I’ve always loved the novels of Rosemunde Pilcher because of the descriptions of cozy homes and mouthwatering meals in all her books. She makes the simplest foods seem like glorious feasts, presented on old china and battered (but polished) sterling silver. I want to sit and talk with one of her imaginary homemakers in a kitchen warmed by an old Aga stove while something fragrant simmers on top and something made from scratch bakes inside the oven. As I’ve grown older, I’ve tried to realize my own version of her visions, to appreciate and relish home cooked meals and seasonal routines.
Winter in the Northeast provides an extraordinary opportunity to bake. The frigid temperatures outside make the warmth of a pre- heating stove glorious company as the clear, white sunshine streams through the paned, kitchen windows.
As a child, I began baking on cold, Saturday afternoons to fill an otherwise empty day stretching out in front of me while stuck inside. At my grandmother’s house, I had been given an Easy Bake Oven with which to play. I watched in fascination has the batter in the pan rose in the oven and became a small but tasty chocolate cake when pulled out of it. When I was ten years old, Mama Gwen spent one day teaching me how to make a real cake. She gave me a basic recipe in which we could put orange juice or lemon juice or cocoa to give it different flavors. So, I started making cakes at home, but my mother refused to allow her small daughter to use her expensive, electric mixer. With the energy of youth, I simply made my cakes by hand using a whisk and a wooden spoon. One weekend a grandfather came to the house and enjoyed a delicious slice of homemade cake, and I remember his astonishment and disbelief that his small grandaughter had not only made that cake herself, but had been baking cakes for several weeks. He began quizzing me and was shocked to find out that I had stirred them all by hand. So, the following weekend, he came bearing a huge box containing my very own mixer, a stand to hold it (so my thin arms wouldn’t have to), and a glass mixing bowl. My mother gave it pride of place next to her own mixer in the kitchen cupboard, and I was on my way!
I began rifling through my mother’s recipe books and recipe folders filled with yellowed baking pamphets and dog-eared scraps covered with handwritten treasures, and I experimented. Banana bread, cookies, and brownies soon followed. By the time I hit adolescence, I could make complicated, fancy pastries like apple strudel and cream puffs (or profiteroles) which I stuffed with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce.
Baking is magic. Follow the recipe carefully, and a wonderful treat comes out of the oven. Voila!
When we decided to get married, I toddled down to Williams Sonoma to register for 2 professional grade 9” circular baking pans and a giant, heavy red spatula, so that I could bake cakes for all the anticipated special occasions of my new family. My dear friend and old college roommate, Lisa, sent me all that along with a new set of colorful mixing bowls, a stack of indestructible, metal measuring cups, and note which read, “May you always eat cake!”
For our daughter’s fifteenth birthday, I baked my very best chocolate cake (using the gifts from Lisa). Our daughter LOVED the cake, and she said the powdered sugar on top was way better than icing.
The recipe came from a book I bought to help me throw a wedding shower for another dear friend about 15 years ago. Although I didn’t make it for that particular event, I have whipped up this cake for many a dinner party since, where it has been eagerly gobbled up by loved ones. If you decide to try it yourself, don’t expect any leftovers.
Double Chocolate Torte
From Showers by Beverly Clark
9 ounces bittersweet chocolate
6 ounces sweet butter
6 eggs, separated
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup flour
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
1 cup Chantilly cream (recipe at the end)
- Preheat oven to 325° F. Break chocolate into small pieces, and melt with the butter in a bowl over simmering water or in a double boiler.
- Whip the egg yolks with ¾ cup of the granulated sugar. Gradually mix in the flour.
- Pour the luscious, melted chocolate mixture into the bowl and blend well.
- In a separate bowl, whip up the egg whites, salt, and remaining granulated sugar until they form soft peaks. Then, fold them gently into the chocolate mixture.
- Butter a 9” round cake pan, and dust it with flour.
- Pour the batter into the pan. Bake 30 to 40 minutes, until the center of the cake is still moist but no longer runny. Cool, then turn out onto a platter. (I show off my cake by placing it on a lacy, white doily atop a cake stand.
To serve, dust the top with confectioners’ sugar. Slice the cake thinly, and add a dollop of Chantilly cream.
(For extra special occasions, put another doily on top of the plain cake, then sprinkle the confectioners’ sugar all over the top, including the doily. Carefully lift the doily off of the cake to reveal a lovely, lacy pattern.)
1 cup heavy cream, chilled
1 ½ teaspoon fine sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Small pinch of salt
- Mix all the ingredients together, and whip to soft peaks. Chill thoroughly.
(I frequently whip up this cream the night before I’m going to serve the cake and stash it in the fridge in a tightly covered glass container, to prevent odd smells or flavors from getting into this delicate confection.)
Wishing you every blessing,