Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I need a recipe...

My sister was laughing as I answered the phone. “You’re not going to believe why I’m calling.”

I knew immediately. “You need my recipe for mud pie cake.”

It’s an ongoing joke with us. For the past thirty years, every place she has ever lived, she’s called me for the mud pie cake recipe. It’s an inexplicable coincidence that this is the one recipe she never remembers to hold on to, though perhaps Freud would point out here that there are no accidents. She and I both love to cook; there are literally hundreds if not thousands or recipes she could be calling me for. But it’s always the mud pie cake recipe, which has been in our family for decades, a moist chocolate cake with a name that amuses kids.

The first time was when she was a teenager doing a summer homestay in Switzerland. There was a birthday in her host family, and she wanted to impress them with our trusty family recipe for this most all-American of treats: basic chocolate cake.

She called for the same recipe from Ohio when she was a freshman in college. Then there was the call from Austria while she was an exchange student. The mud pie cake recipe followed her around the globe – through Europe and then back to subsequent residencies in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, where she and her husband and children have more or less permanently settled. Since they’ve lived there for so long, I assumed the recipe was safely stashed at last and I wouldn’t be getting any more calls. But no, they still travel, and wherever they go, she gets the urge to use the kitchen, and for some reason remembers to bring along every recipe she wants except for this one. So in the past five years, I’ve gotten the SOS call from locales including southern France, Colorado, and Indiana. Now they’re spending a sabbatical year in Germany, and sure enough, she wants to bake a cake.

Yesterday she claimed that as I read her the recipe, she was transcribing it into an electronic file on her laptop and would therefore never need to ask me again. I’m skeptical. If it was that easy, why wouldn’t she have done this years ago? No, there has to be something more nuanced about it. It’s not like we ordinarily have a hard time talking. We discuss our kids, books we’ve read, our parents and their idiosyncrasies (by the hour, believe me), gifts to jointly give our other sister, exercise programs, the weather. We talk about all kinds of things. And yet it’s the cake that keeps her calling.

This cake recipe has been in our family for a very long time. Unlike many cake recipes, it’s absolutely foolproof; there’s nothing delicate about it. I remember making it in playgroup under my mother’s guidance when I was three years old, and I used to make it for bake sales in junior high. I don’t know much about the cake’s history, but because the recipe includes no milk or butter – no dairy products at all – as well as no chocolate in solid form and no eggs, I suspect it was a Depression-era recipe that bakers invented in order to make a cake out of inexpensive, readily available ingredients. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the taste: it’s moist and delicious, as well as really fun to make, especially for kids. “Water the garden!” my mom used to say back in playgroup days as each child had a turn to add one of the liquid ingredients and then stir. Now I make it with my kids, and both my sisters make it with theirs.

If it guarantees regular phone calls from my sister, no matter where in the world she happens to be, then I actually hope she never does remember to bring the recipe with her – or, worse, memorize it. I like these regular phone calls from across the globe. Mud pie cake batter: the ultimate sororal glue. In our family, anyway.

For those who are curious about this baking tradition, here’s the recipe:

Mud Pie Cake

1 ½ cups flour
3 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cold water

Preheat oven to 350. Combine dry ingredients well in a large mixing bowl. Then stir in remaining ingredients one at a time, mixing well after each addition. (You can do this with an electric mixer or by hand.) Pour batter into a greased 8-inch or 9-inch cake pan or brownie pan. Bake for about 30 minutes.

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