A chocolate sour cream cake that’s so easy to make, you could bake it in a coffee can. Ellen Spear’s grandmother did it | Art and culture

I never held a whisk until I graduated from college.

I saw whisks and other exotic tools on the PBS cooking show, “The French Chef with Julia Child.” Our black and white television in the basement game room brought Julia’s world into our family. The show inspired us to try incredibly difficult recipes like “Gateau en Cage,” an absolute disaster, forged without a beater. We use no special tools in the execution of any of our quixotic culinary missions that Julia inspired. More on the cake later.

My grandmother, who prepared multi-course meals for 12 or more in her 5-for-10 galley kitchen in Queens most Sundays, never owned a mixer. She used a fork, which seemed to work fine. When a large volume of whipping of egg whites was required, she used a yellowish stand mixer fitted with two beaters that looked more like clumsy, blunt instruments than a high-born whisk.

But when I was invited to Grandma’s kitchen at the age of 8, I was accepted into the women’s company. Suddenly no longer a child, he was privy to bawdy stories and folk cures that were only discussed in the privacy of this latter-day tent. Wisdom came along with culinary techniques, which focused on who we were cooking for rather than what we were cooking with.

Her recipes, when persuaded to write them down for a persistent guest, called for “a glass of sugar,” because do you really need a measuring cup when most of what you do is by eye? If you had the privilege of being in my grandmother’s kitchen, you would know which glass she was referring to and approximately how much sugar was needed.

The absence of special equipment applied to one of his best recipes: a chocolate cake with sour cream. Undaunted by not having cake pans on hand, she baked the cake in two coffee tins with the ends removed.

I make this cake in a round springform pan or two loaf pans. I measure carefully. I set a timer when the dough goes into the oven. “Golden the Lily” by serving the cake with a dollop of fresh whipped cream; at the right time of year, with some chopped strawberries. But it still doesn’t taste as good as Grandma’s, served in thin round slices with the marks of the coffee can.

I share it with you, offering you its original notation and today’s translation.



Grandma’s Notes

2 glasses of flour

2 glasses of sugar

Sodium bicarbonate

glass of boiling water


4 chocolate squares

2 eggs

A measure of sour cream

My measured bake

2 cups of sugar

2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda

1 cup of water

1/4 pound butter, cut into chunks, plus more for greasing

4 ounces dark chocolate

2 eggs lightly beaten

1/2 pint sour cream


Heat oven to 325 F. Grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan. Sift together the flour, sugar and baking soda. Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Take it off the heat. Add the butter and chocolate and stir until the butter and chocolate are melted and the mixture is well combined.

Scrape the chocolate mixture into the dry ingredients and mix until just combined and cooled slightly. Add the eggs and sour cream. Mix until well combined and no white streaks remain. Pour into the prepared pan.

Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 1 hour or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Let cool completly on a rack. Place on a serving plate and unmold the spring.

Note: Grandma’s note says, “You can freeze it if you want, but it’s sweet enough.” Wise words. This was a favorite birthday cake for a time in our house when I was a child. flavored frosting which I don’t recommend. That’s another story too.

Ellen Spear is the director of philanthropy at the Norman Rockwell Museum. When she’s not cooking, she’s hiking.

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