beach vacation dinners, and a recipe: mississippi mud cake

Our annual week at the beach is already becoming a distant memory, even though it was only four weeks ago. I meant to write about it much sooner than now, but within 24 hours of returning home from the beach, life became hectic and harried. But that is what life does, right? Life careens ahead, hurtling through the yellow caution lights, never pulling over to the curb to allow one to catch one’s breath, much less catch up.

If we can coordinate it amongst our schedules, our weekly summer beach trip is usually a joint vacation with good friends. This year, we rented a huge beach cottage one block from the Gulf of Mexico – more of a beach compound, really, with one main house and two guest cottages – and filled it with three adult couples, six children, one babysitter, and enough LEGOs to construct the island of Manhattan, to scale.

seaside, florida

The adults made up an interesting group of medical specialists – two oncologists, one hematologist (who is also an oncologist, even though she denies it), one family practitioner, one endodontist, and one neurosurgeon. Despite this, conversations, thankfully, did not fixate on cancer, brain tumors, root canals, or recent influenza strains. Work chatter was kept to a minimum, and we all preferred it this way.

What we did talk about, and quite a lot, really, was food. And about drinks.

(There were six children, ages 2 to 9, after all.)

beach dinner

We did everything one would expect to be done on a beach vacation. We relaxed, we read books, and some of us napped. We gossiped and laughed and reminisced. The littlest among us played in the sand: digging holes until clear water seeped through the cold, packed earth at the bottom; making drip castles with drawbridges made of driftwood; chasing small sand crabs into their straw-like tunnels in the sand. We slathered on sunscreen several times per day, took walks on the beach (when the children let us), and cooled off in the swimming pool. We gawked at the beautiful beach cottages, and we daydreamed of what it must be like to own one.

And we cooked together. We fed each other.

mississippi mud cake | the merry gourmet

One evening, we dined on grilled steaks and corn on the cob, and for dessert we devoured Mississippi Mud Cake, warm and gooey from the oven. We made homemade pizzas one night, grilling them on pizza stones (ordered up fresh from Amazon) set over the two charcoal grills on the patio. It rained halfway through the pizza grilling, creating a Top Chef-like plot twist. But contrary to what the grill master (the neurosurgeon) thought, figuring out how to grill pizzas in a downpour just made the evening more exciting.

Besides, the wine was flowing, and with it, the conversation.

low country boil

low country boil

On our last night, the men (headed by the family practitioner) served up a low country shrimp boil. We ate outdoors, on the vast patio table that sat all 13 of us comfortably. The silvery, weathered table was piled high with potatoes, corn on the cob, artichokes, sausages, and the best shrimp I’ve had in ages.

The meal could have fed the entire block, and had the rain not started up again, we might have had the neighbors over to partake in the feast.

These are special friends we vacationed with. I’m certain that my memories of the hours spent lounging on the beach chairs under an umbrella will blur in my memory, that they will intermingle with those memories of other beach vacations, other beach chairs and umbrellas. My memories of the time spent in the kitchen with these friends, hours spent around the dining table, sharing meals and making toasts, are firmly etched in my mind, however.

When the vacation was over, I felt nourished, in many more ways than one.

And I’m already plotting next year’s trip.

Thanks to Julia for this photo of one of our dinners on the patio.

Thanks to Julia for this photo of one of our dinners on the patio.

*  *  *  *  *

This Mississippi Mud Cake is adapted from a recipe from Nancie McDermott’s wonderful cake book, Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations. We enjoyed it over a few day period. The first night, we ate it while it was still slightly warmer than room temperature. It was gooey and rich, and almost like an undercooked brownie. Over the next two days, as it chilled in the refrigerator, the cake set up firm and was easier to cut into squares. I’ve shown you two photos here, so you can see the contrast in the texture.

Honestly, I loved both versions — warm and fresh out of the oven, and chilled on day two or three. You just can’t go wrong with this chocolate cake.

mississippi mud cake | the merry gourmet

Mississippi Mud Cake

This recipe is adapted from Nancie McDermott's wonderful cake book, Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations. This decadent chocolate cake is excellent warm or at room temperature, when the texture is soft and gooey. When chilled, the cake has more of a brownie texture and tastes of rich chocolate fudge. I like to eat it both ways, and sometimes, I think it's even better on the second and third day.


