Hope We're Doing This Right Cake

Our oldest child just turned 13.  We're having a hard time believing this and are yet so thankful that he has reached this milestone, thankful for the grace that has given him to us this long.

It's a little confusing to get a thirteen-year-old all of a sudden.  Things get muddled.

He asked me to make him an ice cream cake.  This is not muddled.  This is simple.  No problem.  If I can make a fire engine or a Viking ship cake, and I have, I can do an ice cream cake.  Same old trusty recipe, I've used it for years.  It's foolproof.

The cake is named for the friend who gave me the recipe. To her it was Mary Brammer’s Torte, but since I never met Mary Brammer I called the cake after my friend Hope.  As in, Hope Cake.  It has a nice ring to it.

Hope wouldn’t give me the recipe for years. “Nope,” she said, without apology, “nobody can have the recipe until I move out of Hyde Park.”  Not having any secret recipes myself, or any recipes at all for that matter at the time, I couldn’t fathom such sensational protectiveness. But it was just that good.

Eventually Hope did leave. As promised, she bequeathed the recipe to me. I love this cake. Not only is it the best chocolate cake I've ever had, it's also the easiest. Dump everything in a mixer bowl and turn it on. The frosting has three ingredients, one of which is Cool Whip. My kind of recipe.

I have made it dozens of times. It has been birthday cakes, shaped like an alligator or a sandbox; it has been wedding cakes; it was a baptism cake. It has been present for every special occasion in the life of our family. And the recipe has been given to everyone, absolutely everyone who asks. And most people do.

I’ve never checked with Hope to find out if she cares that the recipe can now be found in every region of the country. So much for a closely guarded secret. I could rename the recipe, perhaps, to Hope She Didn’t Mind Cake.

For me this cake carries a certain weight, a certain heft, which has nothing to do with the ingredients, and everything to do with added imaginings and the gravitas of the occasions it’s graced, or attempted to grace.

When I first met my husband’s sister, I was just the girlfriend. She came to Chicago to see us, to meet me. It happened to be her birthday weekend and she was introducing us to her new fiancé. An inspiration came to me the night before she arrived. I would bake her a birthday cake—a Hope cake!  Wouldn't I be wonderful?  I would make a charming and memorable impression on my possibly potential future sister-in-law--and heck, maybe even her whole family!

Trouble was, I was missing most of the ingredients and I had no chance to get them before she arrived.  I had to abandon the notion of baking a Hope They Love Me Cake just then.  Of course, eventually we were sisters-in-law, and I do think my husband's whole family likes me a little more than they otherwise might, on account of this cake.

Later, this cake had shown enough mettle for us to choose it for our wedding. My roommate Shannon baked it. The morning of the wedding, all my pals met at our local Greek diner with my dad and my little brother for brunch. I was nervous--about everything. Hash browns at Salonika with my friends and family was just the ticket.

Shannon arrived lugging an enormous bowl. “It’s the frosting,” she explained, “it just has to thaw out.” My father gaped. Shannon sensed incredulity. “Oh, it’ll be fine—the cake’s all baked and everything. We just have to get this stuff to soften up a little, that’s all!” she assured, beaming. I believed her. She was fixing up a big batch of Hope For The Best Cake.

Our wedding reception was one of those homemade deals. All my friends did everything: flowers, centerpieces, table setting, even clever napkin folding. I myself was at the reception site setting tables until 3:00 for a 5:00 wedding. When I finally left to go throw my dress on Shannon was still laboriously frosting the cake. I wasn’t paying too much attention, but if I had been I would have seen that this process was taking the slow boat to China and had pretty much no hope of arriving in time. But it was far too late to worry. There was, however, unbeknownst to me a superhero present in the room: my fiance’s uncle Taki. Thio (that's Greek for uncle) Taki had been, long ago, baker to the king back in Greece. He had made a career as a baker in the U.S. There was likely no cake emergency he could not fix, no disaster he could not avert.

Sure enough, when we returned a few hours later after the wedding, there it was, four layers high, iced in white chocolate, a cake covered in swirling trails of edible pansies. And only possible, I learned, because after I’d left, Thio Taki had somehow graciously wrenched control of the frosting spreader, taken command of the situation, and whipped the thing into beautiful shape in time for everyone to get to the wedding.

Shannon and Thio Taki have been friends ever since.

A couple of years later, when our small family had increased by one toddler, my little brother announced he was getting married. I heard myself blurt out, “Why, I’ll make your cake!” It just kind of popped out, just like that, with no real consideration for the fact that I live in Chicago and the wedding was going to be in Phoenix. What was I thinking?

I wondered what I could have possibly been thinking as I borrowed giant wedding cake pans and stands from friends of friends.  I wondered it as I sweated over the math, trying to figure out how to make a 3 1/3 X recipe.  I was wondering it still at the gate to our plane to Phoenix, clutching ten foil-wrapped layers of Hope cake in a ripping paper shopping bag, digging through my pockets, searching in vain for my driver’s license, required for boarding the plane. I burst into desperate tears. “This—this—this is my brother’s w-w-wedding cake!” I blubbered. I could see the fleeting, yet familiar, look move across the face of the lady at the gate: What was she thinking? “I’ve got ten foil-wrapped layers in this bag and you’ve GOT to let me on this plane!” My husband smiled apologetically at the gate lady. She let us pass.

