my butler’s pantry right now. I’m a dumbass.

Not all the celebrities at this hotel were quite as meaningful to me but some were great characters. Jack LaLanne of the 1950s exercise fame came into our bar one evening. He appeared to be either looking for someone or a bull to fight because he was dressed in full matador regalia. No kidding, he was wearing a gold lame ruffled stretch tuxedo. This was the late ‘80s and he must have been at least 100 then. He was very short and super fit. There must be something to those juicers that he and his wife sell.

Then there was the beautiful Gene Tierney who came in on a weekly basis, dressed to the nines, to have a glass of wine or two with her girlfriends. This was many years after her retirement from films and she was still a star. She probably would have loved knowing how excited I was to have her sit in my section by asking her for her autograph all the while gushing over her and all her wonderful movies. Another opportunity lost.

Calvin Klein came to visit our hotel one evening and who knows, if those guys from room service hadn’t stolen his table from me, his beard’s, uh, wife’s name may have been Karen instead of Kelly. Or maybe he would have seen me, been so taken by my beauty he would have swept me away from Houston and my life of cocktail waitressing and I could have become his muse for a line of Calvin Klein petite clothing. Well that may be stretching it, but at least I might have been brave enough at that very instant to asked him for his autograph. One more opportunity missed.

Then there was one of the founding members of ZZ Top. He would come in to the grill a couple times a week and sit in a very visible corner table all by himself. I can’t tell you how intriguing and intimidating I found this man and his super long beard. At this time in Houston he was a superstar and there he was just a few feet a way and I couldn’t work up the nerve to ask him to write his name down on a piece of paper. Years later I heard that he is one of the nicest men you could ever hope to meet and quite a good cook (I’ll reiterate, I am dumbass). I tell you what Billy Gibbons, if I ever get the chance to see you in person again, I’m going to ask you for both your autograph and your Renegade Guacamole recipe.

About ten years later on a train bound from London to Nottingham, we took advantage of the weekend special of the 5 pound upgrade to first class. We had had a difficult trip over from the States and were on the final leg of our long trip home. I remember my head was throbbing from too many cups of coffee trying to counteract too many glasses of Chardonnay. We smelled bad, like you do after an overseas trip, and looked a mess, but we were almost there when I looked over and right across the aisle I saw Alan Rickman. Good grief! Alan Rickman! I love him! I love his movies! I had no breath mints, no hair brush, and I’d been in my clothes for two days. I was almost relieved when we were told very loudly by the conductor that we were in the wrong part of the first class compartment for the 5 pound upgrade. No autograph for me!

Fast forward a few years later, I appeared on the Martha Stewart Show preparing my Baby Sweet Potato Cakes. I was so excited because I WAS going to ask Martha for her autograph. A victim no more, I went and purchased my favorite Martha Stewart Cookbook to have her sign it, and since I was thrilled to find out that Frank McCourt was also on the same show, I also bought Angela’s Ashes for him to sign as well. Well guess what, Martha kept herself so far away from me the whole time I didn’t even get a chance to ask her to sign my book.

Unfortunately I didn’t cross Mr. McCourt’s path either. Such a shame as he passed away a year or so later. Whoopi Goldberg was a guest on the show too that day and was so kind and sweet that she introduced herself to me. I was so nervous about my segment and just plain star struck, I couldn’t have asked even if I’d thought of it.

Well, that’s my tale of my brushes with fame. I could have paired this story with any one of many recipes but I thought since I’ve never used it on this blog and it is so good that it won me 10 grand from Southern Living and took me to Martha's show, I’d use my recipe for my Baby Sweet Potato Cakes. Of all of my recipes, this is the one I am most proud of. Give it a try and I’m sure you’ll see why I have gotten more miles out of it than an expensive set of Michelins.

