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Depression-Era Chocolate Cake Recipe

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Slice of chocolate cake on blue plate.

I always have a hard time picking favorites, but there’s no doubt in my mind that chocolate cake with chocolate frosting is my absolute favorite, favorite dessert. And this Depression era chocolate cake recipe is one that I’ve made over and over again because I love the rich dark chocolate taste.

This recipe is one that I adapted from a recipe I found in an old Reminisce magazine several years ago submitted by a lady named Beulah Sak. I don’t know anything about the history behind the original recipe or about how old it is, so I can’t say for certain how historically accurate this recipe is as far as being a Depression era recipe, but it is a simple, old-fashioned style recipe just the same.  I made some changes  and additions to the original recipe to suit my taste and to make it fit better into my real food lifestyle.

This Depression era chocolate cake does not call for any butter, milk, or eggs, allowing for those who did not have access to these ingredients or could not afford them to still have a cake for special occasions. This cake also would have been perfect for the winter season when access to butter, milk, and eggs would have been more limited if chickens weren’t laying much and cows weren’t being milked.

In place of these ingredients, this cake uses water, oil, and a mix of baking soda and vinegar as the rising agent. During the Depression period, the fats used could possibly have been something old-fashioned like lard, but newer vegetables oils were becoming increasingly popular in this era, so it’s probably more likely that the oil might have been something soybean oil or cottonseed oil.

For my version of this cake, I choose to use coconut oil in place of the vegetable oil because I’m not a big fan of vegetable oils like canola or soybean oil. And even though they may not be the most authentic to the Depression period, I’ve also added some ginger and some coffee to the cake because I like the way that they enhance the chocolate flavor. And I’ve included my favorite recipe for a rich chocolate frosting because no cake is complete without a good frosting in my opinion! 

Depression Era Chocolate Cake Recipe:

This cake is a rich, fudgy kind of cake. It’s not one of those fluffy cakes with no substance that falls apart as soon as you put your fork in it. This cake is for the serious dark chocolate lovers out there!

(Update: For those of you who like recipe cards for saving and printing recipes, I’ve added one to this post if you scroll down to the bottom. And if you’re re-visiting this page, I just made a couple more changes to the recipe. I decreased the amount of sugar by just a quarter cup the most recent time I made this cake, and I couldn’t even taste a difference at all. I also added an extra half teaspoon of salt because I felt that that would enhance the flavor even more.)

Ingredients:

Notes About Ingredients

* I wouldn’t recommend using 100% einkorn flour for this cake because when I tried it as a layer cake it was so soft that it wasn’t stable enough to stack the layers, and the whole cake sank and started falling apart. If you wanted to try using einkorn flour I would recommend either making the cake in a sheet pan rather than in two layers or using a blend of einkorn and all-purpose flour. 

* If it’s summer and your coconut oil is already melty, you can skip the step of melting it. It’s also a good idea to use room temperature or warm water because if you use cold water it might make the coconut oil clump. This won’t be a problem if you are using hot coffee, but if you are using cold coffee then it’s a good idea to warm it up a bit before adding it in with the coconut oil. 

* The powdered ginger and coffee are optional if you don’t have those ingredients or prefer not to use them. I like to add them just because they give the chocolate a little more “depth of flavor” as professional bakers like to say. You can’t really taste either the ginger or coffee very well because the predominant flavor is chocolate, but they enhance the chocolate flavor. So the main flavor is chocolate rather than mocha, but the coffee just seems to make the chocolate taste better. And if you’ve ever tried making your own homemade vinegar, you could use that in place of the store bought apple cider vinegar too.

Directions for Making the Cake

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and grease and flour two 9 inch round cake pans or one 13 x 9 inch pan.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt, cocoa powder, baking soda, and ginger, stirring to mix well.
  3. Add melted and cooled coconut oil, vanilla, and warm coffee. (If using instant coffee, dissolve the coffee into the warm water first, making sure it’s fully dissolved.) Stir well to combine.
  4. Add apple cider vinegar, stirring well to make sure there are no big lumps in the batter. Small lumps are ok. The batter will foam up a bit as the baking soda reacts with the acid in the vinegar and the coffee.
  5. Pour batter into cake pans and bake at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (If you use a 13 x 9 pan rather than two cake pans, the cake might take a bit longer to bake through.)

