My Family Recipe

A Chocolate Cake That Celebrates Mothers—Lost & Found

A reflection on loss and grief—and the untold power of a mother-knows-best birthday cake.

December 19, 2020
Photo by James Ransom

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.


In the first months after my husband, Erik, died while mountain climbing in 2014, I spent much of my time shuffling about my sister’s house in a teary, sleepless haze. I wore rumpled variations of pajamas or sweats every day, and I had no appetite—everything I tried to eat tasted like the color grey. Prior to the accident that took his life, before I knew the term “young widow,” I had loved food.

Erik and I married in 2012, when he was in business school at Georgetown, and I had already swapped careers from lawyer to pastry chef. When he graduated the next year, we moved back to Brooklyn. He went to his new job in the Financial District, and I began pursuing a food writing career.

Amid all the life changes, we had our constants: He had a great appetite, and I loved cooking. In the evenings, I roasted, braised, and sautéed from our little apartment stove using new spices and ingredients I discovered at Sahadi’s or the Park Slope Food Coop. I baked layer cakes and pie for no particular occasion. On weekends, when he was not trekking through the Appalachian Trail, Erik trekked to outer boroughs with me to eat at obscure momo restaurants and hand-pulled-noodle stands.

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“Chocolate cake with whipped cream was my favorite birthday cake my mom made for me. She lives too far away to make it for me now and she really doesn’t bake much anymore. I am going to make your mother’s recipe in honor of both our mother’s! Happy Holidays to you Lisa ”
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But loss has a funny way of rearranging your priorities, your brain, and your life. One day, we were newlyweds. And then, just like that, he was dead. His death did not make sense or even seem real. I remember thinking that he could not be dead, because I’d already bought the ingredients for his “Welcome Home from Mount Rainier!” dinner: pasta with meatballs and a big salad. Worse still, the park service could not find or recover his body. He was just...gone.

After he died, I did not want to be in the kitchen, or even eat. Food didn’t matter. All that did was that my young, happy-go-lucky husband was dead, and I was stuck holding the shattered pieces of our barely-begun life. Instead of cooking, I did things like eat cereal and stand in front of our refrigerator, watching the expiration date on his yogurts lapse because I was too sad and disbelieving to throw them away.

What I didn’t know was that 225 miles south of Brooklyn, in Washington, D.C., two other people were grieving a parallel loss.

A few days after Erik’s memorial service, a law school friend mentioned that his buddy Brodie had just lost his wife to a long illness. He asked if I would like to be connected, since we were both now navigating similar experiences at the same time.

I said yes, desperate to connect with someone who could understand this specific grief and loneliness. A few days later, our mutual friend introduced us by email, and right away, Brodie and I began exchanging sad emails and short texts like, “I’m at the office crying in the lactation room” and “If one more person tells me it was ‘God’s plan,’ I'm going to lose it.” He told me about single parenting his nine-year-old daughter, Margot.

Throughout the summer, we checked in regularly. We kept tabs on each other’s insomnia and debated which of our spouses’ belongings to keep and which to donate. We talked about Margot starting fourth grade in the fall and about normal things like travel and books and whether Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums was the funnier movie. (For the record: Rushmore.)

In August, Brodie came to Brooklyn to visit friends. We met for the first time in a park and hugged like old friends. We walked for a long time and stopped for beers at a wood-paneled German bar. For a minute, I felt almost like myself again.

Summer turned to fall. I traveled to D.C. for a weekend with college friends. Over the weekend, I met Margot for the first time, a talkative little girl with wavy, strawberry-blond hair and freckles across her nose and cheeks like those I had seen in photos of her mother. She told me all about the book she was reading, and how once, in England, she spoke in a British accent for an entire day. I laughed. The laugh felt real.

Brodie and I began exchanging sad emails and short texts like, “I’m at the office crying in the lactation room” and “If one more person tells me it was ‘God’s plan,’ I'm going to lose it.” He told me about single parenting his nine-year-old daughter, Margot.