Ingredients for Cake

2 sticks (227 grams) butter
1/2 cup (60 grams) cocoa powder
4 large eggs, beaten well
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon instant coffee powder (optional)
2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
1-1/2 cups (188 grams) all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

Ingredients for Frosting

16 ounces (453 grams) confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup (60 grams) cocoa powder
1 stick (113 grams) butter, melted
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups mini marshmallows


Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with rack in middle position. Butter and flour a 13-by-9-inch baking pan.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter with cocoa powder over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the mixture is smooth, about 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat. Using a wooden or silicone spoon, stir in beaten eggs, vanilla, coffee powder (if using), sugar, flour, and salt. Stir until the batter is well mixed, smooth, and no flour is visible. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the cake springs back when touched gently in the center and the cake edges start to pull away from the pan.

While the cake bakes, prepare the frosting. In a medium heatproof bowl, combine the confectioners’ sugar and cocoa powder; whisk to combine. Add the melted butter, milk, and vanilla. Using a large spoon or a mixer at low speed, stir together until smooth and well blended. Set aside until the cake is done. (See note.)

Remove cake from oven and scatter marshmallows over the top. Place back in oven for about 3 minutes, to warm and soften the marshmallows.

Pour frosting all over the top of the cake, over the marshmallows, and let cake cool on a rack. Cut into small squares and serve cake at room temperature (cake will be soft and gooey) or chilled.

Note: If the frosting begins to set up before you’re ready to use it, you can melt it again by making a double boiler. Simply place the bowl of frosting over a saucepan of simmering water and stir frosting until melted and smooth again.

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12 Responses to “finding balance and a blueberry buttermilk tart”

  1. Macaroni Mama — April 27, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

    It warms my heart that your children associate baking with love, warmth, and hugs. We won’t take up much of your time this weekend for this very reason. XXXOOO

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — April 28th, 2012 @ 7:37 am

      Any time we spend with you is time well spent, Mom. You and Dad are our priority, too!

  2. Liren — April 27, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

    That balance that we all aim to achieve is definitely more challenging at times than others. Thank goodness for baking, it really is a comforting therapy. I know a slice of this tart would bring peace and satisfaction. Hope this weekend brings more time with the kids in the kitchen.

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — April 28th, 2012 @ 7:38 am

      Thank you, Liren. Yes, baking is such a great thing, especially when I can do it with the kids.

  3. Thyme (Sarah) — April 28, 2012 @ 8:32 am

    Your words hit the spot with me. I am the complete opposite of your world but the same in so many ways. I am a stay at home mom with 2 teens (one off to college in the fall) and I have homeschooled for the past 6 years. That “guilt” word often has me analyzing my decisions off and on. Yesterday was one of those days. I clenched my hair yesterday and yelled “I can’t take 3 more years of school!!” and…”I’m not even getting paid!!” I felt horrible after that and spent the rest of the day in shame. Apologies went around. I follow your blog andy you are doing the best job! Good luck with everything!

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — April 28th, 2012 @ 10:00 am

      Guilt really can get the best of us, right? I think the work-life balance challenge holds true whether your work is outside the home or INSIDE the home, as yours is. And thank you for being a reader — I’m so glad you’re here!

  4. Beth (OMG! Yummy) — April 28, 2012 @ 10:32 am

    Nice post Merry-Jennifer – so honest and revealing in a conversation starting, endearing way. Guilt pervades my life and I’m Jewish, so it’s a long-standing joke in the family too. As for the balance, I commented on Twitter to Rebecca Subbiah yesterday that I take life one hour at a time these days – a whole day overwhelms me. Since I’ve become determined to reinvent a career for myself while still managing a complicated household, I’ve both improved the balance and thrown it way off. But I remain determined to forge ahead and hope that the decisions I make hourly are for the most part, good ones.

    Love that your kids want to bake with you – that is a priceless memory that will stay with them forever. The fact that you are mentally or physically gone occasionally will, on the other hand, melt away.

  5. Paula — April 29, 2012 @ 6:19 pm

    Your parents, friends, co-workers, patients, spouse and especially your children are so very blessed to have you in their lives and so cognizant of their needs. Guilt always invades our thoughts when time for everyone seems at a minimum. When your children go to sleep each night they know that they are loved so every second that you spend with them or do for them, while to you may never seem enough, really and truly is.

  6. Amy — May 2, 2012 @ 8:33 am

    It seems I will never fully master the art of balance. But I’m trying.

    I want this now. For breakfast. ; )

  7. Tickled Red — May 18, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

    Sometimes I come across a post after it has been written and I realize now that it’s for a reason. I need to read this today because the past month and a half has been topsy turvy for me. My balance had been whipped off the map. Love this post!! And yes baking does seem to do just that ;D

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