I met James and Anastasia Goldman more than 20 years ago. We were broke and fabulous and making our way in Philadelphia by working (where else?) in the restaurant business. James and I worked together at a restaurant in Center City called Dockstreet. He was dating (and later married) Anastasia. I was dating (and later married) my husband Michael who was parking cars at the Ruth’s Chris Steak House on Broad Street.
Our lives were so easy back then. No kids, no mortgages, no real jobs. We’d work until midnight, go out, maybe go dancing, and often end up eating in China Town at 3 in the morning. Philadelphia had a thriving arts scene back then (still does) and we enjoyed feeling like we were in the middle of it. And James and Anastasia were that couple that was one step ahead of everyone else in the coolness/hotness factor. They knew about fashion, music, food and always looked like something out of Interview Magazine.
I asked Anastasia about this via FaceTime the other day. Why do we love it so? We determined that it has to do with their exceptional service. Since both of us and our husbands have worked many years in the hospitality industry, we recognize and appreciate customer service that goes above and beyond. And Disney has this down to a science. My husband says it’s the only time in his life that he can go somewhere and not worry about a thing. Disney has a way of catering to your every need that isn’t overbearing or intrusive. It’s heaven.
Anastasia and James have been there many times. Anastasia was running down the list, and I lost count after six visits. Their first visit was sort of a fluke. James was working at the Ritz Carlton in Philly, and he found a diamond earring in the carpet. The Ritz had a policy that if no one claimed a lost item in three months, the person who turned it in could keep it. No one claimed it, so James took it to Jewelers Row, sold it, and that’s how they paid for their first trip.
We talked about how much we love the hotels, and love the wide variety of food options available at the parks. Truthfully, the food is so-so. It’s made to appeal to the masses, so there aren’t a lot of strong flavors. But, there are plenty of sit down restaurants, with air conditioning and pleasant servers, and the food is fresh, as opposed to the over-processed, re-heated yukiness you find at other parks. And the fact that they can feed so many people at once is truly mind blowing. The biggest restaurant I ever worked in had maybe 60 tables, and I know the incredible undertaking required to make a Saturday night go off without a hitch. I can’t imagine feeding thousands in one night.
Anastasia’s favorite Disney restaurant is California Grill at the Contemporary. I love that one, too. Great food, great view, great service. If I had to pick, I’d say my favorite restaurant is the Brown Derby in Disney Studios. I have a soft spot for 1940s Hollywood, and this restaurant does an incredible job of recreating the original, down to its signature dessert, the grapefruit cake. Anastasia and I talked about this briefly.
R: Wait – what? You didn’t like it? It looks amazing on the inside.
A: Yeah, but my fish was over cooked. I was so disappointed. I thought, “Let me just eat my grapefruit cake, and it will all be fine.” So they bring it out, and it was way too sweet. I couldn’t eat it.
R: What?!? I love that cake! Sure it’s sweet, but it’s a grapefruit cake! From the Brown Derby!
Anastasia’s totally right. It’s very, very sweet. Which is funny, because the recipe was invented in response to legendary gossip columnist Louella Parsons’s request that the restaurant serve a less fattening dessert. Owner Robert Cobb (of Cobb Salad fame) told the chef to just throw some grapefruit on a cake, because “everyone knows that it’s slimming.”
I couldn’t wait to try baking it. I had googled the recipe several years ago after I’d first tasted it, without much success. This was before the whole blogging phenomena, and when Disney was more protective of its recipes. I did find a story about the legend of the Brown Derby and its famous cake on the LA Times web site and went with that.
I flinched when I first read it. The candied grapefruit garnish was best prepared one day in advance, something I didn’t have time for. There was beating of yolks and whipping of egg whites. I knew I was going to need every bowl in my kitchen to complete the process. I have shied away from recipes like this in my older years. I find I actually get annoyed when I spend more than an hour preparing a cake. It shouldn’t be that complicated! But in the spirit of Disney, I gave it the good ol’ college try.
What a nightmare. Everything that could go wrong did. It was like the cooking gods wanted to humble me. Things got less magical by the minute.
