Magical Chocolate Cake

(by Viv Jones)


Over the years, I’ve encountered many dangerously delicious recipes for chocolate cake, but only one that I know of produced a miracle.


My mother used to make a dark chocolate devil’s food cake with mayonnaise, which always struck me as the strangest ingredient. I’m certain she took the instructions straight off the jar of Hellman’s, or maybe out of Better Homes and Gardens in the ‘70s. She had a plain, black, three-ring binder of recipes chockablock with newspaper and magazine clippings, plus handwritten recipes with titles like Aunt Ruth’s hamburger “donuts” and corn, Betty Steele’s baked beans, and Gramma C’s sweet tomato relish. Every page of that book was stained and dogeared from decades of use, and many of the recipes had odd ingredients. And, as it turns out, mayo, being largely made of eggs, is quite logical for making a light and moist sponge.


But the most impressive chocolate cake I ever encountered wasn’t even real. It existed only in the fertile and creative imagination of my then eight-year-old daughter, Maya.


Maya was a ray of light in our family—the first cherished child and grandchild; gifted, beautiful, and beloved by our raucous extended family, teachers, and friends alike. She was born loaded with artistic fervor and tackled everything through that lens. But despite our nightly reading rituals and seeing her parents as readers, her teachers began to allude to the possibility of Maya having dyslexia. My heart dropped. We are all handed challenges, but not being able to read felt like a cruel trick to play on someone who so deeply loved making up and hearing stories. Maya had the more traditional challenge of being a southpaw, but I had to admit that even left-handedness didn’t explain her consistent exchange of abstract words when attempting to read, a habit that belied her tendency to guess what was appropriate, rather than recognize words.


By the end of grade two, she felt embarrassed and often hid that she still wasn’t able to read simple books. Even more distressingly, she began to come home each day, inconsolable, with searing headaches. We searched for a physical cause, but when it became clear that reading was the source of the distress, I began a deep dive into the world of dyslexia. One book, one chocolate cake visualization, changed our perspectives, and lives, forever.


The book almost literally jumped off the shelf at me: The Gift of Dyslexia*. The title alone gave me hope, and aligned with my belief that nothing is a disadvantage unless you frame it that way. I bought it without even cracking the cover, devoured and digested its lessons, and immediately tested its recipe for Maya’s situation.


According to the author, dyslexia is essentially an enhanced ability to see everything in three dimensions, at all times. Not only was it not a disability, it was actually a superpower. But while there’s an evolutionary advantage for some tasks like sculpting or designing technology, it’s a challenge to work with words on a page. Maya was able to conjure a picture in her mind for a cat or a flower or a house, and associate that picture with symbols of the words. But there was no physical picture for words like “the” or “and,” so they became tangled and interchangeable for her. Attempting to make sense of them caused her confusion and distress. Her mind went spinning, and the result was excruciating headaches.


My objective was simple: shift her mind’s perspective and leave the dizziness behind. I had no idea what came next, but I knew the first step. I sat her down on our living room floor.


“We’re going to have a little fun,” I explained, “and when we’re finished, you won’t spin anymore. Would you like that?”


I felt so certain it was true, and something in my conviction convinced her as well. She nodded.


“Close your eyes, and hold your palms out in front of you. Now, imagine you are holding something you love, something delicious.”


“Like chocolate cake?” she asked.


“Yes, perfect. A big piece of chocolate cake.”


Never have I wanted a piece of chocolate cake as much as that one: love-soaked layers of simple, dark sponge spread with milk chocolate cream cheese frosting.


The exercise took less than ten minutes. I’m not even sure I did it right. But we never needed to repeat it: The spinning and the headaches stopped and never came back. A simple shift in perspective, and conjuring a magical piece of chocolate cake, reignited a long-lasting love affair with written word for Maya.


(*The Gift of Dyslexia: Why some of the smartest people can’t read…and how they can learn, by Ronald Davis with Eldon M. Braun)

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Viv Jones is an actress and writer who lives in Elora, Ontario, Canada. She can be found at https://vivianejones.com.

Magical Chocolate Cake


2 oz. water

3 oz. sugar

pinch of salt

8 oz. dark chocolate

4 oz. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3 eggs

1 oz. brewed espresso


Preheat oven to 350 F. and prepare a 9-in. square baking pan with cooking spray/oil

and parchment.

Prepare a second pan with water that comes about halfway up the sides of your

cake pan.

Combine water, sugar, and salt in a pot over medium heat until the sugar has melted.

Melt chocolate over simmering water in a double boiler or in microwave in short bursts.

Transfer melted chocolate to the bowl of a mixer and beat in butter.

Add sugar syrup to the bowl, then add espresso and eggs one at a

time until just mixed

Pour batter into prepared pan and place into the water bath on the upper rack of the

oven.

Bake for approximately 30 minutes, testing with a toothpick until it comes out clean.

(I find leaving it a bit more moist makes it more delicious.)