dazzling and interesting on a shoestring
I want to live in the Midwest, simply so I can have fireflies, church potlucks and thunderstorms. Patricia Polacco’s book, Thunder Cake, really makes me long for chickens, antique Russian Orthodox iconography scattered about, a cat, some bright turquoise furniture, a samovar (don’t ask me why on that one, I just do) a few odd goats, and a good, old-fashioned thunderstorm.
So, even though we don’t have thunderstorms in Northern California, my eldest and I made Thunder Cake. It helped that it was raining that morning. And the weather was obliging enough to rain again the following week when I whipped up the frosting and my little helper was there to top the cake with the strawberries and lick the leftover frosting off the spatula.
The rain and wind didn’t stop my neighbor from walking around in his athletic shorts, barefoot and without shoes. He’s out sunbathing by the pool the second the temperature breaks 60 degrees. He won’t be vitamin D deficient, that’s for sure. Ah, apartment living is always so lively! Ahem, but I digress…
So we made mixed up the cake batter with help from Julia, the Kitchen Aid mixer, and whipped those egg whites into a frothy frenzy with my mother’s Scovil hand mixer from 1972 (I say ‘we’, but my helper had to go to her room and close the door, because the Scovil battering against the metal bowl was too loud) and baked our two layers of chocolate cake. I froze those puppies for a few days, and then thawed them to celebrate the end of my husband’s abstinence from eggs and dairy. And what a way to celebrate—we’re all on the verge of a diabetic coma, and there’s three quarters of a chocolate cake left over. Who wants to come over and help us eat it? (Said the Little Red Hen.)
Note: for further fun and games, literary adventures and updates on one of the coolest children’s book author/illustrators ever, visit Polacco’s site. (click on the nifty link here and make your own postcards from Thunder Cake.)
Our version won’t win any beauty pageants, but here are a few tips to help round out the frighteningly brief recipe at the end of Polacco’s book. I supplemented the directions with the 1-2-3-4 Cake recipe from Alice Waters’ Fanny at Chez Pannise cookbook. The instructions are written for children (and when it comes to baking cakes, I am a beginner at the elementary level) and anything from Waters’ is bound to be a gem.
I scoured epicurious for a simple buttercream recipe, and was completely bamboozled by the one I found that suggested a 1:12 ratio for butter and powdered sugar. Yikes. I ended up with a powdery mess, then figured that there had to be more butter in it, especially since I added 1/3 of a cup of cocoa, and made it even drier. So here’s what I did instead—learn from my mistakes.
Easy Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
2 sticks butter (1 cup) at room temperature, so it actually mixes
4 cups powdered sugar (sifted!)
1/3 cup cocoa (sift this, too. I didn’t, because I was annoyed and in a hurry, and the cake has a bit of a grainy, pimply complexion—like I said, it’s no Beauty Queen)
1 tsp. vanilla
Mix the butter all by its lonesome until it’s nice and smooth. Add half the powdered sugar and mix until creamy. Then add the cocoa, the vanilla, and little by little the last 2 cups of the sugar. You may not need it all. Just mix it until it looks like, well, frosting. It should have a nice, smooth, spreadable quality about it. Don’t dip your finger in and lick it until the cake’s all frosted.
Note: I added a thin layer of strawberry jam to the middle instead of frosting, just for a little change-up, and because it is my nature to rebel against the recipe. I suppose you could cook down and macerate your own strawberries, but the jam is cheap and easy, and that’s just the way we do things around here.