"A person cooking is a person giving: Even the simplest food is a gift."

Laurie Colwin

Friday, September 30, 2011

Of cakes, tradition, and competition

Tomorrow is Phoebe’s birthday, which makes this my second birthday outing as a stepmother.  It gives one Pause.

Blended families are interesting organisms, and particularly interesting are the times when you realise the blend includes two different sets of traditions for every special occasion from Christmas (celebrated on the 24th for ours, celebrated on the 25th for them) to birthday mornings (gentle and loving for them, many fists pounding on the bedroom door while Birthday blasts out of the stereo for ours).

One tradition that My Baby and his babies came with was the birthday cake:  a mildly spiced and fluffy Texas sheet cake that they go on bended knee for.  Made by the girls’ mum.

Now.  To explain my attitude towards this cake, I need to reminisce about my own previous marriage.  My ex-husband’s mother was never known – at least, by her own son – as much of a cook, but one of my ex-husband's favourite foods on the whole damned planet was her cheesecake.  He loved it, and she was generous enough to share her recipe, with annotations, with me.  I made it once, perfected it the second time, and then it occurred to me:  “What the heck am I doing?”  Here was this woman, not at all confident in the kitchen, who made this one thing her son absolutely adored, and I – oh, dauntless professional cook! – was about to take it away from her.  As I said to my husband at the time, “Just because I can cook just about anything, that doesn’t mean I should.”  She was alive and kicking and still able to delight him with her cheesecake, so I stopped making it.  Her recipe is in my hand-written recipe book.  It’s an important part of family history, and my daughter made a cheesecake to her grandmother’s recipe for her father on Father’s Day a few weeks ago.

So it was a given that I was never going to make that sheet cake.  The whole point isn’t, after all, to try to recreate the girls’ usual birthday experiences, but create fresh ones of our own.

And so on to the cake.  That it has to be chocolate is a given, and because of my own roots, its filling is also a given:  dulce de leche.  Some proper chocolate frosting, and that’s it.

Much as I love to bake, I’m not a natural cake baker and like Laurie Colwin, I too like “a cake that takes about four seconds to put together and gives an ambrosial result”.  When I want chocolate cake, nine times out of ten, this is the cake I make.  This, along with The Cake of Deliciousness, is the quickest, easiest cake I know.  No creaming, no beating, no folding in of egg whites.  And the results are light (not fluffy), beautifully moist, with a toothsome crumb and intensely chocolatey flavour that is rare even for many cakes that contain actual chocolate.

That it is so rich and chocolatey is mystifying because this recipe was developed during the Depression (when it was known as Crazy Cake) and so frugally contains no butter, milk, eggs or chocolate, but you would never know.  This is an excellent chocolate cake even if you’re filthy rich and can afford to decorate it with gold leaf and have it served to your girlfriends by Pedro, the fig-leaf-attired houseboy.

Hmmm.  Maybe when Phoebe is a little older.

Almost certain:  this cake will have cracks in the top.  That's the lack of eggs for you.  That's why…

… you flip it upside down.  And any smaller cracks can just be...

… frosted over.  You won't get any complaints.

The Easiest Chocolate Cake I Know
(makes 1 large cake)

Dry ingredients –
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup cocoa (unsweetened if in the US)
2 tsp. bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
1 tsp. salt
Wet ingredients –
2 cups water
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tbsp. white wine vinegar (see note below if this flummoxes you)
2 tsp. vanilla essence

1.  Prepare a large cake tin or pan by brushing with Baker's Secret, greasing-and-flouring, or greasing and lining with parchment.  (If you intend serving the cake from the pan, you can just leave the pan as is.)  Preheat oven to 180oC.
2.  Thoroughly combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Add wet ingredients, and stir until dry ingredients are moistened.  Pour into prepared tin or pan and bake until cooked when tested.  (Shallow pans will require 30-40 min., deeper ones 45-60min.)  Carefully unmould onto a wire rack to cool.

A note for those of you who may be nervous about the vinegar: here is a crash course in food science. For a cake to rise, it needs an alkali, and an acid. When the alkali and the acid combine, they react with each other, giving off carbon dioxide, and so gas, bubbles, rising cake.  This is the way that all cakes other than yeast cakes rise.  The alkali/acid combination is there in baking powder (already mixed for you), and in recipes that call for baking soda (alkali) and, say, cream of tartar (acid). In this case, you have baking soda (alkali) and vinegar (acid). You won’t be able to taste the vinegar – promise.

Yumbo McGillicutty!


  1. I think starting your own traditions with your stepchildren is exactly the right idea (having been a "stepchild" myself!). Lovely cake!

  2. Thanks, Carolyn! And the kids win - after all, they get two different cakes on their birthday!

  3. I make this cake for any friends who are 'vegetarians.' Makes them happy and we all get dessert. Not that I ever argue with chocolate. I've also shared the recipe with friends who are married to science teachers. One of the husbands made it during his class. Talk about a teachable moment for teens!

  4. It's good, isn't it? The multi-purpose cake: vegetarian (and vegan to boot!), educational, and delicious!

    Thanks for sharing. :)

  5. this looks so good! now I want chocolate cake :)

    ~Melissa Placzek

  6. You can have one! Or could. In about… ohhh… one hour from now! :)


So! Whaddya reckon?