Updated on August 18, 2021 to include better data and improve the reader’s success with this recipe
What does “Chocolate Cake” mean to you?
Chocolate cake. Don’t those two little words make your ears feel good? For me, they conjure up memories of many birthdays past. Of velvety cocoa flavor and rich, dark fudge icing. Real fudge. The cooked kind without so much as a grain of powdered sugar. Not that I have anything against buttercream frosting, but sometimes you just want fudge on top of cake.
Still, even though chocolate was my favorite birthday cake flavor, I was on the constant lookout for what I deemed the perfect chocolate cake. Because the one my mother made for me as a child was too simple. It was just a plain square on a plate, no layers, no different fillings, no fancy decorations. Just Plain. Chocolate. Cake. With fudge icing.
40-year search for the perfect confection
So, I set out on a quest when I left home to find the perfect version of this basic American dessert. It would have many layers, various fillings and fudgy frosting. And it would be garnished with swirls of frosting, and maybe some chocolate curls for a little added decadence. It would be picture perfect, too, and something to inspire awestruck silence.
Mostly I was looking for a perfect recipe, so I could have chocolate cake any time I wanted, though ordering it in restaurants was part of the search.
Why is chocolate cake so hard to make?
What I found over the years was that, for the most part, commercial chocolate cakes are dry. Restaurant cakes, bakery cakes, supermarket cakes. Most just didn’t have the moisture content that I thought the perfect chocolate cake should have. However, a few were so dense as to be like chocolate bricks, heavy on the stomach, hard on the sweet tooth. So I quit ordering them.
On the other hand, the recipes I tried yielded, for the most part, nice cakes. Nice, but without that something extra that made me swoon with delight. I’d have a piece and enjoy it, and then I’d send the rest to work with my husband. Or take it to share with my co-workers. And the next time I’d want chocolate cake I’d try a different recipe.
I rarely had this problem with vanilla cakes rich with butter and eggs (my other favorite flavor), so yellow was the default flavor whenever I’d have to buy cake from someone else. And that was the flavor that I made while my children were growing up. (It’s the cake my grown daughter still requests every year for her birthday.)
And then it happened…
On my last birthday, it dawned on me that it had been there all along, nestled quietly in my mother’s overflowing recipe box. It was right under my nose. I had long since stopped trying to find a flashy, brassy, over-the-top, in-your-face glamorous recipe and realized just this year that the cake my mother had been baking all my life really WAS the perfect chocolate cake. A single layer of moist cake with the intoxicating flavor of cocoa (as opposed to the heavier flavor of melted chocolate), finished off with a thin layer of cooked fudge on top. (Always too thin, in my opinion.)
My snobbishness evaporated upon first bite. No longer did my taste buds scorn that plain little square of chocolate on the plate. In fact, they lit up like 4th of July fireworks, demanding another piece even before the first piece was finished. And I finally realized why it was always one little layer – it’s so delicate I doubt it could support multiple layers.
After a lifetime of searching for the perfect chocolate cake, the one that fails the resistance (can-I-eat-just-one-piece?) test was as close as my mother all along.
And no, I can’t eat just one piece. Because one piece leaves me wanting another. And another. But since I try to be ladylike, I settle for two pieces. And call them dinner. (Unless I’m by myself, and then I’ve been known to eat three, sugar coma be damned.)
Simple, but truly “food of the gods”
This recipe goes together very quickly, which is perfect if you want cake RIGHT NOW. I’ve reworked it a bit to accommodate new bakers who might not understand what “put in oleo” means. Or who might want a bit more clarity to “when bubbly all over.”
And while this is traditionally a one-bowl cake, I’ve added the step of sifting the dry ingredients in a separate bowl so there’s little to no chance of finding nasty lumps of baking soda in the chocolaty goodness. (Ask me how I know.)
Some things to know before baking this one-bowl cake
- Shortening – I know, I know, shortening is a poor substitute for butter. HOWEVER… in this recipe, it works. First of all, there’s very little of it, just a mere 1/2 cup. Butter would make the cake too firm, even at room temperature, whereas shortening keeps the cake much softer at room temperature. And the recipe makes up for this transgression in the fudge icing which does contain butter. The way I see it, this cake is not health food by any standards. So a little shortening, just this once, can be forgiven. Believe me when I say you’ll love the results. (Use butter-flavored shortening to trick your tastebuds, though I never do and it’s still divine.
- Flour – No need for special cake flour, this old-fashioned cake prefers all-purpose. It renders this cake as tender and delicate as a cloud. Measure first by lightly spooning into the measuring cup, then sift with the rest of the dry ingredients into a separate bowl.
- Butter – Use butter in the icing, not margarine. (Never margarine! Eeek!) The term “oleo” was used for oleomargarine, which was shortened to “margarine” many years ago. It’s a highly-processed butter substitute which used to be made with animal fat but is now made with vegetable oil, water and salt. And it is completely unsuitable for this cake (or any cake). Butter gives baked goods that “gotta have one more piece” flavor which margarine can never replicate. And I suspect the water in “oleo” would make for a watery icing. Or one that separates. I’ve never tried it because there’s just no substitute for butter in cooked fudge.