Rich Chocolate Icing

What’s a good cake without a good icing, right? Well, this icing is rich and decadent and so delicious that I may or may not have eaten several spoonfuls of it while I was frosting my cake!

If you want your cake to be completely dairy-free you can use coconut oil for the frosting. Otherwise, you can use either butter or ghee.

Ingredients:

  • 3 1/2 cups organic powdered cane sugar *
  • 1 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/4 cup butter, ghee, or coconut oil (I decided to use ghee for my frosting this time, and it gave it a nice, slightly caramel flavor.)
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup water (or coffee, like a reader suggested in the comments, if you want a mocha flavor in the icing.)
  • pinch sea salt (unless using salted butter)

* If you don’t want to use refined sugar, you could make your own homemade powdered sugar using a whole cane sugar. For times when I don’t want to go through the extra work of making my own, though, I just buy regular confectioner’s sugar. (Balance is key, and a little bit of white, refined sugar once in a while isn’t the end of the world. ) I make sure I get cane sugar, though, because if the bag just says “sugar” there’s a good chance that it’s made from genetically modified sugar beets rather than cane sugar. Buying organic is your best bet of finding non-GMO sugar.

Directions:

  1. Combine powdered sugar and cocoa powder in a large mixing bowl. If you want a really smooth icing you can sift the powdered sugar and cocoa powder first.
  2. Add vanilla extract and butter, ghee, or coconut oil.
  3. Gradually add water, stirring well to combine until icing reaches the right consistency for spreading. (I just stirred mine by hand because I was too lazy to dig out my mixer and I didn’t want to have to wash the beaters afterward, but using a mixer is the best way to get a smooth icing without any little clumps of cocoa powder.)
Slice of chocolate cake on blue plate.

Depression Era Chocolate Cake

Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes

This depression era chocolate cake recipe is made without eggs, milk, or butter, so it's a simple and delicious egg-free and dairy-free dessert (with a dairy-free option for the frosting.) This cake is rich and fudgy with a decadent dark chocolate flavor. This recipe was adapted from a recipe submission to Reminisce magazine made by Beulah Sak.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups flour (See notes below for more information about flour types.)
  • 1 3/4 cups cane sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 7 Tbs cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 3/4 cup coconut oil, melted
  • 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cups black coffee (or 2 tsp of instant coffee dissolved in 2 cups of warm water.) If you prefer not to use coffee you can use warm water.
  • 2 Tbs apple cider vinegar

Instructions

      1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and grease and flour two 9 inch round cake pans or one 13x9 inch pan.
      2. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt, cocoa powder, baking soda, and ginger, stirring to blend well.
      3. Add melted coconut oil, vanilla, and warm coffee or water. (If using instant coffee, dissolve the coffee into the warm water first, making sure it's fully dissolved.) Stir well to combine.
      4. Add apple cider vinegar, stirring well to make sure there are no large lumps of flour in the batter (a few small lumps are normal.) The batter will foam up a little bit as the baking soda reacts with the acid in the vinegar and the coffee.
      5. Divide the batter evenly between the two cake pans and bake at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (If you use a 13x9 inch pan rather than two round pans, the cake might take a bit longer to bake through.)

Notes

I wouldn’t recommend using 100% einkorn flour for this cake because when I tried it as a layer cake it was so soft that it wasn’t stable enough to stack the layers, and the whole cake sank and started falling apart. If you wanted to try using einkorn flour I would recommend either making the cake in a sheet pan rather than in two layers or using a blend of einkorn and all-purpose flour. 

If it’s summer and your coconut oil is already melty, you can skip the step of melting it. It’s also a good idea to use room temperature or warm water because if you use cold water it might make the coconut oil clump. 

The powdered ginger and coffee are optional. I like to add them just because they give the chocolate a little more “depth of flavor” as professional bakers like to say. You can’t taste either the ginger or coffee distinctly because the main flavor is still chocolate, but they enhance the chocolate flavor.

