All Kinds of Goodness at Ashley Mac’s

Lots of people want to make a living doing what they love. Ashley McMakin made that dream a reality with her Ashley Mac’s cafés, catering and gourmet-to-go business. It all started with her hobby of cooking for those she loves.

McMakin grew up in a large, food-loving family, and she learned to cook alongside her mother and grandmother. “I remember making the desserts when I was 12,” she says.

After graduating from the University of Alabama, where she majored in marketing and advertising, she began cooking for friends and family, thinking it would be a nice hobby until she had children. Her husband, Andy, an accountant, realized the hobby could become a business. “People really love your food,” he told her. “It would be a shame to stop it.”

Ashley Mac’s started as a catering company in the couple’s Homewood kitchen in 2005; it was called A Taste of Birmingham back then. And McMakin sold strawberry cake at a booth at Pepper Place Market the first few years. Today, there are four Ashley Mac’s cafés around Birmingham, and the company employs more than 100 people.

I sat down with McMakin for a story for Alabama NewsCenter.

You can read the entire piece here.

Ashley Mac’s offers modern interpretations of traditional Southern recipes that call for fresh, simple ingredients–whether you eat at an Ashley Mac’s cafe, pick something out of the grab-and-go freezers, order and pick up a fresh family dinner for four or hire the company for catering.

McMakin has grown her business right along with her family, and she often shares her inspirational, working-mom story with others.

“Every time we put in a store we’ve had another kid,” she says. “So we have four kids right now. We went through infertility for several years when we were trying to start Ashley Mac’s, and looking back, I’m just grateful that that was God’s timing. I really don’t think there would be an Ashley Mac’s if I had gotten pregnant right away.

McMakin was pregnant when she and her husband opened their Cahaba Heights store. “Opening that first store, I had to take a step back and really trust people, which is a big learning curve for a business owner, to learn how to delegate,” she says.

“When we opened our second location (in Inverness), we had our second son, through fertility treatments again. And then we were opening our third store in Riverchase, and we adopted our little girl from China. Then last Christmas, we were about to open our Homewood location, and, by some divine circumstances, we ended up with our foster son. He’s 17 and will be with us for two-and-a-half years.”

One reason for Ashley Mac’s success is that McMakin knows what her customers need because she is one of them – a busy mom who wants to put good, healthy food on the dinner table each night.

“A lot of the things we do were born out of … what I need,” she says, laughing. “Many of the things that are on our menu came out of something I’ll make for dinner.”

There is a certain element of goodness at Ashley Mac’s that goes far beyond the highly popular strawberry cake.

“We’ve kind of set ourselves apart by being grace-centered … trying to be gracious with our employees and our customers,” McMakin says. “… Just treating (our employees) with the respect that every person deserves and giving them a chance to work their way up and to invest in how they’re learning and in them personally as well, which is how we ended up with our foster son, through a former employee. We’re just grateful that we not only get to employ them but do life with them.”

Charleston Charm

I took a quick trip to Charleston, South Carolina a few weeks ago—so quick, in fact, that I was very limited in what I could do. So it was two days of food and drinks and then some solitude in my very favorite place.

I usually spend some time shopping on King Street. I also love to take my running shoes and head to The Battery via the waterfront path by Rainbow Row. I walk through the French Quarter and go to the Market to buy souvenirs from the Historic Charleston Foundation store (silver rice seed bead bracelets, anyone?). I didn’t have time for that on this trip.

But even a short trip is enough to remind me how much I love this city. Charleston is beautiful this time of year (I couldn’t help but notice that they don’t trim their crepe myrtles downtown). It’s also fun and delicious and full of great energy. And folks in Charleston have Southern hospitality down pat. Of course.

No wonder it’s one of the top tourist destinations in the entire country.

Some of the highlights of my short trip included:

Raw oysters and royal reds at The Ordinary (544 King Street). This fancy oyster hall is in a beautiful historic building that used to house a bank. The restaurant belongs to James Beard Award-winning chef Mike Lata (Best Chef Southeast 2009) and business partner Adam Nemirow, the same team behind FIG (another personal favorite place). My daughter Allison knew I was going to The Ordinary that evening, and she called ahead and ordered an assortment of South Carolina raw oysters that included Roddy Rocks and Single Ladies and Sea Clouds and long, thin Capers Blades. I skipped the cocktail sauce in favor of the ginger mignonette. A glass of cold Les Gras Moutons Muscadet was perfect, too.  I loved my dish of charcoal-grilled royal red shrimp over polenta with shrimp nage.

