Recipe: Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cake

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I always say I’m more of a cook than a baker. My freewheeling, improvisational style doesn’t do well with exact recipes for finicky fripperies. However, a few times a year there are things like birthdays, and so I am asked by my children to bake. They know what to expect by now. It will taste absolutely fabulous…and probably look like something the dog threw up.

This year Eve asked me to make her favorite chocolate cake. It’s a recipe that my mother-in-law had saved from a 1940s McCall’s magazine! It’s absolutely delicious and not too sweet. It’s that fluffy chocolate-cake goodness that is captured in a Tastykake, only better.

This year I had already fixed the layer that fell to pieces, but at the last minute I decided to add organic sprinkles to the top. When I first put them on, it looked picture-perfect. But an hour later when I went to serve the cake, the sprinkles had melted and the cake looked like it had a bad, bad case of poison ivy. Ick! But it tasted fantastic, and by the next morning the whole cake was gone. Eve was happy, and that’s all that matters.

Here is the recipe. I’m sure you all can make it look better than mine. When my mother-in-law made it the first time, it looked like it came right out of a magazine!

“Rich, Real, Devil’s Food Cake”

What’s cool about this recipe is that it doesn’t use any “power tools,” and the resulting cake is so light and not-too-sweet that it almost seems impossible. What I love about the original article (which is still in my mother-in-law’s house) is the photo of a woman’s naked hand stirring a raw egg into the batter. It’s so sensual. Nana Cinquino made it for Eve’s eighth birthday, and it instantly became a family classic. I use all organic ingredients, and it works great.

Ingredients:

2¼ cups sifted flour—organic cake flour, if you can find it
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
2½ cups brown sugar, firmly packed
3 eggs
3 one-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate
½ cup sour milk or buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water (the secret to its moistness!)

(Note: You can also try substituting the boiling water with boiling coffee. My friend Mark Kintzel made me a cake once that tasted much like this one, but he used coffee instead of water. It was his mother’s recipe.)

Directions:

1. Start the oven at 350 or 375 degrees. Grease the bottoms and sides of three 8-inch cake pans (I use only two), and dust with flour. Sift the flour, measure it carefully, and sift it again with the baking soda and salt. (Tip from the magazine: Sift the flour once onto wax paper. Fill the measuring cup to slightly overflowing, cut off the excess to make level, and dump it into the sifter again with the soda and salt.)

2. Cream, or work, the butter in a bowl with your hands until it’s soft and airy. Then add the sugar a little at a time, and continue creaming until fluffy and light. Add the unbeaten eggs, one at a time. Beat the batter hard after the addition of each egg (it’s OK to use a fork or a spoon).

3. Put the chocolate in a measuring cup and melt over boiling water. When melted, add to the batter. Use a scraper to get every bit of melted chocolate from the sides of the cup. Mix thoroughly.

4. Sift one-third of the flour into the batter, stir in well. Add half of the sour milk or buttermilk and stir slightly. Repeat, ending with the flour.

5. Mix in the vanilla extract and the boiling water.

6. Pour batter into greased cake pans and don’t be alarmed at the thinness of the batter!

7. Bake 25 to 30 minutes.

8. Remove from the oven and turn the cake pans upside down to release the cakes onto a rack to cool.

9. When cool, spread the frosting (see below) between the layers and pile it high on top of your cake. Cover the sides. Sprinkle the top with shaved bitter chocolate (or not—we like it without, too!)

Whipped Cream Frosting

You can make this with or without the cocoa. We prefer it without.

Ingredients:

1½ cups heavy cream
¼ cup sugar (I use powdered)
2 Tablespoons cocoa
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:

Mix (do not WHIP!) all ingredients in a bowl. Set in your refrigerator to chill for 2 hours at least. Longer is OK. Then beat until mixture is so thick it holds its shape and will stand in peaks. Whipping with an old-fashioned hand mixer takes 10 to 15 minutes, and is good exercise for the arms.

Mom tip: It took me years to understand that you simply can’t frost a cake when it’s still hot. It will break apart and crumble into the frosting. Patience—in cooking, baking, and in life—is sometimes hard to learn, but often worth the effort. However, I still have to work on it!

