dipping sauce? no, no, that’s frosting.

Gran Fran and Joe always honored our birthdays with a special meal (ask for anything, and they’d make it for the birthday kid in question) and an excellent homemade cake. In honor of my recent birthday (no, I won’t tell you how old I am) and my daughter’s (she turned 10), I found it fitting to recount my first attempt at frosting, which, until this past week, was known as dipping sauce here on the West Coast.

Let’s take the way-back machine to 1980, when, for my tenth birthday (oops, if you can do the math, you now know how old I am!), I requested a chocolate cake with mocha frosting. Our house was one of the few in the neighborhood with a Kitchen Aid stand mixer in it, and let me tell you, Gran Fran got a lot of use out of it. I say Gran Fran got a lot of use out of it, because the rest of us were not allowed to use it. If one of us did go near it, she would scream, in her high-pitched voice-of-fear “Don’t you dare go near that! It’ll cut your fingers off!” (Think back to the movie A Christmas Story…”you’ll put your eye out”, and you get the picture.)

Now, let’s talk about the stand mixer for a minute. There was a guard around the outside of the bowl and a lock on the machine that had to be closed for it to mix. Unless one of us actually tried to climb into the mixer, I really don’t believe there was much to fear. But, you will learn, as you read these posts, that there were many things in the kitchen to be a-feared of, from Gran Fran’s perspective, and it’s a wonder the five of us ended up cooking at all!!

But, for all of the screaming and words of caution, Gran Fran makes a mean frosting and cake, to boot. To this day, I have yet to find a frosting I prefer to hers, even at the fanciest of fancy bakeries. She whipped up that mocha frosting in a matter of minutes, cooled it and frosted the cake. Delicious!

OK, back to the dipping sauce scenario. Fast-forward to 1993, San Francisco. It was the first year I was out on my own, and I had made a birthday cake, for which I needed frosting. Store-bought was never offered in my house growing up, so it never even crossed my mind to buy it, rather than attempt to make it. How hard could it be? I mean, Gran Fran would whip it up in no time at all, so I figured I could handle it.

Oh, I couldn't have been more wrong. It was all going well, the baker’s chocolate was melting away with the sugar and butter in the double boiler, the very strong coffee was brewed and it all smelled right. But, once I got it off the stove and tried it, it was liquid. No amount of cold would get it to set. The cake came out great, but the frosting just wasn’t right.

There was no time left to fix work up another frosting, so I packed up the cake, covered the “frosting” and headed over to my friend Dennis’ house. Once there, candles were put on the cake, a loud and rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday to You!” was sung, and then it was time for serving. Out came the “frosting”. Dennis took one look at it, and asked “What’s with the dipping sauce for the cake? No frosting?”

At this point, the whole thing was so laughable, that I simply served the cake with the “sauce” on the side, which people did end up dipping the cake in. Over the next 15 years, I attempted frosting after frosting sometimes resorting to whipped cream, since you can’t mess that up, and even managed to make the dipping sauce work well with flourless chocolate tortes.

But, in 2009, my daughter, Iz specified that she would like me to try one more time to make actual frosting and not dipping sauce (which my “frosting” had become known as over the intervening years). How could I disappoint her on her big 1-0? So, back to the kitchen I went. But this time, I had Gran Fran on the phone consulting on the frosting, and Joe e-mailing me recipes from New York. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to report that the frosting was a success. I have no idea if it was the family support, Iz’s very heartfelt request, or if the stars were aligned that day, but I made an excellent frosting.

Hats off to Gran Fran for showing me as a child how to make the frosting, and for keeping my fingers intact and out of harm’s way (also known as the evil Kitchen Aid). And, Iz thanks you, too.

Craig Claiborne’s Recipe for Mocha Frosting
Frosts tops and sides of three 8-inch layers

You will need a candy thermometer and a hand or stand mixer

• 2/3 cup granulated sugar
• ½ cup water
• 2 egg yolks
• 1 cup soft butter
• 1 ½ squares (ounces) unsweetened chocolate, melted
• 1 tablespoon very strong coffee
• 1 ½ tablespoons rum

• Boil sugar and water to 240 F. (Syrup forms a soft ball in cold water.)
• Beat the egg yolks until fluffy. While beating add the syrup gradually, and continue beating until the mixture is cool.
• Add the butter bit by bit, until it has all been beaten in. Beat in the chocolate, coffee and rum.

Real Red Devils Food Cake
Makes three 8-inch layers

You will need 3 8 inch cake pans, preferably shallow, and a hand or stand mixer

(nope, no Non-reactive Pan or Pot to be seen in this recipe!!)

• 1 3/4 cups flour
• 1 1/2 cups sugar
• 1 1/4 tsp. soda
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1/3 cup cocoa
• 1/2 cup soft butter
• 1 cup milk
• 2 eggs
• 1 tsp. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

• Butter the bottoms but not the sides of the baking pans.
• Cut a waxed paper or parchment round to fit in the center-bottom of the pan, leaving a 1/4-inch uncovered around the edge. Butter paper.
• Sift together into bowl the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cocoa
• Add the butter, and 2/3 cup of the milk
• Beat 2 min.
• Add the remaining 1/3 cup of the milk, the eggs and the vanilla.
• Beat 2 more min.
• Pour into prepared pans. Bake until cake tests done about 30 minutes. Place pans on rack. Then turn onto cooling rack after 10 minutes