The next day, I took a scenic two-mile walk through old neighborhoods to eat lunch at Nana’s Seafood & Soul with its classic Gullah-Geechie dishes and fresh seafood. Someone told me that the rapper 2 Chainz had eaten there the week before. That turned out not to be true, but Waka Flocka Flame had been in a few months earlier for the shrimp and lobster boats and fried crab legs. I enjoyed the crab mac and cheese and spicy garlic shrimp very much.

A late-night drink and snack at Babas on Cannon (11 Cannon Street) was the perfect way to end our day. This cozy, all-day, old-world café serves coffee and house-made pastries in the morning and sandwiches and salads in the afternoon. During the evenings, you’ll find apértivo service with carefully chosen wines, creative cocktails and delicious snacks (try the brioche grilled cheese with a giant cheese crisp on top). This cafe has a Birmingham connection, too:  It belongs to Frank Stitt’s daughter, Marie, and her husband, Edward Crouse.

Breakfast the next day was French press coffee and a fresh, warm flaky almond croissant from Christophe Artisan Chocolatier and Patissier.

I took my breakfast to one of my very favorite places—the garden cemetery at The Unitarian Church in Charleston (4 Archdale Street).  Founded in 1787, this is one of the oldest Unitarian Churches in the United States and the oldest one in the South.  There is a monument outside to honor the slaves who actually built this church—making even the very bricks that form the walls.

The cemetery is a beautifully wild place with plants—some 200 years old—growing from the plots. It’s incredibly peaceful. You can get to it off King Street; there’s a gate sort of hidden down near and across the street from the Billy Reid store.  Go down an alley and find yourself in another world. If the church is open, you’ll want to go in. The people there are so welcoming, and they love to share details of their beautiful church with visitors.

Finally, before we head home, we always go back to Christophe for a ham and Brie sandwich for the road. These are exactly like what you’ll find at little bakeries and corner stores all over France. And chocolates. We always get an assortment of Christophe’s extraordinary chocolates. No trip to Charleston is complete without these.

Fox 6 Books: March

Here’s what I brought to WBRC Fox 6 on March 5: Two of these books—one fiction and one not—are about spies. Then there’s a cookbook of sweets by a local author and a literary thriller—perfect for vacation reading.

Transcription is by Kate Atkinson, one of my favorite authors who wrote Life After Life (one of my favorite books ever; I also loved her Case Histories). Transcription is set mostly in 1940 when 18-year-old Juliette Armstrong is working—somewhat reluctantly—as a spy for an obscure department of MI5. Now, 10 years later, she’s a radio producer at the BBC and she thinks her days as a spy are long gone. That is a mistake because mysterious figures from her shadowy past begin showing up, and Juliette realizes that most actions do, in fact, have consequences.

Spies of No Country:  Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel, by Matti Friedman, grew out of a single conversation. The award-winning journalist and author writes about four young men who were recruited into a small, amateur, ragtag group of Arab-speaking Jewish spies in 1948. This unit was the beginning of what would become Israel’s intelligence service and a precursor to the Mossad. Here’s how this book came about:  “In 2011, I happened to meet an Israeli man in his late 80s, a retired spy, who told me an incredible story about how he and a few of his friends experienced the birth of the state of Israel in 1948,” Friedman says. “He was originally from Aleppo, Syria, and had been recruited by the Jewish pre-state underground in 1945 because he had native Arabic and could pass for Arab. His story was strange and gripping on its own, but what was especially striking to me was that it was an entirely Middle Eastern story. Israel usually speaks about itself as part of the story of Europe … but this old spy’s story was very different.”

Hello, Sugar! by Beth Branch, a local food blogger and test-kitchen chef, is a delicious collection of classic Southern sweets—cakes, cheesecakes, pies, tarts, no-bake goodies and other Southern favorites like lavender-lemon bars, red velvet moon pies and a truly impressive giant orange sweet roll. It’s also quite lovely. Some of these recipes are best suited for experienced bakers, I think, but lots more of them are easier to follow even if the results look complicated (caramel apple rose tarts, I’m thinking of you!). The tropical key lime pie, in particular, looks like something I can do (and Branch offers a delightful way to decorate it with “palm trees” made of lime slices and toasted coconut). Branch is a Birmingham native who began her first food blog—The Collegiate Baker—in 2011 when she was a student at the University of Alabama. Her early baking adventures included creating over-the-top birthday cakes for her friends and family, but she also spent a lot of time cooking from old family recipes and finding treasures in her grandmother’s recipe box.

