Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake: A Toast to Art, Life, Yaddo

Chocolate mayonnaise cake has been on my mind recently.

It’s not so much the cake itself — delicious as it is — but rather, what it symbolizes.

This time last year, I was nestled amid 400 acres of woods in Saratoga Springs, New York, ensconced in a cozy writing studio with little more than a pesky woodpecker for company all day and a big deadline looming ahead of me. The deadline was terrifying — it was for my very first book. And it was, for various reasons, not the sort that can be pushed off for months or years. This book was coming out in February 2011 come hell or highwater — there was simply no changing it.

And so I packed up my laptop, my notebooks, letters and diaries. And I left the intense social pressure and the cacophony of New York City, fleeing upstate to Yaddo, a storied artists colony that I had long dreamed of attending. I had read about this Yaddo — a place of extreme quietude run by a non-profit corporation that devotes itself to providing literary non-fiction writers, novelists, poets, painters and composers with a little hideout away from the crazy world outside, a window of calm to create.

Among these studios and woods, a shimmering roster of artists has passed through. It was here that Sylvia Plath penned the poems that would form the backbone of her first volume of poetry, “The Colossus.” Patricia Highsmith completed “Strangers on a Train,” her first book, at Yaddo. It’s also where Carson McCullers wrote “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.” John Cheever practically lived at Yaddo for chunks of his career; and other artists who have spent time at there include Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, composer Leonard Bernstein and photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

As a big McCullers and Plath fan, it was humbling for me to be invited to Yaddo to finish my book. (It is hard not to begin your writing day feeling the eyes of those before you scanning your screen, probably thinking, “You really gonna write that?”) More important, however, it turned out to be essential help at a crucial time. I was given a comfortable room, a lovely writing studio, three meals a day and an embarrassment of riches in time and solitude to peck away at my memoir.

Earlier this year, “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family” hit bookstores. That the book managed to make its way out into the world on time is a testament to this warm little place in the woods that gave me peace and fed me well. It was here that I wrote my book, yes, but it was also here that I had my first sliver of chocolate mayonnaise cake at dinner one night.

Both events, I will never forget.

The view from my writing desk in Yaddo's meadow...

Now, at Yaddo, there is a cast of lovely people who work behind the scenes to make things go smoothly so artists in residence have unfettered time — and at absolutely no charge. Dating back to 1900 when financier Spencer Trask and his wife Katrina formed the colony, guests have always had next to nothing to worry about besides writing or painting — and getting to dinner every evening on time. Rooms get cleaned, sidewalks get shoveled. And three times a day, there is the food, culminating in a hearty dinner of chicken parmesan, grilled mahi mahi or tofu stir fries, flanked with fantastic soups and massive salads, complete with dessert.

Of all the desserts I sampled at Yaddo, one stood out — chocolate mayonnaise cake. I had never encountered such a cake before, even though I’ve been an avid baker and student of the sweet. But it’s a classic American cake — first popularized in World War II, by various accounts, when luxuries like butter were rationed. Mayonnaise, you see, gives the cake a moist, velvety richness so that pricy butter, though absent, isn’t missed. The cake came back in vogue in the 1950s when Kraft plastered the recipe for it on the label of its mayonnaise jars. Decades later, Yaddo keeps it in its rotation. (In fact, I was there so long — seven weeks — writing my book that I ended up having chocolate mayonnaise cake not once but twice.)

To mark the one-year anniversary of my time at Yaddo, I recently assembled the colorful crew of artists and writers who were there in the trenches with me, all of us there to make art, all of us gathering at a long, grand dinner table at the end of each work day to share our progresses, drink to our painting or writing blocks, and nudge one another ever closer to that finish line.

