Chocolate Fudge Cake

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.

 

Mmm. Chocolate Fudge Cake!

Mmm. Chocolate Fudge Cake!

 

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:

  1. Food is love (and we love to feed people)
  2. 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…

 

Test Cake #2. A little darker in color than my father-in-law would want, but so delicious! Would it sneak by?

Test Cake #2. A little darker in color than I suspect my father-in-law would want, but so delicious! Would it win his approval?

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?

 

A slice of Cake #2. My husband's aunt loved it. But there was still no pleasing the F-I-L. I had my work cut out for me!

A slice of Cake #2. My husband’s aunt loved it. But there was still no pleasing the F-I-L. I had my work cut out for me!

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.

 

Third time's the charm!

Third time’s the charm!

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.

happy leap day!

an extra day this year calls for an extra special treat. so i thought i would share this whimsical little guy with you:

an adorable frog cupcake, in honor of leap day. don't worry. no frogs were harmed in the making of this treat!

since no show and tell would be complete without a tutorial, here are step-by-step instructions on how to recreate these little guys at home. it’s an easy and fun way to bond with your kiddos – or just bring out the kid in you!

first, you will need to select a flavor for your cakes. i happened to make a batch of chocolate and another of vanilla, from scratch of course. as it is a weeknight, if you are short on time and have to use a mix, i will pretend i didn’t hear that :)

while the cakes are in the oven, you can make your icing. normally, i opt for an italian meringue buttercream – it has the best flavor and texture. but when time is of the essence, you can’t go wrong with this ridiculously easy and delicious vanilla bean buttercream from America’s Test Kitchen:

Easy Vanilla Bean Buttercream

Yield: 1½ cups (enough for 12 cupcakes)

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
½ vanilla bean, halved lengthwise*
1¼ cups confectioners’ sugar (5 ounces)
Pinch salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon heavy cream

1. In a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter at medium-high speed until smooth, about 20 seconds. Using a paring knife, scrape seeds from vanilla bean into butter and beat mixture at medium-high speed to combine, about 15 seconds.

2. Add confectioners’ sugar and salt; beat at medium-low speed until most of the sugar is moistened, about 1 minute. Scrape down the bowl and beat at medium speed until mixture is fully incorporated, about 30 seconds. Scrape bowl, add vanilla and heavy cream, and beat at medium speed until incorporated, about 20 seconds, then increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down bowl once or twice.

*Don’t have a vanilla bean on hand? Omit the vanilla bean, and increase the amount of vanilla extract to 1½ teaspoons.

to make your icing a glorious froggy shade, add food coloring after the vanilla and heavy cream have been incorporated. i like these gel icing colors from Wilton. a little goes a long way. i buy the primary colors (red, yellow and blue), and combine them to create my own shades of greens, oranges, purples, etc.

so the cupcakes are baked and cooling, and your easy buttercream is made, dyed and ready to be applied. now all you need to make are the eyes.

to make froggy eyes, all you need are 1 bag of Wilton Candy Melts® and 1 bag of chocolate chips. line up the candy melts on your counter or table in sets of two. dab a small amount of your icing in the center of each candy melt, then affix a chocolate chip to the icing. by the time you are done frosting each cupcake, your froggy eyes will be dry and ready to be applied! and that’s as easy as sticking them into the frosting, side-by-side.

ta da!

i hope you enjoyed this easy tutorial. “hoppy” leap day everybody!