Washington Cooks: The cake whisperer


You can’t rush a good cake, she says.The longtime law firmreceptionist recently won $500 for her coconut cake, which will be featured onthe menu at Eatonville restaurant. (James M. Thresher/For The Washington Post)

Decoyise Brown’s family and friends know just how blessed they are. The Waldorf resident makes a mean seafood quiche and all manner of soups and fruit juice punches. But more than that, she has a baker’s magic touch.

Brown, a 59-year-old receptionist at Hogan Lovells law firm, is the go-to source any time the people she loves need baked goods or are having trouble producing them on their own.

“One girlfriend told me that every cake she bakes turns out flat,” Brown says. “Even box cakes.” The woman described her steps by phone; nothing seemed amiss, so Brown went over to watch her in person.

“Just before she put the pans in the oven, she went ‘bang! bang! bang!’ on the counter with them,” Brown says. “ ‘Well, that’s it,’ I told her. Why get all the air out of the batter you’ve worked so hard to make?”

This year co-worker Brenda Peterson entered her pal “Dee” in the local Make-Me-Wanna-Shout! Coconut Cake Challenge, which included several rounds of judging and whose proceeds benefited Miriam’s Kitchen. “I just knew she would win,” Peterson says.

And Brown did, beating 14 other competitors and taking home $500. Starting Memorial Day weekend, her cake will be featured on the menu at Eatonville Restaurant in the Cardozo-Shaw neighborhood, where the finals were held April 27. Eatonville restaurateur Andy Shallal, who was one of the contest judges, says Brown’s cake “exemplifies the standard of what we were looking for.”

“She obviously has a technique. Her cake is airy, yet dense enough to get a sense that you’re eating something substantial,’’ he says. “Her art comes through.”

“I was very pleased, but not entirely surprised” at the results, Brown says. “Mine’s a classic. A lot of those cakes had coconut in them, but they weren’t coconut cakes. Nobody else used fresh coconut.” She was inspired by memories of watching her mother and grandmother crack open tough brown orbs, grate the firm white flesh and allow Brown and her younger brother to snack on the leftover nubs.

Brown had to figure out her own recipe, though. Her maternal kitchen mentors died before she got the details. That’s why she’s determined to compose a cookbook of her own. “If no one enjoys it but my family, that’s okay,” she says.

“Her cooking doesn’t compare to anyone’s I know,” says her older daughter, Aisha Drake, 37. “Candied yams, English muffin bread. . . . Her whole-wheat rolls are the best I’ve ever tasted.”

Brown raised her family as a single mom. She had been married only five years when her husband was struck by a car and killed.

Drake and her daughters, Aijah, 13, and Aliya, 15, live in Bowie, but they spent the recent Mother’s Day close to the kitchen in Waldorf where Brown was graciously baking for visitors. Brown’s younger daughter, Charlotte, 20, lives at home, so on any Sunday the house can be full of women. That’s the day of the week when Brown will roast a chicken or turkey (“whatever’s on sale”) and stir great pots of soup destined for weeknight meals and lunches at the office. With a long commute to and from the city, she likes to have food ready for quick reheating.

Aisha says the kitchen is perfect for her mom, with its uniquely shaped island, generous counter space and gleaming stainless-steel appliances. It wasn’t always that way. About a year and a half ago, a gas leak caused Brown’s house to burn to the ground, at the center of an acre and a half of land. No one was home at the time.

Brown and Charlotte stayed in a rental rambler in Forestville “for 10 very long months.” She was happy to have a roof over her head while their house was being rebuilt. But the temporary kitchen accommodations were hard on a committed cook.

“Only 21 / 2 of the coils worked on the electric stove: one in back, one in front and a half-burner, left front. Any item placed in the oven requiring 60 minutes of baking always took two hours or longer!” Brown says. “One dim ceiling fan light, a microwave that did not work and very little counter space made for a very unpleasant cooking experience.”

Brown had to wrangle with the builder of her new place. He didn’t think an island would fit; hence its many angles. When long bouts of counter work affect her bum knee, Brown opts to sit at its wider end. During reconstruction, Brown bargain-shopped to acquire new sets of tableware and cookware, two mixers, a coffeemaker, a microwave, a large side-by-side refrigerator and a Jenn-Air gas range.

Close inspection of one pantry closet finds an impressive number of pots and pans. “I had thrown all my charred pans in the shed,” she says. “I thought they were ruined, and I had already replaced everything. One day, I grabbed an All-Clad skillet that was black all over and attacked it with SOS pads and a lot of elbow grease.” That pan and others came clean, and she uses them regularly.

Brown is confident enough in her baking that she chose to make a chocolate cake she hadn’t tried before. She used her cupped hand to strain the lemon juice and separate the egg yolks from whites. Her shortening-flour technique for prepping the cake pans ensured that even the moist, tall layers released easily.

Buttermilk and sweetened condensed milk mixed with cocoa powder give the cake a lighter flavor and color; that’s what she was after. But frosting is her ultimate weapon. It’s ultra-smooth and luscious, with cream cheese, the condensed milk-cocoa powder blend and a bit of brewed coffee.

It’s a process that requires patience. Brown works at a slow, steady pace, checking the cooling cakes’ temperature with a feathery touch and finishing the last application of frosting with a swirly flourish. “Cakes are delicate. You can’t hurry them,” she says. “If you frost a warm cake, for example, it will crack.”

On any other Mother’s Day, Brown would have been tending her garden instead of the kitchen. Since the fire, there’s a lot of work to do out there, she says.

But she beamed as her girls tucked into quiche, soup, salad and the experimental cake. Even Aliya, the non-chocolate-eater, let out some “mmm’s” as she took forkfuls of her slice.

“I think that’s how you love people,” Brown says. “By cooking for them.”

RECIPES

Buttermilk Chocolate Cake

Seafood Quiche

Tomato-Basil Soup

Coconut Cake With Lemon Filling and Cream Cheese Frosting

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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