At our house, there was only one birthday cake. No one ever requested any other kind, and Mom never made anything else. It was always THE chocolate cake. And by that, I mean the chocolate fudge sour cream cake, that contained more fat and calories than any other cake on the planet. It was divine!
My mom was a really great baker…she made not only THE cake, but all sorts of other baked delights. She used to do her best baking late at night, and on occasion, I got to stay up with her and “help” her. I remember her making pan after pan of apple strudel. Grating the mounds of apples, making the dough, rolling it out, oiling it, filling it, rolling it up, slicing the top of the dough, and sprinkling the tops with cinnamon/sugar mix. It took hours, and she made huge batches of the stuff for our temple sisterhood bake sales. Of course, several pans stayed home for us, though. It was tedious work, but she seemed to enjoy it, and did everything just so. And it paid off, because it was delicious. She also made fruit cakes, fruit cake cookies, pound cake, pies, coffee cake (which we called stolen), and a triangular cookie with poppy seed filling (called humantashen) that was a special cookie for a Jewish holiday.
But THE cake was my favorite, and it was the family’s favorite, too. I’d watched her making that cake all my life. The recipe called for lots of eggs, butter, and unsweetened chocolate. It was baked in two round pans, which were then cut into a total of 4 thinner layers. I remember she would cut the rounded tops off of each cake with a very fine, serrated knife, and put each one on a paper plate, and give them to my brother and I with some of the frosting, so we each had our own little cake! It was all part of getting the layers perfectly smooth and straight, so they could form a perfectly shaped cake.
After the layers were cooled, she would frost them with this heavenly, thick, fudgey frosting. She used a cut glass cake plate, which I still have. Then the whole thing went into the refrigerator, so it cooled into this cylindrical hunk of very rich fudge. When it was time to eat the cake, she would run the knife under hot water with each slice, to help it cut through the thick fudge frosting. She always cut THE cake in half, and then in slices…never in wedges. This cake was so rich, you could only eat a slice, anyway! I remember Dad always wanted the rounded ends.
So, our family was hooked on THE cake. It was expected for every birthday, and Mom delivered, perfectly every time. And then, when I was a Freshman in high school, my mom died. And there was no longer anyone to make THE cake for our birthdays. I don’t remember if my dad asked me to give it a try, or if I decided to try it on my own, but I do very clearly remember the first time I attempted to make THE cake. I’d watched Mom so many times, surely I could do it.
I got all the ingredients together, and studied the recipe. Although I wasn’t as smooth in the kitchen as Mom, I tried to do it just the way she would have done it. The slicing of the layers was a bit tricky, for two reasons. I didn’t have the patience to wait until the cakes were quite cooled, so they were still warm and soft when I dove in with that serrated knife. I got the tops off, but the slicing of each layer was not so smooth. They were a bit crooked, and since the cake was still a bit warm, the knife kept dragging bits of cake with it, taking divots out of the layers as I cut. In shifting layers back and forth to cut and stack them, more crumbling occurred. And spreading frosting on a slightly warm cake layer isn’t easy. Cake crumbs were getting in the frosting, layers were breaking, and I became nothing more than a spackler.
After being near tears several times, I finally got the damn cake pieced together, glued with frosting. Who would know what I’d had to do on the inside to get it to form somewhere close to a cylindrical shape? As long as it looked sort of round on the outside, I was ok, right? I just had to get it to stick together and get it in the fridge, and it would all set up, just like Mom’s. Well, I still have the Polaroid shot that Dad took of that cake, crooked and sad as it was. Once my dad and brother got a look at it, they laughed and teased me endlessly. I went on strike and didn’t make another attempt at THE cake for quite some time.
I suddenly had all kinds of appreciation for how difficult a feat Mom had pulled off each time she made that cake. And, by the way, I can now make THE cake pretty darned close to how Mom did it. My methods might not be as neat and tidy, but it looks and tastes pretty darned fine, if I do say so myself. And, my brother, who once had such a good laugh at my first attempt, has since made THE cake himself, and did admit that it was pretty challenging. But it’s the taste that really matters, and I wish you could all taste it, because it is the ultimate chocolate experience!