Today is my dad’s birthday. He would have turned 59 today, and I’m sure the day would have been filled with all sorts of jokes about how he was only one year away from being really old and over the hill. However, life happens, as it tends to do, and my dad passed away 13 years ago, a week shy of his 46th birthday, due to complications from leukemia. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him, and miss him. This past Christmas, my grandma and I were talking about recipes, and she asked if my mom ever gave me the recipe for my dad’s favorite birthday cake. I couldn’t remember it, so my mom dug it out for me, and I decided that this year I would make his favorite cake to commemorate his birthday. My mom’s recipe card was titled simply, “Mom Norris Choc. Cake”. Let me tell you – my dad had some tremendously good taste when it came to cake, as this is not your ordinary chocolate cake. It’s a rich, moist chocolate cake with a river of cream cheese filling running through the middle, and it’s topped with a combination of chopped walnuts and sugar. It’s amazing. And I’ve decided that I’m going to make this every year on April 12th.
I asked my grandma where she got this recipe, and she said that one of the women she worked with back in the 60’s shared it with her. She made it, and my dad, who was in his early teens at the time, loved it, and so she made it for his birthday every year after that. Once my parents got married, my mom took over making it for him each and every year. I couldn’t remember the cake, and my mom said she stopped making it when my sister and I were pretty young since my dad got a “borderline cholesterol” blood result from the doctor and he had to start watching what he ate. Incidentally, that result did not stop him from sneaking Snickers bars at work. Many times we would stop by his office to visit, and my sister and I would see the wrappers in his waste basket. We relished ratting him out to my mom, of course. What little snitches we were!
Celebrating my dad’s birthday is, of course, bittersweet. There are so many things I wish I could share with him and do with him on a daily basis that I can’t, but I am grateful for each and every day that I got to spend with him. He was a jokester – I was doused with cold water more times than I can count, he continually hid rubber snakes for my mom to find (she is absurdly afraid of snakes), and he even won a Friday joke contest on a local radio station. I think he secretly loved having a tomboy daughter – he played catch with me and hit me grounders to practice fielding when I played softball. We threw footballs back and forth. He would change clothes after work and challenge me to a game of H-O-R-S-E out back. And I’m sure he loved nothing more than seeing me, his 8-year-old daughter, pour into his hockey equipment (helmet, shin guards, gloves, and all), grab my street hockey stick (pink blade and all) and declare that I would be the first girl hockey player ever. We always had tons of fun, and I never doubted how proud he was of whatever I was doing.
This cake is for him – to celebrate what an awesome dad he was and for the time I got to spend with him.
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9x13-inch baking pan; set aside.
2. Make the Walnut-Sugar Topping: Combine the chopped walnuts and the sugar in a small bowl; set aside.
3. Make the Cake Batter: In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together the water, vegetable oil, vinegar, and vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture and, using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, mix together until just combined and there are no traces of dry ingredients. Set aside.
4. Make the Cream Cheese Filling: Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese on medium speed until soft and smooth, about 3 minutes. Add the sugar and continue mixing until light and fluffy, another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the eggs and the salt and beat until thoroughly combined and smooth.
4. Pour half of the cake batter into the prepared pan. Slowly pour all of the cream cheese filling over top, trying to distribute it as evenly as possible (do not try to spread it after you pour it). Pour the remaining cake batter over top of the cream cheese filling. Sprinkle the top of the cake with the walnut-sugar mixture.
5. Bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with moist crumbs attached. Let cool completely before serving.