Grandma’s “Special Occasion” Cake

IMG_3710Despite having not-the-fondest memories of my maternal grandmother, I can’t argue that she was a hell of a woman. She raised my mother by herself and survived lung cancer, both during a time when that was pretty much unheard of. So, she was probably more than deserving of being a touch cranky when I rolled around. However, this dour demeanor never deterred her from delivering this particular cake on special occasions—hence the title—throughout the years.

With my buddy, Ian, celebrating his 35th birthday the other day, I wanted to see if I could recreate one of the fonder parts of my childhood. Happy to say that it worked out pretty well. It’s difficult to compete with a memory, but I think I did this particular item from grandma’s repertoire justice.

The cake in question is your basic store bought Devil’s Food*, but what sets it apart is the filling (vanilla custard) and frosting (whipped chocolate). Oddly enough, I took issue with the prep time involved with those Compost Cookies, but this particular item takes just as long to put together (if not longer). Perhaps that’s why ol’ grandma only busted this one out a few times during the year.

*Don’t judge. That’s how grandma did it, so that’s how I’m doing it.



  • One box Devil’s Food cake mix (my favorite is whatever’s on sale)

Vanilla Custard

  • 1 tbsp cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 cup scalded milk
  • 2 lightly beaten egg yolks
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla

Whipped Chocolate Frosting

  • 2 cups confectioners sugar
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 4 squares unsweetened chocolate
  • 6 tbsp butter



  1. Make 2, 9 inch circular cakes and let those things completely cool. Follow the directions the box gives you.

Vanilla Custard (I double the recipe for this cake)

  1. In a medium bowl, mix together the cornstarch and sugar
  2. Add scalded milk*
  3. Place egg yolks in double boiler set on medium and immediately add milk mixture.
  4. Stir constantly until mixture becomes a thick, pudding consistency.
  5. Remove from heat and refrigerate until completely cool (the custard will thicken even more)
  6. Add vanilla and stir.

* Getting this right is probably the most important step. To scald milk, place it in a sauce pan and cook to just before boiling. Basically when bubbles start to form. Any hotter, you run the risk of certain proteins breaking down and your custard won’t set properly.

Whipped Chocolate Frosting

  1. In a large bowl sitting in an ice bath, use a hand mixer to combine sugar, milk, eggs, salt, and vanilla.
  2. Melt butter and chocolate (just zap it in the microwave for 30 seconds or so).
  3. Add chocolate mixture to your other ingredients and hit it with the hand mixer until it begins to fluff up and increase in volume. It’ll basically triple in size.

Cake Prep

  1. Slice the cooled cakes in half horizontally, leaving you with 4 circular pieces.
  2. Place the first cake slice on a flat surface and use a spatula to spread 1/3 custard on top.
  3. Add another slice on top of the custard and then add another 1/3 of custard.
  4. One more slice, followed by the remaining custard.
  5. Place the final slice of cake on top.
  6. Using a spatula, completely cover cake in icing.
  7. Refrigerate until it’s time to sing happy birthday uncomfortably.
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