For most of July, I’ve been working on the final part of my book — “A Menagerie of Recipes” — a recipe section that will be a kind of epilogue in Cornfields to Codfish. All of the recipes relate back to the essays within the collection.
July is my birthday month, and this year I was in Iowa and had my family all around the table at Mom and Dad’s for supper. After steaks on the grill, we had homemade birthday cake that my sister-in-law and my nieces had made for me. We grew up with homemade birthday cakes and often still make them in our house in Massachusetts, yet it was a special treat to have a traditional chocolate cake in Iowa, made by my family, and scooped out of the standard, well-loved size 9” x 13” pan.
My birthday cake reminded me of a recipe I’m including in the book, and I thought I would share it with you. In this section, each recipe will have a short essay to go along with it. It seems I couldn’t just write a list of ingredients and instructions without giving you a little history to go with each recipe!
Devil’s Food Chocolate Cake
I remember Mom making Devil’s food chocolate cake for birthday celebrations as well as an any-day dessert. She used a recipe out of her standard household cookbook. I wasn’t able to get permission to reprint that recipe, but after digging around in my stash of recipes, I discovered a “recipe” for Devils Food Cake in Grandma Murphy’s handwriting. It was just a list of ingredients, no directions.
Finding this card reminded me of how solitary life on the farm was for Grandma Murphy when she was raising her family and farming with Grandpa. She and Grandpa did not go out to dinner with friends on Saturday nights, nor did they go to church on Sundays. She did not have a best friend or set of neighbors she regularly visited.
The women’s voices that I remember in Grandma’s kitchen came from the AM radio show, “The Open Line.” This program was on WMT, a northeast Iowa radio station, and Grandma listened to women call in to talk about and read off their recipes.
I can envision Grandma listening while standing at the kitchen counter and quickly jotting down this list of ingredients as they were broadcast by another farm woman. The instructions weren’t important; they were known: Mix all ingredients together, pour into a greased 9” x 13” pan, bake at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Frost, or serve unfrosted with vanilla ice cream.
In a large mixing bowl, I added one ingredient at a time and hand-whisked it into the batter. I upgraded the cocoa to Dutch-process and the vanilla to Mexican, 35% alcohol; then I baked it for exactly 30 minutes. I discovered that mint chocolate chip ice cream made on a farm in New Hampshire worked just as well as vanilla ice cream.