Last week, I was finally able to unpack one of my boxes of cookery books and found a copy of the Longtown W.I. Cookery Book to which my mother had contributed her recipe for “New Zealand Chocolate Cake – 1966!”. I also found the small recipe book she gave me as a teenager in which I’ve written up many favourite recipes. Glued in under the cakes section, written in her distinctive hand-writing, I found the same recipe.
I have eaten this cake for over fifty years. My mother was given the recipe when we were in New Zealand which is why she always called it “New Zealand Chocolate Cake”. It has done its duty on many occasions: weekend family teas in their farmhouse in Buckinghamshire; W.I coffee mornings when my parents retired to Herefordshire; dressed up with candles for birthday parties.
On the hand-written version, she’d written “butter or margarine“. She herself always used margarine (in her view it was far too extravagant to use butter!) but she knew my buttery habits. I felt quite emotional reading her words and remembering the many times we’d eaten it.
One of the reasons I felt so sad is that although I often use the past tense when talking about my mother, she is in fact still alive. Aged 94, she is trapped in the cage of her dreadful illness of Alzheimer’s. She can no longer walk, sit up, feed herself, or recognise people, and her random words are like snowflakes – disappearing without meaning into the drifts of what is left of her mind and her memories.
The memory her recipe evokes most strongly for me are the weekends when we were living on the Welsh Borders and my mother would call and say, “Why don’t you bring the boys down for tea on Sunday?”
Slater and I would usually try to combine the expedition with a good walk as my parent’s house was at the foot of the Black Mountain. My mother loved walking so we would pick her up (leaving my father to literally potter in his pottery) and head up into the hills with a car full of boys and dogs.
The Black Mountain stretches along the Wales/Herefordshire borders and on the Longtown side, you get eye-stretching views across the acres of Herefordshire countryside to the blue Malvern Hills. The trees there are small and windblown, hunched into the hills by the strong winds and frequently decorated with tufts of wool from the sheep that graze on the hillsides.
Our walks usually involved throwing sticks, chasing boys, shouting at the dogs when they got too close to the sheep, and splashing through endless muddy puddles. We would return back to The Roundhouse, my parent’s home, with muddy boots and cheeks flushed red and cold from the winds.
I think it was the contrast I loved the most – between the wet, cold, windy hills and the warmth of my mother’s kitchen, the smell of wood-smoke from the small Jotül, and the sight of the chocolate cake and whatever other cakes or biscuits my mother had baked that morning. Copious mugs of tea were consumed, and if you didn’t have a second slice, then woe betide you!
We would drive back home, stuffed and sleepy from the food and the walk. As we got closer to Grosmont, my mind would switch to Sunday evening prep mode – homework to be finished, school football kit to be washed, work calls to be made – but the taste of the chocolate cake somehow lingered, like the memories…
Chocolate Cake (New Zealand 1966!) – Margaret McKenzie
NB. I make no apologies here for using Imperial measurements – my mother never went metric!
4 oz margarine or butter
4 oz sugar
5 oz flour (plain)
1 tbsp cocoa
1 dessertspoon golden syrup\1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg, beaten
1 cup of milk
You will need two greased 8” sandwich tins.
Preheat oven to 180C
Cream the butter and sugar together (I used my 30 year old Magimix). Add the egg and the syrup. In a separate bowl, sift together the baking powder, bicarbonate soda, and cocoa with the flour, then add half to the mixer, beat, add half the milk, then the remaining flour, and finally the remaining milk.
Divide the mixture between the two tins and bake for around 20 minutes. I have a new (second-hand) oven and ended up taking them out at 15 minutes.
Let the cakes cool on a rack before removing from the tins. Then sandwich together and cover the top with chocolate butter icing. In the hand-written version of her recipe, my mother said she uses 2 oz. butter, 6 ozs. icing sugar, 1 dsp. of cocoa (I added an extra spoonful). Mix together in a mixer and add a drop of milk to make it slightly creamy and spreadable.
Footnote: That was my mother’s recipe but I faced two hurdles in the making of it. In moving house I had lost my old sandwich tins and despite searching in local supermarkets and a specialist kitchen shop, I couldn’t find anything equivalent, so had to ask Mr. T to buy sandwich tins in London. Secondly, I have discovered that bicarbonate of soda and baking powder don’t exist as separate items to buy here in France. I had to make do with “levure chimique” and the end result was not what I was expecting. My cakes didn’t rise anywhere near as much as I was expecting – so I will now be calling upon Mr. T. to bring baking supplies on his next visit. I would recommend sticking to my mother’s ingredients!
Footnote No. 2: In somewhat the same tradition, Mr. T. and I went out for a cold, windy walk in “les Montagnes Noires” which is where I now live – very strange that I am close to the French equivalent of the Black Mountain – and we returned to a warm kitchen and the chocolate cake. It was much better than I expected and passed with almost full colours!