For some people, or perhaps most (according to my high school science teacher), smell is the sense most strongly tied to memory. Well, I only have half a sense of smell (it’s a long story, don’t worry about it), so I’ve always had to grasp onto other, more dependable things. As you may guess given the topic of this blog, I have many memories tied to food. For example, my grandma’s simple chocolate cake brings me back to when my brother, sister and I all lived at home with my parents, and my grandma would come over for steak dinner, potatoes (side note: I ate cheese bread at these meals. Literally white bread and cheddar, broiled), and dessert…my grandma never forgot the dessert. The cake showed up frequently, and as a sheet cake, could be decorated for various occasions: New Years Eve? Sure, write on the cake and bring some noise makers…Easter? Well we have the pastel frosting, might as well…an average Tuesday? Why not make that random day all the better?
As time went on and my grandma passed away, there came a distance between my family and our chocolate cake. That is, until a few weeks ago when my mom requested “Grandma’s Chocolate Cake” for her birthday dessert. My family does birthdays in a big bad way, so when mom requests a specific cake, you give it to her, and you don’t ask questions…or you shouldn’t anyway. As soon as my mom emailed me the recipe I started scheming about what I could do to make it more special. I knew I had a great idea when I realized my sister and I were thinking the same thing: transform the sheet cake into a round layer cake.
The day I was planning on making the cake I told mom I had to stop by to get my round cake pans. My comment was met with silence, and then, “Why? What are you doing to my cake?” I insisted that I wasn’t doing anything big, just making it better. “I asked for my chocolate cake. I like my chocolate cake as it is. Don’t screw with my cake.” She was overreacting, I was sure. What’s better than a chocolate cake? A layered chocolate cake, that’s what. “No, that will mess up the frosting. The frosting is the best part, don’t screw with my…no, wait, you know what? Don’t screw with your GRANDMA’S cake.” My mother, the sweetest woman in the world, was speaking sternly, and about food, no less. So I had no choice. I was going to make grandma’s cake, and not screw with it…well not much.
Grandma’s Chocolate Cake with OMG Fudge Frosting
My Grandma’s cake recipe, through and through, because you “don’t mess with Grandma’s cake.”
Serves 12-15, depending on how you slice it
For Grandma’s Chocolate Cake…
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 eggs
- 2 squares unsweetened chocolate, melted
- 2 1/2 cups flour
- 2 tsp. baking soda(mix with flour)
- 1 cup buttermilk mix in alternating with flour
- 3/4 cup warm water
- 1 tsp. vanilla
For the OMG Fudge Frosting…
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
- 2 cups brown sugar, packed
- 6 Tbsp. milk
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1 cup milk chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Cream together the butter and sugar until fully combined, light, and fluffy. Once the sugar and butter are creamed, crack in the eggs and mix well. Add the melted chocolate and mix again. In a separate bowl, combine the flour and soda with a fork. Add this mixture gradually, alternating with the buttermilk. I took about four turns of each ingredient before getting bored and dumping it all in.
Once the buttermilk and flour/soda are completely mixed with the wet ingredients, add the warm water and vanilla. Even with my half-active nose I noticed the batter’s scent: it smells wonderfully like hot chocolate and resembles it as well, because it becomes very liquid-y. Don’t be alarmed by the runny batter, you’re doing everything right and by grandma’s rule book. Pour the batter into a greased 9×11 cake pan. Bake at 350 degrees for around 50 minutes. After 50 minutes, test the middle of the cake with a knife or toothpick. If it comes out clean, you’re done. Put the cake on a cooling rack and allow to cool COMPLETELY. Seriously, walk away. You don’t want to eff this up, people. Mom’s birthday cake is at stake and grandma is watching your every move.
Once your cake is cooled, don’t be scared, but this is where things get real. The frosting is the star of this cake: The heartthrob of the movie, the lead singer of the band, etc. so pay attention. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the brown sugar, milk, and vanilla. Whisking constantly, bring the mixture to a boil, and let it gently boil for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the chocolate chips, and stir just until it begins to thicken. If you stop too soon, the frosting won’t be thick enough, if you stir too long, it will become grainy. So, let me repeat, just as the frosting begins to thicken, pour it on the cooled cake. It will harden into fudge perfection momentarily.
Okay, so this is where I digressed, only slightly, from my dear grandma’s recipe. The cake would have been perfect, it would have been, but when I poured the frosting onto the cake, it hardened so quickly that it hardened into unattractive wrinkles on top of the cake. Delicious, thick, fudge-y wrinkles, mind you, but ugly. I don’t think desserts should be ugly. They should be beautiful and hard to resist. So, a half hour before I had to leave for my mom’s birthday dinner, I went into panic mode. The cake had to be pretty! It wasn’t pretty! But mom gave me specific instructions to not “screw with grandma’s cake.” Maybe I could just screw with it a little, though, right? She wouldn’t even notice. I have the frosting done, the cake done, both are good, but it needs just a little pizzazz. So pizzazz I did.
Decorative Glaze (same used in Santa’s Balls from December)
- 6 ounces semisweet chocolate
- 2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
Boil water in a saucepan, and put a glass bowl over the hot water. Melt the chocolate and the shortening together, stirring with a fork or whisk until silky smooth. Then use a spoon to drizzle decoratively over the top of the cake. I drizzled in a diagonal pattern twice-over to form a crisscross pattern. It was a quick fix, but it made the cake look more special and less wrinkled. I gave a sigh of relief, grabbed my attractive sheet cake, and headed to mom’s birthday.
When I told my mom about my decorative glaze panic attack and the actions following it, she was less-than pleased. “All I asked for was grandma’s cake!” Fortunately, when I showed her the finished product she smiled, for the cake was her grandma’s cake, just with more chocolate on top. Nothing weird, nothing over-the-top, no new layers, just chocolate. That’s the kind of change my mom can get on board with.
We served up the cake with my mom’s favorite peppermint bon bon ice cream, and she was as happy as could be. It felt like I was in my childhood again. Sure, my grandma was missed, and there were some new folks in the room, but this cake is my own version of a scent-induced memory. Maybe it’s not fancy or impressively layered, but my mom was onto something when she kept me from screwing with it. Sometimes basic does the job after all. Basic yet pretty, that is, because there’s only so much I can hold back when armed with butter, chocolate and ambition.