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17 August 2005

Meanwhile, Down on the Ranch . . .

Clara Wight, 2, enjoys one of her daddy's desserts - the proof is in the chocolate smudges. Photo: By Kevin Qualls/The Anniston Star

By Sherry Kughn
Special to the Star

JSU prof's baking and singing skills lead him from Texas to Alabama . . .

Nathan Wight performs an Italian operatic aria as flawlessly as he bakes an Italian crème cake. The slender, blonde professor of voice at Jacksonville State University is an enthusiastic proponent of both. "I'm multi-talented, I guess," says Wight, whose baritone singing voice is especially suited for the lieder, a short German art song sometimes performed in recitals.

Unlike the common view of opera singers as being arm-flinging flamboyant and theatrical, Wight is quiet, nurturing, a happy, positive sort who often prepares gourmet desserts for his wife Cheryl and their three small children, Samuel, 6, Peter, 3, and Clara, 2.

Fatherhood is another role he adores. He frequently fusses over the hairdos of his children, especially Clara's, whose brown, straight hair often gets a bow and some curls styled by her father. Often, too, he can be found assisting his wife as a teacher in the Bible classes at their church, Greenbrier Church of Christ.

Wight's baked goods, many of which are his own recipes, often end up at various events at the church, where he sometimes leads the congregation in singing during services.

This past Sunday, after the church's evening services, Wight left the song directing to someone else and focused on his baking skills at an event he dubbed "Just Desserts." He'd spent most of the week preparing the 27 desserts on display - all available for looking and tasting. He used more than 50 pounds each of butter, sugar and strawberries, 20 pounds of dark chocolate, 10 pounds of white chocolate, 10 pounds of raspberries and about 400 eggs during the week leading up the event and at two seminars on the finer points of baking that he taught Thursday and Friday at the church.

At Sunday's sweet soiree, more than 200 members and friends were treated to desserts with such names as White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Cake, Double Burnt Chocolate Torte, Banana Berry Tart and Molten Chocolate Crepe.

Wight pumped up the church members during the weeks leading up to Just Desserts by soliciting help in fulfilling his grocery order and by repeatedly announcing the event to the congregation. Several cooks who'd attended Wight's seminars also displayed at least one dessert at the event. Other church members slipped Wight a few dollars rather than search for the hard-to-find items on his grocery list, such as hazelnuts and vanilla beans.

During the seminars, Wight shared his best tips for successful baking. Greenbrier secretaries Nancy Morrow and Roberta Hedgepath, who also have earned a reputation as outstanding bakers, prepared several of their own recipes, but dishes prepared by all others were coached by Wight, who says he baked for about five hours daily during the week leading up to Just Desserts. Church staffers had a great week volunteering as tasters.

"As the church's preacher, it shows that I like to eat the cooking around here," says Greenbrier Minister Jim Harrington.

Wight is the son of Texas ranchers and first developed his baking skills in college at Abilene Christian University when asked to bake a cake for a friend's wedding. It also was at college where Wight heard his first opera, The Medium by John Giancarlo Menotti, and decided on a career as a voice professor rather than a physician, his first choice. However, he pursued a biology major, too, at Abilene, along with a music major.

All of his rather cultured skills seem to contrast with his earlier background. He was raised on a cattle ranch in Kermit, Texas. The contrasts are not as extreme, though, as they appear, he says.

"It's a myth that ranchers are not cultured people," Wight says. "Ranching is a hard job, like farming, but there are times when there is not as much to do. We filled that time with culture."

His parents would take the family to livestock shows and state fairs in Forth Worth, Odessa, Houston and Dallas. While in the "big" cities, they often would take in a musical or a play.

He grew up watching his mother prepare food for family members, friends and ranch hands, which gave him the courage to tackle cooking for a crowd.

"During roundups, neighboring ranchers show up at about four in the morning to eat a big breakfast for about 40 - biscuits, gravy, sausage, bacon and eggs made to order, most of them fried," says Wight. "They return to the pasture before sunup so the cows do not go into their normal routines and become harder to drive."

The roundups, which took place about seven times a month, also called for a big lunch, which Wight says might consist of roast beef, homemade mashed potatoes, gravy, a tortilla casserole, a squash casserole and a green bean casserole, homemade rolls, a fruit salad and a green salad.

"Of course, tea, a cobbler and homemade ice cream for them - every time," says Wight.

