Stir and Frost Revisited: a Weeknight Chocolate Cake

My love for cooking began in the 70s, a time when the food was marvelous in its own right. Even though it's almost heretical to say that now (trans fat and all sorts of other stuff), the food back then helped women get meals on the table. Hamburger Helper and Kraft dinner decorated every cupboard, and if you're being honest, you'll admit it tasted pretty good.

My mother worked full time and came home every single night and made dinner. Hardly ever completely homemade, but just as good. And sometimes dessert followed. And one of these desserts was known as Stir and Frost.

What my 12 year old self wouldn't have given to have that flip in my hair.

What my 12 year old self wouldn't have given to have that flip in my hair.

Oh, my lovely Stir and Frost. It came in a package that included a powdered cake mix, and plastic pouch of frosting, and its own pan. The directions instructed you to stir the cake in the pan (maybe adding oil and eggs, I honestly don't remember) and then place that bit of loveliness in the oven. In a short 15 or 20 minutes, a chocolate cake appeared. The cake cooled, and then after kneading the frosting for 10 seconds or so according to the directions written on the pouch, you frosted your chocolate cake. And that cake fed your family, hardly a leftover to been seen.

Quite frequently, I get a hankering for a weeknight chocolate cake. I don't want layers, I don't need fancy ingredients. I just want something out of the oven that I can frost and enjoy. Like on a Wednesday.

Betty Crocker doesn't make Stir and Frost anymore, but I really desired a cake recipe that wouldn't take too much effort and tasted great. And I believe I have come up with something.

The food blogger, South in Your Mouth, has a great recipe for chocolate cake in her delightful post, Suck It, Betty Crocker. I've made a few changes, but you can't change perfection. Make this cake in an 8x8 pan, and you'll have the weeknight cake you need to get you through. Without the funk of the 70s (not that it hurt anyone all that much) and all the goodness of homemade.


Stir and Frost Weeknight Chocolate Cake

1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 heaping teaspoon baking soda
1/4 heaping teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons oil
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup strong coffee (I used 1 rounded teaspoon of instant espresso powder dissolved in 1/3 cup hot water)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8x8 baking pan. Sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

In a bowl with an electric mixer, mix the oil and sugar on medium speed for about a minute. (The end result will look like wet snow.) Beat in eggs and vanilla until combined, and then add in buttermilk and coffee. With the mixer set on low speed, add the dry ingredients, and mix until combined. Batter will be thin.

Pour the batter into the buttered 8x8 pan, and bake for 20 to 22 minutes. Do not overbake.

Cool cake on cooling rack. Frost with chocolate frosting. I halved the Sour Cream Chocolate Frosting recipe from Below are the ingredients for the half recipe. Follow the instructions from the original.

Chocolate Frosting recipe

1/2 stick unsalted butter
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup powdered sugar
1/3 cup sour cream

Amanuensis Monday: The Buerer's First Year in Africa, 1946-1947

The Buerers during their first year in Africa. Peggy, Vickie, Harry & my mother, Nancy.

In our research, genealogists continually run into brink walls. Information is missing, records can't be found, trails end abruptly. Not so with my maternal grandparents. My grandmother left so much information (all of which delights me), but sometimes I don't know where to begin. Or end. She began a diary when she arrived in Africa and religiously updated it every single Sunday. Sometimes the news is mundane, such as the weather or what they had to eat. So I've decided (for the most part) to leave that out and focus on the more interesting information. 

The Buerer girls & the Brower family. Johnny Brower, Nancy (my mother), Ruth Brower, Emma Brower, David Brower & Peggy.

In her first diary entry dated January 19, 1947, she begins: "We decided to try to keep a record of the most interesting events of our life here in Congo. Every Sunday we will try to summarize the week's happenings. (She then repeats the information from their journey from the US to Africa that I posted before.) ...The only other white people on the station are Angus and Emma Brower and their three children, Johnnie, David, and Ruthie. Every morning I teach Johnnie who has almost completed the first grade."

In February, she mentions my grandfather, Harry, became sick with malaria and fought that for most of the month. She also states "a leopard was seen in the woods by the water and one night came up to the station. Angus set a trap for him." Later that month, she mentions their Christmas presents finally arrived, in addition to hinting that she is almost done with her third pregnancy: "The doctor thinks I'm getting along all right but will have to wait four or five more weeks. He is treating Harry for malaria for a week first." On February 23, she says "Harry has been up the last half of the week. The doctor found that he has round worms, but hasn't started treating him for that yet...Harry has lost weight and looks quite peaked. His eyes have been sore lately, too." 

On April 21, 1947, she pens another letter describing their first year in the Congo. I've interspersed this letter with comments from her diary.

Nancy and Peggy with natives at Tshene, the original mission station of the Congo Gospel Mission.