In the year since our residencies, careers have flourished. Robin the composer has been getting praise for “This Ravelled Dust: Cantata For A Nuclear Age,” a choral piece he created at Yaddo that’s a statement against nuclear weapons and energy. Artist and author Jonathon is unveiling a “Restaurant for Plants” at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento this weekend. Sari is putting the finishing touches to the novel she was working on. Zach‘s striking abstract paintings have been shown in Brooklyn and New Haven, Conn. Rebecca the choreographer just returned from Singapore, where her company Pappas & Dancers performed “Monster,” a modern dance piece about Jewish identity and the shame of being a victim at the M1 Fringe Festival. Peter’s first novel, “A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism,” just debuted this week. Photographer Steve’s breathtaking pictures of craggy lives and tranquil landscapes have been featured in multiple exhibitions. Nova’s second young adult novel “Imaginary Girls” is coming out in June. Thomas the photographer is still piecing together hauntingly beautiful nightscapes. And every month or so painters Mo and Noa seem to have pieces in a show somewhere in New York.

I’d like to think Spencer and Katrina would be proud.

To celebrate, I prepared a special treat for our dinner — chocolate mayonnaise cake made with the recipe of Yaddo’s chef Mike, the man who fed us and kept us all going. It’s a pretty simple recipe — although I clearly need more practice to get it to Mike perfection. (As you can see from the photo above, it sank a little in the middle.)

As Sari said, however, “sunken cake is still cake.” And it was delicious.

So, here’s to having our cake, to Mike, to Spencer and Katrina, to Yaddo — and most of all, to art.

This is a Shrine
To love and friendship dear
Those who are chosen
And may enter here
Bring of their gifts
The holiest purest best
And far outside the treshold
Leave the rest
Here shall no cares invade
All sorrows cease
And every heart find
Sympathy and Peace.

~~ Henry Van Dyke ~~

"Strangers on a Train," first-edition copy donated to Yaddo by Patricia Highsmith, 1950

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To support the arts and donate to Yaddo, click here.

Artists

Noa Charuvi, painter http://www.noacharuvi.com/

Thomas Cummins, photographer http://thomascummins.com/

Gordon Dahlquist, novelist http://www.randomhouse.com/author/71933/gordon-dahlquist

Camille DeAngelis, novelist www.camilledeangelis.com

Steve Giovinco, photographer http://www.stevegiovinco.com/index.html

Moses Hoskins, painter http://web.mac.com/moseshoskins/Site/index%3A___HOME.html

Jonathon Keats, artist and author http://www.modernisminc.com/artists/Jonathon_KEATS/

Zachary Keeting, painter http://zacharykeeting.com/

Charles Mary Kubricht, installation artist www.charlesmarykubricht.com

Erin Leddy, choreographer www.hand2mouththeatre.org

Emily Mast, performance artist www.emilymast.com

Robinson McClellan, choral composer http://robinsonmcclellan.com/

Peter Mountford, novelist http://www.petermountford.com/

Rebecca Pappas, choreographer http://www.pappasanddancers.com/

Silvia Pareschi, literary translator http://ninehoursofseparation.blogspot.com/

Nova Ren Suma, novelist www.novaren.com

Sari Wilson, novelist http://fiction.sariwilson.net

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"A Tiger in the Kitchen," a work in progress on the meadow of Yaddo, March 2010.

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Chef Mike’s Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake

(Courtesy of Yaddo)

2 cups unsifted all purpose flour
1 ½ cup sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
1+ teaspoons baking powder
1+ teaspoon baking soda

3 Scrambled (beaten) Eggs
1 ½ cup mayonnaise
1 cup cold coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla

Grease 9 inch round baking pan. Line bottom with grease waxed paper. Mix and sift flour,
sugar, cocoa, baking powder and baking soda into large mixing bowl. Stir in mayonnaise and 3
scrambled eggs. Gradually stir in coffee and vanilla until smooth and blended. Pour into prepared
pan. BAKE AT 350 degrees in Standard oven 35 – 40 minutes or until cake tester inserted in
center comes out clean. Cool completely. Remove from pan. Remove waxed paper.

FROST as desired.
Whipped cream topping works nice

Alternate topping:
Melt 8 oz. chocolate chips and spread melted chips
while warm over cooled cake.