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.
I recently bought a block of American Heritage Chocolate, a gritty, stone-ground chocolate made in the colonial style, at the Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford, New York. I was excited about using it for this blog, but soon discovered that not many 18th-century English or American recipes actually called for chocolate.
Chocolate was widely consumed in colonial America — it was even part of military rations for American and British troops during the Revolutionary War. But until the mid-19th century, it was nearly always used for drinking, not baked in desserts or eaten on its own.