It's not often that I have the idea for and most of the writing of a column more or less handed to me.
But if it's going to happen, at least it's appropriate that it be a birthday offering.
This year, a dear friend of mine brought a wonderful cake to a park gathering in honor of the beginning of my countdown to forty. My friend is no ordinary baker, and this was no ordinary cake. This was the kind of cake that makes you want to jump up and down and sing. It also makes you want to stay rooted in the same spot silently eating as many pieces as you can possibly get away with.
I managed to put away quite a bit, because some of the children were initially put off by the name. We had to explain to them that there are candies called turtles entirely because of their shape, which is actually more like the palm of a human hand -- but that wouldn't be a very charming name for a confection, so they named them for the friendly reptile instead. The candies are caramel and nuts trapped in a chocolate covering. The cake incorporates the same combination of tastes.
When I asked my friend if I could possibly get the recipe from her, she was ready for the request and obligingly pulled a neatly typed sheet of paper from her purse. "I don't suppose you came up with this," I said wistfully.
"Oh, no," she said. "I got it from a friend of a friend about twenty years ago. She baked it for a party I went to with my husband -- well, he wasn't my husband yet, and he really wanted me to get this recipe." My friend isn't the type to march up to near-strangers and demand recipes from them, but love makes you do crazy things, and so, two decades later, I was eating a piece of shatteringly divine cake with one hand and holding the means to having it as often as I was willing to bake it in the other.
I was surprised to see that this recipe called for a box of chocolate cake mix, mixed according to the package directions. You can prepare it that way, or stir together your own favorite chocolate cake recipe. Either way, pour half the batter into a greased 9 x 13" pan, and bake at 350 degrees for about fifteen minutes or until the center is set.
Ironically, though you can use a mix for the cake part, you'll make your own caramel. Be careful here -- cooking caramel tends to want to jump up and say hello. Wear a pair of oven mitts and an apron for this next part.
While the cake bakes, melt a cup (two sticks) of butter in a heavy saucepan. Add a quarter cup of corn syrup, a can of sweetened condensed milk (not the same as evaporated milk), and a cup of firmly packed brown sugar. Bring this mixture to a boil and continue cooking for five minutes, stirring constantly and carefully, until thickened and bubbly.
Take the cake out of the oven and let it and the caramel sauce cool slightly. Then pour the sauce over the cake. Sprinkle on top of it all a cup of chocolate chips and a cup of chopped pecans. If you're not a nut lover, do it anyway. I generally despise nuts, and they are deeply wonderful in this context.
Pour the remaining cake batter over the whole thing, gently spreading it to the edges. Arrange a cup of pecan halves on top. Put it back in the 350 degree oven and bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes (start checking at twenty), or until the cake is set on top.
If you have a special occasion coming up, this would be a wonderful way to help celebrate it. If you don't, go ahead and make it anyway, so you'll have had plenty of practice when the time comes to party.