chocolate cake

The day my mom died, I baked a cake. I got the call while I was teaching class. My sister said 24 hours, if we were lucky. Come home now. I left immediately.

I was strangely calm driving home – so calm, I felt the need to stop at the grocery store. I wanted ingredients to make Mom’s chocolate cake. I thought, well, people will be coming over… it might be nice to have something to feed them. Something home-made. Something comforting. As in, Oh dear, you’re upset? Here, have a piece of cake.

Mom passed away around noon, not long after I arrived home. I made my cake later that evening, ironically, after most people had left. It didn’t occur to me at the time that the act of baking was my own catharsis. Only since my mom’s death have I realized it’s always been.

When things get rough or complicated, I bake. Cupcakes, pies, cobblers, cookies, tarts, quick breads… anything with the holy trinity of sugar, flour, and butter. But most often, I turn to a cake. A cake never fails to give its baker due credit – it either looks totally amazing or completely a wreck right out of the oven. Which is like describing me on most days.

Baking does two things for me: it soothes my soul and feeds my raging perfectionistic tendencies. Seems like a paradox, right? That I can be both calm and uptight? Probably because it’s mostly internal. No one has to know I’m freaking out on the inside, because LOOK! HERE’S SOME CAKE. How can I be falling apart inside when I can so clearly function on the outside?!

Baking is creative, it’s comforting, it’s loving, it’s untroubled. It’s also scientific, precise, and glorious perfection. It calms me down when not much else works. It establishes some semblance of order. I have to pay attention, or I might fail. For a brief moment, baking allows me to be perfect in an imperfect world. And I’m good at it. Actually, I’m pretty awesome.

I was a perfectionist growing up and throughout school. I was the first-born, the first grandchild, the first at everything. I was eager to please and had extremely high standards that were visible only to me. Whatever I touched had to not only be done in the best way possible, but also the right way. A’s in trigonometry were unacceptable; I wanted A+’s (because this teacher was one of the few who gave them). I didn’t want to just enter a design competition in college; I wanted to win first place (I did). It wasn’t enough to simply have a commendable portfolio of writing upon graduating from BSU; no, I wanted to submit it for ONE. MORE. top honor on my diploma (and there were only 6 of us who received it). When I started a project, I finished it. And I never half-assed anything. Needless to say, I made myself sick many times over from the practice of being “perfect.”

Perhaps what mattered most to me was this: I never wanted to let Mom down. Yes, I accomplished things for myself because I truly wanted them. And yet, what I really sought was approval from my mom. She had expectations, and I wanted to exceed them. Shatter them, really. Mom was an excellent baker too. She once told me I was better at it than her – that I had the patience and careful attention to detail that she lacked. I was floored. But even something as ordinary as baking a cake, I wanted to surprise and impress her with my mastery. I miss that I can no longer do that. With Mom gone, it takes a little “oomph” out of wanting to achieve so crazily.

The truth is, I don’t do things as perfect now. I think that’s one of those wise things you learn as you get older. I certainly still do my very best – always. And I probably (grudgingly) hold others to some ridiculous expectations they can’t possibly meet. But I don’t let the nitpicking demons drive me crazy. I’m more intuitive now – focusing on what feels right and what makes the most sense – saving up my energy for what’s genuinely important.

My mom wasn’t a perfectionist herself, though her chocolate cake never failed to surpass people’s expectations. Is it divine intervention that I chose to make this particular cake on her last day? Or was it just habit? I don’t know. In the two and half years since she’s been gone, I’ve taken profound enjoyment in sharing the recipe with friends, family, coworkers, students, and many others I know. It’s like I’m passing on a piece of Mom at her absolute most perfect “Mom-est.” Most say it’s the BEST cake they’ve ever had. And I say, Duh. Of course it is. :)

cake2

Best-Ever Chocolate Cake

For the cake:
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 sticks butter (1 cup)
1 cup water
3 heaping Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

For the icing:
1 stick butter (1/2 cup)
3 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 lb powdered sugar (usually in a box)
5 Tbsp milk

1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, bring butter, water, and cocoa powder to a boil. (Look for tiny bubbles frothing from the sides of the pan. Don’t burn!) Carefully pour into bowl with flour mixture. Whisk together until smooth.

In a small bowl, combine buttermilk, eggs, and vanilla. Add to flour/cocoa mixture above. Batter will be runny with some bubbles.

Pour into ungreased 9×13 baking pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. (Note: cake should not be jiggly in the middle – it will look like that until almost the end of its baking time. You know it’s done when the middle is spongy to the touch.) Let cake cool for about 30 minutes.

