My father’s mom, Nana, is a Carolina girl with southern hospitality, humor and cooking skills. The first day of school each year, my sister and I would walk to Nana’s house down the street for our annual “first day of school tea.” We would dress up, talk about our new teachers and classes, and try to remember our table manners.

Each year there would be a present from Nana, but what we got most excited about was this cake. After I grew up and moved away, I often thought about that cake and made it my mission to get the recipe. The problem was, Nana didn’t have a recipe. She didn’t even measure the ingredients; she just made it by instinct.

My father made a special trip to see Nana and watched her make the cake, measuring out the ingredients as she went. Dad wrote it out, faxed it to me, and I have been making it for bake sales and special occasions ever since.
I warn against giving this cake to small children, however. The two times I’ve shared some with my son, he has refused to go to sleep until three hours after his bedtime! Perhaps when he starts school he will be old enough to enjoy it with a cup of tea.

Nana’s Chocolate Cake

1 cup water
2 cubes butter
2 cups white sugar
2 cups flour
3 tablespoons baking cocoa
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons vanilla


1 cube butter
5 tablespoons half-and-half cream
12 to 16 oz. powdered sugar
3 ½ tablespoons baking cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350. In a French or Dutch oven (an enamel-coated pot) over medium heat, bring the water to a boil. Add butter, when melted, add sugar, stir and bring to boil. Remove from heat. Combine flour and baking cocoa in a bowl, then add to mix. Stir. Add eggs and beat. Add baking soda to buttermilk, then stir into mix. Add vanilla, stir.

Pour mixture into rectangular baking dish with sides 1-2 inches high. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes.

Do not rinse out French oven. When there are 10 minutes left to bake, begin making frosting in French oven. Melt butter on medium heat, add cream and cocoa, stir. Add powdered sugar a few cups at a time, blending well before adding more. Turn heat down to simmer. Add vanilla. Pour frosting onto cake as soon as cake comes out of the oven. Let stand for 2-3 hours before serving. Frosting should be hard on top, but melted and gooey where it meets the cake.