“Never Fail” Chocolate Cake

My mom was never much of a baker. However, she’s always had a great love of chocolate cake.

These opposing forces found an unlikely convergence point, back in 1974, in the form of a brief recipe tucked away in a school fundraising cookbook.

Back in kindergarten, my school put together a collection of recipes contributed by parents. These were typed out, printed up on blue paper, sandwiched inside a yellow cardboard cover proclaiming the contents were “like mother used to make,” and bound with a plastic comb.

Somerled Home and School Presents: Culinary Tid Bits: Like Mother Used to Make

For some reason no one can remember, my dad even got a shoutout in the acknowledgements, as having been “particularly “ helpful.

But that is not why this cookbook holds so many memories, all these years later.

No, it’s the recipe on page 56, you see.

Now, truth be told, the entire cookbook – which my mom recently passed down to me while purging ahead of a move – is covered in years of baking detritus. But page 56 is the filthiest of them all – even dirtier than page 52’s “Orange Cookies”.

On this page is an unassuming 7-line recipe, tantalizing in its simplicity and hugely promising in its title: “NEVER FAIL CHOCOLATE CAKE.” The uncredited recipe is rather bold in its claim, and somewhat unlikely in its ingredients, with shortening as a primary component, a paltry 2 1/2 tablespoons of cocoa, and no other chocolate elements. Oh, and you’re supposed to mix in half a cup of boiling water at the end. The pan size is also debatable, with both the original 8 x 8 inch and my mom’s handwritten “greased loaf” addition crossed out. And if you were expecting a baking time, you’re on your own, kids.

close-up of recipe: Never Fail Chocolate Cake

Despite this morass of questionable and confusing details – or lack thereof – I was compelled today to attempt this cake that my mom made so often while I was growing up. Would it be bland? Worth making again? If I’m being honest, I had so many doubts. But I had to try.

So I made the cake, albeit with two modifications: I used unsalted butter instead of shortening, and I added 1/4 teaspoon of salt. I used the originally indicated 8 x 8 inch pan and baked it for about 25 minutes, until a toothpick came out dry.

And… it did not fail! It was actually pretty good. I was even so distracted by its handsome looks and fine chocolate aroma that I forgot to take a picture before I cut into it. Moist, with a delicate flavour. Next time I think I’ll add a half cup of chocolate chips for some extra oomph.

Dear Never Fail Chocolate Cake, congrats on living up to your name… nearly 50 years later.

Never Fail Chocolate Cake, 2023 Edition

1/3 c. unsalted butter
1 c. brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/4 c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tablespoons cocoa (or a bit more)
1/2 c. boiling water
1/2 c. chocolate chips (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Cream butter and sugar in a medium bowl.
  3. Mix in egg, milk, and vanilla.
  4. Mix together dry ingredients in small bowl and blend well.
  5. Add dry ingredients to wet and mix well.
  6. Mix in boiling water.
  7. Mix in chocolate chips, if using.
  8. Pour batter into greased 8 x 8 inch glass baking dish.
  9. Bake for 25 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.
  10. When cool, dust with icing sugar. (Optional)

This cake would also work well as cupcakes, just reduce the baking time. It would also be good adorned with icing, if you wanted to fancy it up a bit.



Against the exceptional background of a worldwide pandemic, I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last few years reflecting on friendship.

Regular connections with my friends have been a key lifeline during a rough few years, and I imagine I’m not alone. Pandemic activities have been much more intentional than in the Before Times, and I’ve been drawn closer to some friends and remained more distant from others.

I’ve taken part in regular three-person Zoom art-making sessions; caught up over in-person brunches with another mate; and had intense and meaningful FaceTime audio calls with someone who suffers from video fatigue. I’ve attended movies, musicals, and plays with one companion with many similar interests; and meandered through museums and gardens with another. (On the flip side, the pandemic ran roughshod over a couple of friendships, and two people who were once very close won’t speak to me.)

I no longer take friendship for granted, if I ever did. Maintaining them, like all types of relationships, takes effort. They require tending to, caring for, and careful looking after, like a garden. Which friend have I not seen for a while? Who’s having a rough time and could use some companionship? Who might enjoy a hike, or a storytelling night?

So when my dear friend Victoria realized that 2022 was the 40th (!) anniversary of when we first met as kids at an arts day camp, I was particularly moved. And also grateful, as I wouldn’t have realized we were hitting this precious milestone had she not brought it to my attention.

Together, we hatched a plan to commemorate the occasion, dubbing it a “friendiversary,” and inviting a few people to celebrate with us.

Several months, bouts of Covid, and one rescheduled event date later, the friendiversary evening was finally upon us. Due to extenuating circumstances, it was now 2023, but this detail was not important – we were just thrilled it was actually happening.

A small group of people close to us – from various eras of our lives – gathered in my living room. Victoria & I proceeded to read a collection of letters and cards we’d written to each other – mostly as teenagers, and mostly typed; we were both taking typing classes in high school, and tapping away at a machine in order to communicate was still a novelty.

Our missives were hilarious, poignant, bewildering, vulnerable, heart-warming, and often all of these at once. Recurring preoccupations ranged from our acting careers, to which boy(s) we liked at any given time, to prepping for French tests and other school-related stresses and logistics. Sharing these documents with each other, and with our audience, was an unforgettable experience.