Fall turned to winter, and Margot’s 10th birthday. Knowing I had a pastry background, Brodie asked if I would bake Margot’s birthday cake. I’d have to drive down to D.C., though, so was that okay?

I hadn’t made a birthday cake in seven months, not since my husband’s—a carrot cake with vanilla frosting and sprinkles on top. His last. I told Brodie that I was honored he’d asked, and yes, I would.

I didn’t mention my nervousness. Before “grief brain” (a very real thing) set in, a simple layer cake would have been easy. But now, fuzzy-headed with sadness and trauma, I had real worries about whether I might burn the cake or forget to add sugar.

“Oh, good!” Brodie said. “Could she talk to you about it?”

Children’s worlds are limited, and, as I’ve learned since, so are their concepts of death. Most children do not grieve through deep revelations about the scope and permanence of death. Instead, young children tend to experience a parent’s death in small, quotidian losses: Who will braid my hair? Who will take me shopping for my first-day-of-school outfit? And: Who will bake my birthday cake?

Margot’s small, chipper voice got on the phone. After chatting about Christmas and school, I asked her what kind of cake she would like.

“Chocolate cake with whipped cream frosting.”

“What about decorations?” I asked. She considered.

“Can it have owls?” she asked. “They are my favorite.” A pause. “And can I have Napoleon ice cream?”

“What’s Napoleon ice cream?” I asked.

“It’s the kind with chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry all in one container,” she explained.

“Ohhhh,” I laughed. “You mean Neapolitan ice cream.”

I regretted correcting the malapropism.

In the days leading up to the party, I dyed and sculpted balls of fondant into a little family of light blue owls. I used special cutters to press white sugar paste into snowflakes, which I dusted with edible glitter so they sparkled like new snow.

I decided I would bake my mom’s chocolate cake, the one she always baked so lovingly for everyone’s birthday. The cake has been around so long my mom no longer remembers where the recipe came from. It has simply always existed: at birthdays, Fourth of July cookouts, and whenever life demanded chocolate cake.

My mom dropped by as I was mixing the batter.

“Don’t make the whipped cream too sweet tomorrow,” she said. “And make sure you use a lot.”

I sighed and rolled my eyes. “I know,” I said. “I have a pastry degree from the C.I.A.”

She couldn’t help it. Moms will be moms.

The next day, I drove to Washington with the cake, decorations, and cake platter in the passenger seat. I arrived at Brodie and Margot’s house an hour before the party. I knocked on the yellow front door. Margot and Brodie answered with hugs.

In the kitchen, I set up my cake decorating area: cake, offset spatulas, heavy cream, sugar owls. I hefted the KitchenAid mixer onto the countertop and attached the whisk.

I felt certain that I was the first person to use the mixer since Brodie’s late wife. I processed this over a sad, shaky breath and set to work whipping the cream with renewed determination to make sure this woman’s daughter had the cake she could no longer make. I spooned in small amounts of vanilla and confectioners’ sugar until it was just right.

Margot watched with big hazel eyes as I smoothed thick dollops of whipped cream over the chocolate cake layers and grinned as I nestled the sugar owls, snowflakes, and “Happy 10th Birthday Margot!” lettering atop the cake. The first guests arrived. The girls ran into the kitchen to see the cake and let out a chorus of happy squeals.

Margot peeled off from her friends and skated up to me. She took my hand in hers. And there, in the swirl of skaters and bad pop music, my heart cracked open. Not in heartbreak, but in an outpouring of love for this sweet, freckled girl in her oversize sweater with light blue pom-poms.

While the girls played karaoke and dress-up and ate pizza and cake, Brodie and I refilled cups and did the tedious cleanup things adults do at a kid’s birthday party. I felt strange. I felt...happy.

After cake, we all piled into the car and went ice skating. I hadn’t ice skated since Friday nights at the local ice skating rink in middle school, so I clung to the wall.

