"She was an amazing, amazing cook and she liked to please people through her cooking. That's what she did," my mother said.
My mother, Rosemarie Mayer, and her sister, Josephine Myers (yes, the two sisters married a Mayer and a Myers), have such vivid memories of their mother's food that you can almost follow your nose back to their childhood on the family farm in Spokane.
Their mother, Angeline Pace, packed them lunches of homemade Parker House rolls and fried chicken, the envy of their friends. She whipped up big batches of doughnuts, enough to cover her kitchen counters (but not for long -- they'd all be eaten by day's end). She rolled out feasts of roast beef and spaghetti, followed by chocolate cake, for the boys hired to help with the squash harvest. Some of the boys, my aunt said, came to help just because of Gramma's dinners.
One of her grandest feasts, though, was the family's annual Christmas Eve meal. Among the dishes on her menu: prawns, stuffed artichokes, roast, pasta, salad, corn, olives and fruit, plus eight kinds of cookies.
She shared the holiday cheer with the neighbors, too, preparing about 20 boxes of cookies that she sent her kids to deliver.
Many years later, I, too, became a willing beneficiary of her treats, eating untold quantities of chocolate chip and chocolate icebox cookies. I couldn't keep my hands out of the scalille and turdilli, the traditional Italian cookies she made by deep-frying pieces of rolled or knotted dough, then dredging them in honey spiked with whiskey.
Her specialty was spritz cookies, of which "she was a master, an absolute master," Aunt Jo said.
"She made these beautiful little S's. They were perfect," she said.
Lacking my grandmother's level of both industry and artistry, I've never attempted anything so grand as what she achieved in the kitchen. But, like her, I enjoy spreading cheer through food, so when I need to please a crowd, I am grateful to have inherited the recipe for her humble chocolate cake.
Gramma served it to the squash boys, but my mother and her sister remember it best as the cake she baked for birthdays, frosted and usually topped with coconut.
No one knows where the recipe came from. My mother and aunt speculate about a few possible sources: The Dorothy Dean column in the Spokane Spokesman-Review; the Betty Crocker recipes printed on boxes of cake flour; a recipe from the Hershey's cocoa package.
Regardless of its origin, the recipe has endured. My grandmother handed it down to my mother, for whom it became a go-to recipe, and she passed it along to me. It was the first cake I ever made: I baked it, with some trepidation, for my own birthday party. I needn't have worried. The cake was perfect then, and it's been perfect every time since.
The cake is airy with a nice crumb; buttermilk gives it a touch of tanginess. And although the cake is lovely topped with buttercream frosting, I prefer to drizzle it with ganache, both for sheer ease (you can't beat a two-ingredient icing) and for the rich, pleasant bite conferred by bittersweet chocolate and cream.
Not long ago, a coworker asked for the recipe after I brought a ganache-topped cake to the office. Later, she told me she had shared the recipe with her mother, who had made it for a family gathering. After sampling it, my colleague told me, her twentysomething nephew declared that he wanted it to be his birthday cake forever.
And that, I think, would make my grandmother very happy.
Mama Pace's chocolate cake
3/4 cup butter, softened
3 cups cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cocoa powder
2 cups sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup boiling water
To soften butter, cut into 1-tablespoon slices, separate them slightly and let them sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
Whisk together cake flour, salt and cocoa powder until well blended.
Cream together sugar and butter. Add the eggs one at a time; beat well, until the batter is fluffy.
Add the flour mixture in parts, alternating with the buttermilk and vanilla. Beat until smooth.
Dissolve the baking soda in the boiling water, then add to batter and mix until well blended. The batter will be quite runny, almost soupy.
Pour into the prepared baking pan and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Place the pan on a rack and let the cake cool completely before frosting.
Use the best chocolate your budget allows; the better the chocolate, the better your ganache. I've used both Ghirardelli baking bars and Scharffen Berger chocolate with good results.
To ensure a smooth, completely emulsified ganache, I've also found it helpful to follow the advice of Martha Stewart Living and let the chocolate and cream stand for 10 minutes before stirring.
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
Pinch of salt
Chop the chocolate into small pieces. Place it in a small heatproof bowl and set aside.
In a small saucepan, bring the cream just to a boil over medium heat. Pour it over the chocolate, add salt, and let it sit for 10 minutes.
Slowly whisk together the cream and chocolate until they are fully incorporated and the mixture is smooth, glossy and a bit thickened.
Pour the ganache over the cooked cake, then spread evenly with a spatula.
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