For icing: Place all the ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir continuously until incorporated and icing coats the back of a wooden spoon. Pour over cake. (Note: it’s best to ice the cake while it’s still warm – will create a nice thin, gooey layer in between.) Wait about an hour before you cut into it, otherwise it falls apart. But that might be okay too. :)

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six months

So. Six months to write this post. Six months ago today Mom left this world for another. September 6, 2011. 12:52 pm to be exact. I’ve really struggled with how to blog about this. Or even how to begin. I mean, how do you process all the emotions while also honoring someone you love? How do you wade through all the crap to get to the good stuff? How do you unravel the complicated? I figured the blogging was over – what more could I possibly have to say? Other than, hey, my mom died, and I feel really shitty about it? Who wants to listen to me go on and on and on about it? But time is an amazing thing. And I had too much of it on my hands.

It’s like making noodles. (Um, what?? Bear with me…) I’m talking about THE family noodle recipe. The Redenbarger technique passed down from generation to generation. It’s a delicate, time-consuming, yet fulfilling process. The end result is almost cathartic. Like you can’t believe you just made something so wonderful out of practically nothing. So, for my own sanity, I knew – I KNEW, without a doubt – that I needed to write about this. When you have the time, make noodles.

The funny thing about this post is the ridiculous number of times I tried to start it. At least, the part about missing my Mom. How many random pages did I end up tossing? All those incoherent bits and pieces in my journal? And the lame attempts at expressing my grief? All complete rubbish. BUT… the first time I made noodles? Hell, yeah. They were PERFECT. Didn’t take several million tries; they were outstanding from that very first attempt. Mom was still alive and there to applaud.

So I made the decision to write about the noodles. It’s not an exact science, this making of the noodles. AT ALL. Which makes it doubly difficult to execute. And to explain. No recipe exists. Never has. It’s all been retained in the minds of our family. Maybe that’s why I feel it is so appropriate to share with you, Dear Reader, as I also write to you about my Mom’s passing. Because no matter how much you think you’re prepared for something, life throws you that damn curve-ball.

You start with three simple ingredients: eggs, flour, salt. And from this, you create perfection. You must ask yourself: how many noodles do you want to make? Or, how many people do you want to feed? Not an easy answer, mind you. As much as Mom probably would have hated it, I’ve boiled it down to this simple formula:

x/4 = how many dozen eggs you need
(where x = the number of people you wish to feed)

Scientific, I know. And by scientific, I mean I don’t know what I’m really talking about. This is where having access to someone who knows HOW to make the noodles pays off. The key is: this formula can and will change on any given day due to factors beyond your control. (More on that later.) So, for every dozen, you use 11 yolks and 1 whole egg. To give you some perspective, Mom used to make SIX-DOZEN eggs-worth for Thanksgiving. Holy choline. I made four dozen this year and it fed the entire family. Plus doggies. Plus a small village. With leftovers. Add a heaping tablespoon of flour at a time; I usually make it to 6 or so before I start mixing. A generous pinch of salt.

A moment of digression… You have to appreciate and understand the history of this celebrated recipe. It came from Germany with my great-great-great-grandmother. You see, noodles go with our mashed potatoes. We don’t “do” gravy. It’s noodlesandmashedpotatoes. Said in the same breath. Notice how the noodles even come first, BEFORE mashed potatoes? That’s how superior they are. Every generation since has learned to make them. I watched Mom do it for the first time at Thanksgiving 5 years ago. I paid attention, but soon forgot. After all, Mom would be around forever, right? Then, in November 2010, when she was well into a second year of chemo, I made sure to memorize every detail. I made them for the first time later that summer, specifically for her to taste and critique. I passed with flying colors. :)

Moving on. You mix until the ingredients start to come together nicely. Only through touch and feel can you sense how much more flour is needed. But I caution you. Several arbitrary factors serve to ruin a flawlessly tender noodle, thwarting your brilliant efforts. The weather outside. The humidity inside. The freshness of the eggs. The quality of flour. The warmth of your hands. The surface you roll on. There have been times when I’ve added what seemed like buckets and buckets of flour. But the end goal is the same: a wonderfully pliant, somewhat gummy ball of buttercup-yellow dough – with ENOUGH flour to make for easy rolling, but NOT too much as to turn your hard work into cardboard.

