Chef Seamus Mullen was working grueling hours just after opening his Boqueria restaurant in New York, when he woke up one night with hip pain so agonizing that he had to dial 911.
The then 32-year-old chef spent the next three days hospitalized, with doctors running every test conceivable until they discovered the cause: rheumatoid arthritis.
The auto-immune disease causes the body to produce too many white blood cells and attack itself, causing painful and debilitating inflammation.
For a chef who works long hours on his feet, it was devastating news. But Mullen vowed he would not let it get the best of him. Not even when he competed on “The Next Iron Chef” three years ago, making it to the final three. The frenetic experience, though, led to another rheumatoid arthritis flare-up, leaving him unable to move quickly around the set. He was eliminated, and returned home in a wheelchair.
But Mullen fought his way back, making changes to his life, including in his diet. He doesn’t believe that food can cure illness, necessarily. But he does believe that what you eat can improve your sense of well-being.
To thatÂ end, he’s writtenÂ “Hero Food” (Andrews McMeel), of which I recently received a review copy. Arranged by the seasons, it spotlights the 18 ingredients that have made a dramatic difference in his life, including almonds, parsley, fish and olive oil.
It’s no surprise that blueberries — rich in Vitamin C, manganese and antioxidants –make an appearance in the book. Specifically, in “Mutti’s Blueberry Boy Bait,” a cake that his grandmother started baking for him when he was just a tot. It’s based on a recipe by a 15-year-old girl who competed in the junior division of a Pillsbury baking contest in the 1950s.
I couldn’t resist the name, which appears to be apt, given that my husband was as endearing as can be after having a slice warm from the oven.
This is a super simple cake that’s almost like baking a giant blueberry muffin in a round cake pan. It’s tender and moist. The top of the batter gets sprinkled with sugar before baking. I used demerara sugar instead of regular granulated. With its larger crystals, it provided an especially nice crunchy top.
The directions call for whipping the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Mine never got quite to that stage, most likely because you’re also instructed to add 1/4 cup sugar at the start, a rather large quantity for two egg whites. I’m guessing the weight of so much sugar makes it difficult for the whites to ever get aerated enough to form stiff peaks. So, just beat them until they’re thick and opaque as I did, and you’ll be fine.
Mullen is now chef-owner of the Spanish gastropub, Tertulia in New York. I can’t speak to whether blueberries helped give him the strength to achieve that. But I will say this is one mighty fine cake that’s sure to make anyone feel a whole lot better after just one forkful.
Mutti’s Blueberry Boy Bait
(Serves 8 )
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar, plus a bit more for sprinkling (Or use some demerara sugar for sprinkling instead)
2 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a round 9-inch springform pan, line with a round of parchment paper, and butter the paper.
In a standing mixer, cream together the butter and 3/4 cup of the sugar. Add egg yolks, vanilla, and salt, and mix until creamy.
Sift the 1 1/2 cups flour and the baking powder together. Add the sifted flour and the milk to the butter mixture and gently combine.
In another large bowl, beat the egg whites with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar until quite thick and opaque. Fold whites into the batter. Coat the berries with the remaining 1 tablespoon flour and add to the batter.
Pour batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the top with sugar. Bake for 50 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean. Serve with a whole lot of love, and maybe a dollop of whipped cream.
Adapted from “Hero Food” by Seamus Mullen
More Blueberry Recipes: Uncomplicated Fruit-Topped Yellow Cake
And: Peach Blueberry Cake