You will be needing some Christmas cake, I suppose. Someone should bring cake. This is one of my favorite family recipes. My mother made it for our big family gatherings at my grandparents’ house for years and years. It is a memory cake for me.
This year I was in charge of desserts for Thanksgiving so I decided to strike up the band one more time and bake the things that I loved from my childhood, namely this cake and chocolate brownies (without pecans because in my kid life I wouldn’t eat them and this is a kid-intensive gathering). You see, I was able to go home to Wichita Falls and celebrate Thanksgiving at my grandma’s house, where my Aunt Joyce and Uncle Pete Gill now live. This is the first big gathering I’ve made in a few years and it was the wonderful, love-filled, extremely casual, joyful day of smiles that it always was. We used to live right next door to my grandparents on Lake Wichita. The morning of Thanksgiving or Christmas my mom would start the day by sending my brother and me next door to deliver copious amounts of baked goods to my grandma’s house. Grandma Katie would put down a cloth over the washer and dryer and that became the dessert table. And it was always jam packed with cakes and pies and cookies and candy.
We did it exactly the same this year. And, because no one is fussing over linens and china or pulling any holiday control dramas (you people know who you are), we are all able to mill about and visit, chase kids, drink tea, or beer, laugh, eat a plate filled with turkey (smoked turkey by cousin Jeff Bowles) and brisket (smoked by Uncle Harry) and deviled eggs and green beans and corn, and salad, and a million other things. Because everybody brings something. Everyone show up with something and a smile.
This year, I really saw for the first time the devastating impact of the drought in Texas. Lake Wichita was flat out empty. Docks were on dry land and the parched ground was covered in the mussel shells we used to collect like treasures. But all that meant to us on this particular day was that we had a really great football field. While the Cowboys did what the Cowboys do, we all had a major all-age, no rules in particular, hug-tackle football game in the dry lake bed. Generally speaking, the under-12 set scored all the touchdowns. The old people (I include myself in this) ran every trick play and cheat in the book. And it was more fun than you can possibly imagine. My cowboy boots are finally officially broken in from running Richard’s slant plays in the dusty bed of Lake Wichita. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. And the Kennedy’s in their Hyannis Port breezy casual finery ain’t got nothin’ on this happily extended family of Carlsons in Wichita Falls. By the way, my Aunt Joyce can still twirl a baton like a high school majorette.
Here for you is the cake we ate before and after the football game.
3 cups unsalted butter, softened
625 g granulated sugar (approximately 3 cups)
5 eggs, room temperature
325 g all-purpose flour (approximately 3 cups)
50 g cocoa (approximately ½ cup)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup whole milk
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
2. Place the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat on medium-high speed until the mixture is light and fluffy, approximately 4 minutes.
3. While the butter and sugar are mixing, prepare a 10″ x 4″ tube pan by buttering it thoroughly and coating the edges with flour (or cocoa, to avoid a white film on the cake). In a small bowl, combine the flour and cocoa. Sift the flour and cocoa and then add the salt and baking powder. Set aside.
4. Crack the eggs into a large measuring glass. Add the eggs to the butter mixture, one at a time. Beat to fully incorporate each egg before adding the next. Add the vanilla.
5. Reduce the speed on the mixer to a low setting. Add one third of the flour mixture and mix to combine. Add one half of the milk and mix to combine. Repeat, adding one third of the flour, the remaining milk, and then the remaining flour. Mix briefly to combine.
6. Spoon the batter into the prepared tube pan. Bake for 1 hour, ten minutes. Test for doneness with a toothpick. Bake up to an additional ten minutes. Do not over-bake. Allow the cake to rest for 10 minutes and then turn it out onto a cake plate.
7. Cool completely. May be served with a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar.
Doneness: This is a family recipe. It was originally the recipe of one Di Allison, an old medical school buddy of my parents. And though my mom hasn’t seen her since before I was even born, my mom has been making this cake for YEARS for family gatherings such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. Isn’t it funny how a recipe handwritten on a card can be a living thing, and work its way into the fabric of your memories? My undying gratitude goes to Mrs. Allison, someone I’ve never met but with whom I have celebrated and baked for years. The best thing about this cake is that it clearly bakes from the bottom up. This means that the last part to be baked is the part you will be testing with a toothpick, and it’s the part that ends up on the bottom when you flip the cake. Note the cardboard circle used for flipping perfection, compliments of my mother, the kitchen engineer.
I intentionally under-bake this cake, because when you turn it out of the pan, there is about an inch of semi-fudgy cake at the bottom of each slice…and it is the best part. So don’t wait until you get a perfectly dry toothpick. If you do, you will have a dry cake and no fudgy bit. If you are seeking cake perfection, this might not sound like a good plan. I get that. But this is “my” family recipe and I like it exactly this way and I’m not about to alter it, though I can admit that years ago I changed it to all butter from an original plan of half shortening and half butter. The shortening method leads to a cake slightly more perfect in appearance, but the butter version tastes better to me. And, I’m rarely unapologetic… but, as I mentioned, this is a family cake. This is the way we like it. I didn’t purdy it up for public consumption. If it tasted or looked any different it wouldn’t be our chocolate pound cake.
And, while I’m feeling nostalgic, I’d like to introduce you to my aunts and uncles. This is the original bunch of Carlson kids; these are the people who have had a larger impact on my life than anyone. Still today, they are my spine and my heart. Just seeing them all together is a joy. We cousins who they kept so close are a lucky brood, and now our own children are part of the fun. And while Katie and Virgil, my grandparents, are now gone, we are all walking, running and jumping with the love that they instilled in us. These are my people.