Tried and True — Cake Recipes off the Box
Baker’s Chocolate German’s Sweet Chocolate Cake
A taste of my childhood and birthdays. Rich triple layers smothered in candy-like coconut pecan frosting and always swathed in whipped cream; German’s Chocolate Cake.
My brother says it was my Aunt Janna who first introduced Dad to the cake. He probably knows, being five years older and with better memories of those days filled with family get-togethers. My aunt was an extraordinary woman. Her life was filled with breaking barriers, generosity, and an incredible love for her family, and friends. Even friends she hadn’t met yet. She was my mother’s dearest friend.
During the Depression and WWII, Janna worked along side my grandmother in the packing sheds of Salinas, at the PX in Fort Ord, and other jobs to help her family. She would save her wages and buy cowboy boots and shirts for her younger sisters for Big Week — the lead up to the California Salinas Rodeo. Always generous and making sure they were in style.
In 1941 their brother Keith died in the prisoner of war Camp O’Donnell after surviving the Bataan Death March. The family was forever shaken. My grandmother bought property in Santa Cruz with his G.I. insurance policy, a big house and seven acres became her dream home. Along with a welcome supervisor job at the nearby Birdseye packing sheds meant steady work too, so GrandDad and two teenage daughters made the move. This was a huge change for the girls, a new high school and away from a lifetime of friends. It was not easy. Harder still, because the whole family would not be together.
Janna stayed in Salinas and her job at the telephone company. Barely out of high school, she lived in the house on Acosta Street with family friend Cordia, and continued classes at Hartnell College. Can you imagine, being separated from your family like that? While at Pacific Bell, she was one of the first women to move from the operator’s perch to the technical back room where her skills at problem solving, design, and clear thinking were ground breaking in an era when women were thought to be incapable. Always with a tool box handy and power tool ready, just in case. She sure showed them!
A lifetime of trips back and forth, from Santa Cruz to Salinas, from Salinas to Santa Cruz. The road through Prunedale became a frequent commute. Keeping family together in heart despite distance. Connecting with Sunday and holiday dinners where Janna baked cakes and pies as grandmother tended a roast, beans, and potatoes. My Mom says the Sunday table was always lined up with people, some family, some friends, and sometimes boys far from home in need of a home-cooked meal. Janna would continue this tradition though out her life.
She met and married a young soldier named Christopher Henry in 1949. His own story is one of strength, endurance, and ability to overcome adversity. Both were take-no-bull, yet loving, can do survivors of the Depression and war years. They did not take anything for granted and worked — and played with a joy that comes from knowing good times are to be cherished. And the good times always came with food.
One of my favorite Aunt Janna stories was told at her memorial this last September (and there were so many!) She, Uncle Chris, and their three daughters lived in a hilltop subdivision, with long winding streets that always brought you back home whether you went left or right. When holidays would come around Aunt Janna would go to her neighbors and friends to see what kind of pies they wanted and then proceeded to bake dozens of pumpkin, apple, eggnog, chocolate or creme d’menthe pies. That on top of preparing lavish multi-course meals for her own holiday table. Doing for people is what she loved, it was what made her happy. I can barely pull together dinner and a single dessert. She was a baking machine, and blissfuly enjoyed every minute of it.
And so, it was at one of these dinners, sometime in the late fifties, early sixties that the German’s Sweet Chocolate Cake entered into our family tradition. It would appear annually for years as the star attraction for somebody’s birthday or a holiday treat. Dad always added thick layers of whipped cream along the sides adding, deciding more was better. For me, the best part was having a slice for breakfast the next day with a big glass of milk. We never wavered from the off the box recipe, it just worked, every time.
So, every few years I get a request, or a hunger and I break out the cake pans and take a trip down memory lane.