Piece of Cake

Cakes define women. Several factors inform this belief, starting with the overwhelming majority of bake shops owned and operated by women encountered over the years and an unscientific poll of daughters whose mothers impressed upon them the necessity of learning how to whip up a good cake. I am the daughter of one such mother and a miserable disappointment to her on this point.

100-dollar-cake is about the only cake I’m assured will come out decently. I found the recipe years ago when a friend gave me Cleora’s Kitchen, The Memoir of a Cook and Eight Decades of American Food. I didn’t use the book for a long time because its coffee table-size doesn’t fit easily on a kitchen counter. But I sat right down and read the memoir essay about her family and life from the 1900s through to the 1980s. It begins with the time before the Civil War when her grandfather learned to cook in a plantation’s “big house” and, after the war and years of sharecropping, a move north from Texas to Oklahoma with its promise of some land and prosperity. Throughout, members of the family, as she did, found work as cooks for various white families. In 1961 Cleora became a noted caterer and owner of a successful pastry shop.

Barely commented or focused on is the family’s personal story of slavery in that plantation’s big house and discrimination that drove them north. The family settled near Tulsa yet the deadly riots that broke out on May 31, 1921 is not mentioned at all. Her book was published in 1985. It’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t be a different telling today.

Still, the view she gives of the changes in American food and entertainment styles through 80 decades is evaluable: She marches readers through Prohibition cocktails, a first encounter with an avocado, the introduction of cake mixes, the food processor, and infiltration of French and ethnic dishes. Recipe directions tend to be on the short side and give measurements fit for large quantities but easily whittled down to four or six servings. Cakes, pies, and pastry abound.

I regularly baked her 100-Dollar-Cake when the kids were little to slip into their school lunches and the husband’s brown paper bag. Because it incorporates a liberal amount of coffee and chocolate, I could count on the cake being a superb 4 p.m. lift on the days when I was home and needed a moment before the evening’s family hour erupted. I always thought it was original to Cleora but it’s not. Other recipes diverge from hers by incorporating mayonnaise or oil to ensure the cake is moist. Cleora’s recipe is moist enough.

Cooped up with bad weather and, you know, reality, it’s tempting to keep the whole cake for the husband and me but certainly not advisable. So I’ll slice off a huge chunk and bring it over to the sons’ house for their lunches and 4 p.m. pick-me-ups.


Another change through the decades presented in the book is the way the directions were written. Below is Cleora’s. For a modern update, see Epicurious’s version which is the only recipe I found that remains faithful to hers. Both recipes make layer cakes. I misplaced my pans and used a spring form pan, instead. Also, as any sharp-eyed baker can tell, my cake pictured above is denser than it should be and there’s a small amount at the top that really didn’t cook through. The spring form pan is at fault for the first and my lousy oven for the other. But a third is already gone–that’s how foolproof delicious this recipe is.

1 cup butter

2 1/2 cups sugar

5 egg yolks

4 tablespoons cocoa

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons baking powder

Pinch of salt

3 cups flouor

5 tavblespoons strong coffee

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup buttermilk

5 egg whites, stiffly beaten

Cream butter and sugar. Add egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each one. Add cocoa. Sift together soda, baking powder, salt and flour. Add coffee and vanilla to buttermilk. Mix flour and liquids alternately to creamed mixture. Add stiffly beaten egg whites by flding in gently. Spray two 9-inch layer cake pans with non-stick spray. Line bottoms with wax paper and spray paper. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until cake tests done. Turn our on racks and ice when sufficiently cooled.


1 pound powdered sugar

2 teaspoon cocoa

1/2 cup butter

1 egg yolk

5 tablespoons strong coffee

3 teaspoons vanilla

Sift sugar and cocoa in a large bowl. Mix with butter and egg yolk. Add coffee and vanilla. Beat until creamy. Spread between layers and on top and sides of cake.

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