Nana was my best friend as a little kid.
She was my Dad’s mom and I was her oldest grandchild, born four days before her 50th birthday.
She told everyone I was her birthday present; she told a lot of stories that made the world seem to be a nicer place like that. That the world was just waiting to make you happy with a coincidence, a surprise, a sunny day and a laugh.
When Nana moved up to Tracyton, Wash., she named her small piece of land, just like they name plantations down south and ranches in the Midwest and hotels in the big cities. At the start of Nana’s driveway is a custom wooden sign with a seagull on top. I reads “Little Carolina”.
Nana’s a Southern Lady, in every way, having grown up on a tobacco plantation in South Carolina. Sundays were all about brunch; uncles and aunts and cousins and friends and boyfriends and neighbors would drop in, have a drink of coffee and a few too many helpings of eggs fried in bacon grease.
The dogs would have steak. In their dog dishes. Which were silver. Or silver-looking. It didn’t really matter. It was all about appearance anyway. Well, appearance and taste.
The woman can cook. And bake. And make anything you could ever want.
And being Southern, almost everything was a reason to celebrate with Nana; almost everything was a reason to prepare and consume fabulous food. Including the first day of school.
The First Day of School Tea was an annual thing that started with me and grew to include my cousins as they started school, too. After the first day of school I would walk over to Nana’s house for tea and this amazing cake. We’d talk about my new teacher, my new classroom, my new friends. We’d talk about what I might learn that year, what I wanted to be when I grew up, how much I was growing and how I’d be an adult soon.
The tea party with Nana was my favorite part of the first day of school. And this cake was my favorite part of that tea.
Many years later, after my grandfather died and my Nana needed surgery, I realized that if I was ever going to have that cake again I’d have to get the recipe. The trouble was, there wasn’t one.
Nana called it a “dump cake” because she just dumped whatever looked good in to it. That was the way her mother had taught her to do it. Bake by taste, not by numbers.
No one could have been less amused about this than my father, who I’d asked to get the recipe for me. My Dad has always had secretaries, always had underlings to delegate work to. He hasn’t had to write something down himself in a long, long time. But for me and his mom, he wrote this down.
It took Dad the good part of an entire day to do it. He went to her house and watched her make the cake, measuring out everything she did as she did it. In the hand-written recipe he had his secretary fax me later, you can tell it was a very casual, top-of-the-head kind of recipe because most of the instructions are in the wrong order; he just wrote them down as she said them, then added additional ones as she said, “oh, well before that…”
The hand-written recipe is probably messier than the kitchen in which the cake was made. But it didn’t stay that way for long. In January 2008 the local gourmet shop I adore so much, Rudy’s, suggested me as a writer to a magazine editor looking for a cooking article.
So I made this, Nana’s Chocolate Cake, and wrote about it. On a computer. I took that messy, top-of-head organization of this dearly loved childhood memory and food and finally wrote it down in something other than chicken-scratch.
The magazine’s publisher came out to my house on a very stormy winter night to do the photo shoot, making my cake look like Martha Stewart herself had done it. Everyone should have the chance to have a favorite family recipe photographed like that. It is like a high end family portrait. But of the family’s favorite food.
Before and after this article, I made this cake for bake sales; I helped to send my students to NYC for a journalism conference by baking this cake repeatedly. This cake alone paid for one student’s entire trip, and helped offset the costs of seven others. I don’t know a lot of recipes–or cakes–that can do that.
But Nana says the cake has a heritage of earning lots of money at bake sales; according to Nana, her mother, Nelle, used to make it for the fire department and church bake sales. I’m glad to continue the tradition of making life sweeter with a sweet little dessert.
Nana’s Chocolate Cake:
1 c water
2 cubes butter
2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
3 tablespoons cocoa
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla
Preheat oven to 350
grease a cookie sheet with raised edges at least 1.5 inches tall. In medium saucepan, boil water, add butter, when melted add sugar. Bring to boil. Remove from heat. Add flour, cocoa, stir; add eggs and beat. Combine milk and soda, let sit a few moments, add to to mixture. Stir. Add vanilla. Stir. Dump mix in to pan. Bake 25 minutes. While baking, make frosting:
INGREDIENTS for Frosting:
5 Tbsp cream or half and half
1 box powdered sugar (I assume this is a standard box–6 cups? 8 cups? I don’t know for sure…just work in as much powdered sugar as you can get in)
1 cube butter
1 tsp vanilla
3 1/2 Tbsp cocoa
Using the same saucepan, on medium heat melt butter. Add cream, cocoa, sugar, stir. Add vanilla. Frost cake by pouring this on when cake is still hot–ideally within a minute of it coming out of the oven.
I suggest starting on the frosting when you have about 10 minutes to go on the cake in the oven…