Dear Friends:

Our first year in Congo is ended. It hardly seems possible that we have been here that long. The time has passed quickly. We have just returned from two months spent at Mukedi, a Congo Inland Mission station. They have a doctor and nurse there and they were certainly a big help to us. On March 25 the Lord gave us our third daughter, Lois Jean. She weighed seven pounds and five ounces. She has been such a good baby, sleeping most of the time. (In her diary, my grandmother describes her as "quite fat and her face is round as a ball (also her whole head.) Everyone says she has a beautiful color.") When she was two days old I came down with malaria and was quite sick for several days before we could break the fever. I was recovering nicely when I had a relapse on the ninth day and was even sicker than before. We kept the doctor pretty busy but we praise the Lord that He was watching over us and I am well again. In the weeks before Lois was born we were able to get a good rest...

Baby Lois (my aunt) and Nancy (my mother).

One of the natives here asked Harry if his baby was a boy or a girl. When he heard that it was a girl he said, "That's good. If you have a boy you have to pay lots of money to get a wife for him but when you have a girl you get lots of money."

The need for gospel literature for the natives is very great. We have been wanting to begin some printing but all the parts to our press haven't arrived yet. However, Harry is beginning to print some tracts on a multigraph that was here. Soon he expects to start work on a song book to use in the church services. We have one but it has been revised and standardized so that we will use the same words as other fundamental missions around us who are using the same language.

Some of the packages were on the way a long time. We divided some cookies that we received and after I finished mine, Harry noticed worms crawling out of his. We looked at the girls' cookies and they were full of worms, too. We threw them out but I had already eaten mine. I felt funny the rest of the day.

Nancy and Peggy, December 1946.

While we were at Mukedi the rats were multiplying here in our house. When we got back we found evidences of them everywhere. Yesterday morning when we picked up the baby we found rat dirt all over her blanket. One or more rats must have gotten into her bed during the night. I must have neglected to tuck the netting in good all around. We are so thankful that she wasn't hurt.

We caught three of them last night and hope we can get them cleared out soon. The house is also overrun with cockroaches. They seem to be in everything...

My mother remembers this as the Magonchis (sp?), outlaws who would bang drums. I can't find any verification of these people or tribe.

It has been a long time since Christmas, but most of you haven't heard from us since before that. We had a fine service here on Christmas Day. The church was packed and people were standing in the aisles. The school children had decorated the church with palm leaves and bunches of wild flowers. It looked very nice even though quite different from American Christmas decorations. The natives from the mission had new clothes and came to church to show them off just as Americans do at Easter. The heathen came in their grass skirts as usual. About an hour before the service the natives from the mission formed into three groups and paraded around the station waving a flag and signing hymns and carols. One group didn't have a flag so they carried a red handkerchief tied to a pole.

Nancy, Vickie & Peggy.

We were still at Mukedi on Easter but they had a good service here. There were thirteen natives baptized. That is the first baptismal service we have had. Many of the natives came to the service with talcum powder all over their faces. Many times they paint their faces in connection with witchcraft but this time they were just imitating the white man--or should I say the white woman? They thought they looked beautiful.

Soon after Easter a church was organized here. Officers were elected and we expect to see the work to grow as the natives take over some of the responsibilities.

Are you remembering us in prayer? We know the language well enough now to speak in the services even though we aren't as fluent as we would like to be. We appreciate your encouraging letters and hope it won't be too long before we have them all answered. Your friends in Christ, Harry, Vickie, Penny Ann & Lois Buerer

Amanuensis Monday: Part 3: The Buerers in Africa: a letter excerpt from the early days

Idiofa via Kikwit
Congo Belge, W.C. Africa
November 25, 1946

Dear Friends,

Harry and Nancy in front of the second house.

A few days after we sent our circular letter to you in August, our outfit arrived. That is, it arrived with the exception of our trunk which was lost on the way to New York and one case which was lost at the ocean port in Congo. We have been notified that both have been found and are on the way, although neither has arrived yet. We were very happy to be able to unpack our dishes, bedding, books, and all the other things that we waited so long for. There were some disappointments, too, as we discovered that almost every box had been broken into any many things, mostly new clothing, stolen. Also, many dishes were broken and one box contained a quart bottle of ink and a large can of Flit which both broke and gave things a distinctive odor as well as color. However, these things were not very important and we have almost forgotten about them now.

About that time also, the rainy season started and we found our house living quarters (crossing out of "house" done by my grandmother in her letter) quite uncomfortable. Rain here is almost always accompanied by a strong wind and we could hardly find a corner in the house where we could keep dry. However, the stone house that had been under construction for several months, was almost finished so the Brower family moved into it and we moved into their former house. It, too, is a temporary building but it will keep us dry until another permanent house can be built. The house is made of clay with a grass roof and floor woven of split palm poles. It has two rooms, a bedroom and a dining room while just outside are a cookhouse kitchen (crossing out of "cookhouse" done by my grandmother in her letter) and two storerooms. Harry made several pieces of furniture from the wood in our packing cases which helps a lot as we had no place to put things.

Vickie cooking outdoors in Africa.

We are able to carry on conversations with the natives now if they don't talk too fast. Harry has been busy every day supervising the buildings that had to be done. A workshop, a boys' dormitory, a girls' dormitory, a garage, a bell tower, a print shop, another dwelling house, and a school have been started. Some of them are completed. Our former house had a porch as big as the house. This was enclosed, the partitions taken out and the building used as a church and schoolhouse.