The Current by Tim Johnston (the author of the New York Times bestselling debut novel Descent) is a tightly woven, literary psychological thriller about the impact of crime on innocent people. Outside a small Minnesota town, in the dead of winter, police pull two young women and their car from the icy Black Root River. One woman is found drowned downriver, the other is half-frozen but alive at the scene. Turns out, this was no accident. Another young woman died in the same river a decade earlier, and the killer might still be living in the town. The surviving woman begins her own investigation and soon realizes that she’s connected to the earlier unsolved case in ways she never expected.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Celebrating an Unsung Hero of Birmingham’s Food Scene

I had the absolute honor of helping out with Alabama NewsCenter‘s awesome coverage of food-related stories to celebrate Black History Month and the contributions of African-American cooks and chefs to our state’s rich food scene (current and past).

One of my favorite pieces was about Juliette Flenoury, a name we all should know.

My editor Bob Blalock made the story I submitted way better when he invited local restauranteur Becky Satterfield (Satterfield’s restaurant and El ZunZun) to Alabama NewsCenter’s studio to narrate a video about her friend Juliette.

You can read the entire piece here and see that video, too.

Juliette grew up in Birmingham’s historic Fountain Heights neighborhood, and as a child she cooked alongside her mother. Before she was even a teenager, Flenoury was honing her skills, baking cookies and gathering fans among friends and family.

She began her first food-industry job working at the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Birmingham. By day, she worked as a cashier, and at night, she cooked foods for the daily menu at the cafeteria in the bus terminal.

Juliette left the bus station job to cook at the Mountain Brook Club, where she remained for 43 years.

She says, “After cooking passionately for most of my life, I am best known for my corn pones, fried chicken, cornbread dressing, chicken potpies, greens and many other selections of Southern cuisine.”

Those corn pones, especially, are delicious little works of art, and watching her make them is art in motion. I was lucky enough to see this for myself one day at Becky’s home. Becky had invited her fellow members of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’ Escoffier to meet Juliette and watch her cook. (We also enjoyed some amazing collards and black-eyed peas.)

Juliette retired from the Mountain Brook Club several years ago. She has spent some of her time since retirement cooking for family and friends; making gift baskets; listening to gospel music; taking care of elderly neighbors; and volunteering for Christian Service Mission when that organization needed her help cooking for the homeless and for student interns visiting Birmingham from various colleges.

Here’s Juliette’s recipe for her famous corn pones. Enjoy!

Juliette Flenoury’s Corn Pone Recipe

Preheat convection oven to 450 F

INGREDIENTS

5 lbs. Martha White (plain) cornmeal

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

1 cup salt of your choice (Juliette keeps everything old-school with regular Morton Salt)

4 cups of melted Crisco shortening at 450 degrees F

4 gallons of boiling water to pour into mix

Another gallon and a half of boiling water for the dipping spoon

INSTRUCTIONS

Spray four half-sheet pans with cooking spray and put into hot oven for 10 minutes (be careful not to let them stay in longer than that because they get too smoky). Then pull them out to use for panning the pones. This helps create a little caramelization.

Use a large commercial-grade metal kitchen spoon for mixing and shaping the pones.

Mix all dry ingredients first in a very large stainless steel mixing bowl (industrial/commercial grade).

Pour hot, melted Crisco into the cornmeal, stir quickly and incorporate well.

Pour boiling water, four cups at a time, until you have the right consistency. (The video will help with this part.) You might not need all of the water you prepared for this recipe, but have it on hand just in case.

Stir vigorously, and be reminded that this batter is very dense; at times, it will be hard to stir but needs to be fully incorporated.

Build a ridge on the side of the bowl nearest yourself, and smooth it off.  Start scraping your spoon toward yourself as the cornmeal mixture kind of curls inside the spoon. Take it and turn your spoon to the left, tap it to release the pone. Repeat this the same way every time. All pones should be right next to each other and uniform. (A little extra hot water should be added via the large kitchen spoon at intervals to keep hydration level correct. Smooth out, pat it down, back and forth, then scrape to roll the pone into the spoon. Also, halfway through this recipe, you will need to change out your dipping water with fresh boiling hot water to keep the temperature up for the conduction through your spoon so the pones will curl uniformly within the spoon and so the spoon will stay clean.)

Put pones in the preheated convection oven and bake for 45 minutes at 450 F. Check halfway through, and rotate the pan. The pones should be brown on the top ridge and the rounded sides to give you the crunch you desire.

This recipe, straight from Juliette’s time in the Mountain Brook Club kitchen, and in her own words, makes a lot of corn pones—several dozen, in fact.