As it turns out, the key to my father-in-law’s heart was chocolate cake. But not just any chocolate cake – THE chocolate fudge cake from his favorite childhood bakery.
Green’s was the place to go on Chicago’s south side. Family-run and operated, they churned out all manner of sweetness to delight the neighborhood until closing in 1974. My F-I-L has been dreaming of their chocolate fudge cake ever since.
Whenever we’re together, I receive a near dissertation on the cake’s merits. He loses himself in the telling, eyes focused on a distant memory, tone softening, losing its trademark smart aleck edge. He is all sincerity as he describes the “dense layers of cake; not too dark in color, more like milk chocolate.”
And the chocolate frosting: “Thick as fudge! Not like that fluffy canned b.s. they try to pass off as frosting. This is the real deal – and it’s the same color as the cake – THE SAME COLOR.”
My husband’s aunt was also under THE cake’s spell. She vividly recalls visiting her older sister and her husband (my in-laws) as an 11-year old, and eating THE chocolate fudge cake for breakfast, “Cold from the refrigerator, with a tall glass of milk. Mmmmmmmm!”
They wanted chocolate fudge cake? I’d give them chocolate fudge cake.
Listening avidly, and jotting down every fevered detail, I promised to deliver the first cake in two weeks when everyone would be together again. The two fanatics were giddy with anticipation – giggling even.
“You know, you don’t have to do this,” my husband whispered. Oh, but didn’t I?
So…I’m a bit of a research fiend. The thought of tracking down an Heirloom Chocolate Cake Recipe tickled me. My husband found this hilarious: “I’ve heard of heirloom tomatoes, but heirloom cakes?” Oh, they exist…and it was my mission to test the best of the bunch.
I’d start with “Dense Chocolate Cake with Fudge Frosting”. The blogger’s post was sprinkled with family photographs – generations of smiling, content chocolate cake eaters, plus a picture of the original recipe in her great grandmother’s timeless cursive. Promising. But the tests would tell.
Before I continue, I have always said everyone could use an Austrian great grandmother. Mine taught me two important things:
- Food is love (and we love to feed people)
- If it’s “no good”, throw it away
Test # 1: EPIC FAIL. Oh my awfulness. This cake was garbage, displeasing to the eye and the palate. Dry, flavorless, and more pink than brown. I took one bite and immediately chucked it. Next!
Recipe #2 was not exactly an heirloom, but the ingredients thrilled me. Calling for cocoa powder and boiling water – a dream combo known to produce rich chocolate flavor and color, with a dense texture, bordering on brownie-like fudginess. Even I, a non-chocolate eater, was eager to taste this cake. (What? A pastry chef who doesn’t like chocolate? Yeah, yeah. I know.)
Test #2: GETTING WARM. Although darker in color than I suspected my father-in-law would like, the texture was ideal – dense, yet moist. Satisfied so far, I whipped up my chocolate fudge frosting – a killer combo of melted semi-sweet chocolate, milk, butter and confectioner’s sugar that whips up billowy and lush, and frosts to a thick, rich decadence – assembled the cake and we hit the road…
Would my father-in-law and his sister-in-law approve? My husband’s aunt did a happy dance. She loved everything about this cake. My F-I-L, on the other hand, was a bit more picky particular.
“The texture is perfect”, he said between bites, “The frosting is exactly right. But the cake is too dark. It should be the same color as the frosting.”
Ah. That again.
He continued, “Just take out some of the chocolate and bake it again.”
HA! I love it when non-bakers throw out suggestions like that. With cooking, you can totally Swedish Chef it up; with baking…not so much. Baking is a science, and a very precise one at that. You have to balance the fats, sugars, and starches just-so for a baked good to turn out right. Remove “a little” cocoa, and you have to add back some extra fat some other way. Now, I’m all for trial and error, but how many cakes would I have to throw away?
No more, as luck would turn out. My mom called to ask me a question about a frosting she was making for a cake…a 1944 Wellesley College recipe for “fudgy chocolate cake“! Providence!
“Tell me more about this cake”, I implored. “What color is it?”
Her answer pleased me greatly: “Very light brown – almost milk chocolate in color.”
I asked for the recipe and got to work immediately. We would see my F-I-L again on Christmas Eve – what better present than THE chocolate fudge cake?
Test #3: PURE MAGIC. Milk chocolate color? Check. Dense crumb? Check. Mild chocolate flavor? Check. This might be the one! I whipped up my frosting (the original, F-I-L-tested, F-I-L-approved recipe) and assembled the cake, eager as a kid for Christmas to come.
When I walked through the door with our cake carrier, my father-in-law’s eyes lit up.
“Is that what I think it is?”, he asked, practically skipping to accept his prize. He carried that cake with the extreme care one shows a newborn baby. It warmed my heart.
He could barely get through dinner fast enough, he was so excited. And then FINALLY…
“The color’s perfect!” He proclaimed, slicing himself a generous wedge.
No one could take their eyes off him as he took that first bite. He closed his eyes and chewed slowly. With a satisfied sigh, his posture softened and he sunk back into his seat. Setting down his fork, he finally opened his eyes and looked at me, “You did it, kid. This is the cake. You did it!” And then he Fantastic Mr. Fox‘d it up.
I always knew food memories were strong. But this was the first time I’d witnessed a food’s transformative power. With one bite of that chocolate fudge cake, my F-I-L was a little kid again. Life was easy. Life was delicious.
Pass a fork.