By Gil Marks
A traditional recipe and history for German Chocolate Cake
from food historian Gil Marks on The History Kitchen
German chocolate cake is a light brown chocolate-buttermilk cake sandwiched with a crunchy-chewy coconut-pecan frosting. The frosting is customarily spread only between and on top of the layers and not the sides. Some bakers also began to cover the sides and decorate the rim with whipped chocolate ganache.
The term “German chocolate cake” was first mentioned in The New Practical Housekeeping by Estelle Wilcox (Minneapolis, 1890), a supplement to her classic 1877 Buckeye Cookery. However, it has no relation to the modern cake. Rather the term referred to an unleavened butter cake flavored with ground almonds and grated white chocolate, the layers filled with preserved cherries, and the cake topped with a chocolate icing. (The earlier Buckeye Cookery contained an almond-lemon cookie recipe called “German Cakes,” made without any chocolate.) Wilcox’s cake and its name were inspired by the baking of Teutonic immigrants in the Midwest.
On the contrary, 20th century treats bearing the name German chocolate cake, which actually contain melted chocolate in the batter, have nothing to do with the country of Germany or, for that matter, the continent of Europe. Rather it refers to Samuel German, an English immigrant and employee of the Walter Baker & Company of Dorchester, Massachusetts. Before German’s arrival, Baker only offered an unsweetened bar chocolate. In 1852, German formulated a dark baking chocolate containing sugar, a larger amount than modern semisweet chocolate, which assumed the name “German’s Sweet chocolate” or simply, with the apostrophe dropped, “German chocolate.”
In the late 19th century, chocolate cakes began to proliferate in America, incorporating various types of chocolate. The “Novel Chocolate Cake” in Estelle Wilcox’s publishing company’s The Housekeeper Cook Book (Minneapolis, 1894) featured grated “sweet German chocolate” in the batter and “put together with plain white frosting.” The “German Chocolate Cake” in Club Woman’s Cook Book by the Ramblers’ Club (Minneapolis, 1911) was a basic chocolate butter cake using “2 sq. German chocolate dissolved in ½ cup boiling water” with milk and baking powder and enwrapped in a chocolate icing also made with German chocolate. The “Devil’s Food” in The Battle Creek Cook Book (1922) consisted of “one-half cake German sweet chocolate” leavened with “1 teaspoon soda” and “½ cup sour milk.” In this vein, “German Chocolate Cake” in Memorial Book and Recipes, 1957 by Marie Baca (Hillje, TX, 1957) contained “1 whole German chocolate bar melted in 2 tablespoons water,” buttermilk, and baking soda; the cake covered with chocolate buttercream.
Slightly more than a century after German’s creation, the common modern version of chocolate-buttermilk cake enhanced with coconut-pecan frosting appeared. Similar cooked nut mixtures were common in American cakes since the late 19th century, such as the “Nut Filling,” made from walnuts or pecans, milk, sugar, egg yolks, and vanilla, in the original The Settlement Cook Book (Milwaukee, 1901). Or it could have been inspired by the Mexican cajeta (caramel sauce). Precisely when this union of cake and coconut-pecan frosting initially occurred and by whom is unknown. The first record of this pairing was “Summer German Chocolate Cake” in the May 10, 1956 issue (p. 17) of The Irving News Record (TX), the recipe nearly identical to the modern version: “Four layers of delicious German chocolate, put together with pecans and coconut in a cream filling and topped with fluffy 1 minute frosting… all add up to the most wonderful and unusual cake.” The writer indicated the concept was recently imported to Texas from Oklahoma: “Impressed when her daughter, Mrs. Milton Tomlinson of Frederick, Oklahoma, served this during a recent visit, Daisy filched the recipe for her Irving friends.”