Margot peeled off from her friends and skated up to me. She took my hand in hers. And there, in the swirl of skaters and bad pop music, my heart cracked open. Not in heartbreak, but in an outpouring of love for this sweet, freckled girl in her oversize sweater with light blue pom-poms.

I let go of the wall. We skated clumsily forward, together.

In the five, nearly six years since her 10th birthday party, I have baked Margot four more chocolate birthday cakes with whipped cream. Brodie and I fell in love and got married two years ago. Now I am Margot’s stepmom.

We are a package deal, moving clumsily forward, together.

Each year, Margot—now well into high school—and I talk about her birthday party and her cake. My mom’s chocolate cake with whipped cream frosting is a given, though each year, the decorations evolve. One year, I made her a movie-themed cake with a ribbony spool of edible film. The next year, I covered it in rainbow sprinkles.

She hasn’t decided on this year’s birthday cake decorations yet. We probably won’t have a party. But there will be my mom’s chocolate cake with whipped cream frosting.

Inevitably, I will suggest some vegetables and fresh fruit along with the usual pizza, cake, and ice cream. As usual, she will sigh, roll her eyes, and then eventually say okay to my misplaced goal of promoting a balanced meal at a teen birthday celebration.

I can’t help it. Moms will be moms.

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Recovering lawyer, food writer, pastry chef, and lover of food-related everything (namely: cheese, baked goods, and anything made by Mom)

54 Comments

[email protected] February 23, 2021
Thank you for sharing this touching and encouraging story. I have a guess that the recipe may have come off of a tin of Hershey"s cocoa!
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. February 25, 2021
Hi, Robin and thank you. It's so funny: a couple of other people have figured out the great mystery of my mom's chocolate cake recipe as well! Eureka! Thanks again for writing.
 
babsbnz January 2, 2021
What a heart-breaking, then heart-warming story. Tears in my eyes at the beginning and hope for the “fairy tale” ending as it proceeded. Thank you so much for sharing your recipe and your story. I’m sure it’s given hope to many.
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. January 3, 2021
Thank you for this lovely comment and I do hope that others do take positivity and hope from it, just as you say. Thanks again for writing.
 
debbie December 25, 2020
Merry Christmas! I am so touched by your story, so happy for you both. I made 12 different types of cookies for friends and family. I just put the kitchen aid away, but now I can't wait to take it out again and make your chocolate cake for the New Years.
Happy and Healthy New Year!
Debbie from Staten Island
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. December 26, 2020
Hi, Debbie and thank you! Wow--you sound like an amazing baker. Congrats on busting out all those cookies. I hope you enjoy the cake, and thanks again.
 
Karen December 22, 2020
I was deeply touched by your story. It’s not by coincidence that you were introduced to your now husband. You both had purpose. It’s the longing to share your grief with someone who understands, and to fill the moments of loss with new friendships and giving love where it’s needed. I’m happy for you and your new family. I look forward to making your chocolate cake with whipped cream. May you continue to be blessed.
Karen H.
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. December 22, 2020
Thank you for such a thoughtful note, Karen. I appreciate it a lot, and also hope you like the cake.
 
robin December 22, 2020
A beautiful story, thank you for sharing. I can’t wait to try your cake recipe.
 
Sherri H. December 22, 2020
Thank you for sharing this touching story. I come from a generation of cooks & foodies and food has been our comfort of sharing love. My son, who passed two years ago, followed the family tradition of culinary therapy. I miss his creations starting at age 8 when he discovered, on his own, that quesadillas are much better made with artisan cheese & grilled in browned butter. I try to include his favorites and original recipes often.. Memories keep our loved ones near to our hearts <3
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. December 22, 2020
Hi, Sherri. Thank you for the kind words. Please let me say that I am so very sorry for the loss of your son. That is a great anecdote about the quesadillas. Thank you for sharing this with me and others here. I do find that recipes and cooking are such an invaluable way of keeping them close. All the best to you, and again, my sympathies. xo
 
Linda December 22, 2020
What a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing and adding meaning to my day!
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. December 22, 2020
That is so kind of you to say, and thank you for reading it!
 
