McCleary Family Cake

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Today I am going to write about the McCleary cake, which is my mom's family's special birthday cake. And, as with all family recipes, this one has a story behind it. What makes this one even better is that there is a little inter-family argument over it.

As far as I can tell, my Grandma Jane is the originator of this tradition. She told me that she had the cake for a church activity once, and liked it so much that she went home and made it. It was an instant success, and became the most requested (or maybe just the only) birthday cake for my mom's family. According to Grandma Jane, that was about 50 years ago. That's a lot of birthdays. To this day, it is one of my family's favorite cakes.

The McCleary cake is basically a 4-layer chocolate cake, with the layers separated by layers of "cream" and the entire cake covered in chocolate frosting. You would think that this would not be something over which there could be any confusion or disagreement, but there is a good reason why I put the word cream in quotation marks. It would seem that practically none of my mother's siblings can agree on what the true McCleary cake is made of.

My grandma says that her original recipe was Betty Crocker's devil's food cake mix separated by layers of Dream Whip and covered in chocolate frosting, with toothpicks to keep the layers from slipping off of each other. Later, when Cool Whip became available, she changed to using that instead of Dream Whip.

To see what my aunt's and uncles remember about the cake and how it should be made, click here. On the other hand, my mother swears that my grandma mixed the Dream Whip with chocolate pudding because she can remember snitching some of the mixture. Her version is souped up chocolate cake, chocolate frosting, and a mousse made up of chocolate pudding and whipped cream. Personally, I prefer it this way, so that is the recipe I will write here.
Skip the tutorial and go straight to the recipe.

Step 1:

Bring 1/2 cup margarine and 3 eggs to room temperature. While you're waiting, set the oven to 350°F, and grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans.
Why, in a time of trans-fat-phobia would I tell you to use margarine in a recipe? Well, the answer is that it is tradition. Specifically, you should use Imperial brand margarine because that is what this cake has always been made with. But I suppose that you can use butter if you feel you must.

Step 2:

Prepare the cake batter by combining 1 box Devil's Food cake mix, the margarine, eggs, 1-1/2 cups milk, and 1/2 cup Nesquik on low speed for 30 seconds, the for 2 minutes on medium high speed.
These are basically the directions suggested on the box. I have only changed the ingredients to be added to the cake mix, and yes, they are important changes. My mom once confessed to me that once time when she ran out of Nesquik she used hot chocolate mix instead, and the cake turned out fine. So use whichever you have at home.

Step 3:

Divide the cake batter between the two prepared pans and slide into the oven for 40-45 minutes, or until the cake springs back when touched, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Step 4:

When the cakes come out of the oven, allow the to cool for 10-15 minutes in the pan, then carefully de-pan onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely.
THIS IS IMPORTANT! Did you know that when a baked good comes out of the oven it's not completely done? Well, it's true. There is a lot that goes on during the first few minutes of cooling: starches and proteins finish setting, bubbles contract slightly, and the cake cools beneath the boiling point of water. This means that trying to de-pan the cake before it is ready will not only tear the cake to pieces, but leave you with dry pieces of cake instead of moist deliciousness. Be patient.

Step 5:

When the cake is COMPLETELY cool, split each cake in half, leaving you with 4 layers. Wrap each layer in plastic wrap and stick in the freezer until completely frozen.
My favorite way to split cakes is to use a long, serrated knife and to go slowly. My mom prefers the thread method, which involves wrapping a piece of threat around the cake and pulling it tight, thereby bifurcating the cake. Do whatever meets your fancy.

Step 6:

While the cake is in the freezer, this how you prepare the filling. Prepare 1 box of chocolate pudding with a mere 1-1/2 cups of milk. Stick in the fridge and allow to set up. I think this is supposed to take 5 minutes, but I always just let it set while I'm doing the next step.
I realize this will make a really, really thick pudding, but we need that in order to make a filling that will support the weight of the other layers.

Step 7:

Whip 1 cup heavy cream to stiff peaks. Fold into the prepared pudding. Set aside, if you can.
Folding is important here, and is not the same thing as mixing. The goal is to bring the heavy pudding and airy whipped cream into happy marriage without destroying as little of the cream's fluffy nature as possible. Go slowly and your patience will not be in vain.


Assemble a McCleary cake as follows. The top half of one of your cakes face down on a cake plate. Spread with a layer of pudding/whipped cream mousse. Cover with the bottom half of the cake, cut-side up. Spread the cut-side with a layer of chocolate frosting. Cover the frosting with the bottom half of the second cake, again cut-side up. Slather on the mousse. Top the cake with the remaining cake, pretty-side up. Frost the outside of the cake with the remaining frosting. Stick the cake in the freezer to firm up, just make sure to take it out about 20 minutes before serving to make it easier to cut.
McCleary Cake:
1 box Devil's Food cake mix
1/2 cup butter, softened
3 eggs
3 cups milk, divided
1 box chocolate pudding mix
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1-2 tubs chocolate frosting

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Prepare cake mix with softened butter, eggs, and 1-1/2 cups milk. Divide batter between the prepared pans and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the cake springs back when touched. Cool 10-15 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Split layers in half, wrap each piece in plastic, and freeze completely.
Prepare pudding mix with 1-1/2 cups milk. Allow to set in the fridge. Whip cream until it has stiff peaks. Fold the whipped cream into the pudding. Set aside.
Assemble the cake according to above directions.

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