Recently, when filling out an application for a food-writing job, I was asked to name my favorite food writers. I began to compile a list of the obvious suspects—Ruth Reichl, Laurie Colwin, MFK Fisher, Gabrielle Hamilton, all of whom I love and admire—but I simply could not get Roald Dahl out of my head. Sure, he isn’t actually a “food writer” but his books were what first made me fall in love with food descriptions. Dahl writes about food from a child’s perspective, with no pretension and none of the weird adult anxieties about food that come with growing old.
To his characters food is still exciting and overwhelming, powerful, visceral, spell-binding, rich. Food is used as a weapon, reward, healing agent and instrument of destruction. Think the peach in James and the Giant Peach, Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, Mr. Twit’s food-filled beard, snozzcumbers in The BFG, and of course, the enormous chocolate cake that the Trunchbull forces poor Bruce Bogtrotter to eat in Matilda. I never heard back from that food writing job—shocking, I know—but what I did get out of answering that question was a very real and nagging hankering for a chocolate cake the size of my torso.
I am lucky enough to live right down the street from a real life chocolate factory, and one that, in my opinion, gives Willy Wonka’s some serious competition. This undying need for the richest, chocolatiest cake imaginable gave me a good excuse (and trust me, I am always looking for a good excuse) to go and visit The Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory and pick up some chocolate.
If you aren’t familiar with the Mast Brothers the video below will give you some background. A little warning before you watch: you will feel devastated that you aren’t one of them.
Now, back to Bogtrotter.
I feel a kindred connection with poor Brucie, a slave to chocolate cravings so all-encompassing he will even risk the wrath of a principal who has “a lock-up cupboard in her private quarters called The Chokey” (104). An all-school assembly is held and Bruce is called up onto the stage, where the Trunchbull announces to everyone that he “sneaked in like a serpent into the kitchen and stole a slice of my private chocolate cake from my tea-tray! That tray had just been prepared for me personally by the cook! It was my morning snack! And as for the cake, it was my own private stock! That was not boy’s cake! You don’t think for one minute I’m going to eat the filth I give to you? That cake was made from real butter and real cream! And he, that robber-bandit, that safe-cracker, that highwayman standing over there with his socks around his ankles stole it and ate it!” (120).
Then, in a move wholly unexpected, the Trunchbull has her cook bring to the stage “an enormous round chocolate cake on a china platter. The cake was fully eighteen inches in diameter and it was covered with dark-brown chocolate icing” (124).
She then tells him that he will eat the entire cake right there, and quickly, because “Greedy little thieves who like to eat cake must have cake!” (128). The whole school watches in horror, waiting for Bruce to be sick, or beg for mercy, or be hauled off to the Chokey, but to everyone’s surprise he keeps on “pushing the stuff into his mouth with the dogged perseverance of a long-distance runner who has sighted the finishing-line and knows he must keep going” until “the very last mouthful disappeared” (131).
It is a moment of victory for children and chocolate addicts alike, and one that I still get immense pleasure out of. Only the densest cake would do for Bruce so I subbed sour cream where I would usually use buttermilk, omitted baking powder, and added espresso powder to make the chocolate flavors even more intense. The chocolate frosting got sour cream too, as a nod to Trunchbull’s poor cook who “looked as though her mouth was full of lemon juice” (124).
Bruce Bogtrotter’s Chocolate cake
Makes 1 triple layer cake (I doubled this)
3 cups brown sugar, packed
1 cup of soft butter
2 teaspoons good vanilla extract
2 2/3 cups AP flour
¾ cup cocoa powder
1 tablespoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cup sour cream
1 1/3 cup boiling water
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting:
½ cup softened butter
6 ounces of good quality semi-sweet chocolate
5 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons good vanilla
In a mixing bowl, cream brown sugar and butter. Add eggs and beat on high speed until light and fluffy. Blend in vanilla. Combine flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt; add alternately with sour cream to creamed mixture. Mix on low just until combined. Add espresso powder to hot water and add to batter until blended. Pour into three greased and floured 9-in. round baking pans. Bake at 350 for 35 minutes. Cool in pans 10 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely. For frosting, in a medium saucepan, melt butter and chocolate over low heat. Cool several minutes. In a mixing bowl, combine sugar, sour cream and vanilla. Add chocolate mixture and beat until smooth.