Food stories have a way of rising like a cheese souffle in the Nicklaus family kitchen. Now those stories are tucked into “Well Done!” which is peppered with favorite anecdotes and handed-down recipes. .
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.— Before Jack Nicklaus comes home for a midday break on a recent day, Barbara Nicklaus offers this word of caution: “He’s going to tell you this story, but don’t believe him.”
The golf superstar’s wife says this with a wink as she slathers sweet cream-cheese frosting on a home-baked, three-layer red velvet cake. If one detects a swell of authority in her voice, it’s for good reason: She’s standing in her command central, the well-stocked, sweetly appointed North Palm Beach, Fla., kitchen otherwise known as “Barbara’s Sugar Factory.”
This kitchen is to her what Augusta National is to her husband. So when The Golden Bear delivers his “peas every night” story, be very skeptical, she warns.
The Nicklaus family cookbook is for sale on the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation website: nchcf.org.
“He’ll tell you he was afraid to tell me if he liked something I cooked for fear that he’d get it every day,” says Barbara Nicklaus, who has shared a 55-year marriage, five children and 22 grandchildren with the golf icon. “He claims he asked for peas for dinner and he got peas every night. But I know he didn’t.”
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And, indeed, when Jack Nicklaus arrives and joins the conversation about the newly released cookbook he co-authored with his wife, praising her Veal Parmesan and Chicken Tetrazzini, it doesn’t take long for him to bring up the peas story.
“He’s so wrong,” Barbara Nicklaus interjects with mock indignation.
It should be noted that there are just two recipes in their “Well Done! Life, Love & Food” cookbook that call for peas — and one of them marks them as “optional.”
Food stories have a way of rising like a cheese souffle in the Nicklaus family kitchen. They linger as long as loved ones around the kitchen island in the Lost Tree Village home where the Nicklauses have lived for nearly 50 years.
Now those stories are tucked into “Well Done!” Peppered with favorite anecdotes and handed-down recipes, the self-published book offers a glimpse into the family that sat around the dinner table nightly for home-cooked meals, no matter the day’s bustle.
The family meals, inspired by Barbara Nicklaus’ stacks of community cookbooks and jotted-down recipes, unfolded just a stone’s throw from the stretch of road that in 2006 was renamed Jack Nicklaus Drive.
To the world outside this aromatic kitchen, the Nicklauses are the wealthy couple whose charitable foundation has transformed pediatric health in South Florida through a $60 million pledge to Miami Children’s Hospital (now named Nicklaus Children’s Hospital) and most recently Jupiter Medical Center, where their $7.5 million donation will help establish a pediatric unit this month.
Last year, Jack’ Nicklaus’ philanthropic efforts earned him a Congressional Gold Medal and Barbara Nicklaus’ charitable work earned her the highest honor bestowed by the United States Golf Association, the Bob Jones Award.
But away from the limelight, inside the family home that overlooks the northern shore of Lake Worth, the couple is still — as one Sports Illustrated writer once described Jack Nicklaus — the “pass-the-gravy Buckeye” duo devoted to their family and Columbus, Ohio, roots.
Their cookbook contains more than 300 recipes, many of them continental classics that, in this day of re-imagined this and deconstructed that, seem to belong to another, less fussy era.
“We don’t eat very fancy. We eat fish, steak, chicken. Just simple,” says Jack Nicklaus, who has high praise for his wife’s cooking. “She’s good at just about everything.”
So good, in fact, that — outdoor grilling aside — he rarely attempts to cook. “Why would I learn to cook when I have someone who does it so well?” he says.
It was trial-and-error experimentation in the kitchen for his bride who confessed she could barely boil water when they married 5½ decades ago. First came the casseroles of the 1960s and their nightly variations, then the more complex endeavors, and pastry practice. It was the sweets she loved most, though she found some recipes elusive.
“My mother made great fudge, and I called her one day to get the recipe,” Barbara Nicklaus recalls. “I had a pad of paper, ready to take notes, and my mother says, ‘I guess you could start with two cups of sugar, as much cocoa as you want, enough milk to wet it, and about the size of a walnut of butter.’“
Back then, Barbara Nicklaus, a detail-loving woman of admirable organizational powers, was perplexed. How could such inexactitude produce good fudge?
“Well, it was absolutely fabulous,” she says. “It was just like my mother’s.”
The fudge recipe took its place in a growing lineup of family favorites, joining daughter Nan’s favorite prime rib, son Jack Jr.’s favorite marinated flank steak, son Gary’s favorite Chicken Florentine, son Steve’s favorite Veal Parm and son Mike’s favorite, well, just about everything.
Meal memories turned into requested recipes. There was the antipasto salad they had at the home of Bob and Dolores Hope in California, and the sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce they sampled at Loch Lomond, Scotland.
There’s the creamed chicken and rice croquette dish Barbara Nicklaus’ mom would make her for every birthday dinner, the Buckeye Candy inspired by the couple’s shared Ohio State University pride, and the Italian Cream Cake that’s Jack Nicklaus’ “absolute favorite.”
It was daughter Nan O’Leary who kicked off the cookbook project in the late 1990s with a small, family-recipe collection she titled “Mimi’s Bearly Believable Bites.” (Barbara Nicklaus is “Mimi” to the Nicklaus grandkids.)
“The book was just for Mom and us,” recalls O’Leary, who started on the recipe collection during a time when her parents were out of town for two weeks. “We put it all on a floppy disk, and when they got back, I said, ‘Mom, you go through it and edit.’“
The book was printed out and clipped into a binder. When the idea to publish a more formal cookbook came up as a way to raise funds for the charitable foundation, Barbara Nicklaus turned to that trusty binder O’Leary had given her.
“The book would not have happened if not for Nan,” she says. Sales of the book, which costs $39.99, benefit The Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, the couple’s powerhouse charity.
In a book compiled with love and intended to benefit a loving cause, Barbara Nicklaus included this message to those home cooks who set out to make her recipes:
“Please, always remember to cook with love!”
RED VELVET CAKE
“I was trying to make the evening special for our youngest son Michael’s future in-laws. So I made a birthday cake for his future father-in-law and hid it in the oven. I forgot it, however, and when I turned on the oven later in the day to cook the Veal Parmesan, the frosting had melted and run down the cake before I rescued it. We ate it anyway and laughed at the story, which broke the ice and is still a great conversation piece with our son’s in-laws,” writes Barbara.
For the cake:
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1½ cups sugar
1½ cups vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon white vinegar
½ bottle red food coloring
1 cup buttermilk
For the frosting:
½ cup butter, softened
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 (16-ounce) package powdered sugar
Prepare the cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour three 8-inch round cake pans.
Sift together flour, baking soda and cocoa powder in a bowl.
In a separate bowl, combine sugar, eggs, oil, vanilla, vinegar and food coloring.
Add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately to sugar mixture. Divide batter into cake pans. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes.
Make the frosting:
Beat butter and next 3 ingredients until smooth. Spread frosting between cake layers and on top and sides of cooled cake.