Make Ahead

Belle Foley's Chocolate Cake

April 28, 2011
Photo by James Ransom
Author Notes

My mother was the saddest person I ever knew. Life and everything in it failed her utterly. I've never understood fully the roots of her disappointment, though heaven knows I tried. Nonetheless, one of my best memories of her is this cake.

My mother, Marilyn Joan, known as Joan, grew up on a farm in the general area of Fenton, Michigan. On a neighboring farm lived a woman by the name of Belle Foley. Over the years, I've nurtured an image of a woman described by my father, who came to know her, as warm and smiling.

This is the cake she taught my mother to make. It was always our go to cake for anyone's birthday when my sister and I were children, then eventually for our children and their friends as we grew our own families. The ingredients and directions are exactly as I inherited them from my mother. My notes are in parentheses.

Measurements are fairly approximate. According to my mother, "Belle measured cups with teacups and teaspoons with something you'd use to stir sugar into coffee." As well, "rounding" measurements mean just that. Butter was something they churned from the milk and cream from their own cows, eggs were gathered from beneath their chickens, and need I explain that the milk was anything less than "whole"?

You really can mix it in one large bowl. Sift together dry ingredients? Forget about it. Whisk? Sure, if you have one, which I'm fairly sure Belle Foley did not. Alternatively, mix with a rubber spatula.

I like to think that Belle Foley took a nervous, unsure young woman to her side and shared this cake recipe with her, and gave her some joy. The greatest tribute to both her and my mother is to pass this on.

Enjoy! And please pass it on. - boulangere

And now for something entirely new, some of you may have followed the story on foodpickle of the miraculous gentleman who posted a question as to how to get in touch with me because, you see, Belle Foley was his mother. You can read the very long thread here:

For the sake of ease of use, I'm posting the frosting recipe on the page Belle Foley's Chocolate Cake Chocolate Frosting: This cake has created miracles. —boulangere

Test Kitchen Notes

While making this cake I felt sent back in time: stirring up batter in a country kitchen, before the time of electric mixers and air conditioning. The batter came together quite easily with just a bowl and wooden spoon, however it was very watery. I admit to skepticism when I poured it in the pan and popped it in the oven and I sent a little prayer up to the kitchen angels. But after about 40 minutes I beheld a glorious chocolate cake. Belle Foley's creation is pure, home-cooked, delicious chocolate goodness. It makes a wonderful treat to snack on as is, but I will definitely be trying it out with a variety of frostings and fillings...think coffee, caramel, nutella... - cookiecakes —cookiecakes

  • Serves hmmm 8 to 10
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 rounded tablespoons cocoa
  • 3 rounded tablespoons soft butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup milk, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 teaspoon (baking) soda
In This Recipe
  1. (My notes: Trace the outline of a 9-inch round cake pan onto a sheet of parchment. Cut inside the line so that the circle fits inside the cake pan. Drop the circle into the cake pan. Don't spray or grease the sides; you'll get a more level rise.)
  2. Preheat oven to 350° F.
  3. Mix together the sugar, cocoa, butter, eggs, milk, vanilla, and flour. Batter will seem thick, but don't worry. Add 1 cup of boiling water with 1 teaspoon (baking) soda stirred into it. Stir together. It will seem runny, but don't worry.
  4. Pour into a cake pan. Bake for about 35 or 40 minutes (or until done, when you can bounce your finger off the top and the cake feels springy). Those are all the instructions I received from Belle.
  5. (Remove cake from oven and let cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes before depanning. Depan and let cool until room temp to the touch. Sift some powdered sugar over the top. Cut warm, generous slices and serve with big splops of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.)
  6. Know love. And please pass it on.

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