A chocolate cake that celebrates mothers — lost and found

A reflection on loss and grief — and the untold power of a mother-knows-best birthday cake

Published December 23, 2020 1:30PM (EST)

Prop stylist: Gerri Williams. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. (James Ransom / Food52)
Prop stylist: Gerri Williams. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. (James Ransom / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

Good food is worth a thousand words — sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.

* * *

In the first months after my husband, Erik, died while mountain climbing in 2014, I spent much of my time shuffling about my sister's house in a teary, sleepless haze. I wore rumpled variations of pajamas or sweats every day, and I had no appetite — everything I tried to eat tasted like the color grey. Prior to the accident that took his life, before I knew the term "young widow," I had loved food.

Erik and I married in 2012, when he was in business school at Georgetown, and I had already swapped careers from lawyer to pastry chef. When he graduated the next year, we moved back to Brooklyn. He went to his new job in the Financial District, and I began pursuing a food writing career.

Amid all the life changes, we had our constants: He had a great appetite, and I loved cooking. In the evenings, I roasted, braised, and sautéed from our little apartment stove using new spices and ingredients I discovered at Sahadi's or the Park Slope Food Coop. I baked layer cakes and pie for no particular occasion. On weekends, when he was not trekking through the Appalachian Trail, Erik trekked to outer boroughs with me to eat at obscure momo restaurants and hand-pulled-noodle stands.

But loss has a funny way of rearranging your priorities, your brain, and your life. One day, we were newlyweds. And then, just like that, he was dead. His death did not make sense or even seem real. I remember thinking that he could not be dead, because I'd already bought the ingredients for his "Welcome Home from Mount Rainier!" dinner: pasta with meatballs and a big salad. Worse still, the park service could not find or recover his body. He was just . . . gone.

After he died, I did not want to be in the kitchen, or even eat. Food didn't matter. All that did was that my young, happy-go-lucky husband was dead, and I was stuck holding the shattered pieces of our barely-begun life. Instead of cooking, I did things like eat cereal and stand in front of our refrigerator, watching the expiration date on his yogurts lapse because I was too sad and disbelieving to throw them away.

What I didn't know was that 225 miles south of Brooklyn, in Washington, D.C., two other people were grieving a parallel loss.

A few days after Erik's memorial service, a law school friend mentioned that his buddy Brodie had just lost his wife to a long illness. He asked if I would like to be connected, since we were both now navigating similar experiences at the same time.

I said yes, desperate to connect with someone who could understand this specific grief and loneliness. A few days later, our mutual friend introduced us by email, and right away, Brodie and I began exchanging sad emails and short texts like, "I'm at the office crying in the lactation room" and "If one more person tells me it was 'God's plan,' I'm going to lose it." He told me about single parenting his nine-year-old daughter, Margot.

Throughout the summer, we checked in regularly. We kept tabs on each other's insomnia and debated which of our spouses' belongings to keep and which to donate. We talked about Margot starting fourth grade in the fall and about normal things like travel and books and whether "Rushmore" or "The Royal Tenenbaums" was the funnier movie. (For the record: "Rushmore.")

In August, Brodie came to Brooklyn to visit friends. We met for the first time in a park and hugged like old friends. We walked for a long time and stopped for beers at a wood-paneled German bar. For a minute, I felt almost like myself again.

Summer turned to fall. I traveled to D.C. for a weekend with college friends. Over the weekend, I met Margot for the first time, a talkative little girl with wavy, strawberry-blond hair and freckles across her nose and cheeks like those I had seen in photos of her mother. She told me all about the book she was reading, and how once, in England, she spoke in a British accent for an entire day. I laughed. The laugh felt real.

Fall turned to winter, and Margot's 10th birthday. Knowing I had a pastry background, Brodie asked if I would bake Margot's birthday cake. I'd have to drive down to D.C., though, so was that OK?

I hadn't made a birthday cake in seven months, not since my husband's — a carrot cake with vanilla frosting and sprinkles on top. His last. I told Brodie that I was honored he'd asked, and yes, I would.

I didn't mention my nervousness. Before "grief brain" (a very real thing) set in, a simple layer cake would have been easy. But now, fuzzy-headed with sadness and trauma, I had real worries about whether I might burn the cake or forget to add sugar.

"Oh, good!" Brodie said. "Could she talk to you about it?"

Children's worlds are limited, and, as I've learned since, so are their concepts of death. Most children do not grieve through deep revelations about the scope and permanence of death. Instead, young children tend to experience a parent's death in small, quotidian losses: Who will braid my hair? Who will take me shopping for my first-day-of-school outfit? And: Who will bake my birthday cake?

Margot's small, chipper voice got on the phone. After chatting about Christmas and school, I asked her what kind of cake she would like.

"Chocolate cake with whipped cream frosting."

"What about decorations?" I asked. She considered.

"Can it have owls?" she asked. "They are my favorite." A pause. "And can I have Napoleon ice cream?"

"What's Napoleon ice cream?" I asked.

"It's the kind with chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry all in one container," she explained.

