Why I’ll never stop baking my mom’s groovy chocolate cake

The magic is in the memories — and all that chocolate

Published January 26, 2020 8:00PM (EST)

Prop stylist: Amanda Widis. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. (Julia Gartland/Food52)
Prop stylist: Amanda Widis. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. (Julia Gartland/Food52)

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As a child, I had a serious obsession with Dairy Queen dipped cones and Hostess Cupcakes — probably because they are two of my mother's favorite desserts.

A Berkeley graduate (she never hesitates to tell anyone she attended college at the quirky, liberal enclave during the 1970s), my mom was a firm believer in old-school "clean eating" (of the hippie variety, naturally). But while she shunned most sugary treats, she could never say no to chocolate.

It must have been genetic, because neither could I.

"Want to go to Dairy Queen?" she was known to throw out there on particularly long road trips, combing her thick black hair with her left hand and guiding the car's steering wheel with her right.

The answer was always yes.

We'd fly off the highway onto the service road, then pull up to the nearest drive-through and order what I thought for many years was the only thing on the menu: dipped cones as long as my arm, with smooth vanilla ice cream painted in a thin chocolate shell. Ah, the satisfying crack of that coat!

I was equally enamored of Hostess Cupcakes, which were doled out so rarely (special occasions only) that their pristine white curlicues and shiny chocolate ganache frosting became the stuff of legends.

But the highest prizes were the ones my mother baked herself, usually on someone's birthday or if you begged long and hard enough: Please, Mom, pleeeeeeeease!

Her top-two recipes — big surprise — both involved chocolate. The first was L.B.J. Chocolate Cake, a pound cake from my great-grandmother's (and President Johnson's) day that was sweet and satisfying. The other was her renowned Groovy Chocolate Cake, which came from a cookbook called "Chocolate Kicks" that she bought in the 1970s, probably in Berkeley. (Did she mention she went to Berkeley?)

A riff on Texas sheet cake, Groovy Chocolate Cake defined my childhood more than any cone or cupcake. One of my earliest memories is placing a batter-encrusted mixing bowl on my head, thinking that I could more easily lick the good stuff off if I simply stuck my tongue out and rotated the bowl. (I was wrong.)

I would write poems celebrating it as I watched the batter rise gloriously in the oven. I dreamed of it for weeks before my birthday. I even devoted to it the first words of my book all about chocolate, "Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: America's Craft Chocolate Revolution." In other words, it's my Platonic ideal of chocolate cake. There is nothing better.

The magic lies in its simplicity — along with sour cream, which makes it super moist. That secret ingredient is folded into the batter, along with a cup of hot water. After it cooled, my mom would top it with a simple chocolate buttercream frosting made with a splash of rum extract.

My sister and I would devour our slices, lick our lips, and collapse into bed for the night. But somehow, by the time we woke up the next morning, a few more pieces had always disappeared. "Who ate all of this cake?" my mother would ask innocently, knowing full well that it wasn't one of us.

Since those days, I've made the cake for so many occasions, from late-night study sessions to parties, or for friends going through a hard time. I've never met someone who doesn't love it just as much as I do.

Of course, as I've learned more about specialty foods and chocolate over the years, I've become more selective about the types of ingredients I use, opting for grass-fed dairy, organic sugar, and good flour whenever possible. I'm especially particular about the chocolate, because it definitely makes a difference: I always try to buy bean-to-bar baking chocolate, whether it's from makers as ubiquitous as Guittard or as hard-to-come-by as Map, a small-batch craft chocolate company. But even if you can't find artisan ingredients, this recipe always turns out great.

My intense love for chocolate has rubbed off on my family, too — especially my mother. Nowadays, everyone uses the best-quality chocolate they can find to bake with, not to mention, nibble on daily. During a trip to Los Angeles for my sister's baby shower, for example, a pop-up store by Dandelion Chocolate (one of my favorite bean-to-bar brands) received multiple drop-ins from my tribe, all of whom oohed and aahed over the single-origin bars and pointed out my book on the shop's shelves.

"Well, the Gillers are still in town," Dandelion's staff must have said to themselves upon their third (and by no means final) visit.

When I expressed my mortification over this matter (perhaps it was the fifth chocolate run?), my mom shrugged it off. "Chocolate is in our blood," she said. And she's right. It makes sense, then, that our favorite recipe brings together two things essential to my family's DNA: chocolate and a hint of '70s flare.

Even though I live in New York City now — 2,000 miles away from my mom and her kitchen in Dallas — I bake this cake as often as I can. The smell brings back memories: of petting my cat, Silver, on the couch as the cake baked a few rooms away; or that time when my mom forgot to add the sugar to the batter and we cried, then laughed at the mistake.

Each slice is like an homage to my childhood — and my mom, too.

Groovy Chocolate Cake

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Makes: one 13- x 9-inch cake


For the cake:

  • 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
  • 1/2 cup butter (1 stick), plus 1 tablespoon for greasing the pan
  • 2 cups sifted flour
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 eggs, beaten

For the frosting:

  • 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
  • 7 tablespoons whole milk
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon rum extract (you can also use vanilla extract)
  • 1/3 stick of butter, melted


For the cake:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a 13- x 9- x 2-inch pan with 1 tablespoon of butter.
  2. Melt the chocolate over a double boiler.
  3. In a separate saucepan, melt the 1/2 cup butter over medium heat along with 1 cup of hot water and bring to a low boil. Mix in the melted chocolate and stir to combine. Take off the heat.
  4. In a medium-size bowl, combine the sifted flour, sugar, and salt.
  5. Pour the chocolate mixture into the bowl with the flour mixture and combine well with a wooden spoon. Add the sour cream, vanilla, and baking soda to the mixture and combine well. Add the beaten eggs and mix until they're fully incorporated.
  6. Add the batter to the greased cake pan and bake for 30 minutes, or until you can insert a toothpick or knife into the center and it comes out clean. Let cool completely before frosting.

For the frosting:

  1. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler.
  2. In a medium-size bowl, mix the milk and sugar gradually.
  3. Add the salt and rum extract to the milk-sugar mixture and stir until combined. Then add the melted chocolate and stir until combined.
  4. Add the melted butter and mix until fully incorporated.
  5. Let the frosting cool slightly, before spreading on cooled cake.

By Megan Giller

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