A lot to ask of a cake

January 7th, 2022

(published in The Daily Memphian, December 31, 2021)

As some of you may remember, a couple of years ago I wrote about my wife and daughter making a cake from scratch for Christmas.

Snowbound in Syracuse and a curious cook, Hallie still looks south for inspiration from time-to-time, and this caught her attention in Southern Living, “Cool peppermint-vanilla cake and fluffy pink buttercream make a merry combination. Finish with whimsical dollops of mint frosting.”

They had her at “peppermint.” She shares a peppermint gene with her mother.

So, on Christmas Eve of 2019 they created that cake from scratch, wrestling it out of mid-air. Out of panic and laughter. Order from chaos.

I watched from the couch, relieved of duty at the end of a three-week stretch of bronchitis. Mother and daughter dancing a dance of millennia, from baking beginnings of the ancient Egyptians, to the Vikings who gave us the word cake, to our kitchen. There’s no app to handle this. Your phone can’t stir or pour or taste. Your tablet can’t find that rack you haven’t seen since the kids were little, or the pans, or the cake stand. A linear process of steps must be honored, and steps within steps. This is one followed by two, analog not digital, and if you mess up one, two doesn’t matter. In fact, if you mess up two, one doesn’t matter, not to mention what happens if you mess up twelve.

Hallie didn’t come last Christmas. Covid did. Changing Christmas everywhere. Changing lives, taking lives everywhere. We need order from chaos again.

This year, Hallie’s back. And I asked her to help me make a cake. Me, who’s baking experience heretofore has been pretty much limited to toast and, well, toast. We wouldn’t be tackling the cake above. We would be making Carl’s Mocha Cake. Not as difficult as the peppermint cake, but made from the stuff of decades. No “whimsical dollops of mint frosting,” but full of memories.

My favorite cake in the known world.

Carl’s Bakery on Jackson has been gone for years and years, and I’ve been looking for the recipe for the mocha cake pretty much since they made the last one and shut the doors – since I first mourned the loss over a beer down the street from the shuttered Carl’s at Alex’s, only slightly comforted by a Rocky burger. Turns out, a friend, Julie Denman, has had the recipe all along and, hearing of my quest, shared it with me recently. I thought I’d found the Dead Sea scrolls.

I asked a master pastry chef I knew to make one from the recipe. It was beautiful. Six layers tall, each baked from scratch, not the four layers the recipe calls for straight out of a box. The filling was crafted from fresh pineapple and lemon, certainly not the canned pineapple and lemon pudding of the recipe. Likewise, the frosting of shaved chocolate and fresh ground coffee was far from the cocoa powder and instant coffee of the recipe.

Not Carl’s Mocha Cake.

The chef’s cake was his version of the recipe he was given, a nod to Carl, perhaps, but the bow to be taken by the chef. It was perfect, ready for photographs. Carl’s is just ready to eat.

The recipe from Julie, while probably not actually Carl’s, was a recipe to make Carl’s cake, a recipe informed by what that cake meant, what that cake tastes like.

That’s the cake Hallie and I made. Okay, the cake Hallie mostly made, and I screwed up here and there. And here. And over there, too. You know, the way it leans. The bald spots in the icing.

Carl’s Mocha Cake.

It tastes like the year we got married. Like our first apartment. Our first house. It tastes like becoming parents. Like promotions. Like graduations. It tastes like celebration, and like eating half of it on the way home from the bakery with your fingers.

It tastes like you made it with your daughter.

Simply sweet.

There just might be some order returning from the chaos. Meantime, let us eat cake.

I’m a Memphian, and so is Carl’s Mocha Cake. Happy New Year, and here’s the recipe.


(aka, Dan’s Favorite Cake in the Known World)


Yellow cake of your choice - four layers preferred

Filling –

20-ounce can crushed pineapple

1 instant lemon pudding (serving four)

1-pint heavy cream, whipped

Frosting –

¼-cup butter, softened

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

2 teaspoons instant coffee granules

Dash of salt

3 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted

3 tablespoons milk

1½ teaspoons vanilla

Chopped pecans


Bake yellow cake according to your recipe.

Make filling: Mix pineapple and pudding mix and let thicken for five minutes. Fold in whipped cream.

For frosting, cream butter, cocoa, coffee, and salt. Slowly cream in 1 cup sugar, then gradually add remaining sugar along with milk and vanilla.

Spread filling between cake layers. Frost sides and top with frosting and press pecans in the side of the cake to taste.

Eat the whole damn thing in one sitting.

You’re welcome.


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