The forsythia is in bloom.
I fell in love with forsythia in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in the early spring, when the mountains are blue and grey and white with fog. Before the green starts to steal over the hills the forsythia flames out through the mist, fiery and golden against the dull hues of chilly winter. Last year I noticed the flowers flaming into life as I trudged up the steep hills of Pittsburgh nine months pregnant and hoping to deliver at any moment, and I thought that if I had a girl I would name her Forsythia for this bright bud that explodes with color and dramatically ushers in the spring. I walked down to the river beneath my house and returned home with my arms full of woody stems three feet long, arranged them in a tall glass on the table, and waited for my baby to blossom.
Last year was warm, much warmer than this long cold spring, and the magnolia tree in the neighbor’s yard had burst forth in a lush cascade of blossoms. It was the perfect time for a baby.
We didn’t name her Forsythia, we named her Olympia Julianna.
Olympia is a saints name, after all- a perfectly respectable Greek widow, wise and appealing to my mother who was willing to tolerate eccentricity if it was appropriately linked to a powerful saint of some sort. Yesterday was Olympia’s birthday. It has been a beautiful year. My tiny blossom of a baby has grown into a curly haired staggering toddler, already dancing as she hurtles unsteadily across the floor.
There have been several birthdays already this past month, and Olympia has had ample opportunity to acquire a taste for chocolate cake. I have had ample opportunity to practice making the cakes. Baking is something I utterly neglected throughout my entire 20’s. When I began again as a newlywed bride I was grateful for the many hours I spent baking for my younger siblings as a homeschooler. I was also grateful for a magical cookbook that I received as a wedding present.
This cookbook is a compilation of recipes and a celebration of the life of Kate Hundt. The Hundt family are the royalty of the ridge where I grew up. When my family arrived, new and ragged and Irish and odd, they graciously reached out calloused and welcoming hands. Kate was an elegant and beautifulwoman, an incredible matriarch who raised 11 children on a windy remote ridge. The kids milked the cows and worked on the farm and then went on to a one room school in Middle Ridge, WI and then out into the world to study in Rome, join the peace corp, see the world . Some of the kids moved on to the big city, some of them stayed at home to continue ruling the ridge, battling it out between conventional and organic farming and all possessing an incredible intelligence, work ethic, and strength of personality. Kate was an artist in the kitchen and an amazing painter as well. The cover of the book features one of her paintings, and the pages are full of her artwork and stories gathered from her children and grandchildren, who are roughly as numerous as the stars in the heavens.
One of my favorite things about the cookbook is that it features journal entries that Kate wrote.
I love that the journal entries are a few lines each. This reminds me that I don’t have to write an epic sweep of pages every time I pick up my journal, an and encourages me to do it more often. I also love reading bits of life that remind me of the ridges and the people of home.
Inside Kate’s cookbook, I found what I consider at the moment to be the perfect chocolate cake. This recipe was contributed by Kate’s daughter in law Dawn, a formidable matriarch in her own right. I have used it as a sheet cake for several birthday parties and festive occasions, and it has been an amazingly easy and consistent recipe. For Olympia’s birthday, I attempted to create a layer cake.
Looking back on my stint as a homeschooling baker, I seem to recall every single layer cake I made falling apart. I crossed my fingers and hoped that perhaps the years would somehow magically have imparted to me vital missing knowledge. This was not the case. Although the cakes coming out of the oven were as fragrant and moist and perfect as ever, my attempt to ease them out of the round pans onto the cooling rack was a disaster and they fell into several pieces. It looked like my barbarian brothers had attacked them, wresting away greedy fistfuls. However! All hope was not lost. I was determined to try a new chocolate frosting at the request of my husband. The frosting (also from the Kate Hundt cookbook) luckily turned out to have the thick rich consistency required to architecturally reconstruct the shape of a layer cake.
Having staved off disaster by spackling the cake back together, I needed to let it set. I knew the frosting would harden a bit at a cool temperature, but there was not even a remote chance I could fit the thing into my refrigerator. Luckily for me, this spring has been bitterly cold, forestalling all but the most determined blooming, and the afternoon was chilly with a good chance of snow. The back porch beckoned, but there is something about the thought of setting baked goods outside which perturbs me. I am not sure if this is because if this is because I am a country girl afraid that a stray chicken will attack it, or because as a child I read too many books involving hobos stealing pies from the open window of the pantry. I ignored my instincts, though, and put the cake out to cool and set. An hour later, I fetched it back in. The cold spring air had worked its magic, and the cake was almost perfect, except for the slight fact that my country girl instincts had been correct and a tiny corner of the thick chocolate frosting had indeed been attacked by one happy city mouse- or something. I sighed, and cut off that section of that cake, smoothed out the frosting, and gathered it up for the birthday party. I think that is what Kate Hundt would have done.
And so, Olympia had her birthday cake.
She was wildly appreciative. Wild being the operative word.
Here is the recipe for the perfect chocolate birthday cake and thick, rich chocolate frosting.
Kate’s Chocolate Cake
4 squares unsweetened chocolate 1 t vanilla
½ stick butter 1 2/3 cup boiling water
2 1/3 cup flour 2 cups sugar
½ cup sour cream 2 eggs
2 t baking soda 1 t salt
Combine chocolate, butter, and water. Stir till chocolate is melted and smooth. Add remaining ingredients and beat till smooth. Pour batter in a greased 9×13 pan or 2 layer pans. Bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes depending on your oven. You want it to be beyond gooey, but still moist and not overdone. If you are making a layer cake, cool on wire rack at your own risk. If you have any tips on getting cakes out of pans onto wire racks, please please leave a message in the comments with advice on this matter.
A couple notes on ingredients. I often use baking cocoa instead of bars of baking chocolate. I finally researched the substitution ratio for cocoa/bar chocolate and it has been incredibly helpful to me because now I can switch back and forth at will. Sometimes I mix the two forms together to create an added depth of chocolate. Here is the ratio:
1 square chocolate (1 0z) = 3 T cocoa + 1 T butter/oil/shortening
Haha! Who said homeschoolers can’t do math!
Also, I substituted buttermilk for the sour cream yesterday and it turned out perfectly. Now, onto the frosting.
Thick Chocolate Frosting
3/4 stick butter 1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 t vanilla 2 squares unsweetened chocolate
2 egg whites dash salt
Cream butter and add 1/2 cup powdered sugar and blend. Add vanilla, melted chocolate, and salt. Mix well. Beat egg whites until stiff and gradually add remaining cup of powdered sugar, 2 T at a time. Beat after each addition. If you are incredibly motivated, beat till mixture stands in peaks. Fold in chocolate mixture.
A couple notes on this one. For some reason I rarely buy powdered sugar. I think it has some anti-caking ingredient that may be unhealthy but really I am just cheap and lazy. When a recipe calls for powdered sugar I simply pour some sugar into my coffee grinder and powder it. This works like a charm. As for the eggs- yesterday I discovered that when the eggs are warm, they whip up much quicker. I was using a wire whisk and doing it by hand, so this was an important discovery for me. I suggest setting the eggs you will be using for the frosting out when you begin baking- they will have ample time to warm up a bit.
And with that, I am going to head to the kitchen and cut a tiny slice of leftover birthday cake. Let me know if you have any questions, please tell me how to get the layer cake out of the pans without disaster, watch out for city mice and country mice and hobos. Good luck. Happy Birthday!
For more about the story of Olympia’s entrance into our lives, click here.