Every morning at 6:15 the school children and the workmen attend chapel for a half hour. Some of the children attend school from 8 to 12 and others from 1 to 5. On Wednesday evenings there are prayer meetings and on Sunday there is the church service. The Word of God is given out in each of these meetings, sometimes by Angus Brower and sometimes by the native Christians who were trained at Ishene, our other mission station. We have six of them here helping as cooks, houseboys and school teachers.

Sometimes it seems as though nothing unusual every happens here but the past week we had had more than our share of excitement.

And unfortunately this is the only part of the letter I have. I really hoped for some swashbuckling intrigue and dastardly villains. But I have many, many diary entries, and there is no lack of excitement ahead for Harry and Vickie in Africa. (Worms in cookies, anyone? Stay tuned...)

Using Newspapers to Fill Gaps and the Tragedy of Ed Stafford

If you had known my paternal grandfather, Frank Stafford, you never would have known he had such a sad and profound past. To me, he was the man who put Bactine and multiple band aids on my knees when I fell, the man bought lottery tickets and let me hold them for good luck when the numbers were announced on TV that night (we actually won $80 once), and the man who loved watching Sanford and Son, laughing at almost everything Redd Foxx said. I thought his pain came mainly from the death of his mother, Hannah, but after some recent discoveries, I believe it may have come also from the death of his older brother, Ed. 

Sometimes I feel I will never know the mystery of Hannah: what happened to her, why her death date on her grave and death certificate don't match, and what went on with her family after she died. So I began to burrow into the lives she left behind, mainly her husband and children. One family story that stuck with me involved Hannah's son (and my grandfather's brother), Ed. Relatives mentioned to me that he died of electrocution. I figured since electrocution was a pretty horrific way to die, there had to be some kind of documentation out there.

When genealogists and family historians start researching, one of the first and most logical places to look for documented evidence is the censuses. Birth and death certificates usually follow, and I wrote previously about the  wealth of information in city directories. Just recently I began to dig into newspapers, and I found some things to answer the questions I have about what happened after Hannah's death at Morganton State Hospital.

I found Ed on the 1910 and 1920 census, and from those I could gather he was born around 1903 (in 1910 he's listed at seven years old). I searched for his death certificate for some time and couldn't find it, mainly because when I did find it, the death certificate had been incorrectly indexed as "Eduard Stefford." But I knew instantly I had found him.

Ed had been working as a welder for the Ideal Motor Company in Winston Salem in 1926 when he died. He was 19 years old, married, and lived at 1027 North Liberty Street. But I had to know more, so I contacted the Forsyth County Public Library and gave a librarian all the information I had. Within the day, he emailed me two articles about Ed's untimely death.

Ed Stafford Twin City Sentinel 110126-page-0.jpg

On Sunday afternoon, October 31, 1926, Ed was working on a boiler at the B.F. Huntley Furniture Company plant. As he stepped from a plank to the ground, he grabbed a wire that immediately sent jarring volts of electricity through his body. His manager, Walter Matthews, hear Ed's cry and desperately tried to remove the wire from Ed's hand, but the impact of the voltage threw him to the ground as well. Mr. Matthews finally released him, but Ed died at the hospital before he could be resuscitated. 

The article from the Twin City Sentinel dated November 1, 1926, gave me some great pieces of missing information. I knew Hannah died in 1922. I also knew from the 1930 census that her husband, John, and his children ended up in Washington County, TN. But I really want to learn what happened in those missing eight years. And this article gave me some more clues.

First, the article told me Ed had been working for the Ideal Motor Company since 1924. Second, he had two children. Finally, the article gave the location for my grandfather and his family as Rutherfordton, a town about 120 miles from Winston-Salem. So now I know that somewhere between 1921-1922, the entire family left Spruce Pine and was living in Rutherfordton in 1926. 

Even though I get elated when I find things like this, the whole tragedy is not lost on me. I can't even comprehend how much sadness this family had to endure. Hannah died in 1922 and by 1926, my grandfather also lost his older brother. I can deduce that after Hannah's death, the family pretty much hightailed it out of the Spruce Pine area. I can only assume Hannah's death and circumstances caused a great deal of shame on the family.

Another puzzling piece of information jumps out on Ed's death certificate. Ed's brother, Ralph, is listed as the informant. The informant on a death certificate is the person who provides all the information needed, such as the address of the deceased, the names his/her parents, whether the person was married, etc. The eldest sibling in the family, Ralph was 28 at the time of Ed's death. But on the death certificate, only his father's name is listed. Where his Hannah's name should be, the entry reads "not attainable or obtainable." Why in the world would Ralph not provide his mother's name? From what I know, he was of sound mind and knew with 100% certainty who his mother was. Did he feel shame, embarrassment? I'm at a loss.

Ralph accompanied Ed's body to Spruce Pine, where the burial took place on November 3 in the Bear Creek Baptist Church cemetery. He rests just a few feet away from his mother, Hannah.