catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 21 :: 2004.12.17 — 2004.12.30


German Sweet Chocolate Cake

The Story

Yesterday was my birthday. I made myself a German Sweet Chocolate Cake. It?s been a cake in the making for over a year now because I live in Spain. The whole process began last Christmas when I was in my home town, Sioux Center, Iowa, and I made a special trip to Hy-Vee Grocery Store to pick up one 4 ounce bar of Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate. I picked up my preparations again earlier this week. I stopped by Carrefour, the big grocery store, on Tuesday when I was in the suburbs for a meeting because I knew I would be able to find shredded coconut, evaporated milk, and pecans.

The process climaxed yesterday afternoon with 4 hours of uninterrupted kitchen madness, cracking eggs, sifting flour, stirring chocolate, measuring out teaspoons of vanilla, the sound of bubbling pots, whirling beaters, and the knife to the cutting board, crushing pecans, until in the end, after sliding glass pans pregnant with cake batter into a hot oven with mitted hands, I resigned myself to wait on the couch in the living room, licking off the beaters like an ice cream cone.

German Sweet Chocolate cake is a birthday tradition in my family. My Mom stopped asking my brother, my sister, and I what kind of cake we wanted for our birthdays years ago. We always ask for the same—one tall, round, delicious German Sweet Chocolate cake warm from the oven, about to collapse under a mound of golden coconut pecan frosting.

I’m sure anyone can think of better ways to spend a birthday afternoon than baking your own birthday cake, but for me, a birthday without German Sweet Chocolate Cake ceases to be a birthday. I had no choice but to bake the cake.

See, traditions are funny things. Most of the time we don’t really know why our traditions are important to us, or for that matter, what purpose they serve. I’d hate to have to give a good reason why my whole family herds into my parent’s basement every Christmas to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, one of our favorite scenes being the moment when Uncle Eddie’s dog discovers a squirrel hiding in the Christmas tree and begins chasing the squirrel around the house. Christmas dinner crashes to the floor, the china cabinet falls face down in the living room, ceramic collectibles shattering everywhere, Grandma sees the squirrel, surprised, and collapses next to the Christmas tree, unconscious, and the surly neighbor who comes traipsing across the lawn to the front door in a rage ends up getting mauled by the squirrel, and then the dog. The sad part is when it’s all over, my family applauds, and we all laugh until we can feel the Christmas turkey hurting in our guts.

The only thing we really know about traditions once they’re started is that if they would ever stop, we would be missing something that makes us who we are.

April and I learned something about this when we first moved abroad. We had only been in Amsterdam for a few weeks at that point, fresh off the boat, and someone we had just met, an American couple who worked with youth in the city, invited us to share Thanksgiving with them.

We showed up on Thanksgiving at the address the couple had given us, and we found ourselves standing in front of a little cafe with a makeshift sign propped up just outside the door that read “The Pump.” Teens were pushing past us to get inside and the surging Punk music grew louder as we stepped inside.

Already, one thing was for sure, this was not our typical Thanksgiving. What would have been my mother’s kitchen stacked with hot plates covered in tin foil, running with female relatives working elbow to elbow was, in this case, a bar in the back of the room converted into a kitchen for the evening. Young people were pouring themselves drinks and cluttering themselves around what looked like two cafeteria tables with plastic table clothes and candles, a far cry from my Mom’s dining room table done up with the 3-times-a-year china, the embroidered table cloth, and the silver cutlery. Instead of nieces and nephews playing at the Lego table in the basement and my dad and brother gabbing in the living room about the latest insurance plan over a magazine, hungry adolescents leaned over the tables and giggled, some shooting pool in the back room, others hunched over an X-Box.

We got in line at the bar to get our helping of Thanksgiving dinner, glass pans heaped with stuffing and turkey and mashed potatoes lined up along counter, and that was the first time we actually saw our friends Jeremy and Candice, the ones who had invited us in the first place. They were in this tiny room just off the bar. They were pulling handfuls of plastic silverware out of a backpack and handing them to some helpers, giving them directions to bring the silverware to the tables. Candice looked up from what she was doing for a second and saw us in line.

“Hi, you guys,” she yelled from the other room, smiling. She dropped the backpack on a table and came over to talk to us.

“Isn’t this great?” she said, taking a deep breathe and wiping the sweat from her forehead with her arm. “All these Dutch kids want to celebrate American Thanksgiving with us.” She waved at a group of teenagers who just stepped inside the door at the other end of the room.

“Yeah. It’s great,” I said. It wasn’t what I had been thinking. My thoughts had been more along the lines of “What’s the point in celebrating American Thanksgiving if all you’ve got is 50 Dutch teenagers, a pile of Punk cds, and a room you’d rather sing karaoke in than eat dinner?” But something told me Candice was right.

“You know,” Candice said, looking at us again, “one thing you learn when you live in another country is that no one else is going to celebrate your traditions for you. You have to do them yourself. But if you throw a party, you’ll always find friends to help you celebrate.” She smiled at us once more, and then she was off again. A few minutes later we were at our table eating Thanksgiving dinner.

I’ve been living in Madrid for nearly two years now, and I still carry the wisdom I gleaned from our conversation with Candice that Thanksgiving.

This week I celebrated my birthday, and I did everything. I baked the cake. I invited everyone I knew to come over and have a piece. I was completely exhausted in the end. But the important thing is this: it felt like my birthday.

The Recipe

There’s not much of a “secret recipe” to the German Sweet Chocolate Cake my mom makes. She got the recipe from the back of the Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate wrapper.

I’ll add a few comments (*) about substitutions at the end of the recipe.


  • 1 pkg (4 oz Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate)*
  • 1/2 cup boiling water
  • 1 cup butter or margarine
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 1/2 cups sifted Swans Down Cake Flour*
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 4 egg whites, stiffly beaten

  • 1 cup evaporated milk

  • 1 cup sugar

  • 3 egg yolks, slightly beaten

  • 1/2 cup butter or margarine

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

  • 1 1/3 cups flaked coconut

  • 1 cup chopped pecans

Melt chocolate in boiling water. Cool. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add yolks, 1 at a time, beating well after each. Blend in vanilla and chocolate. Shift flour with soda and salt; add alternately with buttermilk to chocolate mixture, beating after each addition until smooth. Fold in beaten whites. Pour into three 8 or 9 inch layer pans, lined on bottoms with paper . Bake at 350?F for 30 to 40 minutes. Cool. Frost tops with frosting recipe below.

Coconut Pecan Frosting: Combine 1 cup evaporated milk, 1 cup sugar, 3 slightly beaten egg yolks, 1/2 cup butter or margarine, 1 teaspoon vanilla. Cook and stir over medium heat until thickened-about 12 minutes. Add 1 1/3 cups flaked coconut and 1 cup chopped pecans. Cool until thick enough to spread; beat occasionally. Makes 2 1/2 cups.

() Substitutions:

  • Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate Substitution: As a substitute, use a 4 oz chocolate bar without sugar, which you can find at most grocery stores.

  • Sifted Swans Down Cake Flour Substitution: Cake flour is not a necessity. You can use regular flour, but take out a couple of level tablespoons from the 2 1/2 cups. That should make it equal to cake flour.

  • Paper Pan Lining Substitution: The paper in the bottom of the cake pans can be wax paper. Set your pans on wax paper and mark around the bottom. Cut out the paper; put a “dab” of shortening in the bottom of the pan to hold the paper and place wax paper in the pan.

Thanks to for inspiration.

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