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16 Responses to Recipe: Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cake

  1. Laura B. April 23, 2010 at 8:59 am #

    My pants got tight just reading the recipe! :)

  2. Tony April 23, 2010 at 9:33 am #

    This cake sounds amazing! I wish I could eat something like that but my fiance and her little sister always get to the cake before I can.

  3. Cyndie April 23, 2010 at 9:51 am #

    ….sounds yummy! Since it’s my husband and son’s favorite I will definitely try this one!
    I love your ‘mom tip’ too!

  4. Jean Nick April 23, 2010 at 9:54 am #

    We make a similar cake using cocoa powder instead of baking chocolate. Any cocoa works, but we especially like black cocoa powder when we can find it. The recipe is online, just search for “Hershey’s Cake Boiling” and it pops up. We usually eat it without frosting, but I’ll have to try the whipped cream icing sometime. I keep thinking I’d like a recipe that makes a similarly moist cake, but lemon instead of chocolate — perhaps someone has such a recipe?

  5. Sue April 23, 2010 at 10:54 am #

    We call this Whacky cake at our house – you can bake it as a sheet cake and sprinkle on nuts and chips before it goes in the oven – then it becomes Picnic cake because it is easy to transport with no frosting -sometimes I add coconut.

  6. Kathianne April 23, 2010 at 11:12 am #

    I love the sounds of Sue’s ideas. It would be great not only for a picnic but also for a potluck or to take as thank you gift or to someone who is down and under. I’m going to try this!!!!!!!

  7. Donna in Delaware April 23, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    I have a recipe sismilar to this but easier to make. It is absolutely super moist and I use cocoa powder also, Scharffenberger is my favorite. I find that other cocoa powders, especially commercially made and with alkali added leaves a funny taste on the tongue, at least my tongue. I usually don’t care for frostings, but I will try it. Thanks.

  8. Wendy Fries April 23, 2010 at 4:56 pm #

    Thanks so much for posting this recipe. I have been looking for mine for years. This cake was one of our family favorites. I had the recipe on an 8-1/2 x 11 laminated sheet which has since vanished.

    Can’t wait to make it again.

  9. Donna April 23, 2010 at 5:31 pm #

    Sounds wonderful. Can’t wait to try it. My favorite icing with Chocolate Cake is Peanut Butter icing. But I will try your Whipped Cream Frosting.

  10. Sue M April 26, 2010 at 8:29 am #

    One word…YUMMMMM!!!

  11. Kimi April 26, 2010 at 1:34 pm #

    Sounds delicious! Thanks for sharing the recipe : ).

  12. Lisa May 9, 2010 at 8:40 pm #

    Wow…this one is a keeper! I made this yesterday to enjoy today. Only problem I had was one of the cake rounds didn’t want to come out of the pan. It finally did but parts remained attached to the bottom of the pan. After a laugh over that I patched it up and placed in on the bottom. The whipped cream (w/out the cocoa) was perfect! Thanks for sharing :D

  13. nancy danner July 12, 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    I had a recipe similar to this and it was excellent. I always made it in 11×13 pan and frosted it in the pan. You may have better luck dumping your cake if you leave it cool 10 minutes . Also you can put a round of parchment paper on the bottom of the greased and floured pan.
    This is my first time on your email, I just read your hot chocolate recipe. This is my favorite, 1 cup skim milk, 1 heaping teaspoon of cocoa powder. Heat a few tablespoons of milk in the microwave. Then stir the cocoa into the hot milk, add enough milk to fill the cup and return it to the microwave to heat another minute. I add no sugar, there is enough natural sugar in the milk to make the hot chocolate tasty and think of the calories you have saved.

  14. Vicki May 2, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

    Could you put a print tab on your recipe pages, so we can easily print out your great recipes?

  15. CindyRegalado January 26, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

    I made your Devils food cake.. My husband is not a big chocolate fan.. I told him Please just try this cake for me he did not wanting to but he did he loved the cake he almost ate the whole thing.. He’s making me make another one right now… That’s how good it is.. Perfect cake for Valentines day….

  16. betty ballard February 11, 2014 at 6:15 pm #

    I mistakenly bought pastry flour and not cake flour; will that work? Also, I don’t buy baking chocolate squares; I have chocolate chips; will that work? How shall I adjust these ingredients? Thanks

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