Then you roll it all out. Divide the dough into several smaller workable portions. A wooden rolling pin. A generously floured surface. Methodical swishes, one long roll in each direction, lifting the pin up and starting over again. NOT the rapid back-and-forth motion sure to create mayhem with your dough. Roll as thin as possible – like, a sixteenth of an inch. Be sure to flip the dough over often to prevent sticking. Yes, you may have to re-roll. Roll out all the portions to form what almost looks like a lovely giraffe-spotted pattern on your tables. My entire life is dotted with memories of these uneven yellow discs laid out ceremoniously on the kitchen and dining room tables, signaling the start of any holiday. Mom was quite proud of this tradition; she made noodles often. I feel the same. I am so glad I know how and to be so trusted in carrying on this important piece of our family history.

Now. Sit back and wait patiently. The noodles must have time to relax and dry out. This makes for easier cutting later. So, go read a book. Watch a movie. Do some errands. These noodles have a mind of their own. Also, protect them from the reach of curious pets. (My doggies have snitched their fair share of noodle dough when I wasn’t looking.) In many ways, I had to wait patiently for the words to come together for this post. I would try to force it – and was left with either a lot of nonsense or not much meaningful to say. Patience. Reflection. Timing. Often, timing is everything.

Once dry, the truly dedicated process starts – THE CUTTING. I capitalize here, because this could go on, well, forever. Cut each disc into 1-½-inch wide vertical strips. Some will be uneven around the edges. That’s okay. Stack these strips one on top of each other, 5 or 6 strips high. Then start slicing these stacks horizontally, creating 1-½-inch long noodles of approximately 1/16 or 1/8 inch width. This takes time and precision. You cannot rush the process. You have to slice your way through dozens and dozens of these strips. But what are you left with? Marvelous piles of thin tender noodles. The need to touch them will be overwhelming. A gentle “ruffle” through the pile may be required to separate your cuts. The dough – even in this stage – can still pose a little stickiness. Sprinkle some flour on the pile to help. Rake your fingers through the golden goodness. Inhale the sweet homemade smell.

The second time I made my noodle pile, I felt the closest to Mom that I had since she’d passed away. It was like she was right there in the kitchen, helping me, cheering me on. I miss her. I miss the way she would teach me these things – the intricacies of making something she’d perfected in her own mind a hundred times ago. I will miss that sharing of wisdom more than anything (except maybe her hugs ♥). She always was the teacher – in every single thing she did. And I was the eternal student, ever eager to learn. I can hardly believe six months has passed. For all I know and feel, it was six days ago. But I do know this: noodle-making makes me feel more connected to Mom than just about anything. And in the larger scheme of things, it ties me to her whole family – my grandparents, my aunts, my ancestors, my Redenbarger side.

So, how to serve these yummy morsels? Heat up some homemade chicken stock (see my chicken salad recipe here). Two quarts is a good starting place. Bring to a boil. Add 6 cups of noodles (fresh or frozen). Reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. Taste for tenderness. From beginning to end, this entire process can take the larger part of a day. But, man-oh-man, is it worth it. Side note: Noodles freeze very well. Make more than you need. (See that super-scientific formula above.) Save some for later in Ziploc bags. You’ll be glad you have them.

This past Thanksgiving, I still had one bag of noodles Mom had made from the holidays the year before. I had been saving it – for God knows what – not sure if I was even going to use it. It was like some tangible part of her had been frozen here on Earth. Noodles were also one of the last things Mom ever made before she died. I didn’t want to lose that. This is the new challenge before me… to make glorious, delicious noodles without the care and tender touch of my Mom. To move forward with my life, without my Mom, minus perhaps the strongest person I ever knew.

So I have to keep writing – in some form. Just like I have to keep making noodles. The more I looked at that solitary bag in the freezer, I knew I had to do something with it. And so, with as little fanfare as possible, it was mixed into the four-dozen-batch of noodles I made at Thanksgiving – added to the steamy rich broth, stirred together with love and sadness, one noodle indistinguishable from the other.

six weeks

Six weeks. That’s what the hospice nurse told my dad yesterday. SIX. WEEKS. I mean… what do you do with that? That’s clearly not enough time, but it never is, is it? Not too long ago, it was four to six months. And where did that time go?? Now, six weeks. *Sigh.*

My mind is so scattered with all of these random thoughts, hundreds of memories bubbling to the surface, threatening to purge themselves through my watery eyes. And I can’t think straight. But everything else outside of me is perfectly, startlingly clear… The fact that my mom remains as lucid as ever… That I can have normal, everyday conversations with her… That her mind is sharp, her laughter easy, her kisses and hugs still lovingly present… That she still maintains some semblance of a social calendar at all… Although the outward appearance gives away her condition, she doesn’t seem like she’s dying. But above all else, this: the immediacy of the situation.

