Chocolate cake
Image Credit: NYT

My family’s color-coded, Google-calendar lives were upended two weeks ago when our daughters’ school abruptly closed and my husband and I began to work from home in an effort to flatten the coronavirus curve. Suddenly, we went from being busy commuters, who typically see our 5- and 7-year-olds on the weekends and for brief stints in the mornings and evenings, to working full time at home, while home-schooling our girls. Our once color-coded life has become a colorful circus.

So I decided to channel my inner Pollyanna. As a parent, if I approach this “break” with more pluck and less fear (and um, yelling), my girls might very well look back on this time with fondness. They’ll recall that weird, not unpleasant, lull in their otherwise busy childhoods when Mama and Papa were home all day, they all but lived in their pajamas, and “music class” was Papa playing the guitar in the backyard under a budding 150-year-old oak tree.

They’ll remember heading into the kitchen to bake with me. Not just because we needed an activity to keep us busy as I pondered the thought of many days together at home, but because the act of baking brings comfort. (I’m also pretty sure it counts as “science.”) We make simple, uncomplicated things like shortbread, drop cookies, quick breads and one-bowl cakes like this one, a tender and chocolaty affair made with pantry items that can be found and measured by little hands: flour, sugar, cocoa, oil, baking soda and vinegar.

This recipe, which I first wrote about in an article about the best kids’ cookbooks a year ago, is adapted from Mollie Katzen, a chef and author best known for “The Moosewood Cookbook.” It’s an ideal recipe to make with young kids (or for older kids to make alone) because it calls for just a handful of ingredients, and it’s mixed and baked in one pan. (It’s also vegan.) It’s surprisingly moist and delicious on its own or dusted with powdered sugar, but in times like these, a layer of buttercream frosting and a rainstorm of colored sprinkles are a very good idea. A couple of weeks ago, my 5-year-old made it while I looked over her shoulder. She took a bite of the finished cake, looked me in the eye with pride and said, “My cakes are better than Mama’s.”

And so, instead of remembering canceled plans and uncertainty, maybe they’ll remember this as the time when they discovered that baking can be not just a means to a sweet reward, but an act of self-care and solace, just as it is now for their worried mother.

Here's how to make this special cake

Yield: 9 to 12 servings

Total time: 45 minutes


1 1/4 cups/160 grams all-purpose flour

1 cup/200 grams granulated sugar

1/3 cup/30 grams unsweetened cocoa powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/3 cup/80 milliliters canola oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar or white vinegar

2 tablespoons semisweet or vegan chocolate chips (optional)

Powdered sugar, for dusting on top (optional)


1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Add the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt to an 8-by-8-inch square glass or metal baking dish. Whisk the mixture together until uniform in color. Use your fingers to break apart any lumps.

2. Add 1 cup water along with the oil, vanilla extract and vinegar. Stir slowly with a fork or a whisk in small circles to blend. Mash, scrape and stir with a fork and spoon until the mixture becomes a smooth and uniform batter.

3. Scrape the sides of the baking dish with a rubber spatula and spread the batter in an even layer. Sprinkle with chocolate chips, if using.

4. Use a damp paper towel to wipe the edges of the baking dish clean. Carefully transfer the dish to the oven and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the batter comes out mostly clean, 28 to 33 minutes. (Instead of looking like you dipped the toothpick in chocolate frosting, it should look like it has some chocolate cake crumbs clinging to it.)

5. Remove from the oven, let cool, then cut the cake into squares. If you’re feeling fancy, this tastes good (and looks pretty) with some powdered sugar dusted on top.