The strawberry cake that Texans sometimes call “pink cake” gets its color from strawberry-flavored gelatin. It’s not bad, really. But there is a better cake. The strawberry cake recipe Denise Gee created for her new cookbook was inspired by one she tasted at the annual Strawberry Festival in Poteet. It takes fresh strawberries, no Jell-O, no cake mix. The Poteet strawberry cake is closer to the color of oatmeal, not that princess-party pink, but it is delicious.
“People can’t believe this is made with real strawberries, and they can taste it,” she says. “Sweet on Texas: Lovable Confections from the Lone Star State,” Gee’s newest cookbook, draws from treats she’s tasted traveling around Texas. Gee, a former magazine editor, has written three cookbooks with photos by her husband, Robert M. Peacock. “Southern Cocktails” and “Porch Parties” are their other books. They test most of the recipes at home in Winnetka Heights. The new book features classic recipes such as chocolate sheet cake as well as whimsical desserts, such as Big Red granita. “The kolaches I thought were going to be the death of me,” says Gee, who works full time as a public information officer at SMU. She convinced Czech Stop in West to give up their recipe after some nagging, but “I knew I was in trouble when I got the recipe and it said six cups of yeast,” she recalls. She cut the recipe down again and again for dozens of batches until she arrived at one she thought tasted like real apricot kolaches from West Texas. The book is organized by region: East Texas, the Hill Country, South Texas and the plains of West Texas. Dallas and Houston appear in the East Texas section. A recipe for lemon bars comes from 12-year-old Jenay Benge of Dallas, whose desserts appear on the menu at Blue Plate Kitchen. Other Dallas highlights include The Mansion on Turtle Creek’s raspberry brownies and a coconut dream pie, which was inspired by Gee’s favorite dessert at the bygone Kitchen 1924 in Lakewood. Gee found black-and-white family photos at Curiosities, Dolly Python and Lula B’s that give the book’s design a vintage look. “I wanted it to evoke nostalgia,” she says. A former food editor for Southern Living, Gee styled the food photos herself, often using her own dishes and cookware. She says the key is showing good food as it actually is, such as berry tarts just out of the oven with juice bubbling onto the sheet pan. It’s not perfect, but it looks real, she says. There are also pictures of people, such as eccentric sisters Barbara and Natalie Woodley of Mama’s Daughter’s Diner, who give their recipe for sweet tea. And there’s Big Tex, may he rest in peace, accompanying Gee’s recipe for fried Coke. She says she chose the tastiest dessert recipes that also have good stories. One is a recipe for chocolate-peanut clusters that Gee’s pal Melanie Loving makes for her cookie-swap group at UT Southwestern Medical Branch. There is one whole page about Dublin Dr Pepper accompanying a recipe for cherry Dr Pepper cupcakes. “I knew I was going to be under a microscope with this because people here take food so personally,” Gee says. “Sweet on Texas” was released in November from Chronicle Books and costs $24.95. Gee currently is working on another cookbook, “Southern Casseroles,” due out later this year. She’s also writing the memoir of Peacock Alley founder Mary Ella Gabler. And she’s working on a Holocaust-related photo essay book for SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program.