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Love in the Form of Chocolate

One family’s special cake

Andria
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Phoebe, Jake, Yvonne, and John Cosgrove

CAKE AND MEMORIES Phoebe, Jake, Yvonne, and John Cosgrove are hooked on the taste – and the memories – of Yvonne’s mother’s chocolate cake. (Photo: Dylan Aguilar)

How does a chocolate cake achieve cult status? In Yvonne Cosgrove’s family, the answer to that question is not clear. Nobody knows how or why her mother’s chocolate cake became the family favorite. They just know that’s the cake they’re likely to find on the table for most any birthday or celebration.

“It’s pretty much the birthday cake,” Yvonne says. “Everybody had this cake for every birthday, in every picture. It is just our go-to.”

While Yvonne was growing up in West University – the same neighborhood her dad, Henry Rosenblum grew up in – her mom, Phyllis Rosenblum, baked a lot. “She baked, and her mom baked. Baking was a big part of growing up,” Yvonne says. (Phyllis passed away 25 years ago.) “But I don’t really know why she started making this cake. All I really remember is my parents were so into cooking. They were part of a gourmet cooking club, and they would come up with these huge, themed dinners. They were really big early foodie people. Gourmet magazine was delivered to the house.”

Henry, who lives in Washington, DC, now – “I came to visit my son about 10 years ago,” he quips – remembers the gourmet group fondly. “We called it HOGS, Houston Original Gourmet Society,” he says. “Who named it? All I know is it wasn’t me. There were probably 30 of us in it. We still get together, but now we’ll meet out instead of someone’s house.” They recently planned a get-together at Brennan’s.

Yvonne Cosgrove

FAMILY TRADITION Yvonne Cosgrove makes the cake her mother, Phyllis Rosenblum, made for all the family’s special occasions. (Photo: Dylan Aguilar)

“When Phyllis and I married in 1964, one of the wedding gifts we got was Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cook Book. He was the New York Times food critic for a long time. I think we got two or three copies of the book.”

Yvonne has one of them. “This recipe is specific to the 1961 edition,” she says. Since it was first published in 1961, the book has become a classic, likened to Julia Child’s The Joy of Cooking, and has sold more than 3 million copies.

“That cake from the cookbook became the chocolate cake,” Henry says of Claiborne’s Sweet Chocolate Cake. “We made it once and followed the recipe strictly.” After that, Phyllis switched out the Coconut-Pecan Frosting with Chocolate Cream Frosting from the same book. “Maybe that was her unique spin on it, that she found this cake and put it together with this icing that she liked,” Yvonne says.

“I’m going to disappoint you a little bit,” Henry admits. “I did bread, and Phyllis did sweet. I never made a cake in my life, and actually my favorite dessert is lemon meringue pie. But this was the cake. And I do like that cake with a big glass of cold milk.”

Yvonne remembers her mother baking it. “There was a lot of production leading up to the cake, and then having it,” she says.

Yvonne has learned to make the cake, and so has her husband John, a residential real estate appraiser. “I must have taught him over the last 25 years!” she says. “There was a lot of pressure making the cake, and sometimes I was like, ‘You make the cake.’ Or he’ll make it for my birthday. It’s not a secret, it’s literally in the New York Times Cook Book. But it’s sort of a production cake, sort of complicated. So it was special partly because it’s a lot of steps to make.”

At times, Phyllis made another version of the cake involving a marshmallow icing covered with colorful gumdrops. “My grandmother and sister loved that version, but there’s something special about the chocolate icing with that cake, so I was not as big a fan,” Yvonne says. “But it was spectacular; she would decorate the whole thing. I don’t know where the white icing came from, but I would love to make it now.”

As it stands, the original chocolate cake – with Phyllis’ frosting switch – is the only one Yvonne’s family, including 20-year-old Jake and 19-year-old Phoebe, needs. “I have explored other cakes,” she says, “but this is always the one we come back to. If you ask my kids, ‘What cake do you get for your birthday?’ this is it. And that’s true in my brother’s and sister’s families. It’s hard to make, but there is no other cake you would make.”

Phyllis never met her grandchildren. But through her cake, they have gotten to know her. “It’s just a showstopper cake,” Yvonne says. “It was such a special cake for us growing up. To be able to pass that down to our kids is really special.”

The chocolate cake

The chocolate cake. (Photo: Dylan Aguilar)

Sweet Chocolate Cake

From Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cook Book, 1961 edition

1 4-ounce package sweet cooking chocolate
½ cup boiling water
1 cup butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ½ cups sifted cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
Chocolate Cream Frosting, recipe below

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt the chocolate in the boiling water. Cool.

Cream the butter, add the sugar and cream until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add the vanilla and melted chocolate and mix until well blended.

Sift the flour with the baking soda and salt. Add the sifted dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk to the butter mixture, beating after each addition until the batter is smooth.

Fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites and pour the batter into three 8- or 9-inch greased layer pans, lined on the bottom with waxed paper. Bake 35 to 40 minutes. Cool.

Frost the top and between the layers with desired frosting. Do not frost the sides of the cake.

Chocolate Cream Frosting

1 cup (6-ounce package) semisweet chocolate pieces
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon instant coffee
¼ cup sugar
4 egg yolks
½ cup butter

In the top of a double boiler heat the chocolate, water, coffee, and sugar. Stir occasionally until the mixture is smooth.

Beat in the egg yolks one at a time and cook over boiling water 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool to lukewarm and beat in the butter bit by bit.

  • Phyllis Rosenblum

    SWEET MEMORIES Phyllis Rosenblum (pictured) often baked while her children were growing up. Her favorite cake recipe was the Sweet Chocolate Cake from Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cook Book, 1961 edition, and she used the Chocolate Cream Frosting from the same book.

  • Henry Rosenblum

    GOOD FOOD Henry Rosenblum (pictured, blowing out the candles at a birthday celebration) and wife Phyllis were “foodies” at a time when that term wasn’t common. They were part of a gourmet cooking club.

  • Yvonne Cosgrove, John Cosgrove

    Yvonne taught her husband John to make the cake.

  • Yvonne remembers her mother baking the same chocolate cake for birthdays that she now bakes for her children. Daughter Phoebe is pictured eyeing the cake during one of her earliest birthday celebrations.

  • Phyllis Rosenblum
  • Henry Rosenblum
  • Yvonne Cosgrove, John Cosgrove

Phyllis Rosenblum

SWEET MEMORIES Phyllis Rosenblum (pictured) often baked while her children were growing up. Her favorite cake recipe was the Sweet Chocolate Cake from Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cook Book, 1961 edition, and she used the Chocolate Cream Frosting from the same book.

Henry Rosenblum

GOOD FOOD Henry Rosenblum (pictured, blowing out the candles at a birthday celebration) and wife Phyllis were “foodies” at a time when that term wasn’t common. They were part of a gourmet cooking club.

Yvonne Cosgrove, John Cosgrove

Yvonne taught her husband John to make the cake.

Yvonne remembers her mother baking the same chocolate cake for birthdays that she now bakes for her children. Daughter Phoebe is pictured eyeing the cake during one of her earliest birthday celebrations.

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