A version of this story and recipe originally appeared on Lulu and Phoebe.
For every family birthday as far back as photographic proof goes, a heart-shaped cake was front and center for the celebration. My mother was a superb baker of many things, but cake was not one of them. She beat batter until it was standing on its own, and even when baked at the right temperature and time, it still came out raw in some spots and a little chewy in others.
Mom covered it with something reasonably close to frosting, but it was always a little shy on volume and barely stretched to fit, with the cake shining through in some spots. From the same someone who could embroider and stitch in perfect couture fashion, she always managed to pipe a gloppy, unreadable message on the finished cake. But in the end none of that mattered; the cakes meant so much more in how much they represented my mother’s love for anyone who got one. She baked them in a heart-shaped tin, after all.
And at some point, I had my own daughter to celebrate. It was almost 11 p.m. and the entire day had been spent attached to an IV drip. The child was simply not coming out unless someone went in there after her. We were finally given two options: C-section or wait a few more hours for a C-section. We chose the early-bird special. Just because this tale is more about food and celebrating birthdays, I’ll leave out all the interesting medical details. But just one thing: Pain-blocking medications have come a long way since that day 30-odd years ago.
I heard her first. She came out complaining loudly as she is still apt to do when unhappy. I was mesmerized by the stick-straight hair that seemed to be falling in her eyes; the newborn baby girl needed a haircut. My unruly curls were jealous.
Our first year was spent in serious sleep deprivation. We took every opportunity to stop by the lemon-loving in-laws’ house and hand over the baby for some quality grandparent time. We would sneak off in search of a quiet space and fall asleep. We once napped for 48 hours straight because they didn’t have the heart to wake us.
(Thirty-five years later, she still stays up all night. In the book “My New Orleans,” honoring the city post-Katrina, there is an essay written by Julie Smith, NOLA resident and mystery writer. Her chapter, “Portrait of the Artist,” captures the nighttime sojourns of my child, who happened to also then be her neighbor.)
But for our Annie’s first birthday, we inaugurated the next generation of heart-shaped cake tin tradition. Her first heart cake was a Dotted Swiss Cake, so called because the chocolate speckles resemble delicate dotted-swiss fabric, or would much more so if it weren’t for the chocolate ganache awkwardly slathered on top. But no matter; baked with every ounce of love that my mother put into her cakes, I still dare say this cake was also much more delicious. And little Annie started walking that day. Inspired by that cake with its brightly lit candle, her first steps had her heading straight for the chocolate confection. That would indeed be my girl.
No matter how old she is or how far away the child lives, I still keep one ear open at night. Just in case. And on her birthday, we always have cake. Mighty good cake.
Annie’s Dotted-Swiss Cake With Chocolate Glaze
2 cups flour (or 2 cups gluten-free flour and a pinch of xanthan gum)
2½ teaspoons baking powder
½ cup softened unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons orange juice
2½ ounces shaved bittersweet chocolate (use a small food processor or a grater)
1½ cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
16 ounces of semisweet and bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chunks
- Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour (2) 8-inch round cake pans
- Cream together sugar and butter until blended, and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time. Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt in another bowl. Combine milk, vanilla and juice. Alternately add in flour and milk mixture to the butter/sugar/eggs mixture. Mix well. Stir in grated chocolate with a wooden spoon just until incorporated.
- Bake 30 minutes or until cake starts to shrink away from the edges and toothpick comes out clean, but don’t overbake. Cool five minutes then flip out of pan onto rack and cool completely.
- Heat cream and corn syrup until small bubbles appear on the edge. Remove from heat and add in chopped chocolate. Stir until completely incorporated.
- Cool for about 15 minutes stirring occasionally. Pour over the cooled cake (bottom layer first) and let drip down the sides. Add top layer and repeat. Let harden at room temperature.
Bon appétit, Annie Banannie!