Caitlin R. December 22, 2020
Beautiful, thanks for sharing ❤️
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. December 22, 2020
xoxo
 
Julia R. December 22, 2020
Thank you for sharing your story. I cried... and I want to make the cake!
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. December 22, 2020
Thank you for reading it, Julia. I hope you make the cake and love it as much as we all do.
 
sylvia December 22, 2020
Love stories, traditions and food keep us connected to treasured loved ones ... so beautiful. Thank you for sharing your story.
https://rememberingpractices.com/weaving-the-dead-into-ongoing-stories-of-life
 
sylvia December 22, 2020
Love stories, traditions and food keep us connected to treasured loved ones ...
https://rememberingpractices.com/weaving-the-dead-into-ongoing-stories-of-life/?fbclid=IwAR1qDf5zC9afMe9tJBZKjzMGHFZeCqiL9mb1-xa279OR-pW6vgWxt0KufwM
 
redheadcanuck December 21, 2020
I love your story so much...thank you for sharing it! What a heart warming story. All the best to you, Margot and Brodie.
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. December 22, 2020
Thank you very much for the kind words and good wishes. We are looking forward to our Merry little three-person Christmas this year :-)
 
rutlamb1 December 21, 2020
oh how very, very lovely. So sweet and lovely. And now I'm bawling. xoxoxo
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. December 22, 2020
Aww, thank you very much. I appreciate you reading it. xo
 
Heidi M. December 21, 2020
I don't know what to say except I love you all now.
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. December 22, 2020
Thank you, Heidi!!!
 
Roberta Z. December 21, 2020
The world feels so broken right now, but reading your story has made me feel more hopeful. What a blessing it was that the three of you found each other. Thank you for sharing.
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. December 21, 2020
Hi, Roberta. Thank you so much for the touching words. Yes, I feel so lucky to have found my special new family, which includes the memories of our lost loves as well. xo
 
Cristine December 21, 2020
Lovely story, thank you for sharing. So happy you found love again ❤ Merry Christmas to your sweet family🎄
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. December 21, 2020
Thank you, Christine! I appreciate it, and the same warm Christmas wishes to you as well.
 
Steph December 21, 2020
Thank you so much for sharing. I too am a chef and went to the CIA. I lost my sister a couple of months ago and have been grieving terribly for her loss. That was a beautiful.
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. December 21, 2020
Hi, Steph. It is nice to meet a fellow CIA grad, and I am so very, very sorry for your loss, which is still so very recent and raw. The first year is so especially hard, especially around the holidays. Just go hour by hour -- minute by minute if necessary -- until it's over. And when the normal (even happy) moments do come, take that brief emotional breath. I am thinking of you and send love. If you ever need anything, please reach out. Again, I am so sorry. xo
 
Dawn T. December 20, 2020
What a lovely end to the story. I'm so happy for you guys. Can't wait to try your Mom's recipe. Here's to your wonderful future & many many more cakes.
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. December 21, 2020
Hi, Dawn. Thanks so much for reading it, and for the good wishes! Same to you.
 
Msf1221 December 20, 2020
That was really beautiful. Thank you for sharing.
 
Author Comment
Lisa R. December 20, 2020
Thank you! xoxo
 
TheWimpyVegetarian December 20, 2020
What a beautiful story. I'm am in tears. Partly because I love this story and how the author writes. Partly because my daughter-in-law, a professionally trained pastry chef who worked at the Fairmont in San Francisco, and later promoted to Head Baker, died in her sleep this week at age 41. She made cakes like this for my grandchildren, and we always looked forward to see what her next creation would be. It was so fun to watch. I think I might attempt this cake and do something fun with it for my grandkids' birthdays this year, once we can actually see them. Thanks for a beautiful story, and thanks for the inspiration.