At other times, Wight's mother cooked at least one meal a day for her husband, three sons and a daughter. She would let them snack for the other meals unless one of us children decided to cook something.

Wight's cooking skills weren't severely tested while growing up. He learned all about raising cattle, including how to brand, de-horn, castrate and earmark them; and he knows all about how to separate the "shippers" from the cows that stay on the ranch another year. In between these chores, he and his three siblings took turns preparing breakfast, usually pancakes.

Wight first met his wife at Abilene, but they did not fall in love then. It was after he had completed a master's degree at Rice University in Houston and was singing with the Houston Grand Opera when he and his wife became reacquainted at church and became a couple. At their wedding, Wight not only performed "I Love You" by Cole Porter, but he also baked both the bride's and the groom's cakes.

The couple later attended Arizona State University in Phoenix, where Wight did course work toward his doctorate. He was working at Grand Canyon University, a small Baptist school in Phoenix, when he accepted the JSU job and moved to Anniston. He finished his dissertation only a year ago.

In addition to teaching at JSU, Wight has helped revive the university's interest in opera by directing Signor Deluso, A Question of Taste, The Telephone and Lunatics and Lovers. He also has performed a personal recital and several solos at various functions.

Wight, who carried out similar dessert events three times at his church in Arizona, was happy enough with the inaugural Just Desserts to say he plans to repeat the event next year.

"A week before school starts is a good time," said Wight. "Parents are back from vacation, and the children can stay out a little at night."

And what was the favorite dessert at Just Desserts? It was his White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Strawberry Shortcake.

"I only had two people tell me they liked something better," he says.

Right by Wight

"Frosting covers a multitude of sins."
A cake leveler tool gives cakes an even top.
Spray or brush cake syrup on a cake before frosting.

Cake Syrup

Mix one part sugar to two parts water. Brush or spray the cake with the syrup and immediately frost the cake. Liquors or flavorings can be added to the syrup.

Nathan's Chocolate Delight Cake

1 cup cocoa
2 cups boiling water
2 3/4 cups sifted flour
1 cup butter
4 eggs
2 teaspoons soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups sugar
11/2 teaspoon Mexican vanilla (regular vanilla will work, too)

Combine cocoa and boiling water and mix with wire whisk until smooth. Cool. Sift flour with soda, salt and baking powder; set aside. Beat softened butter, sugar eggs, and vanilla until light.

At low speed beat in flour mixture alternately with cocoa mixture. Bake in a 12 x 16-inch sheet pan for about 25 minutes at 350. Turn out of pan and seal in plastic wrap and lit cool completely.

Chocolate Butter Cream Frosting

2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
1/3 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk (warmed)
8 ounces unsalted butter (slightly softened)
13 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon Mexican vanilla (regular vanilla will work, too)

Melt chocolate with the 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons water over a water bath. Set aside. Beat eggs with a mixer until pale and thick. Cook sugar, cream of tartar, and water until it registers 242 on a candy thermometer. With mixer running on medium, add hot sugar to the eggs. This cooks the eggs. Then add the chocolate mixture to the eggs; then add butter in chunks beat just until melted. Add vanilla; then chill.

Chocolate Ganache

2 cups heavy cream
8 ounces of quality dark chocolate

Put chocolate into food processor fitted with metal blade. Heat cream to a hearty simmer; then pour into food processor while it is running until chocolate melts. Cool.


Cut the cooled cake in half so that you have two 6 x 16-inch rectangles. Slice each rectangle in half horizontally to create four layers. Place first layer on wire rack. Frost with a very thin layer of butter-cream. Place second layer on top. Spread the softened ganache on top of the second layer. Place third layer on top of that. Spread with a thin layer of butter-cream. Place fourth layer on top. Even the sides with a very sharp knife by slicing away uneven edges. Cover entire cake with a thin layer of butter-cream. Chill completely while you make the glaze.


16 ounces of very fine semi-sweet or dark chocolate
9 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon vanilla
12 ounces unsalted butter
2 tablespoon corn syrup

Place all ingredients in a double boiler and gently heat until melted. It is very important that you use the glaze at 88-90 degrees.

Remove the completely chilled cake from the refrigerator; then pour the glaze over it. Chill immediately for 1 hour, then remove from wire rack to a service platter.

This story was reprinted by permission.
The story ran in The Anniston Star on August 17, 2005.

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