Sweet smell of success

Chefs, we are told, are a prickly bunch. When a dinner guest in the German film Mostly Martha complains about the food, the overheated Martha marches into the dining room, grabs a corner of the offensive eater's tablecloth, and whips it out from under the dishes, scattering food everywhere.

Laura Donnelly '78 loves that movie but can't relate to the tantrum. Three years into her job as pastry chef at the Laundry Restaurant in East Hampton, New York, she has never had a complaint, and if one were to be registered, Donnelly would likely forego the hysterics and take her revenge in the satire column she writes for a local magazine.

Not that Laundry diners don't have plenty of prissy potential. This is the Hamptons, after all, where beautiful people routinely show their disdain for courteous behavior and good architecture. But sit them down with Donnelly's Sticky Toffee Date Cake, and these brats turn into pussycats. A rich, moist, fruit-saturated confection awash in caramel and whipping cream, this cake has such a devoted following that when she once tried to take it off the menu, patrons protested.

It went right back on.

"I'm in the business of making people happy," Donnelly says, and for thirteen years she has done just that. Trained on the job and in her own kitchen, Donnelly came to pastry after ten years as a researcher for National Public Radio and NBC News. With one child at home, she decided to work part-time and indulge her love of cooking and food. Donnelly honed her skills at a number of restaurants in Virginia and on Long Island before moving to East Hampton.

The work is fun and exciting, Donnelly says, but it's also hard on your body. She routinely lifts fifty-pound bags of flour. She's always on her feet, whether running back and forth between ovens and counter or hovering over the ice-cream machine. Add an exercise routine of tennis and swimming, and Donnelly has no trouble remaining fit.

Although she works independently in the kitchen--she has no assistant--Donnelly consults frequently with the head chef, who is also her boss. "We brainstorm all the time," she says. If he's going to feature fresh bass one night, for example, she might do a lemon tart, which has a nice flavor finish for fish.

Donnelly's favorite desserts are rustic tarts with fresh fruits. Like many of her pastry peers, she has moved away from the high-rise structures popular in the 1990s and toward simpler, often classic desserts. Crème brulée pops up on her dessert menu alongside profiteroles, the little French cream puffs glazed with a warm chocolate ganache.

Donnelly's personal dessert favorite is apple galette, a free-form tart, accented with Calvados crème fraiche. She also loves clafoutis, an eggy, custardy tart served with figs or plums. She makes all kinds of ice cream and sorbet as well as cookies and biscotti.

Like so many chefs, Donnelly wants to write a cookbook--but not about desserts. More interesting would be a basic cookbook, she says, demonstrating that cooking is not intimidating so long as you can roast a chicken and make a decent vinaigrette.

Divorced, and with college not too far off for her son, Billy, sixteen, Donnelly also dreams about spending several months in Paris or Italy. "Europe is still considered the ultimate place" for pastry, she says. But for right now, the oven timer is buzzing and there's an apple-cranberry crisp ready to come out.

--Mieke H. Bomann '77

Sticky Toffee Dale Cake

1 stick butter (4 ounces) at room temperature
8 ounces pitted dates, finely chopped (pea-size)
1 tsp. baking soda
5 Tbsp. sugar
2 eggs
1-1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbsp. baking powder

1 stick butter (4 ounces)
4 ounces brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees
1. Butter an 8- or 9-inch round cake pan.
2. Place dates in a non-aluminum saucepan.
Add 1-3/4 cups water. Bring to a boil. Simmer for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring to break up the date bits. Take off the heat and add the baking soda. This will bubble up a bit.
3. Cream the butter with the sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla. Scrape down the bowl. Add flour and salt and mix well. This will be a stiff batter.
4. Add the warm date/water mixture to the dough slowly. Add one half of it and scrape down the bowl. Mix well and then add the rest of the date mixture. Scrape bowl and mix well. Now the dough mixture will seem watery. This is OK! Add the baking powder and mix again. Let sit for 5 minutes. Dough will bubble up a little. Stir again. Pour into the prepared pan and bake approximately 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
5. As the cake bakes, prepare the sauce. Combine butter, brown sugar, and cream in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, but keep warm.
6. When the cake is done, poke little holes in it with a toothpick or skewer so the sauce seeps into the cake evenly and immediately.
7. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
Note: the cake freezes well.

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