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A chocolate sour cream cake that's so easy to make, you could bake it in a coffee can. Ellen Spear's grandmother did

Chocolate cake on a platter

This chocolate sour cream cake can be frosted, but it's sweet enough that it can be served with just a dollop of whipped cream.

I never held a whisk until I graduated from college.

I saw whisks and other exotic tools on the PBS cooking show, “The French Chef with Julia Child.” Our black and white TV in the basement rumpus room brought Julia’s world to our family. The show inspired us to try impossibly difficult recipes like “Gateau en Cage,” an unmitigated disaster, wrought without a whisk. We used no special tools in the execution of any of our quixotic cooking quests that Julia inspired. More about the gateau later.

My grandmother, who turned out multi-dish meals for 12 or more from her 5-by-10 galley kitchen in Queens most Sundays, never had a whisk either. She used a fork, which seemed to work just fine. When volume egg white whipping was called for, she used a yellowing stand mixer fitted with two beaters that looked more like crude, blunt instruments than a high-born whisk.

But when invited into Grandma’s kitchen at the age of 8, I became accepted into the company of women. Suddenly no longer a child, I was privy to bawdy stories and folk cures that were only discussed in the privacy of this latter-day tent. Wisdom came along with the cooking techniques, which focused on who we were cooking for rather than what we were cooking with.

Her recipes, when she was coaxed to write them down for an insistent guest, called for “a glass of sugar”, because do you really need a measuring cup when most of what you do is by eye? If you were privileged enough to be in my grandma’s kitchen, you would know what glass she meant, and approximately how much sugar was required.

The absence of special equipment applied to one of her best recipes — a chocolate sour cream cake. Undaunted by not having cake tins close at hand, she baked the cake in two coffee cans with the ends removed.

I make this cake in a round springform pan or two loaf pans. I measure carefully. I set a timer when the batter goes into the oven. I “gild the lily” by serving the cake with a dollop of fresh whipped cream; at the right time of year, with some sliced strawberries. But it still doesn’t taste as good as Grandma’s did — served in thin round slices with the ridged impressions from the coffee can.

I share it with you, offering her original notation and today’s translation.



Grandma’s Notes 

2 glasses flour 

2 glasses sugar 

Baking soda 

Glass of water, boiling 


4 squares chocolate 

2 eggs

A measure of sour cream 


My Measured Bake

2 cups sugar

2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 cup water

1/4 pound butter cut in pieces, some extra for greasing

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate

2 eggs slightly beaten

1/2 pint sour cream



Heat oven to 325 F. Grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan. Sift together the flour, sugar and baking soda. Set the water to boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat. Add the butter and chocolate and stir til the butter and chocolate are melted and the mixture is well combined.

Scrape the chocolate mixture into the dry ingredients and mix til combined and cooled a bit. Add the eggs and sour cream. Mix until well combined and no white streaks remain. Pour into the prepared pan.

Bake in the middle rack of the oven 1 hour or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool completely on a wire rack. Place on a serving plate and release the spring mold.

Note: Grandma’s note says “You can ice it if you want, but it is sweet enough.” Wise words. This was a go-to birthday cake for awhile in our household when I was growing up. One year my mother tried it with bubblegum-flavored frosting which I do not recommend. That, too, is another story.

Ellen Spear is the chief philanthropy officer for Norman Rockwell Museum. When she’s not cooking, she’s hiking.

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