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Following my Mother's Recipe

Proving to two of my granddaughters that I could bake Bubbe’s cake from scratch

Published in ChicagoNow, January 3, 2018

Recently, I decided to bake a cake from scratch. Specifically, I was determined to make my mother’s chocolate birthday cake. My granddaughter was very impressed, as her notion of “from scratch” was using a cake mix. She had no idea it could be done by combining the ingredients most of us have somewhere in our kitchens.

I’ll confess this is somewhat my fault. Many years ago, after my mother’s tried and true recipe for chocolate cake mysteriously flopped, I started using cake mixes. So easy. Pretty tasty. Why bother with a recipe that called for more than water, oil, and eggs?

After Mom died, I started thinking about that cake again and wondering why it was a fail the last time I tried it. This was the cake she made for all of our birthdays. She decorated it the same way, frosting it with more chocolate and trimming it with a homemade concoction of confectioners’ sugar, butter, vanilla, and food coloring. Remember those tubes with plungers featuring interchangeable tips for decorating cakes? Her design was always the same: white crisscrosses on the side, squiggly trim around the top and bottom, and the occasion written on the top.

My first attempt at re-creating the cake after so many years resulted in an anemic and vaguely chocolate dessert. It wasn’t bad, but it definitely wasn’t my mother’s cake. In trying to figure out what happened, I took a good look at the chocolate and discovered the problem. I couldn’t find baking chocolate in packaging that was familiar to me. I used to use 8-ounce packages in which each cube of chocolate was one ounce, or pre-melted unsweetened chocolate in which each tube also contained one ounce. It was simple math. The recipe calls for three squares of chocolate, which meant three cubes melted in a double boiler (or later a microwave) or three pre-melted packages squeezed into the batter.

What’s the deal with baking chocolate these days? It comes in a flat four-ounce package divided into tiny rectangles. It costs about the same thing as the old chocolate but I finally realized that three small rectangles did not equal the three squares I was accustomed to using. In fact, and this calls for a bit of math, I needed to use eight of those small twelve rectangles to make my cake. And the four small ones that remained were not enough to make my frosting.

So, I turned to the Internet in search of my old packaging. The squeezable chocolate is gone. Nestle stopped making it for some reason. Maybe it was found to be bad for folks due to a preservative. But when I could no longer find those one-ounce cubes, another thought crossed my mind. If the current four-ounce packaging costs around three dollars, did they think people would not be happy paying six dollars for a package of baking chocolate or a box of the pre-melted variety?

I’ve watched cereal boxes shrink while their pricing remained the same. And what’s with toilet paper getting skinnier to keep prices stable? My guess is that if I really knew how much it would cost me for the chocolate to bake and frost my mother’s cake, I would go back to cake mixes and might even resort to canned frosting. The baking aisle has plenty of these things. Or I might just throw in the towel altogether and buy one of their pre-made cakes.

Mom’s chocolate cake at my son’s second birthday.

But nostalgia is a powerful force. When I bake that cake, I feel my mother’s presence. I just wish I could also find the chocolate I used with her as a child and later as a young mother to bake those cakes.

In case you want to give it a try, here’s my mother’s recipe for chocolate cake:

Evelyn’s Chocolate Birthday Cake

 2 C. Flour

 2 C. sugar

 ½ C. shortening

 1 t. salt

 1 ½ t. baking soda

 3 squares baking chocolate*

 1 ¼ C. milk (divided into ¾ C. and then ½ C.)

 ¾ t. baking powder

 3 eggs

 1 t. vanilla

*This means three ounces, not three of the small squares they sell now

Combine flour, sugar, shortening, salt, soda, chocolate, and ¾ C. milk. Beat 2 minutes. Add baking powder. Add ½ C. milk, eggs, and vanilla. Beat for 2 minutes more. Pour into two 9-inch round baking pans (greased and lined with waxed paper). Make at 350 for 30-35 minutes. Test for doneness. A toothpick should come out cleanly.

Please let me know if you ever find the chocolate I’m seeking. Somehow, even when I try to adjust for the correct amount, the cake doesn’t quite taste the same. Maybe it’s the chocolate, or maybe it’s simply that things taste better in our memory.


by Laurie Levy
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