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.
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