Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Aunt Elaine May 16, 2018

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That’s Elaine in the middle, between two of my other aunts. I took this photo at the 2014 Kletscher Family Reunion. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

EVERY CHRISTMAS I COULD COUNT on a handwritten letter from my Aunt Elaine updating me on the latest news in her ever-growing family. At last count, 47 great grandchildren. But those missives will come no more. My godmother died Monday afternoon at the age of 95.

Now I have only memories of the second oldest daughter of my grandparents, of the woman who outlived her husband, two children and seven siblings (two of them infants). She was strong. Tough. Stubborn. Determined. Whatever word you want to use, my aunt held her own in life. Her love of family, her faith and her get-up-and-go defined her. Elaine still lived in her own home and as most recently as several weeks ago delivered food to her sister-in-law after the passing of Elaine’s brother Harold.

I grew up in a close-knit extended family that gathered often to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. We all lived near each other, either in Redwood or Yellow Medicine counties on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. I especially liked going to Aunt Elaine and Uncle Glenn’s house because then I could see Joyce, a favorite cousin born months after me. I also loved their house, a big old farmhouse of fine craftsmanship on a farm with a creaking windmill.

 

Homemade dill pickles (similar to the ones Elaine made) sold at the September 2015 Faribault Farmers’ Market and published here for illustration purposes only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

Beyond that, I selfishly couldn’t wait for the lunch Aunt Elaine would serve at the end of an evening of visiting. She made the best dill pickles. There was talk that well water made all the difference. Maybe. Maybe not. But I believe it was the hands that nurtured and picked those cucumbers and dill and then crafted them into dill pickles that made them legendary within our extended family.

 

 

Elaine was also known for her chocolate mayonnaise cake. I found the recipe (under her oldest daughter’s name) for that moist cake in the Peace Lutheran Centennial Cookbook, 1896 – 1996, Echo, Minnesota. Elaine served as a co-chair of the Cookbook Committee. I’m not surprised. She was always doing something for her church, community, family and others in general, including work as a practical nurse at the start of WW II. It’s part of our family legacy—this care and compassion and service.

 

Not the same cake Elaine made, but similar. Used here for illustration only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Days before her death, Elaine sampled that chocolate cake one last time after a granddaughter baked the cake and brought it, still warm, to her dying grandmother at the hospital. Elaine ate a few bites and then reminded her family of just how much she loved sweets. I love that story. I love that story because it makes me laugh. In laughter I am reminded that death, though it brings sadness, also brings laughter in the memories. I will always hold sweet memories of my dear aunt, my dear godmother. She was a strong woman of faith, loving her family, her community and the prairie place she called home. And now she has reached her final home: heaven. That, too, gives me joy in the presence of grief.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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A chocolate cake tradition of love June 22, 2011

Homemade chocolate Crazy Cake frosted with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting.

THEY RAVED ABOUT the moistness of the cake. And three of them—all guys—forked up a second slice of the chocolate cake I’d made from scratch.

I almost said, “Ummm, guys, it’s the women who should have a second piece.” But I let them be, passing the cake pan around the table, plating more cake.

This is one moist, delicious chocolate cake.

Then, because I couldn’t help myself, I shared the story about this cake. They needed to hear it, to understand that they weren’t eating just any old cake but cake made from a special recipe.

This Crazy Cake, aka Wacky Cake, is the chocolate cake of my youth, the one my mom made every time she baked a birthday cake, I told my friends.

“We didn’t have much money, didn’t get birthday presents,” I explained as my friends savored each bite of chocolate cake. “So our birthday present was the cake, an animal cake my mom made.

She would pull out her cake book and let us pick the animal shape we wanted for our birthday cake—a lion, a horse, a duck, an elephant…”

“My mom had a book like that too,” my friend Jackie chimed in.

Mari, on the other end of the table, nodded her head. Likewise, her mother had a booklet that provided instructions for transforming round cakes and square cakes and oblong cakes into animal shapes.