German chocolate cake soon spread throughout Texas, especially promoted by County Home Demonstration Clubs, women’s rural economic groups coordinated by the USDA. The recipe (“bake in 3 or 4 layer pans”) was printed in the Thursday September 13, 1956 issue of The Canadian Record (Canadian, TX), sent by two readers in response to the previous week’s request for a “German Sweet Chocolate Cake,” and on the same date in the Abilene Reporter News (TX), the writer explaining: “Two of the cakes getting rave notices at the fair were such recipes and I want to share them with you. German chocolate cake…” The batter was baked in “3 greased and floured 8-inch layer pans or 2 square 9 or 10 inch pans” and the coconut-pecan frosting spread “between layers and on top only.” In the following year, a version of “German Sweet Chocolate Cake” in the April 6, 1957 issue (p. 13) of the Hutchinson News-Herald (KS) repeated the basics of the German chocolate cake and coconut-pecan filling, but added a chocolate icing made from chocolate chips, marshmallows, sugar, cream, and butter.
After “German Sweet Chocolate Cake” showed up in the food section of the June 3, 1957 issue of The Dallas Morning News (TX) — the food editor ran a correction two days later, directing to use half the amount of chocolate (four ounces rather than eight ounces) –- its renown quickly soared, not only in the Lone Star State, but nationwide. Proof to many observers that, due to the modern media and word of mouth, American cuisine was no longer regional. Within a few weeks, grocery stores in several parts of America ran out of German chocolate. When Baker’s (then owned by General Foods) discovered the source of the run on its product, the company began printing the cake recipe on the chocolate’s green wrapper and in advertisements, also plugging the company’s flaked coconut, replete with eye-catching photos of the cake, further increasing its popularity. In 1957, sales of German chocolate jumped 73 percent. The December 17, 1957 issue of The Daily Times News (Burlington, NC) noted: “There is a new cake that is causing considerable comment here this Christmas. It is a German chocolate cake and everywhere we have been recently someone has been talking about the recipe and how it may be obtained.” German chocolate cake became a favorite of Lyndon Johnson, who even served it as dessert to German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard during a 1963 visit to his Texas ranch.
Sweet chocolate produces cakes sweeter and with a milder chocolate flavor than unsweetened chocolate. Sour milk contributes a moist, tender crumb and, in conjunction with sweet chocolate, results in a rich and dense cake. The chocolate essence is enhanced by the use of coffee. Due to the folded in egg whites, the cake turns out somewhat fluffy with a delicate crumb. German chocolate cake is less intense than a classic devil’s food, so it benefits from the coconut-pecan frosting. Cooking the frosting ingredients together produces a caramelized flavor and gooey texture. Among the cake’s many advantages is the frosting is less perishable. If you prefer a more generous amount, increase the frosting recipe by half.
German chocolate cake’s popularity no longer equals that of the initial decades or so following its emergence, but remains an American classic and comfort food and one of the country’ favorite chocolate cakes. The treat is sold in many bakeries, while numerous home cooks still whip it up for special occasions, including birthdays, barbecues, father’s day, and holidays. June 11 is National German Chocolate Cake Day.
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- 4 ounces sweet (German) chocolate, coarsely chopped (115 grams)
- 1/2 cup boiling water or brewed coffee (4.15 ounces/120 grams)
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour or 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted (9 ounces/250 grams)
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup unsalted butter or vegetable shortening, softened (65 to 67°F) (2 sticks/8 ounces/225 grams)
- 2 cups granulated sugar, or 1 cup granulated sugar and 1 cup packed light brown sugar (14 ounces/400 grams)
- 4 large egg yolks (¼ cup + 2 teaspoons/2.5 ounces/75 grams)
- 1 cup buttermilk or sour milk (1 tablespoon white vinegar or lemon juice plus milk to equal 1 cup) (8.25 ounces/240 grams)
- 4 large egg whites (½ cup/4.25 ounces/120 grams)
Coconut-Pecan Frosting Ingredients
- 1 cup evaporated milk or heavy cream (8.5 ounces/245 grams)
- 1 cup granulated sugar (7 ounces/200 grams)
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick/4 ounces/115 grams)
- 3 large egg yolks, lightly beaten (3½ tablespoons/2 ounces/60 grams)
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 1/3 cups grated coconut (3.5 ounces/100 grams)
- 1 cup pecans, lightly toasted and finely chopped (4 ounces/115 grams)
You will also need
- Non-stick cooking spray, three 9- by 1½-inch round cake pans, two 8-inch by 2-inch square pans, or one 13- by 9-inch pan, parchment or wax paper, sifter, mixing bowls, hand mixer, medium saucepan
- Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F (325°F for a convection oven). Grease three 9- by 1½-inch round cake pans, two 8-inch by 2-inch square pans, or one 13- by 9-inch pan, line with parchment paper or waxed paper, and grease again.