The candied grapefruit started out great. I boiled the rhine, tossed it in sugar, and really liked the flavor. I thought it could use just a little more sugar, so what do I do? Throw salt in bowl. Nice! I had to throw the whole batch out. It was totally gross.
When I prepared the batter, I accidently skipped the beating-the-egg-yolks step. I whipped the whites like a champ, but not the yolks. And for some reason, the recipe didn’t produce much batter. It barely covered the bottoms of the pans. I was concerned the cake would be too thin.
Too thin was an understatement. It barely rose. The icing was also thin and unappealing, even after adding 2 additional cups of powdered sugar. The whole thing was a mess. I have gotten a lot of suggestions on what might have happened, but I’m just going to chalk it up to human error. I’m not sure what I did wrong, but my mojo was definitely off. I should have thrown in the towel at this point, but assembling it became a personal mission.
I don’t think I’ve ever made such a humble cake. My cakes are usually extravaganzas of the three-tiered variety. I’ve made my daughter beautiful birthday cakes trimmed in Ding Dongs and Ho Hos. This was a sad little puddle of a confection, its icing too thin to cover the oddly crispy edges.
We all tried a piece and were completely underwhelmed. Gigi and I couldn’t even finish our slices. The cake rallied the next day when the juice from the grapefruit segments moistened the crispy exterior. But alas, the love affair was over. I ended up tossing the remains. I guess it’s best to leave the magic to Disney. The only good that came out of it is that I got to talk to Anastasia.
I’m not gonna lie, I was thrown a bit by the experience. I knew I had to rally. The next weekend I made a kick ass peach/blueberry cobbler for my husband on Father’s Day, and the following weekend, I made the Duke’s mayo chocolate cake for Gigi’s birthday. I’m back baby! Mickey would be proud!
Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake
1 2/3 cups flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg white
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
3 tablespoons water
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon grapefruit juice
1 tablespoon grapefruit zest
1 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
Preheat oven to 325. Prepare two 9-inch cake pans. Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Separate eggs. Beat egg white and cream of tartar to a stiff peak and set aside. Beat yolks until fluffy and pale yellow. Combine water, oil, grapefruit juice and fruit zests. Slowly stream water mixture into egg yolks. Fold egg-yolk mix into egg-white mix. Incrementally add dry ingredients to wet mixture. Pour mixed batter into cake pans. Bake 20 minutes then rotate and bake an additional 25 minutes. Let cool completely.
1/3 cup butter (room temperature)
1 1/4 cups cream cheese (room temperature)
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon grapefruit zest
1 3/4 teaspoon grapefruit juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
With paddle attachment, beat softened butter on medium setting until smooth. Add cream cheese and mix until thoroughly blended. Add powdered sugar in 1/4-cup increments, making sure it’s thoroughly incorporated after each addition. Add zest, juice and extract.
2 pink grapefruit
5–6 cups water
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
Prepare one day in advance (or up to a week ahead). Cut ends off grapefruit to create flat surface on both sides. Cut peel off grapefruit in even strips from top to bottom, including only a small portion of pith. Blanch peel in 5–6 cups boiling water until peel softens, about 3 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Create simple syrup by boiling 2 cups sugar and 2 cups water. Add blanched peel to simple syrup and return to boil. Reduce heat to low and cover surface with parchment paper. Candying process takes about 30 minutes; peel is finished when translucent. Drain candied zest onto wire rack and cool. Dredge zest in sugar and let sit overnight. Store in airtight container. Makes more than is necessary for the recipe. Reserve balance for snacking.
Finishing the Cake
Using a sharp knife, segment two grapefruit. Place one cake on cake stand and using an offset spatula, evenly spread 1/3 cup of frosting across its surface. Arrange fruit segments from one grapefruit evenly on frosted surface. Spread 1/3 cup frosting on top of second cake. Carefully stack cakes by inverting frosted side of second cake on top of first. Gently press top so the two layers stack evenly. Frost exterior using remainder of frosting. Slice two pieces candied grapefruit into 1/3-inch strips, then cut strips in opposite direction to create small squares. Arrange remaining grapefruit segments along circumference of cake. Sprinkle candied grapefruit squares between segments. Refrigerate until ready to serve.