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. :)
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
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. :)