I will be forever grateful for the last two weeks, the time I took off from work to “vacation” with just Mom. Oh, I did some other stuff – GREAT and happy stuff with the fam. But mainly, it was to spend time at home. To just BE with her. And I am sooooooooooooo glad I did, because it was perfect. Are you allowed to say a vacation was perfect in that manner? As in, utterly therapeutic, taking care of your sick mom? I don’t care if it sounds strange; it was. As an added bonus, I of course made LOTS of good food. That was the other goal attached to the vacation: 1) be with Mom, and 2) COOK, BAKE, whip up a FRENZY in the kitchen. And I frenzied. Too many recipes for this one post. You’ll find one of my favorites at the end.

I’m ashamed to admit I subscribe to a website that sends daily Bible verses to cheer you up. I know – corny, right? Especially since the Christian faith and I aren’t the best of buddies. It’s not so much that I’m unwilling to find inspiration in the Bible. I know it’s there; I’ve read quite a chunk of it (mostly the inspirational stuff – forget that fire and brimstone crap). No, I’m embarrassed to tell you the website whence I’m getting these little morsels of sage advice… Are you ready for this? Joel Osteen.

I can already hear a thousand cries of protest, disgust, and general dismay. I know. I KNOW. Don’t judge me. I said I was ashamed (here’s where I’m hoping I don’t have too many readers of this blog yet). Allow me to explain. I watch this man in fascination – not because I believe every word that comes out of his mouth – no, I watch him because I’m mesmerized by his message delivery and general charisma. He knows how to command a room. Or a stadium, as it were. Maybe even the Galactic Empire. Who knows. The man is nothing but ultra-positive, to the point of brainwashing. Which I realize is why others find him so wholly offensive. If you have half a brain, you must surely see the dollar signs illuminated in his beady eyes. Regardless, Emperor Palpatine, er… uh, Joel Osteen, I mean, is a study in motivational speaking if ever there was one. He simultaneously fascinates and repulses me. This must have been what Hitler was like.

But this is not the point. When times are tough, you seek solace, in whatever form you can find it. And some of the simple verses sent by his website (called “Today’s Word”) do resonate with me. I delete well over half of the ones I get, rolling my eyes to the heavens, as I think how susceptible people are to this kind of “reality tv.” I signed up over a year ago when Mom got sick again as a way to find inspiration, comfort, SOMETHING to help me deal with it all. I choose the verses I like, and look them up in the Bible myself. I proceed to read the chapter and passages associated with it, to understand the greater meaning. Or something like that. I’m still not convinced to actually attend church on a regular basis or anything, but these do make me stop and ponder.

Anyway, today’s verse was this:

“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you…”(Isaiah 66:13, NIV)

How weird is that?? Especially with this recent heartbreaking news. Things like this make me honestly believe there is SOMETHING out there. I have no idea what – I don’t think any of us really do – wouldn’t that be awfully arrogant of ourselves to do so? But I have to believe there is a purpose to all of this… to my mom’s life and her time here on Earth and why she has to leave us so soon. And that’s enough for me, I guess – for now, at least. If I continue to question the WHY of it, I’ll go crazy. Maybe that’s what faith really is… I don’t know. Maybe I’m talking out of my ass. Probably the latter.

As promised, a recipe for you. :) I’ve made this TWICE in the last week, because Mom and Dad inhaled it. Mom even had two pieces (albeit small ones) in one day. I ask you this, in sadness and in happiness: what am I gonna do without her?

German Chocolate Pie
1 four-ounce German sweet chocolate bar (in the baking aisle)
1/3 cup milk
1 three-ounce package cream cheese (softened)
2 tablespoons sugar
8 -12 ounces Cool Whip topping (thawed)
1 graham cracker pie crust

Break up the chocolate bar into squares. Heat the chocolate and 1 tablespoon of the milk in a small sauce pan over low heat. Stir until completely melted. Set aside. Beat cream cheese and sugar in a bowl until blended. Add the rest of the milk and melted chocolate and beat until smooth. Gently fold in the whipped topping. The original recipe called for 8 ounces, but Mom being Mom, she added more because it makes the pie filling EXTRA light and fluffy. I agree. :) Place the whole mixture into the pie crust. Freeze for at least 4 hours. Keep in freezer until you need it. Guaranteed to be gone in a week. Deeeee-licious.