In Phoenix my aunt opened her kitchen to us to construct the cake at her house.  Cakes in all sizes covered her dining room table. I noticed with puzzlement and disapproval that the cakes were not all of uniform thickness. “The frosting,” I tried to convince myself, “that’ll do it.” Bowls and bowls of white chocolate cream cheese frosting sat on every counter in the ordinarily spotless kitchen. My observant little toddler came into the kitchen and relayed his information dispassionately, like a newscaster. “That dog ate a big bite of cake,” he told me, pointing at my aunt and uncle’s bouncy terrier Ruby. Well, frosting does cover a multitude of sins. That and raspberries can reconstruct almost anything. Hope I Can Get Out of This Mess Cake.

Somehow I found myself setting up the cake at the reception site with my niece and covering it with handfuls of garden flowers, desert flowers. Apart from the flowers, it was a pretty darn homemade-looking affair, but it tasted good, and no one even noticed the dog bite.

Over the years--literally the entire life of my family--this cake has been present at every important gathering.  For my son's 13th birthday, its place in the celebration was a no-brainer.  The cake part of the birthday is a known quantity about which I have great confidence.

The age part?  Well that's a little less obvious.

True, this kid-raising thing has always been a little bit of a crap-shoot.  It's at least half luck, what we do, right, wrong--who knows.  We try, we try our level best.  We devour books written by self-proclaimed sages, we follow friends' advice, we seek grandparents' guidance. We try.  We pray.  But time tells.

At so many points along the way I have felt that this process of bringing up a child, if mystifying, was at least a little intuitive.  Some whole hunks of years seemed downright easy, natural.

Then there are the murkier times, times when we question, doubt, second-guess. The wisdom of those sages falls off a cliff.  No, our friends never had that happen before.  Grandparents?  They don't remember anything like this.

If twelve was murky, thirteen is down the rabbit hole.  I can safely say that at this time I have absolutely no idea of what I am doing.  I am unable to anticipate outcomes.  Things we have done thousands of times now blow up in my face.

I love it when cooking imitates life.  This new phase I'm suddenly in was illustrated--beautifully, like a coffee-table cookbook--as I carefully crafted our son his asked-for ice cream cake.

This time, as I imagined the beautiful results, the accolades I would receive, the happiness on my boy's luminous face, this time as I repeated the same things I have done countless times making this cake, I inadvertently took a wrong turn.

Oh, I didn't know it then.  Cheerfully aware of my fingers pushing the buttons, staring at the numbers, I set the timer for one hour, instead of the correct 20 to 30 minutes' baking time.  When the layers came out of the oven, they looked normal.  When I removed the cakes from the pans, I noticed they kind of clonked as they dropped right onto the counter. (Not registering the thunking noise, instead I smiled to myself that I had prepared the pans so well that there was no problem with sticking.)

They cooled.  I filled the layers with peppermint ice cream.  I frosted the cake.  I froze it.  Hours later, we sang, we served.  I thought it was hard to cut because it was frozen.  Everyone ate this cake in a somewhat un-festive silence.  It certainly seemed frozen as hard as a rock to me.  Lucky thing there was ice cream or it would have seemed like we were eating a rock.

Birthday celebrations over, another hour had passed when I was standing alone in the kitchen and I happened to be facing the stove, its oven timer.  And then it hit me.  I had baked that cake fully twice as long, more than twice as long, as it was supposed to stay in the oven.  And I had no idea.  Did the same-old same-old that I could repeat in my sleep, the thing that's always worked in the past, and I screwed up.  I thought about this in silence for a minute, then I started to laugh.  I could not stop laughing by myself in the kitchen.  I could hardly pull myself together sufficiently to go ask my boy if he had actually liked his birthday cake and tell him what happened.

He was genuinely puzzled by the question.  He did like his cake--he loved it.  He hadn't noticed any problem with it at all, and was looking forward to eating the leftovers for breakfast.

In this new teenage place, I have no idea what I'm doing.  Using our best judgment and reliable old ways of interacting, we screw up without even knowing it.  But sometimes, those beloved children in our care, confused and confusing as they may be, they don't notice and respond to us anyway with grace and generosity, which is as sweet as a chocolate peppermint cake. Thankful For Grace Cake. Hope For The Future Cake.


Hope Cake

1 3/4 c. flour
1 3/4 c. sugar
1 1/4 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1/4 t. baking powder
2/3 c. margarine or butter, room temperature
4 squares unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 1/4 c. water
1 t. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare two 8- or 9-inch cake pans by greasing and flouring, possibly even using parchment paper if you're feeling energetic.  This cake can sometimes stick if you're not careful.  I overdo this part.

Beat all ingredients to blend, then beat two minutes at medium.

Add 3 eggs and beat two more minutes. Pour into pans.

Bake for 20-30 minutes.  Use a toothpick to determine if it's done, and don't take it out too soon or it will be gooey.  But then again, don't leave it in too long.

When cool frost with this: Melt one stick butter or margarine with one bag of chocolate chips.  Let it cool and stir together with one medium size tub of Cool Whip till smooth.  This make take some time, but keep stirring and I promise you'll get a gorgeous chocolate frosting.  Hope's original recipe calls for slicing each layer into two skinny layers and putting frosting between each one and on top, but not on the sides, more like a traditional torte.  Usually I do this as a standard two-layer cake.  Either way will make you feel a little more hopeful about everything.

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  • The part about overbaking your recent cake reminded me of a cake that my mother-in-law and son baked to celebrate his birthday during one of our long summer visits. She used a brownie mix that she thought was a cake mix, and whatever they did to it, it turned out absolutely like stone. I'm so pleased that the video camera was rolling as we tried to cut, then hack, then chisel it into edible portions--and then as we attempted, even more amusingly, to eat it. The whole piece would skitter off the plate and across the table when anyone foolishly tried to pierce it with a fork. I'm afraid we were not as kind to her as your son was to you. Much hilarity ensued.

  • Chris that's hilarious. The video must be a treasured possession.

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