Before we moved to China, my husband did most of the cooking. Once I became a stay-at-home-mom or non-teaching spouse or (insert organizational label here), however, I figured it was time for me to take up my post in the kitchen. I had a few skills under my belt (I could bake) but I wasn’t very familiar with cooking an actual meal. Opening a can of peas, eating a bowl of cereal or swinging by Sonic or Chick-fil-A got me through college, but then I got married and discovered my husband likes to eat “real food!”
When I started my Chinese culinary adventure, I realized that our mothers’ stand-by recipes wouldn’t fit the bill due to lack of common ingredients like cream of mushroom soup or Rotel or ground beef which are somehow involved in almost every meal women in West Texas cook. Branching out, I learned how to make a mean white sauce to substitute for canned soup when I just needed a down-home chicken pot pie (but my husband was in charge of making the pie crust because you can’t make me), and I even learned how to make my own tortillas, stew fresh tomatoes, and dabbled in rising bread doughs!
Since I had somewhat decent access to the internet, I found tons of cooking blogs available with step-by-step photos. Armed with all the instructions I could possibly need, the hardest part of cooking in a foreign land was acquiring supplies and ingredients. I learned quickly to skip recipes titled “Easy” or “4 Ingredient” because those would require items I couldn’t find. Instead, I’d look for someone like the Pioneer Woman who makes everything from scratch. There were plenty of times I made something completely inedible (that usually involved eggplant…I still can’t cook it!) but every time I found something my family enjoyed eating, I made sure to save the recipe.
Over the years, my super organized husband meticulously added every one of the recipes we gathered from friends, family, teammates, cookbooks and websites into a digital cookbook he typed up himself. We printed it out and kept it handy in a binder in the kitchen, but when it was time to move, we’d give the hard copy to a friend and print a new one upon arrival in our new location. Our recipe book is such a treasure to me!
One of my go-to recipes from our collection is called “Jungle Camp’s Favorite Chocolate Cake.” It’s from the Wycliffe cookbook we bought before our first year on the field and it’s been my go-to favorite since I used it to make a “tractor cake” for my oldest son’s first birthday! Even though I struggled to figure out how to feed us real food every day, I was determined to make my little darling almost-one-year-old a first birthday cake to remember.
It seems crazy when I look back on it, but I knew that the cake I wanted wouldn’t be available in the city where we lived, so it was up to me to make it happen. I have childhood memories of my mom creating special birthday cakes for me, and I wanted to do the same for my own kids. Luckily, “Jungle Camp’s Favorite Chocolate Cake” didn’t let me down, and my first cake baked in China turned out great! Since that first birthday cake, it’s been baked for a train cake, basketball/soccer/football trio cake, Very Hungry Caterpillar cake, dinosaur cake, race car cake, Ninjago man cake, Thomas the Train cake, Taekwondo cake, Ninja Turtles cake, Candy Land cake, Monster’s Inc. cake, Batman cake, Star Wars cake, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom cake, pink cat cake, and a Frozen cake just to name a few!
Preparing to make a birthday cake for the first time in a foreign land took some leg work and there were plenty of potential challenges. First, I had to find an electric mixer because whipping up buttercream icing without one is for the birds. After a lengthy search, I found a simple hand mixer for about 10 USD. I brought a decorating kit with bags and tips from home, but I did end up finding a “kitchen street” market area of the city which offered some fantastic stuff at amazing prices. I still use my Chinese piping bags and tips I found at that market.
Food coloring was available, but I also packed my own because I love using Wilton gels. Cocoa powder could be found at import stores, but shortening was hard to find, so I sometimes just used butter instead of the half shortening, half butter the recipe called for (not ideal) and had to refrigerate the icing when it started to melt while hand piping!
The next years I began packing Crisco butter flavored shortening sticks in my luggage because I knew I’d need it for birthday season. I also packed vanilla (even though my teammates made their own!) Powdered sugar could be found, but I made sure and secured it months in advance in case the store ran out when I needed it! You can make your own with granulated white sugar, a blender and cream of tartar, but who has a blender and cream of tartar?! I also didn’t have a cake board or cake stand, so I disassembled the middle shelf of my kitchen cabinet, wrapped it in foil, and— Viola! —cake board!
Without further ado, here’s the recipe. I hope it brings as many happy birthday memories to your family as it brought to mine!
Jungle Camp’s Favorite Chocolate Cake (from the Wycliffe International Cookbook)
- 1/2 cup cocoa
- 2 cups white sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 cups flour
- 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 cup sour milk or yogurt
- 1/2 cup oil (or melted shortening)
- 2 eggs, unbeaten
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 cup water (or coffee)
Serves: 18-24 pieces
Combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Combine separately milk, oil, eggs, vanilla,
and water. Add to the dry ingredients and beat until smooth. Pour into greased 9×13 pan or 2 8-inch round pans. Bake at 325° F for 60 minutes. Cake is done when toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
A few notes from the baker: make sure to grease and flour your pan very well if you plan to remove the cake from the pan. Let it cool for 10 minutes before removing the cake from the pan. Also, I used yogurt and oil with very good results! If you love chocolate, something about using coffee instead of water in this cake really brings out the flavor!
The best icing recipe I’ve found is straight from Wilton:
1 teaspoon Imitation Clear Vanilla Extract – 8 oz.
1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine (softened)
4 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar (approximately 1 lb.)
2 tablespoons milk
In large bowl, beat shortening and butter with electric mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in vanilla. Gradually add sugar, one cup at a time, beating well on medium speed. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl often. When all sugar has been mixed in, icing will appear dry. Gradually add milk or water; beat at medium speed until light and fluffy. Note: This recipe is for stiff consistency buttercream, which is excellent for piping decorations like flowers. However, it will need to be thinned for icing cakes and borders.
If you aren’t in the mood to ice the cake, no worries! Sprinkle your favorite sprinkles on top before baking for a festive look! This fit the bill for the “coffee house” event we hosted monthly for students. The cake could be cut into small pieces and looked cute!
Which recipe in your collection brings back festive memories? Share it with us today in the comments!