It started with Mama. All good stories and jokes in our family, including me, started with her.
Like many women, Southern ones particularly, she enjoyed reading recipes. When she died, I mined through hundreds of recipes torn from newspapers and magazines. I saved every one, organizing them, and even tried an incredibly good recipe for beef roast. Finally, after years of trying, I can make a delicious rump roast.
Many years ago, this penchant for recipe searching led her to a chocolate cake that became a signature dish (along with deviled eggs and chicken and dumplings) for her. The sheet cake which is topped with an incredible icing of powdered sugar and cocoa became such a hit -- especially when eaten directly from the oven -- that it earned the nickname “Smiley Cake.” It puts a smile on your face.
At Easter, we gather at Louise’s house for a covered dish lunch following the videoed Easter Parade. The standing order for Mama was always deviled eggs and Smiley cake. (Side note here: Why is it that every Southern occasion must include deviled eggs?)
When we faced our first Easter without her four years ago, there was a litany of emotions. When you lose someone near and dear, it takes quite a long time to realize all the holes they leave, things you don’t even think of until they appear. That was the case that first Easter as we discussed the menu and realized that we would be missing the Smiley cake and deviled eggs.
After the initial sadness and moaning, my niece and I formed a plan: She’d make the deviled eggs and I’d make the chocolate cake. Nicole has Mama’s special carry-out yellow egg platter with the snap-on top and I have her favorite pan, ancient though it is, that she used for that cake and home-made turkey-and-dressing. It’s a deep, oblong metal pan with a matching top that slides on and off.
On the Saturday before, I gathered the ingredients and pulled out the recipe which is tattered, mended with duct tape, yellowed and scattered with drops of chocolate batter. From a cook book she acquired in the early 1950s had come the recipe page on which she wrote in blue ink: “Chocolate fudge cake” then below it “Smiley Cake” which is underlined. She also scribbled beside four teaspoons of cocoa “heaping.”
Mama, for the most part, was a simple cook, stirring clear of anything too complicated or time-consuming. That would not include this cake. It takes three bowls, a pot and a cake pan, taking as much time to clean up as to cook. The recipe is precise so one deviation (read: mistake) will ruin the whole thing. The first time I made it, the cake didn’t rise enough, leaving us to surmise that my baking soda was out of date.
Oh, but when I got it right, those many lovers of Mama’s chocolate fudge cake took one bite, savored it and said, “Tastes just like hers.”
That first Easter, I discovered another lover of her cake: Dixie Dew. There she was all dressed in her new fluffy Easter collar and, stupidly (that would be me) left in the car with the chocolate cake. It was covered with the slide-on top plus I had set the dish of macaroni and cheese on top of it (with a snap-on top that she couldn’t get off). It took some maneuvering but nothing keeps Dew from food. She pushed the mac and cheese to the side and managed to slide the top off about two inches before it jammed against the seat. She ate away a perfect row of chocolate cake.
After I called the vet to ascertain if she would live then gave her a good scolding, she joined the Easter parade. You can see the guilt written in chocolate all over her collar.
Mama would have been so proud.
Ronda Rich is the author of the forthcoming “There’s A Better Day A-Comin’.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.