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Whoosh. Eighty-five plus, and she’s sending recipes from her Apple watch. Not bad. Except that all I can see on my phone screen is BOILED CHOCOLATE FROSTING. I’m looking for my grandmother Betty’s recipe. My mother is the oldest custodian since Grandma’s death thirty-five years ago.

“Not sure what this is, Mom. Looks like the title to the recipe, but there’s no attachment.”

“Oh. Okay, let me get up and get it, it’ll take me two seconds.”

That’s when I notice the background voices. Mom has company at her cozy two-bedroom first floor condo, my Uncle Mike, my mother’s brother, and his wife, Aunt Fran. I can hear my uncle’s deep basso and my aunt’s New York accent, still strong after 50 years in Rhode Island. I’m 30 miles away, at my sister’s home outside of Providence, making a cake for my nephew’s 26th birthday. Not a milestone by any account, but definitely a reason to make our family dessert ideal, a devil’s food chocolate cake with my grandmother’s boiled chocolate frosting. It’s so much of a standard that we don’t even need to specify the flavor of frosting.

“Ma, I just need the ingredients.” I have made this frosting so many times that I’m surprised I don’t have it memorized, and I could probably wing it, but I don’t want to screw it up.

“Here it is…four squares of unsweetened chocolate...”

“Is that the same as four ounces?” Baker’s Chocolate changed its packaging several years ago, and I’m still trying to figure out the equivalency. Each slim orange and brown box used to contain eight ounces of deep brown chocolate, divided into one-ounce blocks, individually wrapped. Easy-peasy. Now, each package is only four ounces, so the whole bar gets broken up and used.

“Yes, four ounces of unsweetened chocolate, 1 stick of butter…”

“No, Ma, that’s the brownie recipe.” I hear Uncle Mike, a savvy baker himself, say the same thing in the background. And we both know it’s the brownie recipe because for that recipe, you melt the chocolate with the butter, so the butter is the second ingredient. For the frosting, the second ingredient is the cup of sugar, because the chocolate melting into the sugar creates the sand-like consistency we both know is the first step towards chocolate cake nirvana.

I can sense my mother’s frustration as her breathing changes; she almost harrumphs, but not quite. She was having a nice visit, and here’s her kid, busting in and demanding attention, even at age sixty-four. I hear her flipping through her recipe box, filled with 3 by 5 index cards, the meals, cookies and cakes of my childhood going by, the cards written out in my mother’s swooped cursive lettering.

“Here it is. Okay, here we go: Four ounces unsweetened chocolate, one cup sugar, one cup milk, dissolve 2 tablespoons cornstarch in one-half cup water, one teaspoon vanilla, one pat of butter.”

“Right, that’s it. I never remember how much cornstarch and water. Thanks, Ma.”

Now the comments from the audience start coming in.

Uncle Mike shouted, “Just dump it all in once the chocolate melts! Still comes out the same.”

Aunt Fran chimed in, “Don’t forget to use a double boiler. Does she have a double boiler?”

My uncle once again said, “It seems to take forever to come together, but don’t take your eyes off it at the end, or it will burn.”

Me, to my mother, in a calm tone, “Tell them I’ve made this a million times, I know.”

Aunt Fran heeded, “Don’t let the bottom of the double boiler touch the water.”

I take a perverse pleasure in the last comment, as my mother and I had a fight over this exact issue the last time we made the frosting together, three years ago. She’d insisted that the water should touch the top pan (almost always a metal mixing bowl sitting unsteadily over a pot with boiling water, and almost always ensuring a full steam bath for your non-stirring hand.) I knew this was wrong, and that the frosting would scorch as a result (it did). I walked away rather than continue to argue, but I can still taste the slightly burnt tinge to the frosting. I was aghast that she could forget a standard kitchen tenet, one she’d taught me. The idea that she might be losing her cooking chops was terrifying.

My aunt, again, “She has to use a double boiler. Tell her to just rig one up.”

Me, to my mother, “Do these people think this is my first time making this?”

Mom ended it. “Okay, honey, gotta go.”

