With two of the three many cooks on the road promoting Perfect One Dish Dinners, you’ll see the occasional guest post these next few months. This one is written by Jennifer Windham, a great friend and fabulous cook. She and I live in the same town in Connecticut, but our roots are southern Alabama and Florida Panhandle. I knew from the start that we spoke the same language and knew the same tales. When she brought her grandmother’s chocolate cake to the Pentecost picnic early this summer, I knew we shared the same taste memories too. Thanks, Jennifer. Cool story, great cake!
by Jennifer Windham
Growing up in Alabama and the Panhandle of Florida, the table often held an array of beautiful southern desserts. Sweet potato pie, caramel cake, and banana pudding. But my absolute favorite dessert growing up—the promise of which compelled me to finish many a pile of undesirable vegetables—was my great-grandmother’s special cake comprised of many small yellow layers and a fudgy chocolate frosting.
My great-grandmother, whom I called “Grant,” was a delightful, industrious woman. She was full of joy and life. She simply had to be crocheting, shelling peas, or doing something special for a loved one. And knowing how much I adored her cake, she made sure it was on the table for me at every visit.
Twelve years have gone by since Grant’s passing, and I still miss her terribly. I have often missed her cake, too. I am a cook but not especially a baker, and though her recipe was published in her little country church’s cookbook, some instructions were so vague (“Whip and stack”?), I feared disaster.
Then one morning last holiday season, I was up before everyone in the house for a quiet cup of coffee and the New York Times online. In the Dining and Wine section, I saw a link to an article entitled, “Festiveness, Stacked Up Southern Style.” I clicked it, took a sip of coffee, and almost choked in surprise when the article page loaded. The dateline was Hartford, Alabama, Grant’s hometown, and pictured under the headline was an elderly lady sitting behind a little-layered chocolate cake that looked exactly like the one my great-grandmother used to make for me. The article delved into the special cakes unique to that particular area of Alabama, all of which were right off the holiday tables of my youth. Special attention was given to the little-layered chocolate cake, and there was even a video of the woman from the picture making one. Her kitchen, her hairstyle, and her manner of speech were so like Grant’s that I cried. That article was an early Christmas gift to me, and I was flooded with happy memories. I knew then that I must try to make the cake.
The New York Times article contained a recipe for Chocolate Little Layer Cake, but it differed in some key ways from Grant’s. Namely, Grant’s recipe contained buttermilk rather than whole milk. I knew that would make a difference in the flavor of the finished product, so since I was in pursuit of my own food memory, I thought I ought to start with her recipe, vague instructions or not.
As I gathered the ingredients to begin my endeavor, my husband said, “I thought you couldn’t figure out the recipe.” “Basically,” I replied, “I’m hoping this cake is genetic.”
And you know what? With a little research and a few tweaks, it was. Now Grant’s Eight Little-Layered Chocolate Cake will grace my special occasion table and create sweet memories for a new generation.