Christmas Chocolate Cake

Unexpected bounty in a remote place yields a terrific Christmas feast. But these two cruisers stuck to tradition when it came time for dessert. From our December 2008 "People and Food."
Christmas Chocolate Cake Katie Coolbaugh

I always remind my mother that cruisers have intentions, not plans. So when our lack of intentions found us plying the exotic rivers and villages of Panama’s remote Darién province longer than we’d intended, I knew Christmas dinner wasn’t going to be “traditional.” Instead of eggnog, fruitcake, roast turkey, and pumpkin pie, it would be rum, fresh tropical fruit, grilled fish, and-what for dessert? No matter how far from home our more than seven years of cruising has taken us, my husband, Jim, and I have always managed to include a few traditional family favorites in our distant holiday meals.

Christmas morning dawned silent and gray over our idyllic anchorage on the winding Río Sabana. I was sleeping in-giving Santa a little more time to find us-and Jim was reading in the cockpit of our Tayana 42 cutter, Asylum. He didn’t hear the approaching dugout until the old guy in the leaky little canoe held up a bucket and called out, “Camarones!” A bag of rice, some cooking oil, a couple of onions, and a few stale trading cigarettes cinched the deal. Not exactly the same as cookies and milk disappearing from under the Christmas tree, but when I awoke to the news of several pounds of fresh shrimp on board, it was enough to make me believe in Santa Claus again. Christmas dinner was taking shape.

The day before, we’d meandered up the river for about six miles in Nut Case, our well-worn dinghy, until the river forked and headed left to the village of Santa Fé, which we’d been told was about 10 minutes away. Our excursion was part exploration and part foraging: to see what items on our modest Christmas-dinner shopping list the little tiendas might have, and to see if there might be for sale any of the hand-woven palm baskets for which Darién is famous. The narrowing river wound along for much more than 10 minutes, and when we finally reached a landing, it wasn’t Santa Fé. Without enough water in the tidal creek to keep going, we left the dinghy on the gooey mud bank and hitched a ride in a car that epitomized the term rattletrap for the 15-minute, bone-jarring trip to the village. Santa Fé turned out to be a tropical Dodge City: Saddled horses waited patiently at hitching posts; shops and bars lined the wide, dusty main street; and tall fruit trees provided shade for men in spurs to swap their news.


We spotted a small melo, where you can buy anything from Tang to baby chickens, and it didn’t disappoint. The tiny refrigerator yielded two huge surprises: eggnog and turkey hams. Stacked at the counter were little fruitcakes. After those amazing discoveries, I even checked the shelves for pumpkin-pie filling. But it didn’t matter that there was none. I had the recipe for another family favorite, one that always thrilled us as children when Mom made it: a sinfully delicious chocolate cake that forms its own pudding-like frosting as it cooks. It was the perfect cap to a perfect Christmas for cruisers.

Christmas Chocolate Cake:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup walnuts nuts, chopped (optional)


  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 5 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1 cup hot water

For the cake:
Combine and sift dry ingredients into a bowl. In a separate bowl, mix milk, butter, vanilla, and optional nuts. Combine the two mixtures well and pour into a greased 8- by 8-inch or 9- by 9-inch baking pan.

For the sauce:
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and pour gently over cake batter. Bake at 350 F for 30 to 35 minutes, but check at 30; overcooking dries out the cake. Sauce will work its way down through the cake and form a pudding-like frosting on the bottom. To serve, slice, and put each piece cake-side down on a plate. Serve alone, with whipped cream or ice cream.


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