Dianna Simpson and I have been friends since junior high and considering we're both grandmothers now, that's a very long time.
When you are friends with someone that long, you tend to know their families as well, so it wasn't out of the ordinary when she asked me to accompany her on a trip to visit her in-laws who had retired to a small town in Oklahoma. It also wasn't inconceivable for me to accept.
It was 1988 and we traveled by train from Cleveland. Two days later, we arrived in Newton, Kansas, where Lois and Carl Simpson met us at the train station and took us to their house across the border in Oklahoma. Lois and Carl were long-time residents of Warren. Lois worked as a secretary in the Warren City Schools for more than 30 years and when they finally retired, they decided to move west.
Photos by Kathleen Evanoff / Tribune Chronicle
Dianna Simpson, left, and her sister, Cindy Frendak, reminisce over coffee and Texas sheet cake. The recipe was handed down to Dianna from her mother-in-law, Lois Simpson, during a trip to Oklahoma more than 20 years ago.
Dianna and I spent the week touring the area, visiting the Pioneer Women museum, a mansion once owned by a disgraced governor (he divorced his wife, un-adopted his daughter and married her to the shock of Oklahoma citizens), and wandered around old cemeteries and small towns. We relaxed with Lois, watching her favorite vintage black and white movies from the 1940s and 50s, and kept an eye on the sky since we were smack in the center of tornado alley.
Because it was the 1980s, DVDs hadn't been perfected yet and we were not only still watching VHS tapes of our favorite movies, but the latest in video technology was a huge camera that recorded on a VHS tape that we could pop out and put right into our VCR machine. The heavy camera rested on my shoulder while I was recording, and I did a lot of recording that week.
Even with our memories and our video recordings, the most prominent memory we have of our visit to Oklahoma is the acquisition of Lois' recipe for Texas sheet cake.
Texas sheet cake
In a bowl, mix:
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
In a saucepan, boil the following for one minute:
2 sticks butter
4 Tbls. cocoa
1 cup water
Once boiled, add this to the dry mixture. In a second bowl, mix the following ingredients:
1/2 cup sour milk (or milk with 1 1/2 Tbls. vinegar)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. vanilla
Stir this mixture into the rest of the batter. Grease and flour a sheet pan; pour in the mixture and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes.
In a sauce pan, heat until smooth:
1 stick butter
4 Tbls. cocoa
5 Tbls. milk
Add 1 tsp. vanilla and 3 1/2 cups confectioner's (powdered) sugar
Pour the hot frosting over the semi-cooled cake. Top with chopped nuts if desired.
Dianna's sister, Cindy, loved the dessert that Lois would bring to family gatherings. Dianna wanted to get the recipe so she could make the cake for her sister, but we couldn't just copy it onto an index card. Instead we decided to film a real cooking show with Lois starring as the chef creating her recipe, Dianna co-starring as the student learning the recipe and me behind the camera. Since there was no Food Network yet, our only inspiration for creating a cooking show was Julia Child. Regardless, Dianna wanted to give the recording to her sister as a birthday gift along with a cake. We were so intent with our filming, that like the vintage movies we watched, we wrote credits on white paper and filmed them as well. Dianna remembers we also had a comedic commercial interruption, but I don't recall that part of the video.
Prior to our trip, I had made Texas sheet cake before, taking recipes from cookbooks and trying to duplicate Lois' cake. Every recipe I tried seemed pale by comparison. The chocolate flavor was weak and the cake was not moist.
This recipe, however, is not like any of those. The cake is so moist it could stand alone, but the frosting is decadent and fudgy and shouldn't be omitted.
It isn't known where Texas sheet cake originated. Some sources claimed the name came from the fact that the cake is so large, while others claim the chocolate taste is as big as Texas. It is because of its size that this cake makes a wonderful dessert for any gathering.
While Dianna still makes the cake for Cindy every year on her birthday, I don't make it quite as often, but when I do, I always remember our days ''riding the rails'' and the week we spent in Oklahoma.