(Cue the theme song to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.)
As it turns out, I have a nemesis in the kitchen. My history with this recipe goes far back, as it is actually a family recipe from my Grandma Betsy. The cake that it produces, known in the Wyatt clan as Texas cake, but called Texas sheet cake or cookie sheet cake in other corners of the U.S., might possibly be my favorite dessert in my genius dessert-baking Grandma's repertoire. It's got moist, chocolate cake accented with a hint of cinnamon (and we all know how I feel about that pairing), topped with luscious chocolate frosting and rich pecans. I might even love it more than Grandma's red velvet cake. I often alternate between the two when making requests for my birthday. And yet...
I've managed to bungle the recipe every time I've attempted to recreate it on my own. The first time, everything was going to plan until I mixed up the ingredients for the frosting. I thought it looked awfully anemic in the pan, but I'd followed the recipe as written, so I figured perhaps it darkened as it dried on the cake. Needless to say, it did not, and I discovered that I had transcribed the recipe incorrectly from Grandma's original. Instead of 4 tablespoons of cocoa powder, I had written down 4 teaspoons of cocoa powder, so my frosting was lacking a full 66% of its chocolate content. Oops.
The second time, despite my recipe being flawless, I had another measuring mishap with the frosting. The recipe calls for a pound of powdered sugar, but my digital scale's battery was dead. I couldn't recall having used the powdered sugar for anything besides making my first Texas cake, and since it's sold in two pound packages, I figured I could just use the remainder of the box for my icing. Except I forgot about using the powdered sugar for another project after all, so my icing was thin and runny. It soaked right into the cake instead of resting on top, and my second attempt was a soggy but still tasty mess. I believe Mom's commentary at the time was something along the lines of, "Maybe you should give up on this one?"
However, I refuse to go gently into that good night. Ever since my last Texas cake failure a few years ago, I've been haunted by my inability to achieve chocolate-cinnamon perfection, but in recent months, the hunger to finally slay my white whale has grown steadily stronger until it could no longer be ignored. Since Justin and I are having dinner guests over tomorrow and we'd have people to help us eat the Texas-sized cake, I thought I'd live dangerously and take another stab at it. At least by preparing it the night before, I'd have time to make something else should I have another failure on my hands.
Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the Texas cake managed to best me once again. The problem, as always, came with the frosting. This time, it dried with a weirdly crispy top layer that is decidedly absent in Grandma's version. It wasn't inedible, it just wasn't right. I decided that if I slapped a little ice cream on top, it probably wouldn't be noticeable, so I opted to serve it to my guests anyway and forgo making a back-up dessert.
The more I thought about it, however, I began to have a realization: every Texas cake I've eaten in recent years has been frozen and defrosted prior to making its way to my plate. Due to health issues, Grandma doesn't have the stamina for marathon cooking and baking sessions whenever people come over, so she prepares food when she's feeling up to it and freezes it until family arrives to consume it. I haven't eaten a freshly-baked Texas cake in years, so I really have no way of knowing how my version compares to hers. Still, I'm not willing to proclaim a victory just yet. For now, Texas cake is going to remain my culinary equivalent of Moby Dick, but at least it gives me something to aspire to. Someday, I will conquer it, and until then, there will be plenty of chocolate practice cakes to sample!
recipe from Grandma Betsy
2 c. sugar
2 c. flour
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 c. vegetable oil
6 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
1 c. water
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 c. buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 stick butter
4 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
6 tablespoons milk
1 lb. powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 c. chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350.
Sift together sugar and flour. Heat to boiling: butter, oil, cocoa, and water. Pour over flour/sugar mixture. Mix well and add cinnamon, buttermilk, baking soda, vanilla, and eggs. Pour into a jelly roll pan and bake 25 minutes.
While cake is baking, in last 10 minutes, heat to boiling: butter, cocoa, and milk. Add powdered sugar and vanilla. Ice when cake is hot. Garnish with pecans.