“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.