Aunt Helen’s Comical Chocolate Cake

Dear Joey,

I just want you to know that I’ve never actually described chocolate cake as  comical before. Let me be very clear on that point. To me, chocolate cake should never be something to laugh at. It’s far too serious a matter.

But when you came home from work and saw the catastrophe that was our kitchen — the sink piled high with bowls and spoons and sippy cups and reject cake pans–and said, in a very tentative voice, “I guess I did get home early today, didn’t I? So what exactly are you making?” the only thing I could think to say was, “Aunt Helen’s Comical Chocolate Cake.”

Comical because it took far more effort to make it with two babies around than it would if it were just me in the kitchen alone. Comical because I planned to bake it in two cake pans that, as it turns out, I don’t even own. Comical because every time my mom and I talk about the cake, we remember how proud Aunt Helen was that there were only 3 Tablespoons of cocoa in the whole cake. Three tablespoons. That’s it!

Aunt Helen’s cake, though absolutely delicious in its own right, is anything but chocolatey. It tastes like one of those tried and true sheet cakes that has good ol’ fashioned powdered sugar frosting, the kind that would show up at church potlucks all over the Midwest. (This cake probably did make an appearance at many such events since Aunt Helen was a pastor’s wife in the Midwest.)

In my memory, the cake is absolutely delicious in its own right, whether it’s super chocolatey or not. (And for reasons I’ll never be able to explain, I always taste a hint of cinnamon when I think of that cake.) Whenever I think of this cake, I think of Aunt Helen and how “tried and true” she is in my memory. I don’t know her, not really. She came to visit when I was a kid, and my memory of her is wonderful, but it’s really Grandma’s Teague’s stories of her that make me admire her the most: stories of singing together, harmonizing while they washed the dishes; stories of how they both wore the same wedding dress only a few short days apart from each other; stories of how her life was strikingly similar to the story of The Poisonwood Bible.  Resourceful, creative, and compassionate, with a laugh that (in my memory, at least) sounds like the tinkling of a glockenspiel.

But back to the cake. As I stirred together the batter, I couldn’t resist adding more cocoa than the original recipe called for. I mean, if you’re going to do something, do it right. (Right?) So I doubled the cocoa content, wondering if Aunt Helen would be offended if she knew what I was doing. To make matters worse, I added some cinnamon so  that I wouldn’t be disappointed when the cake doesn’t taste like it does in my memory.

As the dishes piled up, I couldn’t help but hope that Addie and Mia will sing together while they do dishes one day, just like my grandma and Aunt Helen did. But my day dreaming was interrupted by Addie, who didn’t exactly appreciate the noise I was making with the hand held mixer. She whined until I picked her up so she could see what I was doing, and even then she was still unsettled. So, I  gave her a taste of the batter, which worked. Suddenly she didn’t care about the noise anymore. It was as if she was saying, “Bring on the noise if it means I get a treat that tastes like this!” I took that as a good sign that the cake was shaping up to be something good. (I mean, come on. Look at her attack that spatula.)

But in my efforts to keep her interested and not scared of the mixer, I misread the recipe and only added in 2 cups of flour, not the 3 cups originally called for. (And I only realized this after the cake was already baked…).

So to be sure I hadn’t ruined Aunt Helen’s legendary chocolate cake, I took it to Grandma’s house the next day so she could taste it. Her assessment? Delicious. And I agreed–how could I not? It was chocolatey and very moist (a result of leaving out 1 cup of flour!).  Addie’s assessment? She happily took one bite, asked for more, and promptly spit it out.

I’m glad you didn’t do the same thing when you tasted it. I took that to mean you liked it, which leads me to believe that it’s ok to reinvent old classics for modern tastes, right? (Even if a 21 month old spits it out? Heck, more for us.)

Love, Scratch

Aunt Helen’s Chocolate Cake, Reinvented

Cake Ingredients:
2 cups sugar
1 scant cup butter flavored organic shortening
2 medium eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
6 Tablespoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sour milk (2 cups low fat milk + 2 Tablespoons plain vinegar)

Frosting Ingredients:
1/4 butter, at room temperature
2-3 Tablespoons (or more) cocoa
2 – 2 1/4 c confectioners sugar

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 9 x 13 cake pan.  Make the sour milk by adding 2 Tablespoons plain vinegar to 2 cups lowfat milk. Stir and set aside. Mix dry ingredients together. Set aside. Cream together the sugar and shortening; add the eggs and vanilla and mix until creamy. Add 1/4 cup sour milk and mix; add 1/2 cup dry ingredients and mix. Repeat until milk and dry ingredients are all incorporated. Mix on high until creamy and smooth. Pour into prepared pan and bake for one hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the middle of the cake. Cool on a wire rack.

While cake is cooling, make the frosting. Use about 1/4 cup butter at room temperature and dump some cocoa in the bowl (maybe about 2-3 Tablespoons or so).  Add 2 cups confectioner’s sugar and blend with a mixer (or a hand held whisk if your babies are in bed, like mine were). Splash in some milk and mix until incorporated; the mixture should be smooth and thick. If it’s too thin, add some more confectioner’s sugar (I added another 1/4 cup).

Spread evenly on top of the cake and let set. After it is fully dry, it’ll be semi-hard, like a super-thin candy shell on top.

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