Friday, March 27, 2009

Nan-Do's Chocolate Cake

In my experience, it's generally true that people living in city apartment buildings don't really get to know their neighbors. Of course there are exceptions to this, but more often than not, the neighbors-turned-friends are people who, I think, must live in other areas. I think of small town blocks lined with shade trees and kids who run from house to house, "Our Gang" style. But sometimes it happens that a building's inhabitants are drawn together; they rely on each other for the occasional ingredient that's no longer in the kitchen or for childcare in a pinch or even for genuine friendship. Most places I've lived, I couldn't tell you the names of the neighbors—it's not that I don't remember them, rather that I never knew them in the first place—but in the last apartment we had as a family in Chicago, I remember there was the S. family across the hall. I remember the mother, Dolores, and the daughter, Jenny. I don't remember the father (was this because the parents were divorced?). If there were siblings, I don't remember them, either. But Jenny and her mom were in our lives a fair amount. Jenny was a couple years older than I was. She had straight brown hair like mine, and it was styled in something resembling a bowl cut. I remember her in navy blue corduroy slacks. I know she dressed in a tomboy fashion, but why do I remember those slacks? Maybe they were a school uniform. She didn't go to my school; I don't know where she went, but they must've had a dress code at least, since I can't imagine that girl without the blue cords and a white shirt. She also had a scar on her face. It wasn't huge, nothing frightening or ugly, but it was noticeable. It was caused by a dog; Jenny S. had been bitten by a German Shepherd, I think. (But wait, did they themselves own a Shepherd as a pet? Maybe I'm mixing things up, but anyway I know she did receive a bad dog bite somehow, and therefore the scar on her face.) After knowing this, I was always extra careful to stay away from stranger's dogs, and to give any large dog its berth. Jenny used to come over quite a bit to play. I don't remember what we did together, but I remember she was fun to be with. The other reason I remember the S. family is because the mom, Dolores, was the one who gave us the recipe that reigned in our kitchen for many years as the ultimate comfort cake, the kind of dessert you'd make for no reason other than a craving for something rich and chocolatey. It was a thick-square-slice-after-school kind of cake, always served with a tall glass of milk to wash it down. The recipe was originally called Nan's Chocolate Cake. But since it came to us not from Nan herself, but through Dolores (who also went by Do, pronounced "Doe"), we called it Nan-Do's. The cake was made with standard squares of Baker's chocolate and was baked in a square or rectangular pan. The cake had a large, airy crumb to it. It had a chocolate frosting to top it off, and my memory of the frosting makes me guess that I wouldn't enjoy it anymore—way too dense and overly sweet—but at the time it was hands-down the best chocolate cake we'd tasted. My mom would make it on occasion, though as I said, it was an "everyday" cake, not ever used as a birthday cake. We'd make one and cut it into squares, and when we were done with one piece, we'd often eat another. I don't know if my mom still has the recipe. We took it with us when we moved to Los Angeles, and we made it quite a bit when we lived in the house in the canyon. After that, it wasn't made much anymore, and eventually not at all. By the time the family moved back East, Nan-Do's recipe had been replaced by something much more sophisticated: a dense chocolate cake with a consistency much more like a gooey brownie, boosted with a shot of brewed espresso in the batter, and with a kind of thin, cracked crust that formed on the top of the cake as it baked (created by the stiff egg whites that had been folded in). Never any frosting on that cake, only a dusting of powdered sugar sifted through a doily that was later removed to leave a lace pattern on the top. It was indeed a far cry from Nan-Do's simpler American classic. If given the choice today, assuming I could ever locate Nan-Do's recipe, I would still choose to make the more gourmet cake; it simply has a better, more intense chocolate taste, and it's a cake that is sweet without somehow tasting like a bucket of over-processed white sugar. And yet, a part of me longs for that comfort cake, longs for a square of Nan-Do's and that glass of milk to go with it. Or maybe it's just a longing for neighborly neighbors. Most likely, it's both.

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