Nana Never Says No Cake
I am one of the few fortunate children that get to live fifteen minutes from their grandparents. The distance was perfect: too far to walk by myself, but close enough I could go every weekend. My grandfather was a special man, but my grandmother is my Nana. A short woman, not more than 5” 1’, she is perfectly huggable. She is a beautiful, kind, stubborn woman that can make anyone do anything she wants by simply asking. Her favorite vacation is the guilt trip, and she has been in retirement for 40 years. Nana has been seemingly preserved in time—with the exception of a few smile lines and about ten grey hairs, she never aged a day over 57. The only hint of her age, a number I am sure to never know for certain, is in her eyes; their deep chocolate glow seems to only grow stronger with every great- grandchild. She lives in a very small house that her father built in a quickly dilapidating town with no stoplights. A twenty-four-hour chicken-processing plant took residence at the end of the adjacent street, but despite the shape of the community, Nana loves her little house. Frankford, Delaware is her town and she isn’t going to let it go without a fight. To this day she sits in the same pew she sat in with her parents as a little girl. Needless to say, Nana is a woman of habit and tradition.
Nana has two rules: never say no to grandkids and stay out of my kitchen—unless you’re invited. However, if you ask, she never says no. She watches any child whose parents have to work, she provides migrant workers with odds and end jobs, she started a community thrift store out of her church, and she has never met a child she couldn’t rear. Over my lifetime she fostered close to 25 children, adolescents, young adults and not so young adults. Growing up with her influence alongside my parents created an enriching childhood. I spent almost every weekend of my childhood sitting at her breakfast bar watching her bake and hum for hours, usually Patsy Cline.
One of the many things Nana never says no to is baking cakes—especially wedding cakes. She makes the most beautiful, intricate wedding cakes with pillars three or four tiers high. She adds fountains and flowers, colors and textures everywhere. I would watch every twirl of her knife and squish of her piping bag, poring over her accuracy and creativity. Her practiced hands accompanied by the lingering smell of hot cake laced with the delicate hints of luscious buttercream hypnotized me. Although the bride’s cake was always more astounding to watch her swirl, pearl and dot, the groom’s cake was what truly sparked my passion for baking.
The complete opposite of the intricate bride’s cake, the groom’s cake is practical, easy, and absolutely divine. It’s Nana’s signature sheet cake. I would watch her prepare with pinpoint precision using no measuring, no recipe, and practically no time flat. The creation was somewhere lost between a brownie, a cake, and a layer of creamy fudge. Nana’s sheet cake is the perfect cake for any and all occasions: weddings, birthdays, picnics, midnight snacks, and my personal favorite, breakfast. Once the cake – only rivaled by Mr. Hershey himself – emerges still gooey from of the oven. While still steaming, hot fudge icing is sent cascading across its top. The fudge flow instantly begins to seep only about half way into the cake before solidifying into a soft fudgy frosting. The oven hot cake, only held together by the quickly hardening frosting, is perfect for celebrations. The second stage comes a few hours after serving, when at least half of the lava like frosting has saturated the bed of the cake. This permeation turns the cake from a light spongy chocolate delight to a heavy and decadent brownie topped with an ever-thickening fudge icing perfect for late-nighting. The final stage is arguably the most delicious: after approximately ten hours in the freezer an entirely different dessert emerges. The cold, firm chocolate brownie cake infiltrated by once molten chocolate emerges as a totally solid piece of creamy fudge-filled decadence, perfect for a well-balanced breakfast.
Although I have watched my Nana orchestrate her cake dozens of times, I have never attempted to decode her shorthanded recipe—until now. Over the phone, she dictated to me the following coveted recipe with tips and shortcuts added in that can only be acquired from years of success.
Nana’s Sheet Cake
2 cups sugar
2 cups flour- “You got that right Mal? Equal parts sugar and flour, most recipes don’t do that but I never said this was good for you.”
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
2 sticks margarine “I don’t know why this says margarine I always use butter, that’s easier for you to spell anyways.”
4 tbsps. cocoa power “Only Hershey’s, the other stuff won’t make it taste right”
1 cup water
½ cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla
- Take sugar, flour, baking soda, and salt, dump into a bowl and stir. “Make sure you really stir it together completely, no one likes to taste baking soda and I do this by hand, the stand mixer just doesn’t get it”
- Over low heat, melt together butter, cocoa and water. Bring to a rapid boil.
- Pour wet mixture into the dry ingredients
- Add buttermilk, eggs, vanilla and beat well. “again, no mixer—trust me”
- Pour into a greased pan and cook on 350 for about 30 minutes. “Just pam a pan and cook it normal”
1 stick butter
4 tbsp. cocoa
6 tsp. buttermilk
1 lb. box of powdered sugar “A ten X box of sugar will do” (whatever that means)
1 tsp. vanilla
Instructions for Frosting:
- While cake is in the oven, melt butter, cocoa, and buttermilk in a saucepan. Bring to rapid boil.
- Remove from heat. Add powdered sugar and vanilla, and beat. “You want to make sure you really beat it hard to get out every lump of sugar”
- Immediately pour over hot cake. “I just like to pour it in a pool in the middle and watch it run all over, it should soak in everywhere”