chocolate cake
Photo: Alexandra Rowley
Many, many years ago, I had a terrific crush on Uncle Abe, my mother's younger brother. I was an only child; my cousins were much older than I and uninterested in the young, overly wordy thing that I was. I didn't fit.

Uncle Abe was also an anomaly in our family. He was tall by our standards, over six feet (my father was barely five feet). Abe was a lawyer like all of his siblings, including my mother, but his heart was in sports. He was a natural athlete, unexpected in a socialist Jewish family of the thirties. Abe had a head of black curly hair that he loved having me rub and I loved rubbing—playing handmaiden to my hero.

His mother, my grandmother, like all the women on my mother's side of the family, was a terrible cook. They either couldn't boil water or didn't believe in the self-indulgence of fine food. But Abe and I shared a great interest in eating. Together we ate snack foods and various other unhealthy things, not steak or the French food that the upwardly mobile favored in those days. We would crunch our way through a bag of potato chips and eat street-corner hot dogs; we also enjoyed going out for plates of spaghetti (not yet pasta), Chinese dumplings, my first sukiyaki, kosher pickles, German pancakes, and guacamole. During our outings, we talked about silly things, told jokes, and gossiped freely. He introduced me to his friends and made me feel special.

Abe loved coming into Manhattan from Far Rockaway to visit our family; but I think even more he loved the chocolate cakes that our cook, Rachel, would make especially for him. She was born in Canada and raised by the Salvation Army before becoming a disciple of the evangelist Father Divine. Rachel cooked by pure talent. Without any formal training, she had only to hear a dish described to come up with a sumptuous rendition.

Rachel fell for Abe, too, and knew of his love for chocolate. Whenever she heard that he was coming, there would always be a huge, glossy chocolate cake in the refrigerator that none of us was allowed to touch. She invented this cake for him. It was a tour de force in the days before real freezers and electric mixers, the layers rich but light, coated with unsweetened whipped cream, the icing dark and glossy. The finished cake was high and delicious, better than any other I'd ever had.

Sometimes Rachel—who generally liked to keep her kitchen to herself—would let me help, instructing me to beat the batter in one direction for what seemed like an endless period. Our not-very-large refrigerator had a small section for making ice cubes. Somehow Rachel managed the incredible trick of getting the gelatinized whipped cream cold and firm enough so that the icing could be poured over it without melting the cream. The flavors and textures came together in a chocolate lover's dream, all for Abe.

He was quite a ladies' man and would sometimes stay with us after his dates. The next morning, half the cake would be gone, along with a quart of milk. Occasionally, he would sneak me a taste for breakfast before school. I reveled in this shared rebellion against correct behavior.

Abe served in World War II. One afternoon in the mid-1940s, shortly after his return from the army, he came up to see us at my parents' country house. He'd put on weight, but he was the same glorious Abe. When he arrived, I was just about to set out for the country club with two young men. Abe complained to my mother about my wandering off with them alone. She said I was 15 and that was old enough. He replied that he knew what boys did with girls in cars. I was flattered and embarrassed by his protectiveness.

When the three of us came back, not very late, he asked the boys if they would mind playing a game of tennis with him the following day. They politely agreed, obviously dubious about the skills of this heavy, to-them-old man. I winced. The next day they showed up natty in white. He was slovenly. We went to the country club. To the boys' surprise, Abe said he'd play them both at the same time. They shrugged. He went to his side of the court, planted himself, and proceeded to swamp them. I think his fantasy was to defend my honor. Certainly, we had bonded over those bags of potato chips and slices of Rachel's chocolate cake. And in his own way, Abe confirmed that we belonged to each other. He was my first love.

Rachel left before Abe came back from the war. She didn't give me the cake recipe, so I had to do my best to re-create it. I never had the pleasure of baking it for Abe. But as I got older, I did make it for other men, taking great care to use the very best chocolate and believing deeply in its seductive witchcraft.

Get the recipe for Uncle Abe's favorite chocolate cake

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