Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chocolate chocolate chocolate chocolate chocolate...

"All I really need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt." --Lucy van Pelt, Peanuts by Charles Schulz

I'm taking that suggestion to heart this Valentine's Day, having just consumed a Hershey's kiss before writing about the happy chocolate discovery we made very recently.

That chocolate discovery may be the answer to the question that's haunted me for nearly 30 years--to wit: Just how did my grandmother make that incredible chocolate frosting (not to mention the yellow cake it frosted)?

I've written before about my Irish grandmother, Mamo, and the wonderful baked goods she produced in a tiny, cramped basement kitchen in Elmhurst, Queens, New York. Most of her recipes, sad to say, went with her to the grave. She rarely wrote them down, and nobody thought to ask her for them while she was still healthy and baking.

I can remember her bringing a cake each time she visited us--it was always a double layer cake, always square, and always transported in a sturdy Jacob's Irish biscuits tin (which, unlike her recipes, I have on my kitchen shelf). I know that the yellow cake was pale and dense, more like a pound cake than a traditional American layer cake.

I figured I could someday reproduce a semblance of the cake if I tried out enough pound cake recipes. But the frosting? I've frosted many cakes over the years using a variety of recipes, but none came close to the chocolate confection that rippled across the top and along the sides of Mamo's cakes.

That frosting was rich, deep, chocolaty, and sweet, but it also had a sour tang that made it more complex than sugary. Its texture was special, too. It wasn't frothy like buttercream, or perpetually soft and spreadable like frosting from a can.

Once on the cake, it hardened just enough to have a crackly feel to it. It wasn't as stiff as fondant, but it was solid enough that Mamo could peck it all over with a knife to stir up tiny peaks that froze in place, solid enough that you could peel a sheet of icing off the cake and eat it like a piece of toast (I speak from sneaky childhood experience on that last point).

I'd pretty much given up on unearthing some secret treasure trove of Mamo's recipes by now; my mom had a small stash that Mamo had given her when she got married, but no pound cake or frosting recipes were among them. I assumed that Mamo, who had worked as a waitress in a cafe associated with the Dublin store Arnott's as a young woman and learned to make pastry there, was simply able to make that frosting from memory.

Over the holidays, however, I happened upon a small booklet Mom had given me many years ago. It came from the Elmhurst house, she noted. It was a promotional cookbook published by Walter Baker & Company, Inc., the producers of Baker's baking chocolate squares.

You can see where this is going, but it could've taken a long time to get there, as there are more than 20 frosting recipes in the little book. Much as I would be glad to bake 20+ cakes and frost them with chocolate and taste-test them, there isn't time--nor would I ever be able to walk off the calories. (And though my daughter would surely help with the tasting, my husband would be of no use: he is known to cut frosting off cake to eat it plain because he finds frosting too sweet.)

I knew Mamo wasn't above using printed recipes--though she cooked from scratch most of the time, she was happy to use products such as Bird's custard, so I can't imagine her sniffing disdainfully at a promotional cookbook. Flipping through the pages, I quickly discovered several that were dog-eared, one of which contained frosting recipes--and one of those had a cook's thumbprint right beside it.

Fortunately, we had a birthday to celebrate in January, so I baked a yellow cake using a recipe from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook (it wasn't just like Mamo's, but it was dense and very good) and whipped up the newly found chocolate frosting recipe. Right after it was slathered on the cake, it became brittle, and though the peaks I stirred up were nothing like the choppy ocean Mamo created, it was still a satisfying seascape.

It hit all the right notes with me, a la Proust's madeleines, so I'm pretty sure this is the recipe she used. I'm happy to conclude that it is. Now if only I knew why her lemon tea cookies were tender and crumbly and mine, using the same recipe, turn into road turtles, my baking life would be complete.

Cocoa Frosting
(a forgiving recipe; I accidentally used 1/3 cup butter instead of 3 tablespoons, but it still came out fine and not too buttery)

2 cups sifted confectioner's sugar
1/8 tsp salt
3 Tb cocoa
3 Tb butter
3 Tb hot milk
1/2 tsp vanilla

1. Sift sugar, salt, and cocoa together.
2. Cream butter until soft; add part of sugar mixture gradually, beating thoroughly.
3. Add remaining sugar mixture alternately with hot milk, beating well after each addition.
4. Add vanilla.

Makes enough frosting to cover tops of two 9-inch layers, or top and sides of 8 x 8 x 2 inch cake.