While recently testing recipes for my book, American Cake, I remembered a pound cake -- a butter cake, specifically -- and a special conversation with a special lady. It made me wonder how something so simple could stay with someone, and bring back to them a rush of memories some 80 years later.
So I baked that cake, and my kitchen was filled with the most intoxicating aroma. That cake emerged from the oven grand and beautiful, and it tested your patience to leave it alone and let it cool before slicing. I thought how difficult that must have been for Leah Chase, known as the "Queen of Creole Cuisine," growing up in a small home in Madisonville, with her 10 other siblings hungrily wanting a slice!
I met Leah Chase in the kitchen of Dooky Chase's Restaurant in New Orleans' seventh ward about three years ago. A longtime friend of mine named Judy Walker, who had written about food for years for the Times-Picayune, knew I had just enough time in New Orleans for one meal. In Judy's mind that meal had to be at Mrs. Chase's restaurant because her fried chicken had been voted the best in the city. And also because of the gumbo, stewed okra, red beans and rice, collard greens, peach cobbler and pretty much anything on the buffet that day. That meal is still on my mind, and so is the one-of-a-kind Mrs. Chase. She was married to jazz musician Dooky Chase, who died just this past November. And it was Dooky's parents who started the restaurant on Orleans Avenue in 1941.
She grew up on a farm during the Depression in a town called Madisonville, about 40 miles north of New Orleans. Straight across Lake Pontchartrain, Madisonville was so-named after President James Madison. It is known for fishing and for strawberries, and here Leah Chase learned the merits of economy, family, and simplicity.
She was one of 11 children, and her job as a child was to keep the house clean. When she moved to New Orleans as a young woman, after being educated in Catholic schools, she sought out work in a restaurant kitchen. She says her family didn't approve of this type of work for her: A job as a seamstress was far more respectable than being in a kitchen. And yet, this was where her heart was. Mrs. Chase was influenced by the city’s Spanish and French cooking, and when combined with the Southern food she knew so well, her distinctive Creole cooking style was born.
Mrs. Chase took over the kitchen at Dooky Chase's more than 50 years ago and elevated the restaurant's home-style fare into a Creole cuisine that dignitaries, celebrities, tourists, and locals line up for on regular and special days, celebrating birthdays, baptisms and weddings, and even mourning after funerals. Some of the people who've patronized the restaurant include Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington and many others. When 1960s racial tensions unsettled New Orleans and the South, Mrs. Chase practiced culinary diplomacy, bringing blacks and whites shoulder-to-shoulder at the table to share fried chicken and greens.
When I walked into the kitchen, Mrs. Chase – no taller than 5 feet but a formidable force in spite of her diminutive size – was inspecting each piece of fried chicken her niece Cleo Robinson was pulling from the fryer. Mrs. Chase knows how to listen to fried chicken as it cooks. She learned to cook with all her senses, fully appreciating the art of it. When it stops spattering in the grease and is quiet, that means the chicken is done.
I asked Mrs. Chase about her favorite recipes and watched her eyes light up as she recalled a butter cake of her youth. It was a pound cake made with confectioners' sugar, which somehow turns the cake's crust tender and crisp. It was a splurge for her family to bake when she was young, Mrs. Chase recalls. And it was one that her mother baked for Christmas.
Here is Mrs. Chase's butter cake recipe:
Leah Chase's Butter Cake
Makes 12 to 16 servings
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled but soft to the touch
1 pound powdered sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2 2/3 cups cake flour, sifted once after measuring
1/2 teaspoon salt, if desired
2 teaspoons vanilla
Place a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10-inch tube pan with vegetable shortening or soft butter, and dust with flour. Shake out the excess flour and set the pan aside. (If the eggs are straight from the refrigerator, place them in a large bowl of warm water to come to room temperature).
Cut the sticks of butter into 6 to 8 tablespoons each, and place all the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on medium-high until the butter is in one mass, 1 minute. Stop the mixer and add the powdered sugar. Drape a kitchen towel over the top of the mixer so you don't get showered with sugar. Start on low speed and blend the sugar to incorporate. Then increase the speed to medium and let the mixture beat until creamy, 2 to 3 minutes.
Crack one egg at a time and add to the butter mixture, beating on medium-low until blended. Add another egg, beating again, and stop the machine after every two eggs are added, and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Repeat with the remaining eggs.
With the machine off, add the flour to the mixture. Add salt, if desired. Mix on low speed to incorporate the flour, 30 seconds. Add the vanilla, and on low speed blend 15 seconds more.
Scrape down the sides of the bowl with the spatula, and turn the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top. Place the pan in the oven.
Bake until the cake is well browned and the center springs back to the touch, 58 to 62 minutes. A toothpick inserted should come out clean. Remove the cake from the oven, and let it cool in the pan for 20 minutes. Then run a knife around the edges, shake the pan gently to loosen the cake, and turn it out once, then again onto a rack to cool right-side up. Let cool 30 minutes to 1 hour before slicing.
It is a recipe filled with love and history, perfect for spring and summer entertaining no matter where you live. And it marries well with fresh local strawberries and summer's peaches. When I bake it, the smell, taste and sight of it all take me back to that day in New Orleans, conversing with a legendary Southern lady in her restaurant's kitchen, where the sounds from the fryer blend with stories of the past, and culinary diplomacy still reigns.
*Photo of Leah Chase by Blake Nelson Boyd via Wikimedia Commons
*Photo of Leah and "Dooky" Chase with President Bush at Dooky Chase's Restaurant in New Orleans: Public Domain
Anne Byrn is a New York Times bestselling cookbook author living in her hometown of Nashville, TN. She was food editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 15 years. She is author of the Cake Mix Doctor cookbooks as well as her most recent book, American Cake, the history of cake in our country. Visit her websites, AnneByrn.com and CakeMixDoctor.com. Photo Credit: Ashley Hylbert