I spent the long July 4th weekend flipping through cookbooks, finding myself bookmarking an easy chocolate cake, along with other frivolous recipes I wouldn’t normally include in our weekly rotation. I’ve noticed that once the memory of early school mornings and fast packed lunches has faded, I seem to have more space for indulging in creating food that makes everyone happy.
Summer makes me a fun mom.
This is not to say I’m not still currently filtering dinner recipes through what can be made in 30 minutes or less or whether or not the ingredients can be thrown on the grill, but these dinners are garnished with a sprig of fresh thyme, served with a bowl of fresh cherries, and finished with an easy chocolate cake. This is more effort than my over-worked brain can take during the school year, but with eleven summers spent by the pool with my kids, here’s what I’ve learned about cooking through the hottest months of the year:
Every summer I take my kids to a you-pick farm to overpay for a bucket of fruit we could’ve easily picked up at Wal-Mart, but instead paid for in sweat equity and stained, white tee shirts. If this sounds like insanity to you, I get it. The reason I take my kids is that pick-your-own-food has a way of slowing them (and me) down long enough to appreciate where food comes from during the other 9 months of the year when we’re impatiently waiting for a frozen pizza to finish cooking. In a world of on-demand and download-right-now, it is important to me that my kids swat some flies and pluck some berries to learn that “for everything, there is a time and season” and that summer is the time to slow down and reset expectations.
I come from a long line of no-fuss women, so it should come as no surprise that I like to keep things simple, particularly in the kitchen. I don’t need tons of spices or fancy kitchen gadgets to feel inspired to cook and I love that summertime supports this back-to-basics kind of thinking. Summer is raw. Summer is unpretentious. Summer has a way of stripping us all down with no choice but to show up as our truest of selves. I see this clearest when I’m at the pool. The moms have their damp, stringy, chlorine hair tied up in baseball caps, bravely showing their legs in swimsuits, generously slathering sunscreen instead of foundation, and jumping around with their kids. We all look like this together, collectively firing up our grills later with basic food and basic hair and basic tan lines, the smell of dinner hanging in the air.
Since summer is when food bursts with color and flavor, I try to introduce as many new foods to my kids as possible. Raw produce that we wouldn’t normally have access to during other times of the year fills up our weekly farmer’s market and we have plenty to choose from. We’ve tried white and golden raspberries after a farmer explained that their flavor is sweeter than red raspberries. My kids prefer them over the red, and now that I’m thinking about them, I wish I had had some to throw on this easy chocolate cake.
In addition to the raspberries, we’ve also tried Ranier cherries, a lighter and sweeter cherry that doesn’t stain as easily as the deep red ones we would normally buy. I have also switched to hydroponic arugula, kale, and romaine once I discovered that the taste is unbelievably better than lettuce from the grocery store.
All of these explorations would have never happened had it not been for summertime’s sweet reminder to “introduce a child to sensory experiences, including tastes” says Pamela Druckerman in Bringing up Bébé.
I’m kidding, but only slightly.
I’ve found that the slower pace of summer has afforded us more opportunities to have other families over. This week alone we have shared a meal or an after-dinner glass of wine with friends on five days out of seven and with four extroverted children, this is living.
The constant revolving kitchen door, and the extra mouths to share treats with gives me the perfect excuse to bake. I found this unassuming and easy chocolate cake thanks to Bridget who also has a bunch of kids and an affinity for summer. Growing up, cake recipes made from scratch had a reputation for being mysterious and kind of serious, which is precisely why we always used boxed cake mixes and premade icing. I always assumed that making a cake completely from scratch was fastidious and difficult, and I’ve definitely tried a few that took extra effort. But something about knowing another mom with little ones was whipping this up for a friend on a normal afternoon made me think, “I can totally do this, too.”
So, easy chocolate cake on a breezy summer afternoon it was.
Once I tried it, I couldn’t stop making it. I made it for a birthday. I made it to share with friends. I made it to celebrate a new family milestone. And I made it to bond with my daughter when I knew she needed extra time with me. It is literally the perfect size; the perfect blend of already-in-your-pantry ingredients; and the perfect end to a perfect day.
And, it really is easy.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
¾ cup buttermilk* (see notes for other options)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup dutch cocoa powder
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
1 ½ cups powdered sugar, sifted if lumpy
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
Pinch of fine sea salt
1 tablespoon cream or whole milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
For the easy chocolate cake:
Heat oven to 350°F (175°c). Line the bottom of an 8-inch square cake pan with parchment paper, and either butter the parchment and exposed sides of the pan, or spray the interior with a nonstick spray. In a large bowl, use a hand or stand mixer to beat the butter and sugars until fluffy; scrape down bowl. Add the egg, yolk, and vanilla and beat until combined, then the buttermilk and mix again. Scrape the bowl down well and don’t worry if the batter looks uneven. Place your flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a sifter (I find this step necessary because my cocoa is very lumpy) and shake it over the batter bowl. Stir on low until just combined; scrape down bowl one final time. Scoop batter into prepared pan and smooth flat. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool for 5 to 10 minutes in cake pan on cooling rack, then flip out onto rack or serving plate to completely finish cooling before frosting. Speed this up by placing it in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.
For the easy chocolate frosting:
Beat butter, powdered sugar and salt in a large bowl with an electric mixer until fluffy. Pour in chocolate, milk, and vanilla, beat until combined, then one more minute to whip it further. Scoop the frosting onto the cooled chocolate cake and swirl it around.
Cake keeps at room temperature for a day or two, or in the fridge up to a week, or so I’ve heard but never tested out.
*Buttermilk Notes: You could replace the buttermilk in full with yogurt or sour cream thinned with a little milk or water. Or, mix your milk with an acid, such as lemon juice or vinegar using this easy tutorial.
Spend this summer giving your family a reset from the school year, getting back to the simple basics of life, and exploring new tastes with new experiences. Don’t forget to splurge a little and make time for an easy chocolate cake. Tag us on Instagram if you try it!