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April 12, 2021

AUSTIN | A (Not So) Mathematical Mocha Cake

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When I was in elementary school, I HATED having a summer birthday. To celebrate, my very lucky peer with a non-summer birthday would bring in donuts or a cake, and we would take time out of our very busy days of block-building and crayon-coloring to indulge in the birthday confections. For that one day, even the least popular kindergartener was a god because everyone wanted to be the first to choose their donut or receive their slice of cake. 

I was green with envy. Never was I afforded that same attention and all because of the misfortune of my birthday falling in August. My mom, in a stroke of brilliance, figured out a way for me to be doted on by my five year-old friends while still maintaining the honor of being a Leo — I’ll bring in half donuts in February. It was simple, kitschy and effective but most of all, it afforded me my fifteen minutes of birthday fame. 

And who would have thought that fourteen years later, as a sophomore in college, the tradition would live on? To help assuage some of the discomfort of being in my apartment alone, I invited a friend to join me for dinner, not even realizing that it happened to be both of our half birthdays. The coincidence was too great to ignore — I had to bust out the good ol’ half a cake, true to the Austin family tradition. 

After skimming through the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts, I decided to make half of the Black Mocha Cake. Although I didn’t have a coffee maker to brew a strong cup of coffee for the recipe, I had something better. It was the end of the week and I had not yet gone grocery shopping. However, in classic college student fashion, my fridge was stocked with Starbucks cold brew and protein shakes — that’s it. It was a perfect excuse to use up the three day old coffee to make room for real food in my refrigerator. 

The ingredient list was straightforward enough, however, in case we haven’t already established it, I’m almost as bad at math as I am at following directions. The first step was to add three quarters  of a cup of cocoa powder, which was perfect because that’s all I had left in the container anyways. I dumped it into the bowl and then continued onto the next step, until it dawned on me … I’m only making half a cake. Instead of just putting half of it back into the container (because what is half of three quarters?), I decided that I would just put less flour in to compensate for the extra cocoa powder.

After that hiccup, I pretty much just shirked the responsibility of carefully measuring out each ingredient. I didn’t have the mental capacity to divide one and three quarters in half and then account for the three quarters of a cup of additional cocoa powder to figure out how much flour I actually needed, so I just put in less than a full cup. My head hurt attempting to figure out that math just as much as yours did attempting to read that sentence. It was all going well until I accidentally cracked two eggs, once again forgetting that I only needed one since I halved the recipe. Instead of throwing the second egg out (because I hadn’t yet put it in the bowl), I just put it back in the carton and hoped it wouldn’t go bad. 

I mixed the wet and dry ingredients together and the batter seemed a bit loose, but I hoped that was just indicative of a very moist cake. I stuck it in the oven, hoped it wouldn’t come out soupy and attempted to calculate how long I had to bake half a cake for. Unsurprisingly, the math hurt my head, so I just obsessively checked on it every ten minutes.

After somewhere between 30 to 40 minutes, I took it out of the oven, stuck a knife in it and saw that it came out clean. I left the cake on the counter to cool before putting it in the refrigerator to hide. After eating dinner, I brought the cake out of the fridge while singing a very off-key rendition of the “Happy Birthday”song. After fudging up the recipe (pun intended), the cake was surprisingly really good. It was super moist and had just the right amount of chocolate. The only downside was that you couldn’t really taste the coffee, but that was most likely my fault. The recipe called for a cup of strong coffee, and I used three-day old coffee. That’s fine, no one has to know it was supposed to be a mocha cake.

Part of what draws me to cooking and baking (and thus this project) is being able to feed others. If I don’t have someone to cook for, I tend to just make do with what I have, as opposed to making a three course meal for absolutely no reason. The look of surprise when I took the cake out of the fridge and the accompanying shriek of delight made the math, measuring and mess all worth it. 

Sarah Austin is a sophomore in the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. She can be reached at sarahaustin@cornellsun.com.