Chocolate Depression Cake Recipe

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One of my favorite pastimes is sitting with a cookbook, devouring every word like an inexplicable novel. Lately, I've been able to sift through not only my growing collection, but also sauce and batting cookbooks from my parents' and grandparents' collections. I find so much inspiration in these old books—retro gems and forgotten favorites waiting to be rediscovered and rediscovered.

When someone told me about the vintage and unconventionally titled recipe, Depression Cake, I was absolutely intrigued. While trawling through my cookbooks and old recipe sites, I discovered a recipe that hardly varies between sources without butter, eggs, or milk.

After testing, tweaking and experimenting, I found Depression Cake to be an easy vegan chocolate cake with the nostalgic taste and texture of supermarket bakery chocolate sheet cakes I remember from childhood birthday parties. It's velvety, moist and undeniably chocolatey.

It's cliché, but it really is a recipe to save for impromptu visitors or events. You can make this cake quickly without a trip to the store, and serve it to anyone, regardless of their dietary restrictions. It's vegetarian, mostly allergen-free, can be made with gluten-free one-to-one flour, and best of all, it's quick and delicious.

Just Recipes / Mark Behm


What is depression cake?

Depression cakes got their name from the Great Depression, when ingredients like milk, butter, and eggs were either too expensive or in short supply, so they were omitted.

Such recipes were developed so that families could prepare sweet meals even in times of scarcity by substituting expensive ingredients with cheaper alternatives. For example, the vinegar in this cake not only activates the baking soda, but the acid reacts with the gluten to create a spongy, fluffy texture without the expensive eggs.

You'll also find this recipe called wacky cake, crazy cake, wowie cake, or WWII cake. Depression Cake is the name that stuck, but it actually dates back to at least World War I, when it was published as a war cake.

My tweaks for a better depression cake

I saw a missed opportunity to use one of my simple tricks to bring out the most chocolate flavor—cocoa powder. Blooming cocoa powder is when you mix the cocoa with a hot liquid, often water, before adding it to the batter. This technique intensifies and releases the extra flavors and aromas locked in the cocoa, which you'll immediately experience as the steam wafts from the hot cocoa wafts from the bowl.

I tried using hot coffee instead of water to make the cocoa bloom and liked the mocha flavor, also opting for coffee in the glaze. To enhance the delicious taste, you can try a half mix of coffee and water.

When baking with chocolate, I always add some brown sugar, so in my version of this cake, I used both brown sugar and granulated sugar. The molasses added to the brown sugar complements the chocolate and creates a soft, moist cake.

Just Recipes / Mark Behm


My Favorite Depression Cake Variation

Considering there's no butter, eggs or milk, it's surprising how good this cake is, but the simple batter is also a jumping-off point for adding your own twist. I couldn't resist testing some variations, and these were my two favorites:

  • Olive oil chocolate cake: Use flavored extra virgin olive oil in place of neutral vegetable oil, and substitute balsamic vinegar for apple cider vinegar.
  • A cheat cake: Increase the amount of cocoa powder to 1/3 cup, use 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1/2 cup brown sugar, and add 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips.

Other changes and upgrades

For some simple changes, you can substitute some or all of the water or coffee for another liquid such as milk, buttermilk, orange juice, or even red wine for an adults-only cake. You can dissolve cocoa powder in almost any hot liquid, but skip this step if you use buttermilk because it can dissolve when heated.

A thin layer of chocolate glaze is my preferred topping for Depression Cake, but you can trade it in for a simple chocolate buttercream frosting or chocolate ganache. The cake is moist enough to skip the topping altogether, adding just a dusting of powdered sugar before serving.

Just Recipes / Mark Behm


Retro Cake Recipes.

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