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Cockeyed Cake

(by Gaby Glass Aizenman)

When I was growing up in apartheid South Africa, families like mine typically had housekeepers. My mother did not cook; we had Stephen for that. But she could bake. Not the fancy birthday cakes—those came from a confectionary shop in Benoni, an industrial satellite town east of Johannesburg where my grandparents lived. The birthday cakes were triple-tiered: vanilla-yellow, chocolate-brown and strawberry-pink. They were iced and decorated in keeping with the lucky birthday child’s request. A treasure chest striped with licorice rope spewing gold chocolate coins and chewy jelly jewels. A farm complete with edible sugar cows and geese in a paddock of KitKat wafers. A swimming pool with a toffee diving board and slide, marzipan children splashing in stiff shining indigo water and floating in multicolored lifesaver candies.

But I digress. My mother could make two types of cake. Chiffon sponge—light and fluffy, dusted with icing sugar—and Cockeyed Cake. The latter came from my mother’s favorite and only recipe book, called The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken. It was simple and fun to make and always came out “delicious, chocolate-y, and moist,” as promised by Peg.

No eggs were required. It involved sifting flour, cocoa, and sugar directly into a square tin, making three grooves, one each for oil, vinegar, and vanilla extract, and then pouring water over the whole shebang. I stood on a stool at the kitchen counter next to my mother. Stephen grumbled not quite inaudibly and whisked away the used utensils to the soapy sink. We were in his way; he wanted to get on with dinner preparations. My mother let me hold the round metal sifter and turn the handle. Like magic, the fine flour-cocoa-sugar mix drifted like dirty snow into the baking tin. I dug holes with an ancient dull-silver tablespoon kept for this purpose. Large, medium, and small, like in Goldilocks and The Three Bears. My mother measured out the oil. Her hand steered mine as I carefully spilled each liquid into its designated furrow.

Over the years we made a million cockeyed cakes. The I Hate to Cookbook fell open to the cocoa-splattered, greasy page. I no longer had to stand on a stool to reach the kitchen counter, but in my ignorance, I still left the soiled bakeware for Stephen to wash.

I tried to make a cockeyed cake again. It was dry and unremarkable. Some things apparently require a specific, battered, square cake tin, an old-fashioned flour sifter with a squeaky handle, and the soft guiding touch of a mother’s hand.


Gaby Glass Aizenman grew up in apartheid South Africa, and now lives in the Western Galilee in northern Israel. She is the author of Mother's Day: Stories of Mothers and Others. She can be found on Facebook.

Cockeyed Cake

1 1/2 c. sifted flour

3 T. cocoa powder

1 t. baking soda

1 c. sugar

1/2 t. salt

5 T. vegetable oil

1 T. vinegar

1 t. vanilla extract

1 c. cold water

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Return flour to sifter, and sift together with cocoa, baking soda, sugar and salt right into a greased 9 x 9 inch pan.

Make 3 grooves or holes in the mixture.

Pour the oil in one hole.

Pour the vinegar in another hole.

Pour the vanilla extract in the third hole.

Beat the mixture with a spoon until it’s smooth, with no traces of flour.

Bake for 30 minutes.

Allow to cool on a rack, then frost.


2 c. confectioners’ sugar

dash of salt

1 t. vanilla extract


Sift confectioners’ sugar with salt.

Add vanilla extract.

Beat in enough cream to make a spreading consistency.


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