"Ohhhh," I laughed. "You mean Neapolitan ice cream."

I regretted correcting the malapropism.

In the days leading up to the party, I dyed and sculpted balls of fondant into a little family of light blue owls. I used special cutters to press white sugar paste into snowflakes, which I dusted with edible glitter so they sparkled like new snow.

I decided I would bake my mom's chocolate cake, the one she always baked so lovingly for everyone's birthday. The cake has been around so long my mom no longer remembers where the recipe came from. It has simply always existed: at birthdays, Fourth of July cookouts, and whenever life demanded chocolate cake.

My mom dropped by as I was mixing the batter.

"Don't make the whipped cream too sweet tomorrow," she said. "And make sure you use a lot."

I sighed and rolled my eyes. "I know," I said. "I have a pastry degree from the C.I.A."

She couldn't help it. Moms will be moms.

The next day, I drove to Washington with the cake, decorations, and cake platter in the passenger seat. I arrived at Brodie and Margot's house an hour before the party. I knocked on the yellow front door. Margot and Brodie answered with hugs.

In the kitchen, I set up my cake decorating area: cake, offset spatulas, heavy cream, sugar owls. I hefted the KitchenAid mixer onto the countertop and attached the whisk.

I felt certain that I was the first person to use the mixer since Brodie's late wife. I processed this over a sad, shaky breath and set to work whipping the cream with renewed determination to make sure this woman's daughter had the cake she could no longer make. I spooned in small amounts of vanilla and confectioners' sugar until it was just right.

Margot watched with big hazel eyes as I smoothed thick dollops of whipped cream over the chocolate cake layers and grinned as I nestled the sugar owls, snowflakes, and "Happy 10th Birthday Margot!" lettering atop the cake. The first guests arrived. The girls ran into the kitchen to see the cake and let out a chorus of happy squeals.

While the girls played karaoke and dress-up and ate pizza and cake, Brodie and I refilled cups and did the tedious cleanup things adults do at a kid's birthday party. I felt strange. I felt . . . happy.

After cake, we all piled into the car and went ice skating. I hadn't ice skated since Friday nights at the local ice skating rink in middle school, so I clung to the wall.

Margot peeled off from her friends and skated up to me. She took my hand in hers. And there, in the swirl of skaters and bad pop music, my heart cracked open. Not in heartbreak, but in an outpouring of love for this sweet, freckled girl in her oversize sweater with light blue pom-poms.

I let go of the wall. We skated clumsily forward, together.

In the five, nearly six years since her 10th birthday party, I have baked Margot four more chocolate birthday cakes with whipped cream. Brodie and I fell in love and got married two years ago. Now I am Margot's stepmom.

We are a package deal, moving clumsily forward, together.

Each year, Margot — now well into high school — and I talk about her birthday party and her cake. My mom's chocolate cake with whipped cream frosting is a given, though each year, the decorations evolve. One year, I made her a movie-themed cake with a ribbony spool of edible film. The next year, I covered it in rainbow sprinkles.

She hasn't decided on this year's birthday cake decorations yet. We probably won't have a party. But there will be my mom's chocolate cake with whipped cream frosting.

Inevitably, I will suggest some vegetables and fresh fruit along with the usual pizza, cake, and ice cream. As usual, she will sigh, roll her eyes, and then eventually say OK to my misplaced goal of promoting a balanced meal at a teen birthday celebration.

I can't help it. Moms will be moms.


Recipe: Chocolate Cake with Whipped Cream Frosting

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Makes: 2 x 8" round cake layers


Chocolate cake

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup cocoa, sifted
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 cups cold water
  • 3/4 cup neutral vegetable oil, such as canola
  • 2 tablespoons white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder

Whipped cream frosting

  • 1 pint heavy whipping cream, very cold
  • 3 tablespoons confectioner's sugar, sifted
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract


Chocolate cake

  1. Preheat the oven to 350° F and grease two 8-inch cake pans or line the cupcake tins.
  2. Add all the ingredients to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low, and then on medium, for about three minutes, until the batter is smooth. Scrape the bowl to make sure the cake batter is fully mixed. This can also be done by hand with a spatula until the batter is smooth and the ingredients fully incorporated.
  3. Divide the batter between the cake pans and bake until the center of the cake springs back lightly when pressed and a cake tester comes clean, about 30 to 35 minutes for 8-inch cake layers. 
  4. Cool fully. 

Whipped cream frosting

  1. Add the heavy cream to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Extra points for chilling the bowl first—keeping the cream as cold as possible makes it whip better and adds stability.
  2. Starting on low to medium-low to prevent splashing, increase the speed to medium high and whip the cream until it thickens slightly. Add the confectioner's sugar and vanilla. Continue to whip, checking often, until the whipped cream just barely comes to stiff peaks and holds its own shape. Do not over whip. (If the whipped cream looks grainy or chunky, it has over-whipped.)
  3. Layer, fill, cover and decorate the cake as you like!

By Lisa Ruland

MORE FROM Lisa Ruland

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