I was honored when my dear friend Maggie recently asked for my baking assistance; she wanted to conquer her grandmother's celebrated chocolate cake recipe and thought I might be able to help. Although it is a beloved family favorite, not a single relative has been successful in their attempts to recreate it. I was (overly) confident in my abilities and gladly accepted the challenge. Little did I know how much of a challenge it would turn out to be.
What resulted is five (count that, five!) attempts at this particular cake within a one month span—only two of these efforts proving successful. The problem, mind you, is not the cake, but the damn frosting. Never in my life have I been so miffed by the technicalities of a recipe. I spent hours researching recipes online, trying to fill in the blanks of her grandmother's very vague index card. Seriously folks, doesn't anybody make boiled icing anymore?
Maggie wasn't able to offer too many helpful recollections, so I decided to wing my first effort. The tragic end result (along with the disastrous mess) made me wonder what could possibly be good about this so-called "legend." I began to question Maggie's sanity, or at the very least her taste in baked goods. This frosting must have some delicious secret, one that I had yet to uncover?
To better explain the mystery behind this cake, I decided we should probably hear directly from Maggie. It is her family recipe after all. So without further ado, take it away Mags!
"Cook until hard-ball forms in cold water. Mine never forms hard-ball, but a soft-ball. Do not overcook, but do not undercook. When you think it's ready, cook a little longer. Good luck."
Those are the unedited, complete, honest-to-goodness directions for my Mimmy's famous boiled chocolate icing. I wish I was kidding. Honestly, how many recipes does one come across that end with "good luck?"
To better understand the visceral relationship I have with this cake, I should first attempt to describe it in more detail. As I travel through the memories of my childhood, this cake is always there—Sunday afternoons chasing around cousins at my grandparents' house, Fourth of July pool parties at my uncle's farm in Tennessee, and Wednesday night church bake sales that we attended regularly. These events are all strung together by the presence of this cake. But it was never really about the cake. In fact, we all just really marveled at the icing. Oh, the icing! It is chocolatey with a slight grainy texture, dry and crumbly yet still so very moist.
Mimmy's cake was the highlight of these get-togethers, for both children and adults alike. My cousins and I would eagerly line up at the counter waiting patiently for her to pass along our slices, which in our minds, were never quite big enough. Mimmy's cake was always the first to sell out at Jones Memorial United's popular bake sales (much to the chagrin of the other dutiful Christian wives peddling their own wares). No small feat if you know anything about Southerners and their love of sweets.
After my grandfather passed away and their house was all packed up, Mimmy moved into an assisted living facility with nothing but a microwave and a refrigerator. We assumed she would be devastated, but in fact she welcomed the break from cooking—the labor of love she had provided for us for so long. But who would make "the cake" now? It became clear that the torch needed to be passed to the next generation. If only it could be so simple...
My family asked Mimmy for her recipe, which is what brings us to the index card pictured above. Not knowing what hard-ball meant, or in what order to add the ingredients, or even the temperature to bring the sugar to, we were at a loss. Despite our prodding, most of those questions would go unanswered. Mimmy just couldn't explain what came so naturally to her. Despite our best baking efforts, we ended up with countless ruined cakes and rivers of tears.
Which brings me to my friend, Nealey. One day, as I was reading her blog Dixie Caviar, I had an epiphany. This girl, who sat crying on the floor of her kitchen surrounded by tear-stained coconut cake recipes the day before her fiance's birthday party, might just have the right amount of culinary neurosis to help me figure this little devil out.
After three failed attempts and too many sticks of butter to count, we finally did it! When I tasted the (successful) finished product, I almost wept with joy. With Nealey's help, I was able to rescue my family from a bleak, cake-less future. Now I can make it on my own, and all Mimmy has to do is sit back and enjoy.
Boiled Chocolate Icing
Recipe adapted from Grandmother Mimmy and Joy of Cooking
Yields enough icing for one 2-layer cake
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups whole or 2% milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 squares unsweetened baking chocolate
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
In a large heavy saucepan, melt the butter, sugar, milk, and vanilla over low heat until the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Bring to a boil and cook, without stirring, for 1 minute. Brush down the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in warm water to remove sugar crystals, then turn off heat. Stir in the chocolate until melted and smooth.
Return heat to medium. Brush down the sides of the pan again one more time with water. Cook the chocolate mixture, WITHOUT STIRRING, until it reaches 238°F, the soft-ball stage, approximately 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare an ice water bath in a large bowl. When icing reaches soft-ball temperature, place saucepan in water to stop the cooking. DO NOT STIR. Let the frosting cool to 120°F, approximately 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the water. Using an electric mixer, beat the icing on high speed for about 3-5 minutes. It should reach a pourable consistency. If it is too thick to pour, beat in heavy cream one tablespoon at a time until it is the right consistency.
Working quickly, frost the cake. Pour 1/3 of icing over the center of first layer and push out with a spatula. Add second cake layer and pour remaining icing over the top. Push out frosting so it runs over the sides of the cake. Smooth as much as possible. Let cake stand until icing sets and loses its sheen. Good luck!
• To Make a 3-Layer Cake: Prepare an extra-large batch of the recipe, increasing all the ingredients by half (to make 1 1/2 batches). To frost the cake, pour 1/4 of the icing over the first layer, 1/4 of the icing over the second layer, and the remaining icing over top.
Related: Family Recipe: Texas Layer Cake
(Images: Nealey Dozier)