- Cocoa – the cocoa measurements in this recipe are “rough,” meaning they are heaping tablespoons rather than measured (leveled) spoons. That’s because cocoa isn’t dense enough to alter the chemical structure of the cake and icing when a little extra is added. Therefore, instead of leveling the measuring spoons of cocoa, heaping is quite fine. Plus it feels more indulgent to just “load ‘er up.” And don’t worry if you have plain old Hershey’s cocoa. So did our grandmothers, and this is a grandmotherly recipe. Hershey’s is tickety boo.
- Milk – the recipe calls for “sweet” milk. That’s the old-fashioned way of saying good ol’ regular dairy milk. Whole milk is best, but 2% works fine too. I drink fat-free milk, so I use half milk / half cream to create a good whole milk substitute.
- Buttermilk (substitute if you don’t have any)– I rarely have dairy buttermilk on hand when I’m baking and the nearest grocery store is 30 minutes away. So I make a buttermilk substitute instead, and you can too. It’s super easy. With a ratio of 1:1, you’ll place 1/2 Tbs of white vinegar into a one-cup measure and fill to the 1/2 cup mark with milk (preferably whole, but any other is ok too). Stir for a couple of minutes, then let set for 5 more minutes. The milk will thicken and sour just like “real” buttermilk. Just remember, the ratio is 1:1. For each cup of buttermilk, use 1 tablespoon of white vinegar.
- (For more ways to make substitute buttermilk including a dairy-free version, check this article out.)
The easy peasy recipe for one bowl chocolate cake with real fudge icing
My perfect chocolate cake with fudge icing
- 9 x 13" pan, greased and floured (see Notes)
- 2 C granulated sugar
- 1/2 C vegetable shortening (I use butter-flavored)
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 heaping Tbs cocoa (do not level)
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 C all-purpose flour
- 1/2 C buttermilk (see Notes for a good substitute)
- 1 C boiling water
Cooked Fudge Icing
- 1 1/2 C granulated sugar
- Pinch salt
- 2 heaping Tbs cocoa (Do not level)
- 1/2 C milk
- 2/3 stick butter, cut in pieces (5 1/3 Tbs, to be precise)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Heat oven to 350°F.
- Sift flour, baking soda, salt and cocoa together in bowl – set aside.
- Cream sugar and shortening with a hand mixer on medium high speed until light and fluffy. This will take from 3-5 minutes.
- Lower speed and add eggs, one at a time, beating only until smooth.
- Stir in vanilla extract.
- On medium speed, add milk and flour mixture alternately, starting and ending with flour mixture.
- Scrape the sides of the bowl and beat 30 seconds more on medium.
- Slowly add boiling water while beating on low speed, just until thoroughly mixed.
- Pour batter into greased and floured 9×13 pan. (See Notes)
- Bake 30-35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in cake comes out barely clean. If there's a crumb or two of cake on it, that's ok. It's ready. DO NOT OVERBAKE.
- Set on cooling rack while you make the icing. (See Notes)
Cooked Fudge Icing
- Whisk sugar, salt and cocooa in saucepan until fully blended.
- Whisk milk into sugar mixture, then place over medium/low heat and bring to a full boil on stove top.
- Bring to a full, rolling boil, then stop stirring and let boil exactly 5 minutes, or until candy thermometer reads 235-240 degrees (Soft ball stage).
- Immediately remove from heat, drop in butter pieces, and stir until smooth.
- Place in ice water bath, stirring vigorously until icing barely begins to lose its gloss. Totest, drop some from the spoon onto itself – it will stay on the surface for a moment or two.
- Immediately spread onto HOT cake. This is real cooked fudge – it will set FAST.
- Store at room temperature 4-5 days. (see Notes)
- When making chocolate cake, I use cocoa instead of white flour when preparing the pan. It looks nicer when the cake is cut.
- If you don’t have buttermilk (I never do), you can make your own. Put 1 Tbs. white vinegar in a one-cup measure, then fill with milk (preferably whole milk). Let stand a few minutes. It will turn thick and sour almost like magic.
- This cake is too delicate to turn out of the pan, which makes it a perfect cake for transporting to pot lucks and picnics.
- Do not overbeat or icing will get too thick to spread. This takes a little practice, but it’s better to spread the icing too soon rather than too late.
- The icing recipe makes barely enough to cover the cake. I always double it for my cakes.
- There is no need to refrigerate this cake. Doing so will reduce its delicate tenderness and cause it to dry out. It will also cause the fudge icing to separate from the cake. This cake will last just fine 4-5 days at cool room temperature.
- My mother left salt and vanilla out of her copy of the recipe, but both enhance the unique cocoa flavor, so I’ve added them back in.
Chocolate cake doesn’t get easier than this
While my mother called this a Devil’s Food Cake, I simply know it as The Perfect Chocolate Cake. I hope you will too. It’s moist and keeps well for several days (if it lasts that long).
If you’re the type who likes a little cake with your icing, then double the recipe. I do when I want to go all out and treat myself to something extra indulgent. Which is every time. I’m still making up for all the years my mother’s icing was so thin you could see cake through it. If you’re more of a “cake person” than an “icing person,” you’ll probably be satisfied with one recipe of icing.
More old-fashioned cake recipes
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