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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Perfect Chocolate Cake and Personal Nostalgia

When did I get so old?  It seems every day something else feels a little more creaky than the day before.  My eyesight is begining to fail me.  My son, who is 11, came across "ESPN Classic" (a cable network that shows old sports games that some might call "historical".). He called to me from the other room, "Mom, have you ever heard of a guy named Larry Bird?"

Of course I expect my kids to think I'm ancient, and I don't even notice when store clerks who look like they're straight out of middle school call me "ma'am" anymore.  I've been accused of being a grandma and mistaken for my husband's mother.  My younger sister once offered me a facial cream that is supposed to fix all my skin deficiencies, saying confidentially, "Here, I think you might need this".  Still, nothing makes me feel old like I do when I run into a piece of personal nostalgia.

It all started last week when we were invited to a nice sit down dinner where each of the guests were invited to bring a part of the meal.  My assignment:  dessert.  Now I can throw down a mean batch of  cookies, and I can even pull off a a decent pumpkin pie.  If you need cupcakes, well, I'm your gal.  But a real dessert worthy of a sit-down dinner?  That's my mother's job.

To make things even more interesting, this wasn't just any group of women -- these are women who cook.  Real food.  So my first inclination - to go to Costo and buy something lovely and then pass it off on one of my serving dishes (don't judge - you know you've all done it!) just wasn't going to pass muster tonight.

A friend once told me that you only need 3 good recipes, then rotate them between events and you come off looking like you've got mad kitchen skills.  Sadly, I don't have 3 good dessert recipes.  I have one:  My go-to chocolate cake that is rich and delicious, is actually quite easy to produce, and looks like you slaved in the kitchen for hours.  I only pull it out for special occasions and I don't remember the last time I baked it, which says something about how often I get out for socializing.  Thumbing through my binder of recipes I came upon my chocolate cake recipe. 

Yellowed, tattered and torn, it is hand-written, wrinkled and creased.  It's old.  How old?   Well, in the top right-hand corner of the recipe is an attempt to identify the recipe's orginal source:  McCall's (magazine), October 1982.  1982!?!

When did I get so old?  I was a sophomore in high school in '82, and I'm not sure why I was collecting recipes at the time.  Big hair, shoulderpads, pegged stonewashed jeans.  When did I get so old? 

So I guess I'm old enough to be compared with a "Perfect Chocolate Cake" recipe.  A little rusty on the outside, but still pretty darn good on the inside.  Perfect.  Old, but still perfect.

Perfect Chocolate Cake

Grease and lightly flour 3, 8" round cake pans.  Place a circle of waxed or parchment paper on the bottom of the pan.  Preheat the oven to 350.

1 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 cups boiling water
   Note:  Ok, I cheated here - I put the cocoa and water in a bowl and microwaved it until it boiled.  Probably not the what the author intended - but I'm not sure there were microwaves in '82.  "gourmet" cooking is easy if you skip half the steps.
2 3/4 cup sifted flour
2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. baking powder

1 c. margarine
2 1/2 c. sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 t. vanilla

1. Combine cocoa and water.  Wisk until smooth. Bring to a boil and then cool completely.
2.  Sift flour with soda, salt, and baking powder.
3. In a separate bowl beat margarine, sugar, eggs and vanilla.
4.  Add flour mixture and cocoa mixture alternately - a little at a time to the sugar mixture.
5. Divide evenly into pans, smooth top with a spatula.
6.  Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes.  Cool in pans for 10 minutes.  Remove from pan, peel off waxed paper liner and cool on rack.

Cream Filling
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 c. powdered sugar
1 t. vanilla

Whip cream with sugar and vanilla until it is stiff and holds its shape.

Chocolate Ganache Frosting
1 (6 oz.) semi-sweet chocolate pieces
1/2 c. light cream
1 c. butter
2 1/2 c. unsifted powdered sugar (For cooking neophytes:  'unsifted' means you don't sift the sugar before you measure, but you definitely want to sift as you add the sugar to the chocolate/butter mixture - eliminates the lumps.)

1.  Combine chocolate pieces, cream, and butter in a small saucepan.  Stir over medium heat until melted and smooth.
2.  Remove from heat and blend powdered sugar into the chocolate.
3.  Turn into a stainless steel bowl and place over ice.  Beat until it holds it's shape.

To assemble:
1.  Place one layer of cake onto cake plate.  Spread with 1/2 of cream filling.  Repeat adding other layer of cake and filling, and top with final layer of cake.
2. Frost sides of cake with the ganache frosting, smoothing by turning the cake as you hold the spatula against the cake.  Frost the top and add decorations or garnish as desired.

3. Refrigerate 1 hour before serving.