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Aunt Bea’s Chocolate Cake and Other Sacred Recipes

Aunt Bea’s Chocolate Cake

Published in ChicagoNow, January 3, 2017

I’m not sure anyone will want my recipe cards. My children tell me cookbooks are obsolete. When they want to make something, they just google it and find a recipe online. But how will they make Aunt Bea’s chocolate cake or my challah or my mother’s mandel bread this way? I guess they won’t.

There are some recipes that come with a special history and Aunt Bea’s is one of them. All of my friends from back in the late 1970s have baked it. A friend shared it and we all assumed she actually had an Aunt Bea whose cakes always turned out beautifully. The joke was that when we baked this cake, success was a 50/50 proposition. Sometimes, after cooking it the recommended 50 minutes, it was still not done. This was usually a harbinger of disaster, resulting in an overcooked mess. We all claimed we had followed the recipe exactly and blamed our ovens.

Trying the recipe for New Year’s Eve was a huge gamble, but lately I’ve been giving some failures from the past a final opportunity to shine. Last year, I successfully revived my mother’s birthday cake recipe after years of neglect due to a fail sometime in the 1990s. And it was great. My grandkids loved it. So why not rescue Aunt Bea’s cake from oblivion. It turned out to be delicious, although baking from scratch rather than using a mix reminded me that anything that calls for three sticks of butter should taste great and was indeed very bad for me.

Every great recipe is also sacred because of its story. In Aunt Bea’s case, however, the story turned out to be that there was no actual Aunt Bea. The friend who shared the recipe had no idea where it came from. So, the cake became legendary for its history of flopping for inexplicable reasons.

My version of challah bread is somewhat legendary in my family. While there is a bit of a dispute about its origins between my friend Jan and me, our entire group of friends that has celebrated Jewish holidays together for almost fifty years has declared it a sacred recipe. Check out the original recipe card:

Jan’s version of this recipe is made in a food processor but mine is the original one created for my KitchenAid mixer, which is also close to its fiftieth anniversary. It’s called “Cheryl’s Challah” in its original form, named for a young woman who was teaching our kids Sunday School lessons back in the days before we all formally joined a congregation. Cheryl claimed it was a family recipe, so its origins are likely very old. While it takes a full day commitment to make it due to letting it rise several times, my grandkids love it so it is well worth the time. And after making it for so many years, I have renamed it “Laurie’s Challah” for future generations.

My mother’s mandel bread, on the other hand, comes with an authentic history. Mom was a great collector of recipes, and this one that had been in her friend’s family for generations became my mother’s favorite. She baked it for every family gathering, but its greater claim to fame was that she shipped it in coffee cans to all of her grandkids at college. Not all of them loved it, but their friends were really appreciative. They thought it was biscotti. Maybe its sacred story dates back to the old Italian recipe, as they taste alike and both are baked twice.

True confession time: I was not very fond of this hard cookie in my youth. For one thing, my parents dunked it in their coffee and I loathed coffee. By itself, mandel bread seemed too plain. But as I’ve aged, its appeal has grown on me. My sister-in-law and cousin make it, but my one attempt was a total flop.

My box of sacred recipes

Perhaps like Aunt Bea’s cake and my mother birthday cake, the mandel bread recipe deserves another chance. It is probably the most sacred of all the recipes in my box because it is so closely associated with my mother. But since I still don’t drink coffee, I will have to have someone gift me with an empty coffee can. Then I will have no excuse. I will try it again.



by Laurie Levy
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