After about an hour of reading and laughing, we chowed down on Chinese food – a longtime Victoria & kp favourite – Pocky, Chamonix orange cookies, and an assortment of sponge-cake logs from a big Asian supermarket that just opened in town, while reflecting back on our 40-year journey as best friends. Coming closer together at various times in our lives, drifting further apart during others, but always remaining trusted confidantes and supportive listeners, celebrating our joys and mourning our losses. Victoria dubbed our most recent coming together as a “friendship renaissance,” and I wholeheartedly agree.

Is it possible to meet a lifelong friend-soulmate at age 11 or 12? I think it just might be.

Art Personal


As my constant companion watches over with a keen eye, I slip the last colourful, randomly shaped piece of cardboard into the round, abstract work of art. A great sense of satisfaction and completion envelops me, as I document the occasion with my camera. A certain furry friend joins in the celebration.

cat sitting on top of a colourful round puzzle

In the fall of 2020, as many of us hunkered down for our first full pandemic winter, I pondered jumping into the world of puzzles, which seemed to rival the sourdough revolution in its popularity.

A lovely friend even sent me a stunning circular puzzle for my birthday. Which… proceeded to sit in my closet. Later it relocated to my new place, where it sat in another, albeit nicer, closet.

My life forged ahead, puzzle-less… until, nearly three years into the pandemic, the virus finally caught up with me. While recovering, I was inspired to start the puzzle. If my body had finally given out and let covid in, I might as well tackle the puzzle at last. It was time.

I figured I’d either love or hate puzzling. I tend to be like that with things – and in this case, I ended up really enjoying it… even though I started with a doozy of an abstract work of art for my first go around, and it took me about three weeks to finish!

I found the process meditative and relaxing, allowing my too-busy, always-thinking anxious brain a temporary respite from its ruminating. It also was satisfyingly cut-and-dried. The pieces either fit or they didn’t – no shades of grey to agonize over and ponder endlessly. And when the puzzle was done, it was clearly done: no ambiguity to dwell on and try to interpret.

Some have asked whether it was tricky to do a puzzle in a home shared with a cat. But Miss Sophie was remarkably restrained and disciplined. A full two weeks went by with her carefully observing my movements before she could no longer resist temptation and gently knocked a single piece off the table. Her slow-motion destruction was gentle and subtle, and I never found more than a couple of pieces on the ground each morning.

After the inaugural puzzle was completed, the friend who’d started me on this journey lent me another, this one fortuitously showcasing a work of art by someone I admire. It was much easier than the round one, and I whipped through it in less than a week.

I’m hoping this is a sign that 2023 will be at least a little less rough than the past year’s been, for me.

Wishing a wonderful New Year to all, and hoping it brings you all that you desire.


Bingeing Broadway

Not many people know this, but I have a slight obsession with musical theatre. Only recently – after joining Spotify (I know, I’m very late to the game!) – did it occur to me that I’m a serial Broadway binger. I get hooked on a specific musical and then listen to it on repeat until my ears need a break.

On this occasion of my birthday, I thought it might be fun to look back at the history of my musical-theatre fixation.

I think the movie version of Fame is where it all started. This 1980 film – later adapted into both a stage musical and a TV series – focused on the aspirations of students at a performing arts high school, and embodied all my hopes and dreams as an ambitious young actor at the time. The soundtrack remained on repeat throughout my early adolescence, deepening my crush on Lee “bedroom eyes” Curreri every time I played it.


In the mid-1980s, my dad gave me a cassette of the Les Misérables soundtrack, after seeing the show live. Boy, did I play the heck out of that! In an unexpected turn of events, in 1991 I worked on the casting of the first bilingual-cast version of the show, an extraordinary experience that allowed me to see Les Mis both in English and its brand new French version.

Les Misérables

As my show-business career inclinations shifted to the tech world in the latter part of the 90s, my fondness for musicals only deepened, and my penchant for playing the poop out of my favourites never left. Here are a couple of songs from a few of my later obsessions:

Hedwig And The Angry Inch
Book of Mormon
Spring Awakening
Come From Away
Jagged Little Pill

Hope you enjoyed this roundup, and feel free to share your own musical-theatre faves in the comments!

Automattic Personal WordPress

10 x A8C

On a quiet Saturday this past weekend, I passed my ten-year anniversary of working at Automattic (A8C). If you’d told me a decade ago that I’d still be working here – and even more, still liking what I do – I truly don’t think I would have believed you!

Over the last ten years I’ve become friends with colleagues from around the world. We’ve gone on adventures in helicopters, planes, boats, busses, and subways. Partaken in meals and cocktails in Panama, Portland (both Oregon and Maine!), Lisbon, Barcelona, and beyond. Shared our lives and supported each other, most importantly.

In my daily work, I’ve witnessed countless WordPress users’ lightbulb moments, receiving thank yous ranging from the brief to the heartfelt. And who can forget the guy who wrote me an unforgettable song about CSS!

I’ve mentored new public speakers and given talks on topics I’m passionate about, from Hawaii to Halifax. Taken advantage of opportunities to grow, stretch, and put my skills to use on new projects and new teams. Enjoyed the time off I needed, whether to recharge my batteries over a week-long vacation or gain new perspectives during a three-month sabbatical.

Long story short: I felt lucky the day I was hired full-time, and I still feel lucky today. Thank you, A8C.

I take terrible selfies but I’m kind of fond of this one