I’ve always been a fan of old-fashioned chocolate cake, but when I went searching for early American chocolate cake recipes in 19th century cookbooks, I found very few of them. It turns out that chocolate cake really only got its start toward the end of that century.
The first “chocolate” cakes, made in the early 19th century, were actually not chocolate cakes at all, but white or yellow cakes served with hot chocolate (sort of like “coffee cake” with coffee). Hot chocolate, made from ground cacao beans, was a common beverage in colonial times, but chocolate desserts were rare. Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten’s invention of the cocoa press, in 1828, launched the age of chocolate by improving the taste of chocolate and making it cheaper to produce. Other improvements in chocolate manufacturing followed, and by the 1890s, chocolate desserts were common.
Eliza Leslie is often credited with the first chocolate cake recipe, published in The Ladies’ Receipt-Book (1847). She used grated chocolate in the batter, so it had a speckled appearance. I tried to make Leslie’s cake, but it turned out much too dense, perhaps because there was no baking soda or powder in the recipe, just lots of eggs for leavening.
Then I tried a recipe by Sarah Tyson Rorer from Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book (1886). It’s ironic that Mrs. Rorer — and I feel compelled to call her “Mrs.” — helped popularize chocolate cake, because she is considered America’s first dietician and her focus was really on healthy eating, especially of vegetables. The founder of the Philadelphia Cooking School, she lectured widely about the impact of food on health, wrote cookbooks, and was apparently a household name in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But back to the cake. Some consider Mrs. Rorer’s recipe to be the first modern-day chocolate cake, since it used melted chocolate (so the chocolate was fully incorporated in the batter) and baking powder, which had become more widely available over the course of the 19th century. The recipe contains just two ounces of chocolate, perhaps because it was still fairly expensive. Later recipes, including one for devil’s food cake in 1905, would contain twice as much.
Mrs. Rorer’s recipe called for using one cake pan, but the batter was enough for two eight-inch pans. I tried it both ways. When I used two pans, I made a layer cake, which might not be historically accurate for this recipe, but layer cakes were common by the 1880s, and Mrs. Rorer did write recipes for them, though not for chocolate. Anyway, I also tried it with one pan, just in case she was rolling in her grave over the liberties I was taking.
I don’t know if this particular cake was supposed to be iced — 19th century cookbooks are often vague on those details — but Mrs. Rorer’s books include icings, and this cake really seems to need some, or at least ice cream alongside it. The boiled frosting I made for Eliza Leslie’s cupcakes works well here, as does the chocolate icing below, which is based on a recipe of Mrs. Rorer’s from a later cookbook. (Chocolate icing was actually used on white and yellow cakes long before true chocolate cakes were made.)
My family loved this cake. My husband said it was nice and moist, although he would have been happier if it had contained more chocolate. But my daughter and I appreciated that it was, as she put it, “a mellow cake — chocolatey, but not rich or overwhelming.”
Mrs. Rorer’s Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book: A Manual of Home Economies (1886)
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate (wafers or coarsely chopped)
½ cup butter
1½ cups sugar
4 eggs, separated
½ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1¾ cups sifted cake flour (preferably unbleached)
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously grease one 9-inch or two 8-inch round cake pans, put parchment circles on bottom of pans, and grease the parchment.
2. Dissolve the chocolate in 5 tablespoons boiling water, stirring until smooth. Set aside to cool.
3. Cream the butter, then gradually beat in the sugar, about 1/4 cup at a time. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition. Gradually add whole milk, beating well. Add the cooled chocolate and vanilla extract to this mixture and blend well.
4. Whisk the flour with the baking powder and salt. Add flour mixture to the batter gradually (about 1/4 cup at a time), blending well after each addition, but do not overbeat.
5. Beat the egg whites until stiff, then blend into the batter “quickly and lightly,” as Mrs. Rorer put it. Pour batter into cake pan(s). Bake for 30 minutes if using two pans, 40-45 minutes if one pan, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Let rest in pans for 20 minutes, then turn out onto rack to cool. Frost with boiled white icing or chocolate icing (below).
Adapted from Mrs. Rorer’s Cakes, Icings and Fillings (1905)
2 squares unsweetened chocolate
½ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
3 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted (plus another ½ cup if needed)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Melt the chocolate with the milk in the top of a double boiler, stirring frequently. When smooth, add the butter and remove from heat. Cool completely, then gradually blend in the confectioner’s sugar, until the icing is sufficiently thick to spread (you may need to add more sugar if frosting a layer cake). Stir in vanilla extract.