Chocolate cake holds a special place in my heart, especially on Valentine's Day. I still have the very first Valentine I ever received from Tony, which came to me back in 1993 all the way from Antarctica. We were both working for Clipper Cruise Line at the time, Tony aboard ship and I in the St. Louis home office, and we had been dating for almost a year.
Back then, there were no cell phones or email capabilities at sea, and the only way to communicate was through the semi-weekly boxes of mail and reports sent back and forth between the home office and the ship, or via obscenely expensive satellite phone calls ($10 per minute).
We hadn't seen each other in over six months, and even though we did our best to stay in touch, we were 9,000 miles apart. The Antarctic itineraries could last anywhere from 10 to 17 days between ports and having Tony in such a remote part of the world made it difficult to communicate on a regular basis.
It had been almost a month since I'd heard from Tony, and I started to worry that he might have lost interest in our long-distance relationship. Valentine's Day that year fell on a Sunday, and when the box arrived from the ship on the Friday before, containing nothing with my name on it, I feared the worst.
I woke up on Valentine's Day to the sound of someone knocking on my apartment door. It was around 7:30 a.m., and I was not only flummoxed, but peeved, by this early morning disturbance. I grumbled my way to the door, looked through the peephole and saw no one on the other side.
Now fully irritated, I threw the door open, ready to chase down my mystery knocker. I nearly knocked over a vase containing two dozen long-stemmed red roses, accompanied by a Valentine card hand-painted by Tony, featuring a picture of a chocolate cake. We had our first kiss over chocolate cake almost one year before, and I was dearly moved by his thoughtful remembrance of that special moment.
This week's recipes are two of my favorites when it comes to chocolate sheet cake and frosting. The cake is made with a cooked cocoa mixture and buttermilk, which results in a rich flavor and ultra-moist crumb.
The French Icing is a recipe I discovered years ago in a cookbook, and it is quick and easy to make. A raw egg is the key to this frosting's superbly lush texture, and you can use a pasteurized egg if you're concerned about food safety. To give it a Valentine's boost, I added a touch of strawberry juice and a tiny bit of red gel food coloring.
To this day, I have no idea how Tony orchestrated that special delivery all the way from Antarctica, but it worked. I knew, at that moment, that no distance was too great to keep us apart, and two months later we were engaged to be married. Ever since, I have believed in the power of chocolate cake.
Sarah's Favorite Chocolate Sheet Cake
1 cup unsalted butter
⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup water
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 slightly beaten eggs
½ cup buttermilk
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
2 to 3 tablespoons flavored liqueur (coffee, chocolate or orange), optional
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Grease a 15 ½ x 10 ½ x 1-inch baking pan and then line with a layer of parchment paper. This will ensure easy removal of the cake later.
In a saucepan combine butter, cocoa and water. Bring to boil over medium heat, stirring constantly; remove from heat.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, soda and salt. Using the paddle attachment on your stand mixer, stir in the eggs, buttermilk, vanilla and liqueur on medium-low speed until smooth and well mixed.
Add the warm cocoa mixture and mix on medium speed until fully blended, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed.
Pour the cake batter into the prepared sheet pan and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick test comes out clean. Cool cake completely, then remove from pan and place on a cutting board.
Use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to create the cake cutouts, and save the scraps for later use.
Cake may be stored, covered, at room temperature for at least 5 days, or frozen for up to 3 months.
Lightly adapted from The Joy of Cooking Cookbook
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla
1 to 3 tablespoons flavoring
Gel food coloring
Decorative sprinkles, optional
Use a handheld or stand mixer and beat the butter until soft and creamy, about 1 minute. Gradually add the sugar, mixing on medium speed throughout, until the ingredients are blended and creamy.
Beat in the egg until fully incorporated. Beat in the vanilla and any additional flavoring, one tablespoon at a time. Taste and add more flavor as desired.
Use a toothpick to add the food coloring, sparingly, mixing in until desired color is achieved. Use immediately or refrigerate for 4 days.
• Uncooked icings can have a slightly raw taste which can be overcome by letting the icing stand over hot water. Once the egg has been beaten in, but before adding the vanilla, flavoring and food color, simply bring a small pot of water to a boil. Remove pot from burner, place the icing bowl on top and let stand for 10 to 15 minutes. Add the vanilla and other flavoring and beat until cool and ready to spread. Mix in food coloring as desired.
• If you are uncomfortable using a raw egg, a pasteurized egg may be used to ensure food safety.
• This icing is lush and billowy, and a bit too thin for piping. It is best applied with a knife or spatula.
• If the frosting becomes clumpy or stiff when adding the sugar, don't worry. This will pass once the egg has been added.
• Recommended flavorings include the juice of macerated berries or cherries, any citrus juice or zest, coffee or rum.
• Raise your hand high when sprinkling small ingredients like sprinkles, sugar or salt for a more even distribution.
"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 12-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All previous recipes can be found at " target="_blank">thelostitalian.areavoices.com.