Eugenia “Jean” Brown of Santa Rosa grew up in the small hamlet of Bay Village, on the edge of Lake Erie just west of Cleveland, where her father served as the mayor.
“I started cooking when I was 8 years old,” said the blue-eyed, great-grandmother, who is now 90. “I used to make green mashed potatoes for St. Patrick’s Day.”
When the cool weather rolls around, Brown likes to roll out one of her favorite desserts, Pumpkin Roll, a soft, pumpkin cake filled with sweet cream cheese. The recipe came from an old college friend, Rosemary Stock.
“I’ve done this recipe for 68 years,” said Brown, who keeps the hand-written recipe on an index card. “Every autumn, we savor the flavor and remember our college days and the many, mini-reunions we’ve shared over the years.”
Brown first met Rosemary, as well as her late husband, Elmer Brown, at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Her husband was a passionate educator who taught history and boys’ cooking at Santa Rosa High, where he also served as head coach. His name lives on at the $3.5 million Elmer Brown Stadium at Elsie Allen High in Santa Rosa.
When the weather turns chilly, Brown likes to share some sugar-dusted slices of Pumpkin Roll with her friends at the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, where she has volunteered for the past 36 years.
Although she no longer drives, Brown still rides her red, 50-year-old Raleigh bike all over town, including from the home they built 50 years ago in Hidden Valley to the Burbank Home at Santa Rosa and Sonoma avenues. She works there in the gift shop and volunteers at the annual Holiday Open House, set for this weekend, Dec. 5 and 6.
“I will be Mrs. Claus this year,” she said, “and my dulcimer teacher, Steve Wharton, is going to be Santa Claus.”
No fan of TV dinners, Brown still cooks all of her own meals and makes sure her plate is full of vegetables, along with lean proteins like chicken and fish.
“You’ve got to watch what you eat,” she said. “I always have vegetables and a big, green salad with no dressing. I love the taste of raw vegetables.”
A lover of chocolate milkshakes as well, Brown enjoys baking desserts during the winter holidays, when the Pumpkin Roll can be dressed up like a yule log, with a sprig of holly and some cranberries.
“Baking is fun, and it’s fun to eat, too,” she said. “This is a seasonal recipe, even though you can get canned pumpkin all year round.”
The Pumpkin Roll requires a few crucial pieces of equipment: a 10” x 15” jelly roll pan, a sifter for the powdered sugar and some waxed paper. The walnuts are optional but add a nice crunch to the soft cake.
“Every year, a guy from a nut ranch in Rio Oso sells me 250 pounds of walnuts,” she said. “I crack them and package them up and send them to friends before the holidays, so they can cook with them.”
Although it is a simple dessert, the Pumpkin Roll does require a bit of finesse. Brown has perfected the art of turning the freshly baked cake out of the pan onto a clean dish towel. She adds a sheet of waxed paper and rolls up the warm cake, being careful not to let it crack. Then she puts the rolled cake back into the refrigerator for a few hours, to cool.