Nana was my grandmother.
When I was a little girl, I would spend long happy weekends at her house. She always had a stack of books for me to read–young reader mysteries, as I recall. Sometimes she would take me to the tiny beauty shop improbably located in the back room of her local market where her beautician would fuss with my impossibly-fine hair and my sagging self-image. Other times, we would go dress shopping on Long Beach’s then-fashionable Pine Avenue at Zukor’s, her favorite shop, after which we always “lunched” at the lunch counter in the Woolworth’s where we always ordered hot turkey sandwiches covered in gravy and served with mashed potatoes. Life was good.
I like to believe that I got some of my interest in food and cooking from her. During those long-ago visits, she and I often would spend afternoons in her kitchen baking her signature cake–a gooey chocolate-frosted chocolate, vinegar, and potato cake.
The cake was always a curiosity for me. Why in the world would she stir mashed potatoes and vinegar into a sweet cake batter?
Curiosity aside, the cake was a celebration of my visiting her home — a cake made just for me–and I remember how special it made me feel and how loved. It tasted good, too.
Recently, I came across a recipe for a chocolate cake that incorporated vinegar into the batter.
So, I got to thinking. Why did Nana put vinegar in her cake and how did the vinegar affect the baking process?
Nana was born around the turn of the century (the 20th Century!). She saw two world wars and survived the Great Depression. Her husband fought in the first war and her son, my father, fought in the second. Both survived. If you think about it, in the period from 1900 (when Nana was born) until 1945, there were very few good years. Couple that with what was a decidedly rocky post-WWII period for my family and you have a lot of years of struggle.
Nana, like so many other grandmas during those lean times, learned to cope with scarcity. If you didn’t have eggs, you substituted vinegar. You made it work. Hers was a kind of “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade” ethos.
A true-believer in the power of food to nourish the soul, I can’t help but think that Nana personified the spunky survivor ethic that MFK Fisher wrote about in her WWII-era cookbook masterpiece How To Cook a Wolf: “I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever increasing enjoyment. And with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves. Then Fate, even tangled as it is with cold wars as well as hot, cannot harm us.”
Now, the science…
Adding a little vinegar to a cake makes it fluffier. According to Bakingbites.com, the addition of a small amount of vinegar into baked goods causes a chemical reaction with another ingredient, baking soda. That chemical reaction creates carbon dioxide and the carbon dioxide gives the batter a little lift during baking. Also, the chemical reaction overcomes the fact that cocoa powder in the recipe makes the batter resist rising.
It turns out that Nana wasn’t just the best grandmother in my universe; she was also a kitchen chemist!
Here is my adaptation of a chocolate vinegar cake recipe. The cake is moist and over-the-top chocolaty. I know that Nana would approve. I think you will, too.
- The Cake:
- 1 1/2 C. King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
- 1 C. sugar
- 1/4 C. Dutch-process cocoa
- 1/2 t. salt
- 1/2 t. espresso powder (optional)
- 1 t. baking soda
- 1 t. vanilla extract
- 1 T. vinegar (cider)
- 1/3 C. vegetable oil
- 1 C. cold water
- 1/1/2 C. semisweet chocolate chips
- 1/2 C. half and half
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 8 inch square baking dish.
- Combine all the dry ingredients in a large bowl and whisk until all ingredients are well-mixed. Set aside.
- Combine all the wet ingredients in a bowl and whisk to combine.
- Add the wet ingredients to the bowl of dry ingredients and stir to combine. Pour the batter into your prepared pan.
- Bake for 30-35 minutes until the cake is done. When it is done, you will be able to insert a toothpick into the center of the cake and the toothpick will come out clean. Set the cake aside to cool.
- While the cake is cooling, heat the half and half until it is simmering. Put the semisweet chocolate chips in a glass bowl and pour the heated half and half over the chocolate. Let the mixture sit for about five minutes (until the chocolate is pretty much melted). Whisk the chocolate and the half and half together until the mixture becomes thick and glossy. Pour the frosting over the cake (in the pan) and use a spatula to spread the frosting across the surface of the cake.
- Chill the frosted cake in the refrigerator briefly to set the frosting. Serve.
This recipe is adapted from one that appears on the King Arthur Flour site. Here is the link:King Arthur Flour’s Original Cake Pan Cake.