The dessert with the secret ingredient

Although the cake was moist and chocolaty, it was definitely 'different,' as Mom predicted.

Once we had dinner guests who ended up eating a dish so unusual I believe it's never been served before or since. The visitors were friends of my dad's. None of the rest of the family had met them.

"I've been telling them what an outstanding cook you are," Dad told Mom. "You know how much I look forward to your dinners. You have such a creative touch."

Mom wanted to make a good impression on Dad's friends. She rushed to the store after work, dashed home, did a quick tidy-up, and then furiously chopped, mixed, boiled, browned, simmered, and baked in a frenzied blur of food preparation as the clock ticked speedily toward our guests' arrival.

Mom supervised her children from the kitchen as we "helped" (I use the word loosely) put final touches on the house. Our mouths watered as the air filled with fragrant essences of tomato sauce, basil, oregano, and garlic, underlaid with the fine scent of deep, dark chocolate.

After the couple arrived, we gathered around our yellow Formica and chrome table. Mom served her special lasagna and – just as Dad had predicted – it was delicious.

We also had a crisp green salad and pungent, buttery garlic bread. Dad loved garlic. If anyone had made garlic after-shave, he would have worn it gladly. That night, both the lasagna and the bread were very garlicky ... just the way Dad liked them.

For her grand finale, Mom brought out dessert: an impressive chocolate cake, frosted with thick swirls of glossy fudge frosting.

We all oohed and aahed as we waited to be served a piece.

I noticed Dad's friends were shooting each other little "Wow, she can really cook" looks.

"You are definitely living up to your reputation as an excellent cook," Mr. Dad's Friend said. His eyes were riveted on the cake knife in my mom's hands, his face alight with anticipation. "This has been a true treat."

"Uh, well," Mom said. "I hope it's good."

Had I imagined it, or had she emphasized the word "hope"?

"I have a feeling it's going to be really different," she continued.

Since Mom was the queen of the disclaimers, she always said those kinds of things when she cooked. I certainly paid it no attention.

I took a big bite. Strangely enough, although the cake was moist and chocolaty, it was definitely "different," just as Mom had predicted. What was that sharp, somewhat familiar taste? I slowly took another nibble.

I looked up. All the others (except Mom, who didn't take a piece) were busily demolishing their cake, scooping up the final crumbs.

"That," declared Mrs. Dad's Friend, "is the most unusual chocolate cake I've ever eaten."

"Oh," Mom said. Her eyebrows rose until they hit her hairline. "Why ... thank you." She hesitated. "I don't suppose you'd care for another piece?"

"Just a sliver, maybe. Thanks. You wouldn't share your recipe, would you?"

Mom bit her lip. "Maybe another time," she said finally.

I finished my cake. Did I love it? Maybe not. But it definitely was intriguing.

After the company left, with many thanks and praise for her cooking, Mom turned to us. She put her hands on her hips. "Did you notice anything unusual about that cake?"

"It was delicious!" Dad said. "Man, that was probably the best cake you've ever made."

"Well, uh, actually, I was in such a big rush to make dinner and throw dessert together that I accidentally knocked over the garlic powder when I was mixing the cake," Mom admitted. "It poured right into the cake batter. I scooped out as much as I could but I couldn't get all of it. Then I didn't have time to make another cake – and I was tired. So I went ahead and baked it."

The next day, Dad ate every bite of the leftover garlic chocolate cake by himself – with great gusto.

For once, there was no competition from the rest of the family, all big fans of sweets.

Although he never quite came out and said it in so many words, it was pretty plain Dad wished that from then on Mom would put garlic in all our cakes.

Every once in a while, Dad would get a dreamy, nostalgic look on his face. "Remember that cake you made? You know – the one with the secret ingredient? It had the best flavor."

Alas, Dad's hints came to naught, and he had to be content with savoring his happy memory.

I guess it all goes to show that, every once in a great while, haste actually makes taste.

Garlic-Optional Chocolate Cake

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cold water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In an ungreased 9-inch-square pan, mix the dry ingredients together.

Make 3 shallow depressions in the dry ingredients in the pan. In one, pour the oil. In the second, pour the vinegar. In the third hole, pour the vanilla. Pour the water over all the ingredients, and mix everything with a spoon, scraping corners and bottom to incorporate dry ingredients (small lumps may remain in batter).

Bake 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in cake comes out clean. Makes 9 to 12 servings.

Note: This is the humble Wacky Cake recipe, which can be doubled to bake a "company worthy" two-layer cake and even jazzed up with a bit of garlic powder, should you feed adventurous.

This cake does not include eggs.

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