Many things about which I write were popular in the mid-50s and have faded from memory and history. I suppose at my age that reminiscing becomes a way of life. Devil’s Food Cake became one of the most popular Betty Crocker cake mixes of all times in that magical decade, and unlike some of the others I write about, it hasn’t faded away. This classic American dessert was made with copious amounts of dark chocolate and featured, typically, a contrasting white icing. It was difficult to resist then and even more so today.
Chocolate cakes come in all forms—Bundt, layers, cupcakes, frosted, unfrosted and glazed, to name a few. Devil’s Food Cake and classic chocolate cake aren’t so visibly different. If one were eating a Devil’s Food Cake and just calling it a chocolate cake, or vice versa, it is understandable, but there is a subtle difference. Devil’s food cake is richer, darker, and fluffier thanks to the use of cocoa powder and a baking soda. These ingredients increase a baked good’s pH level which causes bubbles to form during the baking process and makes things fluffier and more airy. The term Devil’s Food came from an old habit of describing food that was dark, rich, and chocolat-y, as being “bedeviled.”
Devil’s Food Cake appeared first in the United States in 1902 when Sarah Tyson Rorer, the editor of Ladies Home Journal, published Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book. She suggested using melted chocolate and baking powder in this recipe. The cake received its name because it was supposedly so rich and delicious that it must, to a moralist, be somewhat sinful. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s, when inexpensive, unsweetened cocoa powder for baking became available, that the cake became popular. The ideal Devil’s Food Cake should be very moist and velvety with an intense chocolate flavor and very dark in color and texture
Betty Crocker packaged her Devil’s Food cake mix in 1948. Thirty years earlier, The Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book of 1916 had two Devil’s Food Cake recipes. One, submitted by Bertha Priess, relied on brown sugar, the other, by Mrs. Alvin Striegler, used white sugar. The first recommended whole milk, the other buttermilk — one soda, the other baking powder. Just subtle differences, but they likely produced noticeably different results. Bertha’s use of baking soda made hers what is today considered to be the difference between a Devil’s Food Cake and just a chocolate one.
Some recipes I discovered called for both cocoa and baking soda, others added melted chocolate, all used boiling water. Those dating from early 1900s preferred milk; however, the use of milk dulled the chocolate flavor for some. If the recipe called for only cocoa, it had to be the driest found. Baking soda produced a different cake, one lighter in color but still fudgy – much like a brownie. Brown sugar was best for an improved flavor. Others insisted that adding sour cream helped. The specifics never ceased.
The New Best Recipe, a massive informational book from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated recommends that water, not milk or buttermilk, yields a more intense chocolate experience. Much like fine wine sommeliers, different bakers contend that sour cream deepens flavor, adds substance to texture, and produces a richer tasting chocolate flavor that lingers in one’s mouth and coats one’s tongue. This particular recipe claims that dissolving cocoa in boiling water significantly enhances the cocoa flavor producing a more velvety, more intense chocolate experience. It also states that utilizing authentic Dutch non-alkalized cocoa, creates a redder hue. How can anyone disagree with such precise experts who describe chocolate with such depth?
4 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
¼ cup (3/4 oz) Dutch-processed cocoa
1 ¼ cup boiling water
¾ cup (3 ¾ oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup (3 oz) plain cake flour
1 tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
16 tbls (2 sticks) unsalted butter – softened
1 ½ cup packed (10 ½ oz) dark brown sugar
3 large eggs – room temperature
½ cup sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
Heat oven to 350ºF.
Grease three 8-inch cake pans and line bottoms of each with a round of parchment paper or waxed paper.
Combine Chocolate and cocoa in a medium bowl.
Add the boiling water and whisk until smooth.
Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt onto a large sheet of parchment or waxed paper; set aside.
Beat butter at medium-high speed until creamy, about 1 minute.
Add brown sugar and beat at high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Stop and scrape down sides with a spatula.
At medium-high add eggs, one at a time, beating 30 seconds after each.
Reduce to medium; add the sour cream and vanilla and beat until combined – 10 seconds.
Stop and scrape down sides again.
At low speed add 1/3 of the flour mixture, followed by ½ of the chocolate mixture.
Repeat as above, ending with the last 1/3 of flour.
Beat until combined, about 15 seconds, but do not overbeat.
Remove bowl, scrape sides, and stir gently to combine.
Divide batter evenly among cake pans and smooth batter to edge.
Place 2 pans on a lower-middle rack and 1 pan on the upper-middle rack.
Bake until a toothpick comes clean – 20-23 minutes!
Cook cakes on a wire rack 15-20 minutes.
Run knife around each cake to loosen and invert onto a rack.
Peel parchment and cool completely.
Assemble your cake.
After all the effort to be able to create the perfect Devil’s Food Cake why confuse anyone with a competing chocolate icing? Classic white frosting will set this cake apart from others.
1 ½ cups (3 sticks) butter, at room temperature
6 cups powdered sugar
2 tsp pure clear vanilla extract
2-4 tbsp whole milk
In a large mixer bowl mix butter until it is creamy and smooth.
Mix in powdered sugar, a little at a time.
Add vanilla and 2 tbls whole milk or a tad more to create the desired thickness and texture.