Sunday, July 13, 2008

Heirloom Recipe

So finally, the recipe for that chocolate cake I'm always talking about. I should preface it with a story. My family has been making this cake (or rather, icing) for 5 generations now-- maybe more, but I can't be sure.

My great-great grandma Mildred Thompson used to make it. My great-great grandpa Webster made it too, on at least one occasion, with disasterous, but still delicious results: he substituted maple syrup for the brown sugar and cooked it way too long-- they had to use a hammer to break the icing off the cake but it turned out to be delicious hard candy, according to my great grandma Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth's son, John Bolinger (my grandpa), and Donna Lou Ditzler (my grandma)were newlyweds, Donna spent an afternoon painstakingly making him a fancy black walnut cake. He ate it and thanked her for it, but let her know that there was only one kind of cake for him: Chocolate Cake with Caramel Icing. And since 1954, that's the only kind of cake my Grandma Lou has made. She still makes at least one a week, which means she's probably made about 3,000 of these cakes thus far. I grew up on this cake, and I agree with my Grandpa, that's the only kind for me.

The thing is, I'm afraid some will find this humble cake to be somewhat unimpressive. It's certainly not a fancy, make-for-company cake. I suppose it's special to us because every bite tastes of home, comfort, love, and tradition. So if you make it at all, make it for someone you love.

I should also add that it took some practice for me to get this icing right-- it should be the consistency and texture of thin fudge. Fortunately, it's still tasty even if the consistancy isn't perfect. I'll post the recipe as it's been passed down in our family, and add some things I've learned along the way in parenthesis and italics.

Chocolate Cake with Caramel Icing
Bake your favorite devil's food cake (I just use a boxed mix). Cool
1 c. half & half + more in case icing sets up too fast
2 c. light brown sugar
Dash salt
Walnut size piece of butter (1 1/2 Tbsp.)

In a medium size saucepan, combine cream, brown sugar, salt and butter. Stir to partially dissolve brown sugar. Remove Spoon. Cook over medium heat to soft ball stage. Into a glass of cold water, drop syrup off the end of a spoon. When the syrup forms a ball that slowly flattens after cooling in the water, it is the right temperature. (Or, use a candy thermometer and cook to 235 degrees. Don't bother testing until the mixture has boiled up and then settled back down to a simmer. )

Remove from heat. Allow mixture to cool until you can put your hand on the bottom of the pan (and hold it there for 5 seconds). When cool, beat the icing with a wooden spoon until it begins to set. Quickly spread on the cooled cake. (I can never tell that the icing is setting until it's too late. Here's my trick for making it work anyways. When the icing has set, it will loose it's glossiness and become very stiff. When you reach this point, add a couple of tablespoons of half & half and stir until smooth-- adding more half & half if necessary. When smooth, spread on the cooled cake. If you follow the original instructions and not mine, you might end up with a big lump of hard, unspreadable icing in the middle of your cake.)

To eat, put a piece in a bowl and pour milk over the top. Mash it up and enjoy! The rule is, the cake must be eaten this way the first time and after that the taster can decide to eat it however he/she likes.


Angie said...

"Walnut-sized" huh? That's a pretty big walnut! I guess the shell is still on. Good thing you added clarifications!
Will you make this cake for me if I move to Utah??? ;)

Steph said...

Actually, Joe molded a 1 1/2 TBSP piece of butter and it looked pretty small by walnut standards.

And yes ma'am, I'll make you a cake. But only if you'll share a piece with me!

Angie said...

Oh, goodness, I was actually visualizing your family and me sharing the cake together as we played Settlers! How does THAT sound?

Steph said...

that would be AWESOME!