This is not the demure individually-portioned dessert served in restaurants with white tablecloths. No, ma'am. According to my mother, my grandma would make this for the kids when a special treat was merited. This messy, sticky, cocoa-rich affair is more like a self-saucing brownie than anything else. And like all such things, it's best served warm and with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream.
In the copy of Favorite Recipes from First United Methodist Church of Stillwater, Minnesota that has been passed down to me, the recipe for "Chocolate Cake Pudding" by Shirley Nelson is circled in bold blue ink. As is the next recipe for "Chocolate Goo" from Judy Powell. And the one for "Fudge Pudding Cake" from Doris LaVayea. The recipes are very similar, differing only slightly in ingredients and in the use of either COLD! or BOILING! water.
In a quick phone consultation with my mother, she laughed and admitted that she had no idea which of these venerable church ladies' recipes my grandma followed, though she's absolutely sure it used cold water. My mother also remembers sometimes adding a handful of toasted nuts or fresh berries to the batter. They get trapped below the cake layer, becoming hidden treasures for the lucky dessert recipient.
In pulling together my own version of this vintage recipe, I simply channeled Grandma Dola. What would Grandma do? Add more cocoa powder, surely. And Grandma would definitely support the pat of butter with the milk. And cold water, if for no other reason than it's quicker than boiling it.
Even channelling Grandma, this recipe still takes a leap of faith. The cake batter is spread into the pan and a layer of mixed sugars and cocoa powder goes on top. Over everything, you pour one cup of water. No more stirring. No more mixing. Into the oven it goes. The cake rises to the top while a thick pudding forms below.
The resulting warm, fudgy, gooey dessert is just perfect. So perfect that it's difficult to stop oneself from "cleaning up the edges" until one has consumed a whole second square of cake. These things happen.
Quick and easy to pull together, this cake is definitely going into my regular line-up. Thanks, Grandma. I owe you one.
Warm Fudgy Pudding Cake
For the cake:
1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (6 ounces) white sugar
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/2 cup (4 ounces) milk, whole or 2%
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
For the pudding:
1/2 cup (4 ounces) white sugar
1/2 cup (4 ounces) brown sugar
1/4 cup (2 ounces) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup (8 ounces) cold water
Vanilla ice cream for serving, optional
Heat the oven to 375°F. Grease or spray with non-stick cooking spray an 8"x"8 baking pan.
Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt through a fine-meshed strainer into a mixing bowl. Combine the milk, melted butter, and vanilla. Pour the liquids over the dry ingredients, and stir gently with a spatula just until no more dry flour is visible. Scrape this batter into the pan and smooth the top.
For the pudding layer, combine the white sugar, brown sugar, and cocoa powder in a small bowl. Pour over the cake batter and shake the pan to evenly distribute the sugars.
Pour the cold water over the sugars. Do not stir. Put the pan immediately into the oven and bake for 40 to 45 minutes. As it bakes, the cake will rise to the top while the pudding forms beneath. The cake is finished baking when the edges of the cake turn dark brown and crispy, and when the top of the cake is shiny and dry to the touch.
Let the cake cool for at least 15 minutes before serving. Scoop slices of cake and the pudding beneath into individual bowls and top with ice cream. Leftovers will keep refrigerated for up to a week and can be reheated for 20 seconds in the microwave.
• For an extra-special treat, try adding a cup of toasted nuts, diced fresh fruit or berries, chocolate chips, or peanut butter chips to the batter.
Related: Retro Recipe: Big Pink Rhubarb Cake
(Image: Emma Christensen)