Jestine's Kitchen in Charleston, S.C., is a comforting sort of place for locals and tourists alike. It serves fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and okra gumbo amid peach walls covered with vintage photos, cast-iron skillets and collectible salt-and-pepper shakers. The restaurant takes its name from a strong African-American woman who lived to be 112, and its down-to-earth vibe and authentic Lowcountry recipes have attracted celebrity chefs and food historians from all over the country.
Jestine's is also widely known for the Coca-Cola Cake it has served since the first week it opened in 1996. The dessert has drawn praise and rave reviews from customers and writers from as far away as Italy.
“The Coca-Cola Cake was a little gastronomic shock. I'd go back even only to taste it again," a visitor from Rome posted on an online travel forum. Another first-time guest tried the cake and wondered in an online post how she could have “gone so many years without ever experiencing something so wonderful."
Owner Dana Berlin Strange hadn't even planned to serve dessert when she opened Jestine's Kitchen in a former corner deli on the Charleston peninsula. What she really wanted to do was honor her family's longtime housekeeper, Jestine Matthews, by serving local dishes and creating a welcoming gathering spot for anyone who dropped by.
Jestine “never wrote a recipe down in her life," Strange said. So Strange and some of the “deli ladies" who stayed on after the sale set out to create recipes for meatloaf, fried-green tomatoes and brown sugar-glazed ham in Jestine's self-taught style. Her mission, Strange said, was to honor the warm and comfortable atmosphere that her longtime caregiver was known for.
“Everybody pulled together to make the recipes," she recalled. “But the real reason I opened the restaurant is so we could talk about her."
Born in 1885, Matthews grew up on nearby Wadmalaw Island, and made her way to Charleston as a teenager to find work. Strange's grandfather, Aleck Ellison, who ran a local dress shop with his wife, hired Jestine in 1928 to help with their baby daughter, Strange's mother.
“He said if you help take care of my child, we'll help take care of you for the rest of your life," Strange said. “Well, Jestine lived to be 112, so she showed him. I never once thought of her as not being a part of my family."
The legendary Coca-Cola Cake comes from Jestine's Kitchen's former pastry chef, Jessica Grossman, who presented her friend Strange with a coffee-infused black magic cake on the opening day of the restaurant.
“I called her later and told her I needed five more," Strange recalled.
Grossman obliged, adding a Coca-Cola Cake to the mix, and was soon put in charge of Jestine's desserts. Now, along with coconut cream pie, banana pudding and other sweets, Coca-Cola Cake is served daily in the restaurant and at Jestine's Sweet Shop, a bakery just around the corner. When a regular customer comes in to celebrate a birthday or anniversary, Strange often sends over a couple of slices on the house.
“It was my honor to receive this recipe from a friend's late mother," Grossman said. “She made it every year for his birthday."
Jestine's Kitchen's Coca-Cola Cake
2 cups, all-purpose flour
2 cups, sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp table salt
1 cup unsalted butter
2 tbs cocoa powder
1 cup Coca-Cola
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1 1/2 cups mini marshmallows
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Grease a 9" x 13" baking pan
3. Sift flour, sugar, baking soda and salt into a large bowl. Set aside.
4. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Whisk in cocoa powder, then add Coca-Cola, and stirring occasionally, bring just to a boil. Remove from heat. Pour over the dry ingredients and mix well. Set saucepan aside to use again for icing preparation.
5. In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine buttermilk, eggs and vanilla extract. Whisk lightly to combine and stir into flour mixture until well blended.
6. Fold in pecans and mini marshmallows.
7. Pour into prepared pan and bake 35-40 minutes or until cake pulls away slightly from the pan and a toothpick inserted near the center (but not into a marshmallow!) comes out clean.
8. Prick hot cake all over with a fork or toothpick and pour Coca-Cola icing on top.
4 cups (1 lb.) powdered sugar
1/2 cup butter
2 tbs cocoa powder
1/2 cup Coca-Cola
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1. While cake is baking, sift powdered sugar into a large bowl. Set aside.
2. In small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Whisk in cocoa powder, then add Coca-Cola. Stirring occasionally, bring just to a boil.
3. Remove from heat and gradually stir into powdered sugar, whisking well until smooth. Whisk in vanilla extract, and fold in pecans.
4. Pour over hot Coca-Cola cake.
5. Cool completely before serving.
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