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Slice of chocolate cake on a blue plate on a table with measuring spoons and a mixing spoon and cookbook in the background.

Other chocolate cake recipes to try:

Chocolate Espresso Cake (grain-free) by And Here We Are

Flourless Chocolate Rose Mini Cakes by Savory Lotus

Paleo German Chocolate Cake by Grok Grub

Grain-Free Chocolate Cake by Small Footprint Family

Grain-Free Chocolate Cupcakes by Honest Body

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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.

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Bonnie M

Wednesday 14th of February 2024

I've read most of the comments and did not find one with the directions for regular sized cupcakes. So....HERE IT IS!! Firstly, they came out perfectly!! I am on a grain free diet, so I will have to have my husband be my taste-tester! I bake for my students (tennis instructor). Anyway, 15 minutes was perfect for cupcakes. I filled them almost to the top using 1/3 measuring cup and they puffed up perfectly with little domes. I made 18 cupcakes and will freeze some of them. Thanks for this recipe because I have one student who can not eat eggs or nuts and I am always looking for yummy recipes for her that others will also like!

Lori Elliott

Wednesday 14th of February 2024

Thanks so much for sharing your directions for cupcakes! That's helpful to know, and I'm so glad that the recipe works well for your student who can't have eggs or nuts, too!

Michelle C.

Friday 15th of December 2023

My husband hates chocolate cake but I made this for my family last night and he said it was the best cake he's ever had! I even caught him licking the rest of the frosting out of my mixing bowl!

Lori Elliott

Monday 18th of December 2023

I'm so glad to hear that your husband liked the cake! That's a big compliment from someone who doesn't usually like chocolate cake! Thanks for letting me know :)

Michelle

Saturday 9th of September 2023

They didn't have coconut oil during the depression era. Either the real ingredient has been subbed or this cake is not from the depression era.

Lori Elliott

Tuesday 12th of September 2023

I choose to use coconut oil as a substitute when I make this cake. Vegetable oil was the original ingredient. I mentioned in the paragraphs above the recipe that I made a few substitutions to the original recipe and also that I don't know much about the origin of the original recipe either. It was submitted by a reader to the Reminisce magazine, (a magazine that often tells stories from people living during the Depression,) but it may or may not have actually been from the Depression Era. This type of cake made with no eggs, butter, or milk, though, is sometimes called a Depression cake. I assume the name is because of the simplicity of the ingredients and the number of ingredients that you can do without while still being able to make the cake.

Kimberly

Sunday 23rd of April 2023

So good! I used veggie oil and coffee in both the cake and frosting! Yummy

Lori Elliott

Monday 24th of April 2023

I'm glad to hear that you liked it! I haven't tried it with coffee in the frosting yet, but I'd like to try it at some point.

Kim

Friday 31st of March 2023

I made this with vegetable oil instead of coconut oil, I used iodized salt instead of sea salt, but I added my own coffee (fresh brewed / fresh whole beans Kenya AA), mixed it in my dry ingredients hot and fresh brewed. White flour, ground ginger, turbinado cane sugar (“sugar in the raw”), real vanilla extract and apple cider vinegar as called for.

For those who can’t get their cake to rise, mix the vinegar in the batter at the very end JUST before pouring it into your cake pan and putting it in the preheated oven.

I baked at 375 degrees in a convection oven for probably 26 minutes in a 13 x 9 greased glass cake pan.

Your directions on the recipe say to add coffee in step 3, and you repeat adding coffee in step 4. I’m not sure why that’s listed twice.

Not the best cake I’ve had in my life but I have to echo the same sentiments — I can taste the vinegar… especially on the crust.

There is WAAAY too much baking soda and vinegar in this recipe. I would definitely reduce it to 1 tbsp vinegar and 1 tsp baking soda for a better tasting cake.

Thank you for sharing!

Lori Elliott

Monday 3rd of April 2023

Thanks for pointing out the typo with the coffee being mentioned in both steps 3 and 4. I've fixed that in the recipe. I've never found it to taste too much like vinegar myself, but everyone's tastes are different, so if you find a ratio of vinegar and baking soda that you prefer and that still gives the cake a good rise then that's great!

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