Baby Sweet Potato Cakes with Sticky Caramel Sauce and Pecans

1/2 cup (113g) butter, softened
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup (195g) sweet potato puree (1 medium sweet potato, cooked and mashed)
1/3 cup (83ml) buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 – 1/4 cups (138g) plain flour (all-purpose)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 cup (113g) butter
3/4 cup (150g) lightly packed light brown sugar
1 cup (250g) single cream (whipping cream)
1 teaspoon instant coffee
2 ounces (60g) chopped pecans, toasted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (180 C).

In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add sweet potato, buttermilk and vanilla, mix well and set aside.

In a medium size bowl, blend together the flour, baking soda, salt, ginger and cinnamon. Add the dry ingredients 1/3 at a time, blending well after each addition until it is all combined with the wet ingredients.

Spray a 12 count muffin pan with non-stick cooking spray before dividing the batter evenly among the sections. Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 20 minutes or until the muffins spring back when pressed in the middle. Cool for 2 minutes before turning out onto a cooling rack.

While the cakes are baking, prepare the sauce by melting the butter in the bottom of a medium size frying pan over medium heat. Add the brown sugar and stir until the mixture is bubbly. Add the cream and coffee granules and stir until it is once again bubbly and the coffee granules melt (I promise they will).

Serve warm cakes with warm sauce and pecans sprinkled over with a scoop of ice cream or pouring cream. Serves 12.


Anonymous said...

Karen, that is such a lovely post. I enjoyed reading about all your "famous people" run ins. Yes, that is too bad, that Julia couldn't sign a book for you. And Martha always seemed very cold and unfriendly to me.
That cake recipe sounds terribly good. I will take it with me to try. Thanks for sharing.
P.S.: I ran into Reinhold Messner (very spierfamous mountaineer from South Tirol) with my American brother in law at the airport in Frankfurt. My brother in law didn't know who he was and why I got so excited. It was a very funny situation and we have gotten many laughs out of it.

Tracy said...

What great stories! I was once called by Martha's "people" about appearing on a show but they never called back. I'll never know why, but it doesn't sound like I missed much. I remember you cooking your babycakes on the show and doing a great job.

And you are not a dumbass. I'm sure those people enjoyed being able to have a quiet drink without someone asking them to sign something. You were -- and are -- a thoughtful, professional person. You have your stories whether or not you have a cocktail napkin with a signature.

Yenta Mary said...

What a fabulous, wonderful story!!! Loved every word, and would love to chitchat more about it all over a cup of coffee and some of those cakes ... :)

Laurie said...

I absolutely love reading your blog and this entry especially. You are 100% correct that you can tell a lot about people by how they treat waitresses/bartenders etc. I waited tables for 20 years and crossed paths with lots of celebs and sports stars and the one that sticks out most is Jack Lemmon. What a super guy and so gracious--and a good tipper! As of late, my favorite people to meet have been Emeril (who was so fabulous with Lily at his Emeril's in New Orleans), Guy Fieri--again, amazing with Lily, and Lidia Bastianich who took time to answer questions from me about her TV cooking show etc. I think you can also tell a lot about people by how they treat children, and Emeril and Guy are #1 in my book.

And you $10G winning recipe has some of the same characteristics of my $10G winning recipe from Hood! Love it.

Again, I love reading your entries!

DaniD said...

Karen, I loved your post--I always enjoy reading your blog, but today was just so special. I can't wait to try your sweet potato cakes!!!

Lea Ann said...

What a great post Karen. Why am I not surprised about the "Martha Thing"...seems we've heard things like that about her. And I'm impressed that you made that Julia dish at age 14. I think I was just learning Baked Beans at that age. I was a big baseball fan when I was a kid, went to Kansas City at age 19 and saw George Brett in a bar. Kicked myself for not asking for his autograph. Got my 2nd chance about 10 years ago. Again at a bar in Kansas City. Funny thing was, I started talking with his wife and she was from a very small Kansas farm town just a few miles from where I grew up...we knew some of the same people. I actually found her more interesting than her famous husband. I have also met Jack Lalane, here in Denver. Didn't ask for his autograph. Sat at a table next to Jerry Lewis at the Red Carpet Club in the Denver Airport...my mom had a FIT that I didn't ask for his autograph. Rode down the elevator alone with Jerry Garcia in Las Vegas...was too scared to ask for his. :-)

Midwest to Midlands said...

