Traveling as much as I do, I see young people in desert fatigues in almost every airport and the sight of them makes me worry and hope that they’ll return home safely. Memorial Day is all about honoring these brave men and women in military service who gave their lives to gain or protect our freedom. But this year, I’m filled with thoughts of three dear friends, all of whom I met and who became close lifelong friends because of our common love of baking. Joe McDonnal of Seattle, Shirley Nachman of Detroit, and Sheri Portwood of Dallas all loved good food, especially great baking. I had the joy and privilege of more than 25 years of friendship with each of them and during that time we visited often, shared meals both plain and fancy, and exchanged recipes on a regular basis. I chose the recipe here because it’s exactly the kind of simple and flavorful cake they all loved. A new friend, Phyl Divine, shared the photo he took when he wrote about preparing the cake on his blog. I’m grateful that baking continues to connect me to wonderful friends. After the recipe I’m adding some stories about Joe. Memories of Shirley and Sheri will follow tomorrow and Wednesday. Happy Memorial Day.
NEW ORLEANS PRALINE POUND CAKE (BAKE! pages 138-139)
Subtle hints of brown sugar, cinnamon, rum, and pecans make this simple pound cake resound with the flavors of New Orleans’ famous candy treat.
Makes one 9 x 5 x 5-inch cake, about 16 slices
2 cups all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
16 tablespoons (2 sticks/8 ounces) unsalted butter, very soft
5 large eggs at room temperature
2 tablespoons dark rum or Bourbon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest, optional
1 cup pecan pieces, coarsely chopped and tossed with a tablespoon of flour
One 9 x 5 x 3-inch (7-cup) loaf pan, buttered and the bottom lined with a rectangle of parchment or buttered wax paper
- Set a rack in the middle level of the oven and preheat to 325˚F.
- Combine the flour, sugars, baking powder and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on lowest speed for 30 seconds.
- Stop the mixer, add the butter, and continue mixing on lowest speed until the butter is absorbed and no visible pieces of butter remain. Stop the mixer and use a rubber spatula to scrape down the bowl and beater.
- In a small bowl, whisk the eggs with the vanilla, rum, and lemon zest, if using.
- Start the mixer on lowest speed and add about one third of the egg mixture to the bowl. Beat for 1 minute on medium speed; stop and scrape the bowl and beater.
- Repeat step 5.
- Repeat step 5 again.
- Beat the batter for 2 minutes continuously on medium speed.
- Use a rubber spatula to fold in the pecans.
- Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
- Bake the cake until it is well risen and deep golden and the point of a paring knife inserted in the center of the cake emerges clean, about 60 minutes.
- Cool the cake on a rack for 10 minutes, then unmold and cool completely right side up.
- Serve slices of the cake with coffee or tea, or use a slice of pound cake as the base for a simple dessert, topping it with some whipped cream and lightly sweetened berries or soft fruit.
I never bake a pound cake or coffeecake without thinking of Joe, Shirley, and Sheri. So different from each other, they all loved baking and every other kind of food whose simplicity demands that it be made from the best ingredients with a minimum of fussy details. Three friends, three lives spent enjoying great food, three immeasurably precious gifts I’m fortunate to have received.
Joe McDonnal, a born restaurateur and caterer if ever there was one, was most recently the owner, along with his surviving spouse Virginia Wyman, of The Ruins, an elegant dining club in Seattle. Joe had been a successful floral designer, had run his own restaurant in Spain, and arriving to Seattle in the late 1970s, opened The Market Place, a casual restaurant in the Pike Place Market, from which he launched his catering business. When I met Joe in the fall of 1984 he had just returned from a late summer cooking course in France with Simone “Simca” Beck, Julia Child’s co-author, and contacted me through our mutual friend Peter Kump because he wanted to learn to make spun sugar. After spending an afternoon covering almost every square inch of my tiny apartment kitchen with shreds of sugar, Joe asked me if I would be attending the annual IACP convention scheduled for the following March in Seattle. I knew I would be since I had decided that I would launch a career as a traveling teacher at that conference, and we made plans for me to arrive a few days earlier and come to The Market Place, already moved to larger quarters, to make some desserts he wanted to learn. The months flew by and on my first of many visits to Seattle I spent 3 days at The Market Place with Joe. At the end of the conference he threw an enormous party for all his friends who were attending, affording me a glimpse of Seattle’s most popular and best loved caterer in action. Here’s my favorite Joe McDonnal story: Years later, after The Market Place changed locations again and became The Ruins, I was in the catering kitchen with another dear friend Anna Teresa Callen, getting ready for a class that we’d be co-teaching the following day. Amanda, the resident florist, was making some arrangements for a lunch where the hosts of a large event several months later would be trying the menu and seeing samples of the floral decorations. Virginia stopped by to chat with Anna Teresa and me just as Amanda wheeled by a 4-foot wide garden urn filled with at least 500 roses, and I joked, “There goes Joe McDonnal, skimping again.” We all laughed about it then and many more times in the intervening years. Knowing that Joe never skimped on so much as a cocktail napkin made it all the more hilarious. Joe left us on January 31 of this year at Virginia’s and his home in Palm Springs. His funeral filled Seattle’s Roman Catholic cathedral to overflowing and was followed by a memorial party at The Ruins featuring all his favorite foods for all his dearest friends. I’m sure there was no skimping…
Remembering Three Dear Friends, Part Two tomorrow