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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 sunk 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 (or water if you don’t have 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 coffee and 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.)

Enjoy your pure chocolate heaven!

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.

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 coffee and 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 sunk 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.

Description of Heritage Cooking Cookbook with picture of book cover with sliced loaf of bread and link to learn more.
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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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Emily

Thursday 7th of April 2022

I made this into mini cupcakes (used vegetable oil) & they baked in about 8min. Thank you!!

Lori Elliott

Friday 8th of April 2022

I'm glad to hear that the recipe worked for mini cupcakes, and thanks for sharing that 8 mins is a good time for those, too!

Lori

Sunday 30th of January 2022

I wouldn’t call this a depression era cake. First off, how many people do you know who cooked with or could afford coconut oil, or even knew what that was back then. Then there is the milk issue and don’t get me started on the word organic (being related to the depression).

Lori Elliott

Monday 31st of January 2022

Yes, you're right about the coconut oil being a more modern cooking oil. I realize that it is not authentic to the Depression period, but like I mentioned in the description of the recipe, I chose to make that adaptation because coconut oil is a cooking fat that I prefer over other vegetable oils. I'm not really sure what you are referring to with the milk issue, but the fact that this recipe needs no milk makes it convenient for those who either don't have milk available or need to avoid milk for dietary reasons. And, yes, the word organic is not one that was used on food labels back during the Depression period, and I realize that the whole concept of organic food is a more modern idea. Using organic ingredients is a preference that I have since many foods today are heavily sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. I agree with you that this is not a fully historically accurate Depression era recipe, but it is not intended to be one either. Unlike some of my other recipes where I have a specific date for the origin of the recipe, I don't know exactly when this recipe originated, and I chose to use the term Depression era because many people associate that style of cake with recipes like this one made without butter, eggs, or milk.

Beverly Searfoss

Saturday 22nd of January 2022

Hi, back when I was a young girl, I loved watching my grandma bake. She had this one recipe for a chocolate cake similar to the Depression cake. Now I saw this recipe in a cookbook and all I can remember is the name of the cake and where it originated from. The cake was called, Wacky Cake and my grandmother had it published in this cookbook. Her name was Ruth G. REYBURN. The wacky part about the cake is the ingredients and how she made it. She made it in the cakepan and just made wells in dry ingredients to add liquids.

Julia

Monday 7th of March 2022

@Lori Elliott, This is how my Grandma made "crazy" cake! Sift dry ingredients into a 9x9 baking pan...make wells for the liquids...mix it up and bake it! My Grandma was born in 1911, and had my Mom in 1931. She lived in Michigan.

Lori Elliott

Saturday 22nd of January 2022

Yes, I've heard the name Wacky Cake used before, too, to refer to this same style of cake. That's neat about your grandmother's cake and the cookbook, and that's also really interesting that she made it in the cake pan itself. I've heard about using the wells for the dry ingredients, but I've never heard of someone making it in the same pan used for baking. It would definitely be nice to wash one less dish, though, when cleaning up, and that would be a very efficient way of baking!

Aina Ransom

Wednesday 12th of January 2022

Can I substitute the APF to Gluten-Free Flour? I’m trying to cut back gluten and dairy.

Lori Elliott

Wednesday 12th of January 2022

I'm sorry, but I've never tried this recipe with gluten-free flour, so I can't tell you from personal experience whether or not it would work. I remember a reader commenting before, though, that it worked ok for her, so it's possible that it would work for you too. If you don't mind a bit of an experiment you could certainly give it a try.

Carrie Sutton

Tuesday 2nd of November 2021

Hi. Haven't tried this yet but I'm not surebit could be considered "depression era". Having a grandma that lived through that I had always heard her say that sugar was the real problem. Most people had a milk cow and chickens.

Lori Elliott

Tuesday 2nd of November 2021

That's an interesting point. I don't have any historical evidence to point this to any specific cookbook or time frame from the 1930's, so I can't say with 100% accuracy that this is a depression-era recipe like I can say with some of my other recipes where I have an actual antique cookbook connecting the recipe to a specific date. That makes sense what your Grandma was saying about most people having a milk cow and chickens, especially those living in more rural areas. If this recipe originally really was one from the 1930's, it's possible that it was geared towards people living in the cities who had to buy eggs and milk because they didn't have enough land to own a cow and chickens, or it's also possible that this was meant to be more of a winter time recipe when chickens weren't laying much and cows weren't in calf and eggs and milk were more scarce. I'm just speculating, of course, but I appreciate your comment bringing up an interesting historical discussion :)

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