Susan Katz of Raleigh submitted this essay about her mother, Louise Manroe Monaghan, for our monthly Signature Dish recipe column.
However, Katz’s story was so compelling that we decided to share it on Mother’s Day instead of the third Sunday of the month on the Taste page. Here is her story:
When I was a little girl, my mother baked chocolate cake. Her chocolate cake was a rich, dark devil’s food layer cake made from scratch, coated with chocolate frosting. To make the frosting, she first boiled together chocolate, butter and sugar, and then beat the mixture in her big white electric mixer until it was almost as thick as fudge.
My favorite part of the cake-making process was right after she had boiled the ingredients and poured the frosting into the mixing bowl. As soon as it had cooled, she would give me the pan and a big spoon and I was allowed to lick them clean. It was the best chocolate treat ever.
My father loved the cake so much that my mother made it at least once a month. In fact, she made it so often that after a decade or so, mom’s chocolate cake lost some of its appeal.
And then, when I was 16 years old, she died very suddenly. And I had a lot of things to think about besides chocolate cake.
In the course of time, my father remarried, and my stepmother (who was not at all wicked) had her own recipe for chocolate cake. I don’t remember it well, but I do remember that it had mayonnaise in it, and that she didn’t boil her frosting.
Years passed. When I got married, I asked my father if I could have my mother’s recipe box. The box was a simple wooden box that he had made for her when they started dating, and it had their initials carved in the lid. Inside were all my favorite recipes from childhood: crumb pie, frozen fruit salad, watermelon (rind) pickles ... but no chocolate cake.
I asked my stepmother if she knew of any other recipes that had belonged to my mother, and she graciously gave me a box full of recipe books and clippings. But the chocolate cake recipe wasn’t there. I asked my sisters if they had the recipe, but they didn’t have it either.
Decades passed. One day I decided to sort through a box of old photographs and came upon a high school graduation picture of my mother’s best childhood friend, Viva Morse. We had often visited Viva and her family at their home in Horseheads, N.Y., when I was small. I called information and got Viva’s phone number, called her up and asked if she would like me to mail her the photo. She was quite excited to hear from me and gave me her address so I could send her the picture. She and her husband still lived in the same house that I had visited as a child.
A few more years passed, during which time Viva and I exchanged Christmas cards. Then one day, my fiance, Paul, told me that he had to go to Elmira, N.Y., on business, and asked if I wanted to come along. Since Horseheads is just outside Elmira, I decided to accompany him and visit Viva.
Her house was almost exactly as I remembered it, even though it had been at least 30 years since I had been there. We had a lovely conversation and she told me stories about my mother and my grandmother that I had never heard before. She said that my mother had been like part of their family, and that she and her sisters had never forgotten her. In fact, for every family occasion – birthdays, holidays, picnics – someone was sure to bring my mother’s chocolate cake.
I could not believe my good fortune in finally finding the recipe. She said that she was not surprised that no one in my family had the recipe, as the only way she had gotten it was to watch my mother make the cake and write down each ingredient and each step.
As soon as Paul and I returned home, I made that cake. It tasted exactly as I remembered it. With tears streaming down my face, Paul, a friend and I ate half of the two-layer cake in one sitting.
So that the recipe doesn’t disappear again, I share it with anyone who wants a copy, which is everyone who has ever tasted the cake.
If you would like to submit a recipe and story for Signature Dish, please send it to The N&O, P.O. Box 191, Raleigh, NC 27602; or email email@example.com.
My Mother’s Chocolate Cake
1/2 cup skim, lowfat or whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing pans, if using
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup cocoa mixed with 1 cup warm water
Chocolate fudge frosting (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 8-inch cake pans with baking spray or butter. Set aside.
Combine milk and lemon juice and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes; this creates sour milk.
Cream together butter and sugar. When combined, add eggs and vanilla. Meanwhile, sift flour, salt and baking soda in a small bowl. Add dry ingredients to batter, alternating with sour milk. Scrape down sides of bowl as needed. Add cocoa mixture and beat until smooth.
Pour into prepared pans. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Let cool. When cool, remove from pans. Frost top of bottom cake. Top with second cake and then frost entire outside of layer cake with the remaining frosting.
Yield: 10-12 slices.
Chocolate Fudge Frosting
2 squares unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2/3 cup skim, lowfat or whole milk
Dash of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
Place chocolate, sugar, butter, milk and salt in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir and bring to a full rolling boil; boil for 1 minute. Take off the heat and add vanilla. Transfer to a bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer and and beat on medium speed. This can take 15 minutes on a cool day or up to 45 minutes on a hot summer day. The frosting is done when it mounds up on a butter knife without running off.
Yield: about 2 cups.