This past year being the 100th anniversary of the founding of The Christian Science Monitor, I've been thinking of the many ways the Monitor has blessed my whole family. Lately, my thoughts have been lingering on ... chocolate cake.
Sometime in the 1940s or 1950s, my grandmother cut a recipe for "Mrs. Orr's Chocolate Cake" from the Monitor. When my dad tasted this cake, he was so smitten with it that he requested this cake every year, both for Father's Day and for his birthday in September.
Dad was a creature of habit. He didn't always greet new experiments in cooking with glee. When I graduated from college and got my first apartment, I began to learn to cook, with guidance and suggestions from my mom and the help of a few good cookbooks. I also began to experiment. Often when I invited Mom and Dad over for dinner, I tried a new recipe. Dad would look at his plate suspiciously and ask, "Am I the 'guinea pig' for this meal?"
Dad especially didn't encourage experimentation where his birthday cake was concerned. It had to be Mrs. Orr's cake, made in a metal 9-by-13-inch pan, rather than in layers, and it had to have white butter cream icing, not the traditional chocolate icing that many people enjoy on chocolate cake. Once we asked if he would like chocolate icing for a change. Silly question.
So we enjoyed Mrs. Orr's cake with white icing twice a year. Nothing fancy, nothing pretentious – just like Dad. No nuts, coconut, sprinkles, or other decorations. No pretty cake plate or beautiful presentation. Just plain cake with icing in a plain metal pan. Somehow, it seemed to fit Dad, a plain, no-nonsense kind of man with Midwestern down-home friendliness.
Dad was very generous in sharing his special cake with family and friends. When my sister and I were no longer living at home, we'd still get together for Father's Day and Dad's birthday. He always cut generous pieces for us to take home. When a neighbor came over for morning coffee, Dad always offered him a piece of cake, commenting with awe that either his wife or daughters had made him this cake, and how much they must love him for going to "all that work" – a comment not so meaningful as it would have been if we'd made him a layer cake and decorated it. Of course, we asked repeatedly if he'd rather have a different cake, maybe decorated. Again, silly question.
For some reason that no one understands, this cake always rises higher in the middle than a normal cake, sometimes looking rather lopsided. It doesn't seem to matter which kind of pan we use, or which type of chocolate. That means the corners and sides of the cake get more icing than the center.
Personally, I always like a corner piece. So did Dad.
In my opinion, the secret to the taste of the cake is in the cocoa.
Our family has always used Droste Dutch cocoa powder. Years ago, this was more expensive than the regular cocoa Mom used in other recipes, so we had a box of Droste that was reserved just for this cake recipe.
The cake is moist and dense, but not too sweet. That's the icing's job! Fair warning about the butter cream frosting: It's really rich. While that's just the way we like it, you could cut back on the butter if it's too rich for your taste. And it's easy to add more confectioners' sugar to thicken it up or more milk to thin it.
Years ago, my cousin told me she makes Mrs. Orr's cake as a layer cake and uses chocolate icing. I tried it when I was having company (not Dad), using raspberry jam between two layers and a chocolate butter cream icing on the top and sides. The sides looked too messy for company, so I pressed chopped nuts into them, piped the chocolate icing around the bottom and top, and everyone thought I bought it at a bakery. It was amazingly rich and wonderful, hence the name I gave it, Majestic Chocolate Cake. The funny thing, though, is that I missed the white icing!
Dad isn't with us anymore, but whenever I see this recipe in my file, I'm filled with sweet memories of the man who loved his special cake, appreciated those who'd baked it, and shared it so freely.
Mrs. Orr, I never knew who you were, but on behalf of our whole family, I thank you.