Chocolate Praline Earthquake Cake

I'm going to shift plates here for a minute and take a break from my new year's list to celebrate something else--the anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake that rocked us 20 years ago. I'm sure anybody that experienced it would agree that it feels more like it happened last week than two decades ago. Everyone can remember exactly where they were, who they called first, the first thought that ran through their heads.
20 years ago I was lying on my belly in the living room, taking a plastic horse toy for a trot around the carpet. My mom had company for an afternoon dessert outside in our sukkah. The guests had left and she and my toddler brother were sitting on the deck just about to put away the coffee. Then the carpet turned into a rolling ocean and I ran outside through the open (and probably sliding) sliding glass door and ducked under the patio table with my mom and brother, still clutching the toy horse. I don't remember being scared during the quake as much as amazed at how the earth could move like that and at how 15 seconds of rumbling seemed like an eternity. The scary part didn't happen until afterwards, after the power went out. We went out into the street and heard on our neighbor's battery-radio that a bridge had collapsed. I knew my dad had to cross a bridge to get home and I was hoping that it wasn't that one. I was imagining the terror of all those people in cars plummeting into the Bay (in actuality, there was only one casualty on the bridge.) It took my dad forever to get home. This was pre-cellphones and I remember being terrified about not knowing what apocalyptic mess he might be facing on the road. We spent the evening with candles or flashlights and slept (or tried to sleep) under the dining room table, wrapped in an avocado green sheet. I remember lying awake, anticipating each aftershock. I was trying to prevent even an inch of my brother or myself from peeking out from the shelter of the table for fear that the chandelier would take the appearance of child-flesh as an opportunity to plunge down on us. At some point, I loosened my grip on the plastic horse and it disappeared. We must have slept under that table for a week, waiting for the next one. We're still waiting. And I bet there's some serious shaking building up under the surface by now.
Even though by now we've lived through plenty of other earthquakes and much more turbulent events, the memory of the '89 quake still stands crystal clear. Amusing how so many people come here and pay an enormous sum of money to put a house down on a bit of earth that threatens to crack open and swallow it up. But I guess that's California.
This is Earthquake Cake because the top looks like the San Andreas if the San Andreas were made of cake and cream cheese. Usually Earthquake Cake is made like a speedy deconstructed upside-down German chocolate cake. It didn't seem appropriate to try to force a simple, potluck-type sheet cake into being gourmet, but I decided to up the richness a notch and give it a a chocolatey-er cake and a praline bottom (I figured that gooey praline is closer to replicating the asthenosphere than the scattered "boulders" of loose coconut and nuts.) So, there's not much upscale here. This is a cake that's sweet--nearly to a fault. And it's from a box, which I figured was fitting since when the "big one" hits, I'll be living on our stores of canned green beans and Passover brownie mix.

Earthquake Cake

  • 1 C light brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 C cream
  • 4 oz butter
  • 1 C pecan pieces

  • 1 box Devil's Food cake mix
  • 2/3 C buttermilk
  • 2/3 C water (or 1/3 water, 1/3 bourbon)
  • 1/4 C oil + 1/4 melted butter (or 1/2 C oil)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 T cocoa powder

  • 1 lb (4 C) powdered sugar
  • 8 oz cream cheese
  • 4 oz butter, softened

Melt the brown sugar, cream, and 4 oz butter in a small heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring for a few minutes until sugar dissolves. Pour over the bottom of a 9 x 13 " baking pan. Sprinkle with nuts.

Put the cake mix, cocoa, water/bourbon, milk, oil/melted butter, and eggs in a bowl. Beat with a mixer on medium speed for a minute, scrape down the sides and then beat for 2-3 minutes more. Pour into pan, on top of the praline layer.

Beat the last 4 oz butter, cream cheese, and powdered sugar on low speed for a minute, until smooth. Drop 12 globs on top of the cake batter (don't mix it in).

Bake in a preheated 350° oven for 40-45 minutes, until mostly set but still slightly wobbly in the center--it firms as it cools. Cool in pan on a rack for 30 minutes. Serve pieces inverted. or not.

I hope the "big one" comes complete with these hairdos and poor editing:

"Earthquake" (1974)