Try this cake for birthdays or Mother’s Day

This column first appeared in Northwest Catholic. I used my grandmother’s recipe for the frosting, but I think whipped cream stiffly beaten and then served immediately (if you have a crowd) would be better.


Three-quarters of my grandmother's cake.

Three-quarters of my grandmother’s cake.

Ah, May, my favorite month, dedicated to the Blessed Mother, bursting with flowers for her crowning and sweetened with a day for honoring our earthly moms.

With Mother’s Day approaching, I wondered what gift could possibly mean something special to my 94-year-old mom, who lives in an assisted living home. She never asks for much beyond simple needs. She likes homemade meals though, and that is one place where I could make a difference. I have to say — and my mom would fully agree — that I learned very little from her about preparing meals. But there is an exception: She taught me how to make my grandmother’s devil’s food cake.

When I was 5 or 6 years old, my mother started letting me choose the menu for my birthday. I usually picked fried chicken and mashed potatoes. The one thing that was constant, however, was a chocolate cake, not just any cake, but one handed down from my maternal grandmother, Myrtle Bunker Ingalls (1893–1966).
And I didn’t know it until much later, but my mom was following her mother’s example.

Grandmother was born near Bunker Creek in Lewis County. She taught school in Shelton for a year or so, but the rest of her life she spent in Lewis County, working hard and raising her three daughters.

My Aunt Jo painted this tile with her mom's cake recipe on it in 1962 to give to her sisters.

My Aunt Jo painted this tile with her mom’s cake recipe on it in 1962 to give to her sisters.

She always made her chocolate cake with mocha frosting for her daughters’ birthdays. In 1962, my Aunt Jo took a ceramics class and painted Grandmother’s recipe on tiles to give to her two sisters. My mom’s tile fell into my hands years ago, and my cousins Christine and Karen both remember seeing the ceramics.

So here’s the old-fashioned cake recipe, and happy Mother’s Day to all of you.

Chocolate cake

– 1 cup brown sugar
– 1/2 cup milk
– 4 heaping tablespoons cocoa (grandmother always used Ghirardelli)
– 1/2 cup shortening
– another cup brown sugar
– 3 eggs
– 2 cups sifted cake flour
– 1/4 teaspoon salt
– 1 teaspoon baking powder
– 1 teaspoon baking soda
– another 1/2 cup milk
– 1 teaspoon vanilla

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 8-inch round cake pans.

Warm 1 cup of brown sugar, 1/2 cup of milk and cocoa in a pan on low heat until smooth, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and
allow to cool.

Cream 1/2 cup shortening and the second cup of brown sugar. Add three eggs and beat thoroughly. Sift together the cake flour, salt, baking powder and soda. Add to the creamed mixture alternately with another 1/2 cup of milk. Stir in the chocolate mixture and vanilla.

Bake about 20 minutes, depending on your oven.

Mocha frosting 

– 3 cups powdered sugar
– 1/4 teaspoon salt
– 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, softened
– 3 tablespoons strong, hot coffee
– 1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix the sugar, salt and butter thoroughly. Pour hot coffee over the mixture until it reaches the desired thickness. Stir in vanilla.


Janet Cleaveland

Janet Cleaveland

What happens when a retired journalist spends a lot more time in the kitchen than in past years? She tries new dishes and jumps at the chance to write a blog about food, family and good times. My kids are grown now, but I'll be looking back at how they learned to cook, what recipes my husband (the Intrepid One) and I are experimenting with, and how food and conversation make for happy times in the kitchen. I worked for The Columbian for 15 years as a copy editor and another 10 elsewhere, though I didn't start out as a journalist. I thought I wanted to teach English literature. My husband grew up in Clark County, and I've lived here since 1983. My kids have grown and left home. Like my husband of 52 years, our adopted chocolate Lab would never pass up a chance for a tasty meal.

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