Chocolate cake: pretty and understated

Do you have a favourite chocolate cake? One that you are secretly proud of? Your go-to recipe, much-requested at events, loved by all? I don’t. I have not yet baked a chocolate cake that is undeniably good. Well, at least not the kind of good that you remember and store away in the domestic part of your mind for times of birthdays, bake sales, morning teas and breakups. I am yet to find a signature chocolate cake.

I have heard stories of my Nana Jean’s chocolate cake. An impossibly high, intensely chocolatey kind of chocolate cake that was the envy of all her friends. So you can imagine my excitement to find a recipe in her beautiful, lilting copperplate handwriting in her cook book.

Oh, and just below, a chocolate icing recipe!

With a certain degree of stubbornness I set to resurrecting the chocolate cake. I will make this chocolate cake, I said to myself, and it will be amazing. It will be grand and fragrant and look generous and indulgent.

No, Meg. No.

Perhaps it was the wrong mindset that sabotaged my lofty ambitions. Certainly, no recipe from Nana’s cook book has been straightforward. Missing cooking times, imprecise oven temperatures, ambiguous instructions are commonplace. Indeed, you will notice that the baking time is missing from the handwritten recipe. From past experience I should have expected a hiccup.

It isn’t a bad hiccup. The cake looks nice, and tastes nice. It simply is not the noble cake I had imagined. My father concurs. This is not his mother’s famed chocolate cake.

But it is a pretty cake. Demure and understated, this cake is lightly chocolatey and not too sticky on the palate. Part of me wants to say delicate, but that isn’t quite right. It isn’t sponge-cake-delicate at all. It is just a low-rising, restrained chocolate cake. The kind that is perfect with a cup of tea or a glass of milk. Or eaten for breakfast in a bowl with milk poured over. Or is that just my childhood memories masking what is an appropriate use of cake?

This kind of cake is perfect for some people. My boyfriend tells me that his own grandmother makes a nearly-identical cake. This perhaps proves how strong a role food memories play in the development of our palates, because he absolutely loved this cake! On the other side of the state he was singing the recipe’s praises to his own family.

It is so lovely that in setting out to recreate Nana Jean’s menu I have been able to connect other people with their own culinary heritage. In many ways, this cake has reaffirmed my quest to rediscover such neglected recipes.

Oh, and this cake is a great starting point for me. I’m on a mission, friends. A mission to find my signature chocolate cake. (The best kind of mission, no?).

I look forward to sharing my findings, and resurrected recipes, with you.

Happy baking,


~ ~ ~

Pretty and understated chocolate cake

3 eggs

¼ lb sugar

¼ lb plain flour

1 dessertspoon cocoa

½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp cream of tartar

1 tbsp melted butter

½ tsp vanilla

1 dessertspoon hot water

Grease and line a cake tin. Preheat oven to 175 degrees C.

Beat eggs and sugar well. Stir in flour sifted with cocoa, baking powder and cream of tartar. Lastly stir in butter, hot water and vanilla.

Transfer immediately to cake tin and bake for about 30 minutes, until your whole kitchen smells chocolately and the cake springs back to touch.

Let cool in tin for 5 minutes, then turn out on to cooling rack. Cool completely before icing.


Chocolate icing

½ cup icing sugar

½ tsp cocoa

1 big teaspoon butter

1 dessertspoon boiling water

Sift icing sugar and cocoa evenly. Mix in butter and boiling water until smooth. You may need to add more water to gain a smooth spreading consistency.

Slather over cooled chocolate cake in smooth circles with the back of a spoon.


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