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Chef Spotlight: Seven Questions and a Recipe with Eva Roberts

Eva Roberts owns Just American Desserts, a bakery in Spokane Valley where she specializes in wedding cakes and other specialty baked goods. Photographed Oct. 16, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Eva Roberts owns Just American Desserts, a bakery in Spokane Valley where she specializes in wedding cakes and other specialty baked goods. Photographed Oct. 16, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Eva Roberts has been a professional baker since 1980.

Six years later, she helped found Just American Desserts with her mother and sister. Of that trio, she’s the only one who remains in the business.

Three decades later, Roberts, 58, remains “obsessed with food.”

What’s your favorite dish to cook at home? I’m a foodie. I’m obsessed with food. At breakfast, I am contemplating what I’ll make for dinner. There’s not one particular dish that is my favorite. I absolutely love to cook and entertain. I particularly enjoy doing coursed meals with wine pairings. I had friends over recently and made cream of asparagus soup with tarragon and homemade ciabatta bread for the first course; fresh strawberry, smoked almonds, feta and baby greens salad for the salad course; prime sirloin cap steak, potatoes dauphinoise, haricots verts and bordelaise sauce for the main course; and lemon pudding cakes with fresh raspberries for dessert. It is my concept of “slow food” – enjoying an evening of savoring and sipping.

However, I have to say, when you’re cooking for yourself and you have been working all day, my favorite go-to food is eggs. I love eggs and their versatility. Nothing better than a plate of cooked vegetables with a couple of poached or over easy eggs on top. Quick and easy!

Where do you eat when you eat out? Oh, there are lots of places. When traveling back from visiting my daughter and her family in North Bend, my mother and I normally arrive back to Spokane rather late. My mother’s favorite place (she’s 80, mind you), is the Satellite Diner. She adores breakfast foods (they serve breakfast all day) and to her, there’s nothing better than getting a small stack of pancakes with bacon and a cocktail, too! It’s pretty cute. I think she loves the vibe, and she feels “downtown hip.” Too fun!

For the special occasion dining, I would have to say Spencer’s. One of my favorite things on earth is good beef, and they know how to do it right. My late husband and I would love to dine there before an INB event. It was also the place where I was celebrating my birthday and was gifted with the news of learning I was going to be a grandmother for the first time. Not only is the Spencer Steak wonderful, but Spencer’s evokes wonderful memories and great food and service.

For the I-am-working-late-and-am-exhausted-what-can-I pick-up-on-the-way-home? food, there’s Happiness Chinese Restaurant at the bottom of Thor Street and Sprague Avenue. It was originally Peking Garden, which actually burned down and was rebuilt. The original owners retired, and there are new owners that changed the name to Happiness. I call ahead from the bakery, zip down Sprague, pick up a ginormous amount of Chinese food and zip up the hill home. Of course, there is enough food for three meals!

I also love Noodle Express. If I am working north, I call ahead and go through their drive-thru to pick up. Really, truly, who doesn’t love their Chicken Osaka?

I’m really not into fast-food burger places but, OK, I confess, Zip’s is the place if I have a hankering. I swear I could bathe in their tartar sauce! A Salad Burger, Crinkle Cut Fries with Tartar (extra please), what could be better? I will even go through the drive-thru and just buy tartar sauce to accompany something I am making at home.

When meeting friends for lunch, I really enjoy Yards Bruncheon in Kendall Yards and Dave’s Bar and Grill on Sprague in the Valley. Dave’s is another one of those places that has been around for eons and is just a simple neighborhood hang-out place.

Who inspired you to become a chef, and how? Definitely, not my father. (Sorry, Dad.) I had a passion for cooking early on. I started going through my mother’s 1950s “Betty Crocker Cookbook,” making as many recipes as I could. Though my dad truly enjoyed being served my experiments. (He was very kind eating bowling ball-sized cream puffs when I was 10 and comforting me when I dropped a beautiful Baked Alaska that I had made for a dinner party when I was 14.) But he was not supportive of having me have a career in the food industry. He felt I would be better off pursuing engineering. I do razz him now, but he is very proud of me and what I do.

Really, I was inspired early on by Alice Medrich, who owned Cocolat Bakery in San Francisco in the 1980s. She really introduced the large, irregular-looking chocolate truffle to the United States, learning how to make them from a landlady while living in Paris. Her recipes for hot milk sponge cake and chocolate mousse are what I use at my bakery today. I was just so inspired by someone who had a specialty bakery that emphasized quality ingredients and proper technique, and I thought, “I want to do that!”

What are your go-to ingredients? Umm, butter. Everything is better with butter. I only use butter for baking at the bakery. When my son-in-law first came out to our little lake place, he noticed I had six pounds of butter in the refrigerator and thought it was a tad strange. If you’re in a remote location, you don’t want to run out. In my kitchen at home, I always try to have these ingredients on hand: butter, milk, eggs, sour cream, sugar, brown sugar, flour, chocolate, mayonnaise, onions, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, stock, vinegar and bacon. I figure whatever protein, vegetable and starch you might have, if you have those ingredients on hand, you can make something delicious. I’m one of those people that buys 6 pounds of thick-sliced bacon, cooks it off and freezes it in sealed plastic bags. I always have pre-cooked bacon in my freezer.

What was the first dish that someone sent back to you, and how did you handle it? Not long after opening, customers picked up a 50th anniversary cake. After they got home, they called, saying, “We just picked up a cake for our parents, and the cake says ‘Happy 50th Birthday, Mom and Dad.’ Mom and dad would be really happy if it was their 50th birthdays, but unfortunately, it is their anniversary!” Thank goodness, they were very gracious about the whole mistake. We had enough time before their event to correct the error, and I still smile thinking about how nice they were.

What’s a dish you’ve never made but would like to and why? I’ve always wanted to make Uova da Raviolo. It is large ravioli filled with a ring of ricotta and a raw egg yolk in the center. When cooked, when cut into, the yolk is runny. As a pastry chef, I like the complexity and delicacy of making such a dish. It’s on my to-do list.

What dish or ingredient best represents you? While working on wedding cakes last weekend, I nonchalantly asked my co-workers what dish or ingredient they thought represents me. One blurted out, “Pecan Pie! Crusty on the outside, and soft and sweet inside – and a little nutty!” Maybe I shouldn’t have asked!

Raspberry Truffle Bars

For the bars:

1 2/3 cups (10 ounces) bittersweet chocolate chips (preferably over 60 percent cacao)

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons water

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 large eggs

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

For the topping:

2/3 cup (4 ounces) bittersweet chocolate chips

1/4 cup raspberry jam

2 tablespoons cream

Fresh raspberries, for garnish (optional)

Make the bars: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line an 8-by-8-inch baking pan with parchment. In a microwave safe bowl, heat chocolate, butter and water at 30-second intervals until smooth and melted. With a whisk, add the sugar, salt and vanilla. Beat in the eggs one at a time until the batter is smooth and glossy. Stir in the flour until combined. Bake 35 to 40 minutes until puffed and crust is formed on the top. Cool completely.

Make the topping: Melt chips, jam and cream together in the microwave at 30 second intervals until smooth and melted. Spread on cooled bars.

Serve: Refrigerate overnight. Cut bars with knife dipped in hot water. Garnish with fresh raspberries, if you like.