When I was a young child, we would drive an hour to my grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve, then drive home that night to wake up at home for Christmas morning, then drive forty minutes to my grandmother’s house on Christmas Day, home again that night. (Christmas spent in the car is not the most fun.) There were snowy/icy roads to consider and overtired children to deal with– frankly, I don’t know how my parents did it for so long. At some point, the tradition changed and we began celebrating Christmas Eve at home, just the six of us– stockings went out, notes were written to Santa, and we feasted on a smorgasbord of some of our very favorite things. I loved that tradition: no formal, fussy dinner, just lots of finger foods that were usually only had on Christmas Eve. My mom made sandwiches, egg, chicken or ham salad, in small, soft rolls. There were plates of fresh vegetables with ranch dip; our beloved warm crabmeat spread and Jezebel sauce to have with crackers; cocktail meatballs in sweet and sour sauce; cold sliced ham; marinated mushrooms; shrimp cocktail; pickles, olives and more. We could choose and eat exactly what we wanted, maybe in pajamas, probably in front of a Christmas special or movie. It was a relaxed night, a calm night, before a very busy and exciting day.
The bow on the top of this special evening was chocolate mayonnaise cake. The recipe was my great-aunt Betty’s and I remember begging my Mom not to tell people about the mayonnaise; I thought it would make them refuse to try it, and it was so good, probably my favorite Christmas-related sweet. (I know now that mayonnaise is oil and eggs, so using it in place of these two ingredients really just saves a step.) Baked in loaf pans and topped with store-bought vanilla frosting (which still tastes right to me on this cake) and red or green sanding sugar, chocolate mayonnaise cake was the ultimate representation of family on our Christmas Eve table. I know that sounds so corny, but it’s true. I never encountered mayonnaise cake elsewhere, so I thought of it as a special, secret family recipe, and we only ever had it on Christmas Eve. To this day, though it is one of my favorite cakes to eat, I never make it outside of the month of December.
This year, when I announced that I was planning to make chocolate mayonnaise cake, my husband asked if I would make peanut butter frosting for the loaves. For the past few years, I’ve skipped frosting and just used powdered sugar or sanding sugar; it’s such a rich, moist cake, it doesn’t really need frosting. But, I thought his idea of peanut butter frosting was a good one, so I made a nice, flavorful one with a good salty bite to offset the dark chocolate. It was a great suggestion and may become our own twist on the tradition. I’m including the peanut butter frosting recipe, as well as an option to make a “plain” frosting which can be topped with crushed candy canes for another festive variation. The recipe makes two cakes, so you could even try both kinds of frosting. (Happy Holidays!) In addition to being easy to mix up and tasting great, chocolate mayonnaise cake is great to give to friends and neighbors, teachers and the mail man. It can be shipped (from Maine to Seattle, for instance) and keeps well, since it’s so moist. I’d even argue that it’s better the day after you make it than warm from the oven.
A poignant coincidence: I baked this year’s loaves the afternoon I found out that Aunt Betty passed away. Mixing up my batter was a small tribute to a lady who was loved by many. She was my Mom’s godmother, a proud mother and grandmother, fiercely independent and the staunchest Red Sox fan I knew. I will miss her very much and think of her often, certainly every time I make this cake. Even in the form of a simple loaf cake, I am grateful to have traditions, and associated memories, to help keep family close when they’re oh so far away.
Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake (makes two 9″ x 5″ loaves)
- 2 2/3 c. flour
- 6 T. baking cocoa
- 3 tsp. baking soda
- 3/4 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 1/2 c. sugar
- 1 c. + 2 T. mayonnaise
- 1 1/4 c. warm water
- 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil or spray two 9″ x 5″ loaf pans or four mini loaf pans.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar and mayonnaise, then add the warm water and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix just until combined. Pour into the prepared loaf pans and bake for 35-40 mins. (less for mini loaves), until the cake begins to pull away from the sides of the pans and a skewer inserted into the center of each comes out clean. Cool the cakes, in the pans, on a wire rack before frosting. You can also forego the frosting and decorate with a dusting of powdered sugar or colored sanding sugar.
Peanut Butter Frosting
- 4 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
- 3 T. creamy peanut butter
- 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
- 2 tsp. vanilla
- 1/2 c. sifted confectioner’s sugar
Use a stand or hand mixer to cream together the cream cheese and peanut butter. Mix in the salt and vanilla and then slowly mix in the sifted confectioner’s sugar, scraping down the sides of the bowl several times to ensure an evenly-mixed, smooth frosting. The frosting is ready to use immediately and will cover two loaf cakes, tops only. If you want more frosting than is shown in the picture at the top of this post, plan to double this recipe!
Frosting Variation: Replace the peanut butter with unsalted, softened butter to create a “plain” frosting. Decorate the top of the cake with crushed candy canes to give it a nice peppermint flavor.