There was so much good info in that post, but what had me laughing was when Martha's card was declined. The way you write and cook all those people should have asked you for your autograph.

Barbara said...

Karen, I love your writing. Boy exciting people were always out & about in Houston. I played basketball at a neighbor's house with Patrick Swayze when we were young. Partied with Kenny Rogers when he was still Bill Gant in Houston. John Travilto lived in a house about two blocks from us when he filmed "Urban Cowboy". Mickey Gilley's place was about a mile from our house in Pasadena. I really didn't care about food when I was young so never met any big chefs or knew who they were. I was never big into autographs so would not have asked either. Although I was never an Elvis fan, I remember standing about 4 feet from him in Houston in a hotel lobby when he rode in the Rodeo Parade. Remember those parades?

Cranberry Morning said...

Braised turkey breast at 14?? I know women in their 40s who can't make macaroni and cheese!

What a fascinating post, Karen! Those are amazing experiences. Of all those, I think the Julia Child one would have been the most exciting to me. Who wants to spend a life with Calvin Klein anyway.

Mary said...

Karen, I loved every word of this post. You have some fantastic memories about the lives of the glitterati and your stories of the encounters are wonderfully told. I have to get back here more often. I love your blog. I hope you have a great day. Blessings...Mary

Queen B. said...

I loooooooooooooove this post.
Wow.... how cool....to see Julia Child in PERSON.
I know what you mean about fame.... I wouldn't want anyone to contact me about a cooking show etc....I am waaaay too private and I just could not handle the pressure .... I just like cooking in my cozy kitchen by the sea ....i live a very simple life....just like to share recipes !!

Karen Harris said...

Thanks for all of your wonderful comments. I loved reading about all of your celeb run-ins too. Reading them was the most fun I've had on my blog yet!

Debbie G. said...

Karen, as usual, your blog is fascinating, interesting, educational and entertaining! I never knew you came so close to fame except for your brief encounter with the Ice Queen (Martha Stewart). When I was growing up I fell in love with Red Skelton and Jack Benny. I always loved to laugh ... loved doing silly things to make the people around me laugh. I guess I'm still that way. Anyway, I worked at a local drug store in Iowa after I got married and who came in the door to get some Yardley Lavender soap for his wife? Mr. Red Skelton! I was so thrilled that I offered to help him find what he needed in the store. We had a fully stocked camera department right there in the store, but failed to ask one of the guys to snap a picture of me with my new buddy Red. I did get an autograph and a Christmas card from him - and I cherish both of them to this day. We had other celebrities come through that drug store, but none that could hold a candle to Red Skelton! You are the best, Karen. Keep these blogs coming ... you have tempted me to create some tasty dishes and for that I'll be forever in your debt. I leave my comfort zone when I'm cooking your dishes, but they've been as tasty as you've said they'd be. Thanks again!

Conor @ Hold the Beef said...

Oh Karen, that Martha is a bad sort! I feel totally justified in my feelings towards her now. Well, I felt pretty justified before as she gives me the s***s, but now I feel super justified :D

I'm sure many of us have lots of dumbass regrets, but not so many of us make killer baby sweet potato cakes so I think you're doing ok :)

Barbara | VinoLuciStyle said...

Now you know I came looking for this story right...nothing surprises me about Martha or Lady O for that matter. Or...impresses me much. Much more impressed with your cooking at such a young age (yes, we will have a LOT of stories to compare!) and the history you've shared.

Though I've met several Broncos when we lived in our first home in Denver in a neighborhood with several of them, I suppose my biggest moment was when I was interviewed by a local news reporter and the segment appeared on Channel 9. Was it about food...heck no. I was irritated by the huge waste of water I saw evident all over Denver when they were pushing us to be more conservative and Denver Water gave my name to Channel 9. Yep...my claim to fame consisted of talking about low water toilets and showerheads. Cool, huh?