- To prepare the chocolate: Place the chocolate in a medium bowl, pour the boiling water over top, and stir until melted. Let cool. Stir in the vanilla.
- To make the batter: Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt.
- In a large bowl, beat the butter on low speed until smooth, about 2 minutes.
- Increase the speed to medium, gradually add the sugar, and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes.
- Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time.
- Stir in the chocolate.
- Add the flour mixture alternately with the milk (4 portions for the flour; 3 portions for the milk) beginning and ending with the flour, until smooth. The batter will be rather thick.
- In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites on low until foamy, about 1 minute. Increase the speed to medium and beat until stiff but not dry, 5 to 8 minutes.
- Fold one fourth of the egg whites into the batter, then fold in the remaining whites.
- Divide the batter equally between the prepared pans. Bake until a wooden tester inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when lightly touched, 30 to 35 minutes for 9-inch rounds; 45 to 50 minutes for the 8-inch squares; and 45 to 50 minutes for a 13- by 9-inch.
- Let cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then remove the cakes to wire racks and let cool completely, at least 1½ hours. The cake can be wrapped in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature for up to 2 days.
- To make the frosting: In a medium saucepan, cook the milk, sugar, butter, egg yolks, and salt over medium heat, stirring constantly, until bubbly and thickened or 170°F, about 12 minutes.
- Remove from the heat and add the vanilla. Stir in the coconut and pecans. Let cool, stirring occasionally, until thick enough to spread, about 30 minutes.
- To assemble: Place a cake layer on a serving plate, spread the top with one third of the frosting. Arrange a second cake layer on top, spread with one half of the remaining frosting, top with the remaining cake layer, and spread the remaining frosting on top. Or for a sheet cake, spread the frosting over the top and sides; or cut the cake lengthwise into thirds and layer. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days. Do not freeze.
- Substitute 2 ounces (55 grams) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate and 2 ounces (55 grams) unsweetened chocolate for the sweet chocolate.
- German Chocolate Cupcakes: Divide the batter between 24 (2½-inch) cupcake tins lined with paper liners, filling them about 2/3 full, and bake for about 25 minutes. After cooling, spread a layer of the frosting over top of each cupcake.
- Hawaiian Chocolate Cake: In the frosting, substitute 1 cup chopped toasted unsalted macadamia nuts (4.75 ounces/135 grams) for the pecans, reduce the vanilla to ½ teaspoon, and add 1 teaspoon dark rum.
- Chocolate Tomato Cake: Substitute 1 cup unseasoned tomato sauce for the buttermilk.
- German Chocolate Upside Down Cake: This is a late 20th century adaptation, influenced by black bottom cake. Omit the frosting; scatter 1 cup shredded coconut and 1 cup chopped pecans in the bottom of a greased and floured 13- by 9-inch baking pan; top with the batter; beat together 8 ounces cream cheese, ½ cup (1 stick/4 ounces/115 grams) unsalted butter, and 2 cups confectioners’ sugar until smooth, then drop spoonfuls over top of the batter; bake as above.
- HINTS – To Toast Pecans: Spread the nuts on a baking sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven, shaking the sheet occasionally, until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.