Recipe: Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cake

06/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Maria Rodale CEO and Chairman of Rodale, Inc. and book author

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.


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.)


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.


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


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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