They’re old, I think to myself. I’m old. I’m old enough to remember my grandmother’s version of the frosting, and how she’d make the cake at the drop of a hat. I’m young enough to have the energy to whip one up to make my nephew happy. I wonder how I got to be the translator between generations, instead of my mother. My mother might have the recipe box, but I am its current interpreter. And I’m worried that no one is going to remember how to make the frosting.

It’s a simple recipe, really, every ingredient easily available at any grocery store. But the making of it has been the source of family conversations like this one for seventy-five years, ever since my grandmother wrote it down after tasting it at a bridge game. This frosting requires patience, because it takes a long while and then a very short while for it to come together. And it requires good judgment because the butter and the vanilla get added after the cooking is pretty much done, and there’s a danger of making the frosting too loose to firm up on the cake. Like many adventures in cooking and in life, half the battle is pretending to be confident about our choices, including when to add the butter.

Also, an admission. My husband hates this cake. He doesn’t have the Hungarian appreciation my family has for dark chocolate. His family came from Austria, while Grandma Betty was born in Budapest, and spoke in Hungarian to her six siblings their entire lives. I suspect he thinks of his family as slightly fancier, perhaps more refined. He may be correct. I recall the shop windows we saw in Vienna, full of multi-layer Austrian pastries with the thinnest possible layer of chocolate on top. There’s nothing delicate here. The cake is full-on, in-your-face, Zsa Zsa Gabor chocolate. As I was preparing to make it for our son’s birthday one year, he asked, “Are you going to make THAT cake?” in a tone that made his disdain evident. My entire family happened to be assembled in my kitchen and took affectionate affront. Ever since, we call it THAT cake.

I’ve decided that the history of self-interpretation of the frosting recipe needs to end. Here is my version—the parentheses indicate the instructions that would have been helpful to at least two generations of bakers and, I hope, will help you too.


4 ounces Baker’s unsweetened chocolate

1 cup white sugar

1 cup milk

2 Tablespoons cornstarch

½ cup water

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 pat butter

  1. Melt the chocolate and sugar together (in a double boiler over medium heat).

  2. Stir until fully combined.

  3. Add milk, and stir (until well-combined; some grains of chocolate will still be visible).

  4. Dissolve cornstarch into water until smooth, and add to mixture (in the double boiler).

  5. Cook, stirring frequently, (until mixture thickens, about 30 minutes).

  6. When a wooden spoon leaves a clear spot when dragged through the frosting and the mixture is spreadable, remove from the heat, and add vanilla and butter. Blend it.

  7. Let frosting sit for 5 minutes before applying to the cooled cake layers.

And, make the cake layers first, so they cool, which will help for when you are ready to frost them. I have never baked a layer cake from scratch, partly because the idea intimidates me and partly because I see layer cakes as a means of conveying frosting, not as a taste sensation on their own. I have a whole repertoire of single layer cakes: snack cakes, flourless chocolate cakes, olive oil cakes—all one layer affairs with plenty of flavor all on their own. But for layer cakes, Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines always fill the bill for me. They don’t upstage the icing.

Now, build your wonky double boiler out of a deep saucepan and a metal bowl, filling the saucepan about halfway with water from the tap. Holding onto one edge of the mixing bowl with a potholder-ed hand, start breaking up and mushing the chocolate into the sugar, until the mixture looks like chocolate sand, keeping the water in the bottom pot at a gentle simmer.

Slowly add in the milk, stirring to incorporate the chocolate-sugar mixture. Let the milk heat, stirring occasionally. The milk will appear to overwhelm the chocolate-sugar blend. The first time I made the frosting, I called my mother from my little studio apartment on Beacon Street, fretting. She told me not to worry, and she was right. Of course, if the recipe had come with instructions, instead of just a list of the ingredients, this might not have been such a problem.

Despite being called “Boiled Chocolate Frosting,” the stuff never actually boils. You will know you are almost there when a wooden spoon leaves a trace through to the bottom of the metal bowl as you stir. When the frosting smooths out, looking more like something you could spread, rather than pour, stir in the teaspoon of vanilla. Now it will smell like chocolate frosting, even though the flavor you’re adding is vanilla.

