Not long ago, a kiss was just a kiss, and a Coke was just a Coke. Then came Tab. Then came Diet Coke. Then came Coke without caffeine. Then Diet Coke without caffeine. Then Diet Coke with aspartame and caffeine and Coke with sugar but no caffeine. And we're not even going to get into the demise of the iconic green glass 6 1/2-ouncer and the proliferation of lightweight, soft plastic containers, cans with pop tops and weird metric sizes.

As if that wasn't enough, it was with considerable discomfort that we learned about revised-formula Coke. Who knew what to think, or expect. Especially considering that even original Coke wasn't all the same. Never mind the baloney that the Coca-Cola Co. puts out about how it's all identical, no matter what it comes in, no matter where it's bottled. The fact is that Coke in two-liter plastic bottles tastes like watery molasses, and Coke in cans tastes like cans.

And everyone knows that Coke has always been much better in the South. We know, because we live in New England, which is probably the worst place in America to enjoy Coke. Yankees serve it in an eight-ounce water glass with half a melted ice cube floating aimlessly around the top. Even if you see them open the bottle in front of you, it still tastes flat. Maybe it's the sea air.

In the South when you get a Coke, you can count on it being served right -- poured into a large plastic tumbler filled with crushed ice, a paper-wrapped straw stuck to the outside of the glass by a moisture seal. This Coke tastes so hurtfully bubbly that it brings tears to the eyes. Nothing, no beer in the world, certainly no wine, is as good with fried chicken or hot-sauced barbecue.

The only place outside the South that Coke can truly be enjoyed is in an old-time soda fountain, where they make it with syrup. Soda fountains are the only place to drink cherry Coke, made with a double hit of syrup, one red, one amber. Canned Cherry Coke, which tastes like something you must drink to determine if you are diabetic, is Coke's biggest blunder to date, far worse than messing with the formula.

The traditional American thing to do with Coke other than drink it is to cook with it. Of all the ways to cook a ham, the kindest is to slow-baste it in Coke until the effervescence is long gone and the pop has reduced to an unctuous brown liquid that clings to the crust and permeates the porky pink meat. We have cooked Coca-Cola pralines, cherry Coke "congealed salads" (gelatin molds) and cola roasts. And we must confess that our first concern when we heard the news about the changed formula was how the new Coke would work in our recipe for Coca-Cola cake.

It's a recipe we came across in the Walnut, Iowa "Centennial Cookbook" (1971). If you've ever traveled through small-town America, you know this book: spiral bound, made of junky paper, with mimeographed ball-point illustrations of pancakes that look like women's hats and pies that look like spaceships from Venus. The cuisine is as authentically primitive as the art, and it was here among the "Mound-like candies," "Lazy Daizy Caramel Dumplings," and "Blender Impossible Pies" that we discovered Coca-Cola cake, which turned out to be one of our favorite chocolate desserts.

The Walnut recipe called for a Coca-Cola frosting, too, but we thought that was monotonous, so we substituted broiled peanut butter frosting, which was just the right counterpoint. And when we wrote our cookbook, "Square Meals," we gave the recipe as Pepsi-Cola Cake, because we felt the Pepsi cake was a tad sweeter and more appropriate to the subject at hand, which was sweet-tooth convenience cooking.

It's a subtle distinction, because the recipe calls for merely one cup of soda pop in a big mixing bowl filled with miniature marshmallows, sugar, butter, cocoa, etc.; but we felt we could tell the difference. And although we went public with Pepsi cake, our private pleasure, to tell the truth, remained Coca-Cola cake -- with its sophisticated je ne sais quois.

So when the new Coke was announced, the first thing we did was make three cakes: Pepsi-Cola cake, old Coke cake, and new Coke cake, identical except for the soda. The results confirmed our suspicions. The Pepsi cake and new Coke cake are impossible to tell apart. The old Coke cake is superior, the gourmet's choice.

So now our bakery larder includes a stockpile of old Coke in the cellar in a cool dry place, away from direct sunlight -- just like wine. Of all the infamies! COCA -- COLA CAKE WITH BROILED PEANUT BUTTER FROSTING (Makes 1 sheet cake)

2 cups flour plus extra for pan

2 cups sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) butter plus extra for pan

2 tablespoons cocoa

1 cup Coke

1/2 cup buttermilk

2 eggs, beaten

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups miniature marshmallows (white only)


6 tablespoons butter

1 cup dark brown sugar, tightly packed

2/3 cup peanut butter

1/4 cup milk

2/3 cup chopped peanuts

Grease and flour a 9-by-13-by-2-inch sheet cake pan. Combine flour and sugar in large bowl. Melt butter, add cocoa and Coke. Pour over flour mixture and stir until well blended. Add buttermilk, eggs, soda and vanilla. Mix well. Stir in marshmallows. Pour into prepared pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Remove cake from oven and frost while still warm.

To prepare frosting, cream butter, sugar and peanut butter. Add milk and stir well. Add nuts. Spread over warm cake.

Place frosted cake under broiler about 4 inches from heat source. Broil just a few seconds, until browned, watching carefully so that topping doesn't scorch.

Let cool at least 30 minutes before serving.