A Cake for the Generations

As parenting milestones go, a pretty good one for me happened in December. I know, the days of official baby-book moments (first step! first word! first lost tooth!) are long over, but I think this counts just the same. A few weeks ago, the girls baked a cake all by themselves while I drank my coffee.

(Yes, I loitered around the kitchen enough to snap a couple photos, which I dutifully posted to Instagram with the hashtag #winning.)

Even better: the cake they made is an old family recipe from my paternal grandmother, given to me when I got married, and the girls were baking it for a Sunday supper with my parents and my maternal grandfather. According to my mom, this particular cake was a regular at many family gatherings back when she and my dad were newlyweds and my dad's side of the family hadn't yet grown to the size it is today (where it would take about ten of these cakes to feed the crowd). There are many things to love about it -- you'll likely always have all the ingredients on hand, it's quick, it makes the house smell amazing -- but what I think the girls loved best is the magical way pouring a cup of hot water over the dry ingredients before baking creates a pudding-like, gooey chocolate bottom layer you discover when you flip the slice out of the pan and top it with whipped cream.

I can't remember what else we served for dinner that day, but I do remember what we talked about. Table Topics came through, true to form, with a question that seemed too perfect to be true for the occasion: "How was your grandparent's childhood different from yours?" (I swear we didn't stack the deck!) My grandpa reminisced about working as a golf caddy at the country club at a really young age; my mom talked about the way she was allowed to join in sports and games in the neighborhood but not at school, where she had to wear a skirt every day; my dad talked about growing up above his family's little country grocery store and tending to the horses his grandpa kept across the street, and the many things he and his siblings were not allowed to do on Sundays. 

Later, after the girls had squirmed away from the table, my grandpa talked about how comparatively little stuff everyone had, and how, even if you were pretty poor, you didn't really know it; the variation between you and everyone else you knew was quite small, and you were generally happy if you could provide food on the table and a roof over your head. Your world was small, you had the simple pleasures of weekends together, and you were very clear about the differences between needs and wants.

That Sunday night was one of those serendipitous moments that I always hope will happen when we gather around the table, and I wish a videocamera on the ceiling had been taping the whole thing: my grandpa telling stories, the girls listening raptly, my gratitude at four generations of people I love spending a couple hours together, the loveliness of my girls proudly serving a cake they made all by themselves and knowing the recipe has been in my family for longer than I've been alive. Already, just a month or two later, I've forgotten some of the details, but the lesson stays with me: less stuff, more time. And, now that no-treat January is over, more chocolate cake.

The problem is not simply that we work too much, the problem is that we are working for the wrong reward. We are paid in the wrong currency. We reward the fruits of our labor and the sweat of our brow with money, good, and services. We need to seek instead a more fertile, healing balance of payments — some of our pay in money, and some of our pay in time.
— Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in our Busy Lives

Chocolate Upside-Down Cake

for the cake:

  • 1 C. flour
  • 2 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 2 T. shortening or butter (I use butter; my mom uses shortening)
  • 1/2 c. milk
  • 1 t. vanilla

Cream together sugar and butter. Add milk and vanilla and blend until mixed well. Add flour, baking powder, salt and sugar, blend well, and press into a greased 9x9 pan.

for the topping:

  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1/2 c. brown sugar
  • 1/4 c. cocoa
  • 1 c. very hot water

Mix sugars and cocoa together, sprinkle over cake evenly, and slowly pour hot water over all. Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes. To serve, cool slightly, cut into squares, and flip squares over as you remove from pan so the chocolate layer is on top. Top with whipped cream. To double, double all ingredients and bake in a 9x13 pan.