A good chocolate cake transports you to another realm, makes you temporarily forget your current surroundings and situation. You can see it on the faces of those eaters lucky enough to be forking morsels of good chocolate cake into their mouths. I’m not necessarily talking about dedicated chocoholics, many of whom will be as happy with a Snickers bar as a slice of chocolate cake. I’m imagining a high quality chocolate cake so delicious it almost surprises the unsuspecting with the breadth of its succulence. How it can seem to reach past your taste buds deep into your very soul. Eyes closed, face a reflection of almost Edenic bliss, time slowed to savor this bite of cake, so very, very chocolate.
Then there are dry, cardboard-tasting cakes from the supermarket bakery who only share a passing acquaintance with any cocoa powder or low quality chocolate. The dark-colored cakes sporting vile drifts of oily shortening frosting garishly decorated with air-brushed day-glow roses masquerading as a chocolate cake: eek! These are not the stuff dreams are made of.
We begin with a good recipe, good ingredients, good intentions, moral fortitude. Decent cake pans, no less. I digress. The recipe is the thing we are discussing here.
My first favorite chocolate cake recipe was from a little paperback cookbook by Peg Bracken called, The I Hate to Cook Book. As the title suggests, most of the book deals with ways to not cook anything, especially desserts. The chapter dealing with the after dinner portion of a meal is called something like, “Dessert, or people are too fat anyway.” As an eight-year old, I found this hilarious, amplified by the accompanying charming illustrations of Hilary Knight, the same talented gal who illustrated the Eloise at the Plaza books. After suggesting many droll ways to avoid making dessert, Ms. Bracken grudgingly gives one all-purpose cake recipe, to be used if all else fails. It is a chocolate cake, of course. It is eggless and butter-less, making it appropriate for vegans though they probably weren’t invented at the time Peg Bracken was writing the book. The cake is sometimes called a “dump” cake because you dump all the ingredients into one bowl and just beat them together. It has also been know as “wacky” cake (how wacky that you just beat everything together!) or “war” cake (eggs and butter are scarce in war time.) Technically, the absence of eggs and butter makes the cake very light and the addition of oil makes it moist. The trade offs are a less dense chocolate experience, a slight chemical taste from the baking soda-vinegar leavening, and a shorter shelf life than a traditional butter cake. As it makes a snack-sized 8-inch cake, the keeping quality is rarely a problem. It is a delicious, if light, chocolate cake. I’ve made it hundreds of times, served it to many people, in guises from a chocolate trifle to a layer cake to plain old unadorned cake, eaten warm, right out of the pan. The book has been reissued in a 50th anniversary edition, and I highly recommend you click over to Amazon and pick up a copy.
Her introduction to the recipe:
This is a famous recipe, I believe, but I haven’t the faintest idea who invented it. I saw it in a newspaper years ago, meant to clip it, didn’t, and finally bumped into the cake itself in the apartment of a friend of mine. It was dark, rich, moist, chocolatey, and she said it took no more than five minutes to mix it up. So I tried it, and, oddly enough, mine, too, was dark, rich, moist, chocolatey. My own timing was five and a half minutes, but that includes hunting for the vinegar.
- 1 ½ cups sifted flour
- 3 tablespoons cocoa
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 5 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 cup cold water*
Put your sifted flour back into the sifter, add to it the cocoa, baking soda, sugar, and salt, and sift this right into a greased square pan, about 9 x 9 x 2 inches. Now you make three grooves, or holes, in this dry mixture. Into one, pour the oil; into the next, the vinegar; into the next, the vanilla. Now pour the cold water over it all. You’ll feel like you’re making mud pies now, but beat it with a spoon until it’s nearly smooth and you can’t see the flour. Bake it at 350˚for half an hour.
Eventually, though, I wanted a denser, more chocolatey chocolate cake. In the dark pre-internet times of the 1970’s, outside of cookbooks, ladies' magazines were the leading source of new recipes. I clipped many a recipe from Good Housekeeping, Sunset Magazine, and Ladies’ Home Journal. Recipes came from articles and also from the advertisers. A craze for chocolate cakes made with mayonnaise grew out of a successful Best Food’s mayonnaise ad campaign. Though sounding odd, there’s actual science behind mayonnaise use in a chocolate cake. Mayo is made up of eggs, fat, and acid, such as vinegar, all components found in cake. American kitchens of that time stocked a quart jar of mayonnaise as a matter of course, so even if you were out of eggs or butter, you could still produce a good chocolate cake. It was my go-to recipe for cake for many years. Here is a version from All Recipes website:
But time marches on and we don’t stock such large jars of mayonnaise in the fridge and we generally do keep eggs and butter in the house at all times. This led me to my current favorite dark chocolate cake recipe which I’ve been using for twenty years now. I have to confess I was immediately attracted to the full-page advertisement for the recipe in a 1998 copy of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. The recipe is recipe file card size, against a backdrop photograph of a very much enlarged slice of the frosted layer cake: stunning! It’s such a great ad, I never did cut out the recipe and glue it to a recipe card; I just kept the whole magazine page.
Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake and frosting recipe are indeed perfectly chocolate. The only changes I sometimes make are using Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa or another higher-end cocoa powder or substituting hot coffee for the boiling water. I’ve also been known to use cream cheese frosting rather than chocolate frosting. It’s never failed to rise perfectly or come out of the pans cleanly. Everyone who has ever had a piece has loved it.
The world has room for many, many kinds of cake, many kinds of chocolate cake. At My Tea Planner, we have many recipes for cakes of which a good portion are recipes for chocolate cakes. Part of the fun in baking is the hunting for a recipe that is just a little different, just a little better than your current one. Bakers must be eternal optimists, ever hopeful of more deliciousness around every corner. Will I try Ina Garten’s chocolate cake recipe, a friend’s mom’s chocolate Bundt recipe? You bet I will, the very next time someone is having a birthday, mom needs a piece of cake, or the perpetual baking urge just hits me.
*My beautiful chocolate birthday cake which came from a bakery and was pretty dang good.
**I like to replace half the cold water with half cold coffee.