Requiem for a Troublemaker (Chocolate Cake)
One of the first female State Senators of New Jersey, Alene Ammond passed away on June 4th. I’m a pretty private person. She was not. I share this because she’d want me to.
Most of these things would probably start off with “my grandmother,” but I’m not allowed to use “the g-word” when referencing Alene Ammond. For a woman who scoffed at any rule considered hard and fast, on this, there was a line in the sand. To some, she was the Terror of Trenton, to others, simply Alene. To me, she was Mom Mom.
And she was a troublemaker. A spitfire, glass-ceiling breaker, justice-seeker, truth-teller, absolute sensation of a woman, and the legacy she leaves behind is so much bigger than her tiny stature. She was 5 feet tall, but 10 feet big. Utterly unafraid, with an uncanny ability to let things roll off her back, an ability to see that the words of those who slung them at her were most often the words of those who were terrified of her. She could take a punch, and kind of hoped you’d throw one.
When I picture her: it’s red lipstick, stiletto heels, perpetually overdressed, impeccable posture, either shaking her first at an injustice—it didn’t matter whether it was at the federal or household level, if she deemed it unjust, she would fight it fiercely—or shrugging, hands up, with her signature bright, broad smile. She was at once the most serious and most lighthearted person I’ve ever known.
To do what she did—run for New Jersey State Senate on a platform of honesty & transparency, win, and serve faithfully to those convictions—required a stubborn soul. One that ran afoul of the way things were done. Her colleagues, 28 Democratic senators, voted to bar her from the Democratic caucus. But that stubborn soul took them straight to Federal Court on charges of 1st and 14th amendment violations. In a landmark ruling: she won and gained national attention for exposing that political decisions were made in private chambers, not on the Senate floor. She returned to the Senate, and as she continued cracking open the door to backroom politics, the press dubbed her "The Terror of Trenton."
If it had been a thing at the time, she would’ve gone viral. She was an unknowing pioneer of the movement that today allows her tribe, the AOCs and the Warrens of the world, to create a better one for all of us and for our someday-maybe children. “We gotta get Trump,” she’d say, and no matter how tiny or frail she became, the conviction continued to flow like electricity.
The sun was setting over Lake Champlain when we had our last conversation. I drew up the hospital room curtains as I did every evening. The intimate room’s array of beiges & browns drank up the oranges and reds in big, thirsty gulps. As we watched the sun dip, we planned a meal.
“We need to make a salad.” She spoke with a gravitas that few would ever apply to a bowl of greens.
“A salad, okay, preferences? Can I dress it up or are you thinking traditional?”
“Do whatever you want, I trust you. We also need a nice chocolate cake.”
“Always. Do you like whipped cream? I have an amazing chocolate cake that’s so good topped with whipped cream.”
“Oh, perfect, perfect.”
“What about an entrée?”
“Eh,” she gestured to my mom, dazed from days squeezed into a desk chair between the hospital bed and the sunset-window, “she can worry about that. You and I, we’ll focus on the salad and chocolate cake.”
“Done. I’ll have the ingredients ready for when you get home and we’ll make it happen. Love you, Troublemaker, see you in the morning.”
“Drive carefully,” like clockwork.
“Nah, I think I’ll drive recklessly,” clockwork right back.
She was scheduled to come home. But that night was bad. The early morning, worse. And at 11:30am instead of welcoming her home, our family was learning we’d never have her home again. Only five days of hospital sleeps, one-sided conversations, warped time, and feeling guilty about laughter later, the rhythmic breaths I’d developed such a fondness for, an emotional reliance upon, stopped.
She never wanted to talk about death. She was raised Catholic, so I read her favorite Catholic prayer aloud. She continuously found herself traveling in staunchly Jewish communities, so I read the Jewish prayer for the deceased. She had an extensive collection of Buddhist teachings always nearby, so I read a Buddhist prayer and we all placed our hands atop her head—Mom had read somewhere that was how Buddhists told the soul where to exit.
Time passed. Couldn’t tell you how long. We traded sobs around the room, our hands in a pile of four on her head. My little sister, through tears, chimed in with a voice that’s always reminded me of bells, “how long do we do this for?” Fumbling and uncertain, we laughed. She would’ve loved it.
Leaving that room will never make sense to me.
you flamboyant creature,
you stubborn soul,
I wish you comfort, a world without allergies, without cancer, and without suffering. I hope it’s mostly endless dinner parties with salad, chocolate cake, and someone else to take care of the entrée, but I also hope for a tiny bit of corruption. If it’s there, I know you’ll find it, I know you’ll expose it, and I know you’ll give ‘em hell. Drive carefully, Troublemaker.
Chocolate Cloud Cake, For Mom Mom
Been making and perfecting this cake for over a decade. It's the one I would've made her when she got home. Crackly outside, rich and velvety inside, and gluten free. The middle sinks, leaving a beautiful cavity to fill with whipped cream.
8 oz. bittersweet choclate
1 stick salted butter
6 eggs - 2 whole, 4 separated
1 cup sugar, split into 1/2 cups
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. In a double boiler, melt chocolate & butter. Set aside to cool.
3. Separate four eggs, placing 4 whites in a large mixer bowl, and 2 whole eggs plus 4 yolks in another large bowl. I always warm my eggs up before cracking them if I'm looking for volume - just put them into a bowl and fill it with hot water while you're preparing your ingredients.
4. Whisk whole eggs and yolks with 1/2 cup sugar, vanilla, and salt until smooth.
5. In a mixer with a whisk attachment, whisk egg whites on high until frothy. Slowly begin streaming in remaining 1/2 cup sugar and continue whipping to shiny, stiff peaks.
6. Stream cooled chocolate & butter (no problem if it's still warm, just don't want it hothothot), into whole egg mixture and stir until smooth.
7. Gently fold 1/3 of whipped egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Repeat until combined and batter is fluffy but not streaky. Seriously, be gentle, try to keep the air in there.
8. Bake in a greased 9" springform pan for 35-40 minutes.
9. Prepare yourself to make this cake for the rest of your life on your family's request.