Some people have a particular presence when they enter a room. Sandra Wilson is one of those people. She is exuberant and friendly with an easy laugh. As the deputy city manager for Ocala, she is responsible for the operations of human resources/risk management, electric administration, electric delivery, water resources, engineering and fleet management. It is a role that she has occupied since December 2014, but she has been with the city since 2000. She graciously took time out of her busy day to chat with us about food, family and the recipe that has made her highly sought after among her family, friends and colleagues.
“I learned to cook from my mom. She was a cook by occupation and cooked at a hotel,” Wilson recalls. “She cooked all the Southern foods, the greens, the sweet potatoes—all those things. It was a common thing for us to wake up to all these aromas.
“And everything had gravy,” she continues with a laugh. Pork chops smothered in gravy, steak smothered in gravy, even hamburgers smothered in gravy.
Wilson comes from a big extended family with a true appreciation of food.
“We are third-generation, native Floridians,” she explains. “Where my family lives, we call it ‘The Compound.’ My mom, sister, cousin and aunt all live there. It’s a big area with open fields between all the houses. Growing up, family was always around. You could walk to everyone’s house. It was real country living. I do like the city, but there’s nothing like going home where you can walk around on the dirt barefoot. In June, around Father’s Day, we have ‘Homecoming’ there. Everybody who used to live there comes back. It’s a big event and always such a great time to see people you haven’t seen in a while.
Wilson explains that although her dad did not cook, she has some special memories of how many dishes made it to their table.
“My dad was a hunter and fisherman,” Wilson says. “He lived for that. He did that until the time he passed away. I remember standing up, beside him, on the front seat of his truck. I don’t know how old I was, but I remember standing there, looking for stuff to shoot out in the woods and the orange groves.”
Although family traditions are important to Wilson, her biggest culinary regrets involve not getting the recipes for certain family favorites that her two grandmothers used to make.
“My paternal grandmother made these incredible tea cakes that had molasses and brown sugar that ended up being more like a biscuit,” she recalls. “I have not had anything like that since. And my maternal grandmother made the best fried chicken ever. My mom doesn’t even fry chicken like my grandmother did. I don’t know what she did or how she did it, but it was just the best.”
Wilson, on the other hand, is best known for a sweet treat that keeps her constantly in demand.
“The one thing that I am famous for is my red velvet cake. Everybody asks me to make one,” she admits. “A friend actually gave the recipe to me about 20 or 30 years ago. I’ve changed it a bit to make it my own. I do follow the recipe every time. Even though I kind of have it down to memory, I pull out the recipe and put it on the counter. If you follow it exactly, you can’t go wrong. And for the first time, Wilson has generously agreed to share her in-demand recipe with our readers.
Ironically, Wilson confesses that cake is not actually her preferred dessert.
“Even though this cake is my specialty, I’m more of a pie person. I don’t make pies, but I love to eat them,” she says with a shy laugh. “I like key lime, lemon meringue, pecan, sweet potato, apple, peach. My mom makes a great sweet potato pie”.
Sandra’s Super Scrumptious Red Velvet Cake
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups Wesson canola oil
2 tablespoons Hershey’s natural unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ounce McCormick red food coloring
2 1/2 cups Pillsbury all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 350°F. › Mix granulated sugar and canola oil together; add eggs, cocoa powder and food coloring. › Sift together flour, salt and baking soda. › Add flour to sugar and oil mixture, alternating with buttermilk. › Bake in 3 greased and floured round cake pans for 30 minutes.
1 8-ounce package of Philadelphia cream cheese
1 stick of butter
1 box of Domino confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup of pecans (or other type of nuts)
Cream together all ingredients except nuts. › Stir in nuts separately. › Spread icing between layers and then on top of cake. › Drizzle pecans on top of cake.