We are cake connoisseurs, my siblings and me. The mastery began one summer long ago when my sister, the one after me, decided she wanted to bake. Every day after lunch, she would prepare her ingredients. Her older siblings made sure that the younger siblings, five in all, took their afternoon nap so they wouldn’t be a bother. There was no coercion to sleep what with the promise of a cake for merienda.
There were many kinds of cakes. But there were four that we all remember even after so many years. And we still chuckle about them.
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All chocolate cakes today fall short of expectations if we call it a “crazy cake.” My baking sister remembers that it had three holes created in the mixture of the dry ingredients—flour, salt, sugar, soda, and cocoa. Then the liquid ingredients like vinegar is poured in one hole, oil in the other, and vanilla in the third. Add water and mix all together and that was it.
An aunt taught her the recipe when she heard of our “summer baking.” I thought we gave the name to the cake after our crazy crew of sisters. But a bit of research revealed how Crazy Cake was conceived during the Depression years in the United States because it had no milk, butter, eggs, and there was no need for a mixer.
What we would splurge on was the icing, made with condensed milk and cocoa powder. When the sweet gooey icing was done, the siblings would fight over the wooden ladle used to stir the icing and the scraps left over in the pot.
Looking back to that time, number five sister said she used to wait in the wings for her chance to lick the ladle, but number four sister, who is so competitive, always beat her to it. “I am scarred for life,” she said. You wouldn’t wonder if you knew that both are middle children.
While chiffon cake doesn’t need icing, my baking sister read in a magazine that it could be made into a wonderful butterfly cake. After the cake emerges from a bundt cake pan, the one that creates a hole in the middle of the round cake, she cuts one side through and on the opposite, she cuts a small wedge which becomes the head of the butterfly. The wings are the two big pieces with the arc placed back to back then a space is made on one side for the head.
The icing can be butter or caramel. Then get M&M candies and press on the icing to create a colorful cake. We made the picture complete by placing baking wires as antennae.
That butterfly cake inspired my sister to experiment on coloring icing. That led to a dismal failure because all of us didn’t care to taste her blue cake or a very green one. She chuckles today when she sees weird icing colors like black. She muses today that she might have been ahead of today’s bakers. That baking gene was inherited by her son, a pastry chef.
Color seems to affect our desire to taste a cake. My younger sister, number six in our line-up of seven girls, was celebrating her birthday in my father’s hometown of La Union. So, my father bought her a cake at the local bakery. We did sing and she blew her candles. But nobody wanted to have a taste. It was because the icing flowers had the color of what an Ilocano described as kulay apostoles, the color of the apostles’ robes in the Last Supper scene—sickening green, sour yellow, bloody red. We still cringe at the thought and are thankful that our favorite Estrel’s Caramel Cake has pastel-colored roses.
For my brother’s first birthday, the only boy in the brood and the youngest, my sister decided that she was not only going to make a cake but several cupcakes in butter and chocolate flavors. Then there would be different icings on each one. So the whole brood except my brother were to do the task.
If the cupcakes were put together, it would comprise the size of a big cake. But the celebrant was not impressed. Not that he protested, but his face in the photo said it all, a face that seemed to say, “Is that it?” We don’t know if he was also scarred for life but maybe not because he is the only one who does our version of the brazo de Mercedes.
We have always been proud of our brazo because we thought it the best version. The filling had no condensed milk and so was less sweet and the color was more like the yolk of egg. Our aunt, my mother’s sister, taught us how to do it. Whenever we had lunch or dinner guests at home, that was the family’s best dessert presented. The most appreciative, of course, were the siblings because we didn’t always make it.
But my brother proudly said that to this day, he still does it. And when we asked how he got the recipe, he said, just use Tita Nora (Daza’s) recipe but substitute sugar for the condensed milk. One food writer, Mol Fernando, said his grandmother who baked cakes as her business called it by its French name—Bras de Marie.
The recipe below is provided as best as we could remember the cake. And because no one wants to bake to illustrate the cake (I don’t have an oven), we hope the artist’s rendition can help you imagine it.
Crazy Cake3 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons baking soda 1/2 cup cocoa powder 2 cups white sugar 2 tablespoons white vinegar 2 teaspoons vanilla extract 3/4 cup vegetable oil 2 cups cold water
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).
2. Use an ungreased 9 x 13-inch cake pan. Into it sift the flour, salt, salt, soda, cocoa, and sugar together.
3. Make 3 holes in the dry batter. Pour vinegar into 1 hole, vanilla into the second hole, and vegetable oil into third hole.
4. Pour cold water over the batter and, using a fork, stir to mix all the ingredients together.
5. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
FROSTING:3/4 stick butter 1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 can (425 grams) condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Melt the butter. Set aside.
2. Sift the cocoa powder into a bowl. Add the melted butter and mix well.
3. Add the condensed milk and the vanilla. Mix thoroughly.
4. After the mixture cools down, spread the frosting on the chocolate cake.
Illustrations by Chris Clemente