My grandmother Nannie was a sturdy woman of Choctaw decent who cooked the most delicious food, but she passed on without leaving me a single morsel of the culinary wisdom and life lessons my mother’s generation took for granted. And, yet, her raspy voice of affection still whispers two things to me: security and chocolate cake.
My family spent the years before I turned six, living with Nannie in her modest two-bedroom home. When I wasn’t perched on the branches of the towering avocado tree that shaded Nannie’s backyard like a 100-year-old oak, I was being lured into her kitchen by the intoxicatingly sweet cocoa perfume of a bubbling mixture as it percolated in the top of her Pyrex double boiler. Nannie saw my desperate anticipation for even a tiny taste, wiped her hands on the yellow gingham apron her twin sister Jewel had sewn for her – the one with the torn pocket and border of delicate garnet strawberries – leaned forward and handed me the bowl. I don’t remember much about the cake, but raw batter still seduces me today. And, the memory makes me feel warm, comforted, and strangely secure, even though I’m not a little girl anymore.
Several years ago, we developed a recipe and this photograph for Nannie’s Devil’s food cake in the Los Angeles Times’ Test Kitchen, which first brought the memories of her kitchen flooding back. Basking in the warmth of those special moments made me realize that many of my memories at the table with Nannie had been suffocated. Somehow over the years, I lost touch with the woman who would have been my very own personal culinary counselor, helpmate, and role model. Even with all that I knew about kitchen skill and kitchen dirty work, and “practice makes perfect,” I still developed the wildy unrealistic view of her as some kind of “kitchen magician.” I got caught up in the notion that she was a natural-born culinary genius to be iconized, not a specialist to emulate.
A list of culinary cues from Nannie’s kitchen should have revealed a remarkable competence and told me that she cooked with her head, as well as her heart and her senses. In her kitchen, fingertips were the preferred instruments to measure a teaspoonful. She didn’t need the latest silicon-coated kitchen timer to tell her when it was time to turn the fried chicken; she knew just by the gurgling sound coming from the skillet. The sweet perfume wafting from the oven signaled that the pound cake was done baking. And, she scrambled delicate eggs in cast iron without any back up from Teflon. Instead, thinking about her intimidated me.
So I decided to make the cake again, following the yellowed recipe she tore from a magazine, and buried in the back pages of her favorite cookbook. It turns out the cake I naievely thought Nannie just whipped from her imagination, came from the Noble-Purefoy Hotel in Anniston, Alabama — a decadence that was lovely to look at, but its dense cocoa layers didn’t translate well into this century. Too many years of eating commercial birthday cakes, hurry-up cake mixes, and bakery goodies, I guess.
Nannie is gone and I’m still perfecting her recipe, and I adapted this Double Chocolate Fudge Cake from different recipes for fudgey pound cakes as a decadent conversation starter that lets me tell my kids about Nannie and the other members of her humble sorority. Now, my boys lick the beaters and the bowl clean.
Double Chocolate Fudge Cake
- 5 ounces unsweetened chocolate
- 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup instant coffee or espresso
- 2 tablespoons boiling water
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cold water
- 1/2 cup orange rum
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 cup unsalted butter
- 2 cups sugar
- 4 eggs
- Unsweetened cocoa powder
- Bittersweet Chocolate Glaze
- Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler set over hot, not boiling, water. Remove chocolate before it is completely melted and stir until smooth. Set aside off heat.
- Stir together flour, baking soda and salt and set aside. In a 2-cup measuring cup, dissolve the instant coffee in the boiling water. Stir in the cold water, rum and vanilla and set aside.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating well and scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. With machine running, gradually pour chocolate mixture down the sides of the bowl and beat until smooth. Add flour and coffee mixture to batter in 3 batches, beginning and ending with flour. Beat until smooth, but do not overmix. Batter may look slightly curdled.
- Grease a 10-cup bundt or tube pan and dust with unsweetened cocoa powder. Bake at 325 degrees 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until a wood pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Do not overbake.
- Cool cake on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then invert onto another rack to cool completely.
- Drizzle cake with Bittersweet Chocolate Glaze.
Number of servings: 12
Bittersweet Chocolate Glaze
- 12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces
- 7 tablespoons hot water
- Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler set over hot, not boiling water. Stir until smooth. Whisk the water into the chocolate all at once, whisking until the chocolate is smooth and shiny. It will have the texture of softly whipped cream.
Number of servings: 12