I am compelled to report that even though I’ve just given you all of these careful directions, my Uncle Mike, as noted above, simply dumps all the ingredients to this stage into the bowl together, and it absolutely comes out exactly the same. Again, when all you’re given is the list of ingredients, you’re forced to imagine your own path. But I still picture my grandmother, big blue and white apron covering her knit pantsuit, measuring, stirring, watching, telling me why each step was important. Children need to forge their own path as a way of creating their own identity, grandchildren can absorb a grandmother’s teaching without feeling lectured.

One method or the other, let the frosting continue to thicken, stirring constantly so that it doesn’t scorch. Burnt chocolate is sad chocolate. There’s really nothing to do but start over, with all those lovely ingredients wasted. Once you’ve achieved your desired consistency, add the pat of butter. This step used to make me crazy from vagueness. The best way to think of it is as the size of the foil-wrapped packets of butter or margarine at the diner; it’s probably half a tablespoon. And don’t skip the butter, it gives the frosting its characteristic sheen.

Check that the two layers of devil’s food cake are completely cool and place the first layer on the plate you will use to serve. If you long to emulate Martha Stewart or Ina Garten, slide pieces of wax paper or parchment underneath the edges of the cake layer so that the plate will be neat and clean when you finish frosting it.

Using a thin metal frosting spatula, place approximately one-third of a cup of the frosting on one half of the cake, and spread it over one half of the top, letting any extra frosting run over the sides. Repeat on the other half, and then smooth the top, and run the spatula’s flat side against the outside of the cake layer. My grandmother used to frost the cake in a way that there was a thick enough middle layer to stand on its own. I know this because I used to eat the cake first and save the frosting, including the middle layer, for last. It was so thick; it stood on its own. The frosting is the point here, in case I haven’t made that clear.

Place the top layer of the cake gently on the bottom layer. Repeat the application of the frosting as in the bottom layer, increasing the amount of frosting to one-half cup of frosting on each half of the top layer. Let the cake stand for fifteen minutes and evaluate one more time. If not serving within the next two to three hours, protect the cake with a loose cover (my grandmother had a beautiful glass cake plate with a matching glass cover; I use the top of my Tupperware cake carrier, or, if I’m away from home, I tent the cake with tin foil) that does not touch the frosting. The cake does not need to be refrigerated, so long as it is covered.

We did not reserve this cake for birthdays. My grandmother made it for all kinds of holidays and dinner parties, as well as for each of our birthdays, and so should you. One of my earliest memories of Grandma serving the cake was at a Sunday night dinner around her massive oak dining room table. All four of my grandparents and my parents were there, relaxing after one of Grandma’s Hungarian goulash dinners. She told me the cake was for Lincoln’s birthday (these were the days when there were two separate holidays for Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays.) I’m sure that she just felt like making it, but I took her and Abraham Lincoln seriously, and insisted we light a candle on the cake. Grandma didn’t have any birthday candles, so she placed a thick white Shabbat candle in the middle of the cake, which stood out starkly against the dark chocolate of the frosting. I made all the adults sing “Happy Birthday” to Abe. I was the indulged oldest grandchild on both sides; they seemed happy to comply.

When my mother and uncle were young, they were allowed to have a slice of any leftover cake for breakfast the next morning. (At some point, my grandmother started making two cakes to be sure there would be leftovers.) This has become the family rule. It ensures that small children will love the cake and think of you as the fun grandma or grandpa. Whether there are other people living in your house or at least staying over, there’s one secret: eat it by yourself, so no one sees how many slices you take. We leave it for breakfast, but everyone sneaks into the kitchen alone, cutting a slice to their desired size.

I am nothing if not a traditionalist. I had set aside about a third of the remaining cake to bring to my mother.

The morning after my nephew’s birthday, when everyone else was still asleep, I poured myself a glass of milk. I cut a healthy slice, being careful to lay the piece down with the frosting on the left and top sides of the plate, which makes it easier to separate the interior cake and leave the frosting standing. Overnight the cake had absorbed some of the frosting’s bittersweet depth. I dispatched the soft insides in a few bites. The frosting was alone in its glory on the plate.

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