The culinary world has lost two more of its brightest stars. In fact, they are royalty: both have been called “queens” in their own domains. Leah Chase, age 96, was known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, and Maida Heatter, at 102, was undisputedly the Queen of Cake.
Chase owned the legendary Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans. She and her husband (jazz trumpeter Dooky Chase) took over his parents’ sandwich shop in the Treme neighborhood. It quickly became a fine dining establishment for the black community and a popular gathering place as well. Martin Luther King Jr., Nat King Cole, Ray Charles and James Baldwin were amongst their prominent customers.
Dooky Chase’s was New Orleans’s first desegregated “White Tablecloth” restaurant. Chase insisted that people of color in New Orleans have the same fine dining options that their white counterparts did. After her experience waitressing in the French Quarter, she added white tablecloths, silverware, and expanded Creole offerings to her restaurant.
In 2016, Chase was honored with the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. She was credited with perfecting Creole cuisine, working tirelessly, even after Hurricane Katrina devastated her restaurant. She and her husband spent a year and a half living in a FEMA trailer, but they were able to reopen in 2007. Chase continued too cook into her 90s, limiting the restaurant’s hours somewhat—but that didn’t affect her legendary status.
My favorite quote from this woman, who was indeed a natural treasure: “In my dining room, we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken.” She’s been called a rebel, a chef, an activist, a leader, an icon, a civil rights leader, and an incredible human being. It was said that her hugs were unforgettable: “She hugged you the way your mom would,” her fans recall.
Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama ate at Dooky’s. One of the more popular stories recounts the time that then-presidential candidate Obama visited the restaurant in 2008. Reportedly, Obama reached for some hot sauce prior to trying her gumbo—without even tasting it. She slapped his hand out of the way and made him taste it first; he didn’t add any Tabasco after that.
The New York Times has reported that Chase’s “gumbo z’herbes,” which she served on Holy Thursday, was so popular that people made reservations a year in advance. Years ago in a column on gumbo, I included instructions for this iconic dish, which calls for nine different types of greens. Her breakfast shrimp and baked cheese grits ultimately became a symbol of the best of Creole comfort cooking, and was featured in “New Orleans Classic Brunches,” authored by Kit Wohl.
And Cheese Grits
4 very ripe tomatoes
2 qts boiling water
½ cup butter
½ cup each: diced onion and bell peppers
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 lbs medium to large shrimp, peeled and deveined
½ tsp each: salt and sweet paprika
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
2 fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 TBSP chopped parsley
Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan and dip the tomatoes in the water for about 20 seconds; remove, rinse under cold water, and slide off the peels. Core, seed and chop the tomatoes and set them aside. In a large sauté pan, melt the butter; add the onions, peppers and garlic. Sauté until onions are transparent; add tomatoes, shrimp, paprika, salt, cayenne and basil. Cook, stirring, just until the shrimp are cooked through. Serve the shrimp over the grits, garnished with chopped parsley.
Baked Cheese Grits
4 cups water
1 cup quick grits
½ tsp salt
¼ cup milk
1 egg, beaten
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a rolling boil; in a steady stream, add the grits and salt, stirring occasionally, and boil for 10 to 15 minutes, until just done. In a small bowl, mix the milk, egg and cheese together; add this mixture to the grits, stirring well until the cheese is melted. Pour the mixture into a buttered baking dish and bake for 15 minutes in a preheated 375°F oven. Serve the shrimp and grits with buttered, toasted French bread.
At age 102, Maida Heatter just came out with her final cookbook. She is known for making this world a sweeter, and better, place. Her first book, the 1974 classic, was “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts.” The latest, published in April, was titled “Happiness is Baking: Favorite Desserts from the Queen of Cake.”
It’s been said she “did more for chocolate than Godiva.” She discovered her love for baking in the 1960s and her signature cake (and most popular) was called the Queen Mother’s Cake. It was a rich, flourless chocolate cake, featured in her first book, which was one of 20 that she would write and co-write. That book later made it into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame.
Heatter herself was honored in the “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America” and the Chocolatier Hall of Fame.
One summer, Wolfgang Puck invited her to teach some classes at Ma Maison in Los Angeles. It was hot, so he turned on some fans as the school had no air conditioning. Heatter had sifted all her flour and cocoa and left it while she went to get her hair done. You guessed it—she returned to see all her carefully sifted ingredients blown all over the place. Good-naturedly, she said, “Oh, we’re just going to start all over and measure everything again.”
She was a huge fan of sifting; most of her recipes call for sifting dry ingredients, sometimes more than once. She was self-taught and meticulous about her recipes—she tested them between 15 and 20 times. A graduate of the Pratt Institute with a degree in fashion illustration, she was fond of handing out carefully wrapped brownies as business cards. Her recipes are known for their precision; each step is integral, each ingredient intentional. If you cook from her books, it is almost guaranteed that you will be successful—and when it comes to baking, that’s saying something!
Cookbook author Dorie Greenspan wrote the forward to Heatter’s latest book. “Whenever someone tells me they want to learn to bake, I tell them to start with Maida Heatter’s books. That’s what I did…she wrote recipes that made you feel she was there with you, helping you at every step and cheering you on. And those recipes could always be trusted. She was called ‘Queen of Cake,’ but in my house I thought of her as a kitchen god.”
For publication here, I thought I would give you a classic Maida Heatter dessert that has been a staple in my home since I discovered it, decades ago. With strawberry season approaching, it’s a wonderful way to enjoy this seasonal fruit. Also, Heatter’s “Best Damn Lemon Cake” was named by her husband. She introduces it by saying “I remember when my husband, Ralph, took the first bite of this. The name stuck like frosting on a cake.”
Fresh Strawberries With Sour Cream
2 lbs fresh strawberries, washed and hulled
2 cups thick sour cream
2⁄3 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
Place the berries on paper towels to drain; let stand until completely dry, then place them in a wide, shallow serving bowl. Cover with the cream and smooth the top; sprinkle the sugar on top and refrigerate for 3 to 6 hours before serving. “The sugar will melt into a very dark, thin layer of deliciousness resting on the white cream (with the red berries showing through if you have used a glass bowl).”
The Best Damn Lemon Cake
½ cup skinned whole almonds
1½ cups sifted AP flour
1 tsp baking powder
¾ tsp salt
4 oz butter
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
½ cup milk
1 oz (2 TBSP) lemon extract
Finely grated zest of 2 extra large or 3 medium lemons
For the glaze:
1⁄3 cup plus 2 TBSP sugar
1⁄3 cup fresh lemon juice
Butter a 6-cup loaf pan and dust it well with fine, dry bread crumbs; invert over paper and tap firmly to shake out the excess. Grind the almonds very fine and set aside. Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt and set aside. Melt the butter and place it in the bowl of an electric mixer; add the sugar and beat to mix. At the eggs, one at a time, beating only to mix well. With mixer still on low, add the dry ingredients alternating with the milk in two additions, scraping the bowl each time. Mix in the extract; by hand, fold in the zest, then the ground almonds and turn the batter into the prepared pan. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 65 to 75 minutes, until the cake tests done (it may crack on top, but that’s okay).
Just before the cake is done, prepare the glaze: stir the sugar and juice in a small saucepan until the sugar dissolves (do not boil). When the cake is removed from the oven, brush the glaze over the hot cake, applying it gradually (should take about 5 minutes). Let the cake stand until tepid, not completely cool; then, gently invert it onto a rack to finish cooling and turn it right side up. When completely cool, wrap in plastic or foil and let stand for 12 to 24 hours before serving.