By cutting the cake and decorating it with various candies and frosting, my mom transformed a plain chocolate cake in to a special animal-shaped birthday cake.

Those birthday cakes were magical. I never missed the birthday presents, never even knew I should receive gifts, because I had that cake, that special, special chocolate animal-shaped cake.

When I became a mother, I continued the tradition with my children. While I didn’t have an animal cake book, I had my imagination. I made a snowman, Garfield, Piglet, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, a horse (that looked more like a cow than an equine)…

Unlike me, my children got birthday presents, plenty of them. But I would like to think that the one they will remember is the annual gift of an animal-shaped birthday cake, a gift, really, passed down from their grandmother.

For in the passing down of that tradition, I’m honoring their grandma, my mom, who taught me that birthdays are not about prettily wrapped presents, but about love. And that love, for me, will always be symbolized by homemade chocolate Crazy Cake.

Chocolate Crazy Cake

3 cups flour

2 cups white sugar

½ cup cocoa

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking soda

Mix the dry ingredients together and then stir in:

¾ cup salad (vegetable) oil

2 cups cold water

2 Tablespoons vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pour into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan and bake at 350 degrees for 35 – 40 minutes.

When the cake is cool, whip up a bowl of this creamy Chocolate Buttercream Frosting.

When cool, frost with:

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting

6 Tablespoons butter, softened

½ cup cocoa

2 2/3 cups powdered sugar

1/3 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream butter in a small mixing bowl. Then add the cocoa and powdered sugar alternately with the milk, beating to a spreading consistency. You may need to add an additional tablespoon of milk. Blend in vanilla. Spread on cake. Makes about two cups of frosting.

The recipe yields two cups of heavenly, finger-licking-good frosting.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Recipes from The Cook’s Special, 1973, St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Vesta, Minnesota, and Hershey’s Easy-Does-It Recipe #10

 

Chocolate cake for breakfast March 3, 2011

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“MOM, CAN I HAVE some hot fudge pudding cake for breakfast?” my 17-year-old asks.

“Sure, go ahead,” I reply. “There’s some whipped cream in the fridge too.”

Am I a bad mom for letting my teen consume a chocolate dessert before 8 a.m.?

 

Hot fudge pudding cake slathered with real whipped cream and topped with sprinkles.

When his sisters were that age—they’re 23 and 25 now—I never would have allowed them to eat cake for breakfast. But I’ve become a little much more relaxed in my parenting now that I’m older and tired.

Besides, I didn’t tell my boy this, but I was considering dipping into the chocolate pudding cake for breakfast too. I didn’t.

I wondered, though, as I poured cereal into a bowl, whether the cinnamon and sugar-laden squares I was about to eat were any more healthy than the homemade chocolate dessert?

 

The sugary cereal I ate for breakfast.

Just to clarify here, before you give me your opinion, you should know that my lanky son is over six feet tall, skinny as a toothpick, slim as a rail, etc. He can eat any amount of anything and not gain an ounce. Last night he ate a half a piece of pizza at 10:30. He does not like fruits (except for bananas and raspberries) or vegetables (except for potatoes). I did not raise him to dislike either as I could live on fruits and vegetables, OK, and chocolate.

If you would like to try hot fudge pudding cake for breakfast, or any time, here’s the recipe. It’s one of my favorite desserts, which my mom made when I was growing up, and is incredibly simple to prepare. Enjoy.

Hot Fudge Pudding Cake

1 cup flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

¾ cup sugar

2 Tablespoons cocoa

½ cup milk

2 Tablespoons vegetable oil

Mix together the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and cocoa. Stir in milk and vegetable oil. Spread in a 9-inch square pan.

Sprinkle with 1 cup of brown sugar and ¼ cup of cocoa that have been mixed together.

Pour 1 ¾ cups of hot water over the entire batter and bake at 350 degrees for 40 – 45 minutes. During baking, the cake mixture rises to the top and the chocolate sauce settles to the bottom. Serve warm, with whipped cream if desired.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling