Truth be told: I didn’t start cooking until my twenties. I had plenty of opportunities to learn from the best: my mother and grandmothers were all excellent, intuitive, confident cuisinières who whipped up two meals a day without the aid of any book. I just wasn’t interested. My desire to know how to cook developed quite suddenly, after my second trip to California, but I’ll save that story for another time.
Not knowing my way in the kitchen didn’t mean that food was unimportant to me. After all, it is hard to grow up in France and think about food as mere sustenance. I had definite ideas about what I liked and which ingredients usually combined in a tasty way. During my trips to England, Italy, and Germany, I also had the pleasure (or displeasure) to challenge my taste buds with the unfamiliar: beans on toast, grilled octopus, or cheese with music (look it up…)
In general, I was not surprised or offended by American food when I came over to the US. The notable exception was desserts: some of the ingredients just made me cringe. Mincemeat pie? Really? I never got used to that one. I had heard of carrot cake and it didn’t sound appealing. Luckily the first one I was served was baked by Debbie, my sister-in-law-to-be: her recipe is simply the best and it has become one of my favorite cakes. I also tried zucchini bread made by Terri (my other sister-in-law-to-be) and it was quite enjoyable. After a while, my mind finally accepted the notion of incorporating vegetables into baked goods.
At some point, Rick raved about Michelle’s chocolate mayonnaise cake and it just sounded gross to me. I had watched my dad make mayonnaise from scratch too many times to ignore that it contained black pepper, vinegar and –gasp– Dijon mustard. Quelle horreur! By now you probably know where this story is heading. Yes, Frank and Michelle invited us over for dinner. Yes, a chocolate cake was served. And yes, it was absolutely delicious. I asked for another slice and for the recipe. I learned a few lessons that night. First, one should always approach new foods with an open mind. Second, break down a preparation into its components: after all, mayonnaise is mostly composed of eggs and oil, the “usual suspects” in baked goods. Third, read the labels: American mayonnaise is made sans moutarde…
Michelle died of cancer while I was in France last month. Her Facebook page was flooded with tributes and memories. Her granddaughter Sara brought up the chocolate mayonnaise cake: judging from friends and family’s reactions, I think it’s safe to call it her signature dessert. Last Saturday I felt a sudden urge to bake (trust me: it’s not a normal state for me.) Locating the recipe was a cinch: I knew I would find it in my very first American recipe folder, the one I started thirty-five years ago. So, I baked my cake and cried. Losing a long time friend is hard but thirty-five years of shared meals and laughs and songs sparked many of those moments parfaits I love so much. Her famous chocolate mayonnaise cake is only one of them; the oldest one.
La cuisinière: (female) cook; also, the stove
Quelle horreur: how horrible
Sans moutarde: without mustard
Michelle’s Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake
1 box Duncan Hines Devils Food cake mix
4 oz package instant chocolate pudding
¼ cup mayonnaise
½ pint sour cream
1 tbsp almond extract
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup water
6 oz chocolate chips
1 cup almond slivers
Butter and cocoa powder for the pan
Preheat oven to 350º. In a large bowl, combine cake mix and chocolate pudding. In another bowl, combine eggs, mayonnaise, sour cream, almond extract, oil, and water. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and beat until smooth. Fold in chocolate chips and almond slivers. Butter a bundt cake pan and dust with some cocoa powder. Bake for about 55 minutes.
Sylvaine’s tip: I like to serve it with a raspberry coulis and a dollop of whipped cream.
I did not take the photo included in this post but I do not know whom to credit (if Frank lets me know, I'll update.) It's one of my favorites; it was used for an open house at their design/art gallery.