The American South has a rich culinary heritage where food is regarded as being something more than mere fuel for the body. It is entrenched into every aspect of the culture and is much more like a way of life. Food is seen as an act of hospitality that brings people together and cements family and friendship. Soul food is often mistaken as being the American term for what we Brits would call comfort food. This is not the case. The term soul food entered the language during the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s and came to mean the food specifically originating from the African-American rural areas. Bob Jeffries is quoted in his Soul Food Cookbook published in 1969 as saying that “while all soul food is Southern, not all Southern food is soul food”. This is because the whole of the South is a melting pot of influences from not just Africa, but Europe and Native America as well. It is clear though that Southern cuisine is all about using good ingredients to provide delicious down home meals. A quick look online provides recipes with back stories and names attached that have been lovingly handed down the generations. Especially the desserts. Who wouldn’t be tempted by food with names such as Aint Sug’s Punkin Puddin’ or Vertamae Grosvenor’s Coconut Custard Meringue Pie? And while this Mississippi mud cake may not technically be soul food it is most definitely food for the soul. And we must all take comfort where we find it.
Life of pie.
The origins of mud cake seem to be a little vague. It is believed to have been invented after the Second World War by home cooks who were eager for a dessert that could be made quickly and cheaply from store cupboard ingredients. Some of the earliest written descriptions of the dessert surfaced in California around 1960 and referred to it as being Louisiana or Mississippi mud pie. A chocolate cookie-crumb pie case was filled with either a chocolate or coffee ice cream and topped off with a thick fudge or chocolate sauce just before serving. In 1965, one Sandra Lee Hicks from Long Beach entered her own version of the recipe into a cooking competition in California and won herself the grand prize of $5. Now you might think the prizes in those days may have seemed less than extravagant. But five bucks in 1965 would work out as $39 and 69 cents today. That’s just under £32.32 in English money. So yes – you’d be right. Less than extravagant. And they say Yorkshire folk are stingy. Anyhoo. Mud pie then became something of a restaurant favourite during the 1970’s before the recipe started to change and evolve.
Clear as mud.
By the 1980’s it had become a baked pie with a filling that was more akin to a fudgy chocolate cake or brownie. And in 1988 came the first mention of the dessert specifically as a dirt cake. At some point along the way the cookie-crumb base appears to have been lost. And the chocolate sauce has mostly been replaced by a marshmallow and chocolate topping that is marbled together to give much more of a visual representation of the mud from the banks of the Mississippi river. Mud cake is a popular treat around Halloween when it is common practise to decorate the cake with gummy worms and other scary confections. There also used to be an optional topping of extra marshmallows during the rest of the year which might have been a casualty of the mud cake’s popularity in Australia, where the muddied appearance is all the decoration they need. So it may be a relatively new addition to the Southern dessert cookbook. But on a journey from wartime kitchens throughout America and on to the rest of the world, Mississippi mud cake has become a firm favourite. Or as they say in the South – it tastes so good it’ll make you sass your mama.
A tin to bake it in.
As with a lot of Southern dessert recipes this one produces quite a hefty amount. I think it goes back to what they say about the gathering and social aspect of the food. Whether they are meant for a family get-together or a church supper these recipes need to feed a large amount of people. If they are to raise funds at something like a bake sale it is even more important. They HAVE to be big. So it is no surprise that the recipe calls for a 23cm x 33cm traybake tin. Depending on the people you are feeding you might be able to divide the cake up into as many as 24 pieces. I feel that I should give word of warning though. The marshmallow and frosting are marbled over the hot cake fresh from the oven and then left to cool. When the cake has cooled to room temperature it would probably be a good idea to pop it into the fridge to firm up for a couple of hours. I never did. So when I came to cut the cake into portions the topping started to slowly yet seductively maunder over the edges a little. But it was so deliciously rich and moreish I couldn’t complain too much. I just called the whole thing Mississippi Mud Slide and was done with it. Now here’s that recipe… Enjoy.
Mississippi Mud Cake.
- 180g Plain Flour.
- 50g Cocoa Powder.
- ½ tsp Baking Powder.
- 400g Granulated Sugar.
- 220g Margarine.
- 4 Eggs.
- 2 tsp Vanilla Extract.
- 100g Chopped Walnuts.
- 300g Icing Sugar.
- 50g Cocoa Powder.
- 70g Unsalted Butter (room temperature).
- 1 tsp Vanilla Extract.
- Up to 80ml Whole Milk.
- 150g Marshmallows. (I used large but you could just as easy use mini ones).
- 100g Marshmallows (optional for decoration).
- Position a shelf in the centre of the oven. Preheat the oven to Gas mark 4. Fully line a 23cm x 33cm cake tin with foil and lightly grease the foil.
- Sift together the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder. Set aside.
- Cream together the sugar and margarine until light and fluffy.
- Add the eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition.
- Add the vanilla extract and beat to incorporate.
- Gently fold in the flour using a handheld balloon whisk in three batches until just combined, taking care not to over mix.
- Add the chopped walnuts and fold in until evenly distributed, taking care not to over mix.
- Spoon into the prepared baking pan and smooth the surface.
- Bake for 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Mine took 45 minutes in the metal cake tin.
- While the cake is in the oven you need to make the topping.
- Sift together the icing sugar and cocoa powder.
- Add the butter, vanilla extract and 60ml of whole milk.
- Beat together on a low speed until just combined.
- Increase the speed to medium and beat until smooth, taking care to scrape down the bowl as necessary to prevent streaks.
- If the mixture is too stiff you can add the remaining milk a teaspoon at a time until the mixture is still quite thick but easily spreadable. Mine took 75ml of milk.
- When the cake is properly baked, quickly place the 150g marshmallows in an even pattern over the top. Place back in the oven for 2 minutes or until they begin to swell and melt a little.
- When the hot cake comes out of the oven, quickly drop large dollops of the chocolate topping in and amongst the softened marshmallows until it is all used up.
- Gently swirl together until the mixture is nicely marbled, spreading the toppings out to the edges of the cake as you go.
- Press the extra marshmallows in to the topping (if using) and allow the cake to cool and set before serving.
- The original recipe said to line a 23 x 33cm cake tin with foil but with hindsight it might be easier to make the cake in an earthenware or glass baking dish of a similar size if you have one. That way you can just store the dish in the fridge and portion out pieces as you need them.