A while ago I wrote about the evolution of cookbooks after I had attended a lecture at the Montana Historical Society in Helena. It was made abundantly clear that we have come a long way – in that we have standardized our measurements and cooking techniques in such a manner that recipes are easy to read, easy to follow and mostly, predictable in outcome. Gone are the days of a “teacup” of sugar, a “spoonful of lard” and the ever so descriptive “bake in a hot oven.”
However, I have a favorite recipe card handwritten by my paternal grandmother that was “old school”. Providentially, my mother had the gift of interpretation and was able to explain the particulars of how the cake is made. It was a beloved dessert of my dad’s, so mom was well practiced in how to make it, and maybe even learned it firsthand from her mother in law.
I have the recipe on an old index card and I treasure it as one of the few belongings of hers that I have. She was an attentive grandmother– not affectionate– but expressed her love for me by sewing superb outfits for me and my sister. I recall one dress in particular, a brown and pink flowered corduroy dress that was a favorite of mine. I remember that I wore it at least once a week and I so wish that I had saved it in a hope chest (that I never had). It was lined, soft, and surprisingly stylish considering Grandma Mary was not particularly chic in her Roundup, Montana sort of social circle.
In addition to being an excellent seamstress, she was a wonderful baker. I wish that I had more of her recipes. But I am thankful that I have this cake recipe, for it has special significance and favor in my family. And when it comes to making cakes, I must confess that I am mostly guilty of laziness. A boxed cake mix passes for me, sadly, because the frosting is what I adore. (I never buy ready made frosting. Seems to be inexcusable to do that.)
But, this cake holds a special place in my heart. Boxed cake mixes seem mostly to be an act of capturing air with flour and sugar, but not this one– this cake has substance and texture. Using sour milk (I don’t know why) and unsweetened squares of chocolate softened by hot water (this I understand why), my grandmother created this old fashioned chocolate cake for her three boys and coal miner husband. It does not rise like a cake mix, usually has a bit of a valley in it, but possesses taste that beats the beauty of those pretty (but pretty awful) store bought cakes. And besides, the valley only means that you wait for the serving that comes from the middle of the cake since it boasts more frosting to enjoy.
And speaking of frosting–although the cake is oh so wonderful, it is her frosting that made it so delicious! I tried for years to recreate it, going by my mother’s verbal coaching, but never could master its silky smooth cocoa flavored sweetness. Finally, only about 35 years after trial and error, I convinced my mom to make it and measure while doing so. She agreed, and we got it on paper. For which I am glad, because my girls have baked it for their families, too.
So what is the he secret to her delectable frosting? Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup. Most of us thin out the powdered sugar with cream or milk, but Grandma Mary used chocolate syrup. I have never seen another recipe that does so, but now that you’ve heard it, it makes sense, yes? It spreads so beautifully and has a gloss that I have remembered since I was a little girl. And as I write this, I have that upset in my stomach that comes from the indulgence of scraping the bowl, licking the beater, and heck—why lie? The spoonful of frosting that never made it to the cake. I will never learn.
Anyway, here it is. It is easy to make, uses common ingredients, and promises to please. Which is why it makes the cut for: only my best recipes.
And thank you, Grandma Mary. I wish you were here to enjoy it with me. I never took the time to tell you how much I liked your cake, or how much I loved that pink and brown flowered corduroy dress that you made for me when I was in 7th grade…
My blog about your recipe is my attempt to express those unspoken thanks.
Grandma Mary’s Chocolate Cake Recipe
1 cup of boiling water
2 1/2 squares of unsweetened chocolate
1/2 butter at room temperature
2 cups sugar
1/2 sour milk (you can make it sour by adding 1 t. vinegar and allowing it to sit a minute)
1 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
2 cups flour
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 13 x 9 inch cake pan.
Pour the hot water over the chocolate and allow to soften. Cool.
Place cooled water and chocolate in a mixing bowl.
Add the butter, sugar and eggs. Beat until combined.
Add flour. Mix at medium speed for about 2 minutes, scraping the bowl when needed.
Pour into prepared pan. Bake 30 – 35 minutes in the center rack of your oven. Remove once the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan.
Allow to cool.
Combine 5 T cocoa with 2 cups powdered sugar. Add 5 T melted butter or margarine and 1/4 t. salt. Beat until combined. (mixture will be pasty) Add 2 T cream (you can use coffee creamer) and 1 t. vanilla. Beat well. Add 4 – 6 Tablespoons of Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup, beating to spreading consistency. Frost cooled cake. (note: this cake is better on the second day!)
Cake is prettier with a topping of nuts!
- 1 cup of boiling water
- 2 1/2 squares of unsweetened chocolate
- 1/2 butter at room temperature
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 sour milk (you can make it sour by adding 1 t. vinegar and allowing it to sit a minute)
- 1 t. baking soda
- 1 t. salt
- 2 cups flour
- For detailed pictured directions, go to: [
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 13 x 9 inch cake pan.
- Pour the hot water over the chocolate and allow to soften. Cool.
- Place cooled water and chocolate in a mixing bowl.
- Add the butter, sugar and eggs. Beat until combined.
- Add flour. Mix at medium speed for about 2 minutes, scraping the bowl when needed.
- Pour into prepared pan. Bake 30 - 35 minutes in the center rack of your oven. Remove once the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan.
- Allow to cool.
- The ingredients for the frosting.
- Combine 5 T cocoa with 2 cups powdered sugar. Add 5 T melted butter or margarine and 1/4 t. salt. Beat until combined. (mixture will be pasty) Add 2 T cream (you can use coffee creamer) and 1 t. vanilla. Beat well. Add 4 - 6 Tablespoons of Hershey's Chocolate Syrup, beating to spreading consistency. Frost cooled cake. (note: this cake is better on the second day!)
- Frosting is best spread onto cake by "pushing" the frosting, not dragging... Cake is prettier with a topping of nuts!