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Joan Specter: A Rower with Recipes

Joan Specter – former Philadelphia City Councilwoman, renowned pastry chef and wife of the late Sen. Arlen Specter –  was also a rower, I just learned. Joan told me about her rowing days at a book talk I gave recently, and seeing her was a surprise on several levels.
First, of course, I had had no idea that she had been a member of the Bachelors Barge Club in the 1970s, a part of the cadre of early women rowers who were just beginning to gain entrance into the once all-male boathouses on Boathouse Row.
But seeing her also brought back memories of my days as food editor of the former Philadelphia Bulletin. At the time, in the early 1970s, Joan was writing a food column and testing recipes out on her young sons, Stephen and Shanin.

Joan and Sen. Arlen Specter campaigning

As a 20-something myself, I was a bit humbled to be her editor, but loved the chance to try out her recipes. Her wonderful chocolate almond torte remains a favorite dessert that my husband likes to bake. (Recipe below).
Joan took her passion well beyond the newspaper in 1975 when she started a business, Joan Specter Desserts , selling her specialty pies and other creations to some of the best restaurants in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. (Here’s her Candied Walnut Apple Pie. )

Her famous walnut apple pie

Reminiscing about her time on the river, Joan told me she would take out her single scull very early in the morning for many years. She had bought it in Canada, she said, because smaller boats suitable for women were hard to find back then. 
Henry Hauptfuhrer, a longtime member of Bachelors, recalled Joan’s membership. “Years ago,” he told me, “I think our American flags were sometimes provided by her husband Arlen, who as a senator had access to flags that flew over the Capitol that he could hand out to various causes and organizations.”  
Although years have passed since Joan stopped rowing, her wooden single still gets out on the Schuylkill. It’s owned by Louie Asher, who named it “The Specter.”
 “It was stored on a rack at the Bachelors Barge Club for many years, but I never saw Joan at the boathouse or rowing,” Louie told me. “I rowed mid-morning, so it’s just possible that we never went out at the same time. At a certain point years ago, under the impression that she was no longer rowing, and having admired her beautiful wood boat for years, I saw her at an event  in town, sitting next to Arlen. I told her I was a fellow rower and asked if she was interested in selling her boat. She showed such a horrified expression on her face that I immediately backed off and apologized. A couple of years later, a fellow rower told me that Joan  was ready to sell her boat. I immediately made an offer.”
Louie dug out the 2006 email from Joan, in which she agreed to sell her boat:

Louie Asher (right) with Henry Hauptfuhrer at Bachelors Barge Club boat naming

“I am just delighted that someone who loves a wooden boat is buying it,” she wrote. “I think it is beautiful and I know everyone on the water thought so too even though it would not have been fast enough for the competitive rower. I would be honored if it would be named after me, but do not feel that you have to. It will soon be in your possession, so name it whatever suits you. Rowing is a wonderful sport and whenever I make the drive along the east and west rivers which is every day I look to see if
the water is flat and think about gliding through the still water. I changed sports ten years ago because it became a problem for me to get the boat back into the boathouse without help and once to often I had to go to another boathouse to get someone to help me take it in.”
Louie has been rowing it ever since.
“It’s a beautiful boat, a Hudson built in 1988, and I get a lot of compliments. I named it The Specter, and gave Joan a photograph that I took following the naming ceremony. I think it’s an appropriate name, if I imagine myself rowing as a Spectral vision on the water!”
Here’s that favorite recipe:

Joan Specter’s Gateau au Chocolat
1 stick butter (4 oz)
8 ounces ground almonds
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate bits or 4 one-ounce squares
2/3 cup sugar
3 large eggs, separated
Grated rind of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon rum
1/4 cup fine (dry) bread crumbs
Butter and line with parchment or waxed paper an 8-inch cake plan. Dust with flour and set aside.
Grind almonds in blender or food processor. Melt chocolate in double boiler. Cream butter in mixer, add sugar gradually, beating constantly. When all sugar is added, add egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each. Fold in melted chocolate, almonds and breadcrumbs, then lemon and rum. Mix thoroughly with spatula. Fold in egg whites beaten to stiff peaks.
Pour into prepared pan and bake at 375 F.  for 25 minutes.
Let cool, turn out onto waxed paper or cake rack before glazing

The Glaze
2 one-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate
2 squares semi-sweet chocolate
1/2 stick butter
2 tablespoons honey
Toasted almonds
Combine chocolate, butter and honey in the top of a double boiler and melt over hot water. Remove from heat and beat with whisk until it cools and begins to thicken. When thick enough but still pourable, pour glaze over cake. Smooth glaze on sides with a metal spatula if desired. Crush almonds into the side. Refrigerate until shortly before serving.