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A Perfect Chocolate Cake From Scratch

As a new mom in the mid to late ’90s, I had idealistic notions of what life should be like staying home with small children.  In 1999 when my second child was born, I quit my part-time archivist job to pursue this vision.   Having eschewed high school home economics for art –why would I ever need or want to know how to cook or sew?–I had a learning curve when it came to domesticity.  Eventually, I realized that meal preparation starts at the grocery store.  I found some good recipes, and learned which staples to keep on hand.  Also I made friends with other stay-at-home moms.  While making these connections, I imagined how I would do my part to contribute to some of the intangibles and traditions which keep society going. 

I fell in with a group of ladies from my church who all participated in MOPS, Mothers of Preschoolers.  We would meet once or twice a month on Friday mornings at our church’s MOPS meetings, and we would also get together at each others’ homes, usually in the morning, for occasions such as birthdays, and everyone would bring a dish to pass.  It was on one such morning that I served the perfect chocolate cake from scratch.  I’ve tried at least three times since to duplicate it, but have never again been able to get it right.

Don’t ask what possessed me to attempt it–probably ignorance– but on the designated morning of my friend, Kelly’s, birthday party, I decided that I was going to make a chocolate cake from scratch.  A friend in my dinner club had served one and told me the secret was Ghirardelli unsweetened cocoa, so I had that on hand, as well as cake flour.  After a quick perusal of the pantry, I found I actually had everything I needed, in addition to a couple of hours to spare before the get-together.   I proceeded to make a gigantic mess in my kitchen.  I didn’t own a flour sifter, and wasn’t even sure what “sifting” meant, but I shook cake flour through my wire mesh strainer, a tedious and messy process.  I baked two layers.  I made chocolate frosting from scratch, assembled the layers, and frosted the cake perfectly.  Then I packed it in my never-before-used Tupperware cake carrier with the removable handle strap.  Toddler in tow, I headed to Katherine’s house for the party.

What followed was the perfect summer luncheon party.  Katherine was a huge Martha Stewart fan.  She shared 101 Uses for Q-Tips (popularly known as “Katherine’s Q-Tip talk”) at one of our MOPS meetings (for example, “Q-Tips can help you clean the inside of your children’s legos”).  I was delighted to see that her older daughters would be babysitting our kids in the backyard, so we could enjoy a kid-free lunch in the dining room.  I unpacked my cake with pride and placed in on her sideboard.  I don’t remember the exact menu, but there was likely a quiche, salad and fruit.  The conversation was enjoyable.  The dining room looked out into the front yard, and we all noted with amusement that Kelly’s husband was trolling the sidewalk in front of the house, apparently missing her.  It was a gorgeous day.  Time for dessert,  Katherine grilled me on the amount of each ingredient I used as I sliced and served my cake.  She rattled her recipe off from memory, apparently having made chocolate cake from scratch many times before.  I was pleased as I sliced my cake into perfect triangle-shaped pieces; they seemed worthy of inclusion in Better Homes and Gardens.

This is what I remember most of all–the perfect cake slices:  how the cake had come out not too dry and the frosting not too runny, how they didn’t fall apart when I put them on plates, how we were all friends then.  I get a picture in my mind, something like a Norman Rockwell painting of young ladies sitting around a dining room table, minus the ever-present crying preschoolers, enjoying the cake I served.  My messy kitchen was out of sight, out of mind.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was to be one of the high points of my new career as  “housewife.”  Every time since then, when I have attempted to make this cake, something has gone wrong.  Usually, it’s just dry and disappointing, not worth the extra effort it takes to make it from scratch.  Sometimes the layers aren’t placed correctly and the cake falls apart.  Or the frosting is too thin and it all runs down the sides and coats the plate instead of the cake. 

Ten years after my perfect chocolate cake, I find myself taking increasingly more cooking and baking shortcuts, finding healthy options that don’t require assembly from scratch.  While I kind of miss the idealism I used to have–the feeling that I could somehow make life picture perfect for my family–I realize that mindset has been replaced with wisdom. 

Ten years later, I have fallen out of contact with this group of friends.  My family moved to a different side of town, the other ladies and I graduated from MOPS, and our lives took different paths.  Tragically, the guest of honor passed away a couple of years after this birthday, losing her long battle with cancer.  Thinking back, I can recall many good times I had with these friends during those three odd years, but I think this birthday cake memory is one of the strongest.  I find myself puzzling over it.  Underneath is a mass of complicated feelings, but on the surface sits the perfect cake:  conveniently simple, a happy memory.  How many times in life do we digest complicated situations into visions that are simple, universal, and easily remembered?  While this has always been my Elusive Chocolate Cake story, upon further reflection I’ve discovered that it’s really about those times we celebrate together and how we treasure them.  People come and go throughout our lives, and, hopefully, we take the beautiful and good with us as we go, collecting meaning from those memories.  Several times while writing this post I’ve cried–not tears of regret or sorrow, but of nostalgia, and love for those whose lives intercepted with mine, however briefly.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Ann Ankeny
    May 5, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    Great story and beautifully written Chrissy! My mouth was watering while you were slicing the cake and could almost taste it myself! We’ll have to bake that chocolate cake sometime when I come up to visit! It sounds delicious 🙂 Good food and Great friends to share it with! There’s nothing that quite compares! Add a little chocolate to the equation and it’s even better!

    Annie

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