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News / Life / Clark County Life

A Depression-era showdown between chocolate buttermilk cake and mocha crazy cake

By Monika Spykerman, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 8, 2024, 6:05am
4 Photos
This crazy chocolate cake &mdash; aka Depression cake or wacky cake &mdash; uses no eggs, butter or milk. But maybe it should.
This crazy chocolate cake — aka Depression cake or wacky cake — uses no eggs, butter or milk. But maybe it should. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Last week I was rearranging some things in my kitchen and I came across my great-grandmother Ruth’s recipe for chocolate cake, scribbled on a yellowing index card. My middle name is Ruth, in honor of her. I never had the chance to meet her but I feel a kind of connection with her.

I remember my Grandma Esther’s stories about Ruth’s legendary chocolate cake. Ruth’s husband, my great-grandfather Orien, worked in the Texas oil fields during the 1930s. It was a good, solid job and it kept the family going during the lean Depression years.

Ruth would have dinner waiting for her husband when he came home from work. Grandma Esther said no matter what was served for dinner, dessert was always chocolate cake because that was Orien’s favorite. He’d eat a thick slice every day until the cake was gone and then Ruth would bake another one to keep her hungry husband happy.

I think it’s a sweet little miracle that I have Ruth’s recipe. I picture her in a sunny kitchen with a calico dress and apron, hurrying to get the cake in the oven in time to frost it before Orien gets home. Ruth’s four children are hanging around outside the screen door, hoping to get a lick of the spoon or bowl, but she tells them to wait for dinner and shoos them away. She doesn’t have time for their shenanigans.

Well, that’s the scene in my mind, anyhow. Maybe she always let her kids lick the bowl. Maybe she secretly enjoyed their shenanigans and was grateful to have enough cake to feed them all.

I haven’t ever made her chocolate cake, in part because there are no baking instructions. She must have reckoned that every woman knew how to bake a cake, same as making biscuits or mending socks or breathing.

The recipe calls for two whole sticks of butter and 2 cups of buttermilk. That’s a rich, rich cake, just right if you’ve been toiling in the hot sun all day, but not right for someone who’s been sitting at a desk for eight hours, laboring over a room-temperature keyboard. I mean, I suppose I could get a callus or something, right?

I began searching for other chocolate cake recipes that may have been popular during the 1930s, when pantry staples like sugar, eggs and milk might have been scarce. I don’t know whether my great-grandmother Ruth always had butter and eggs and buttermilk on hand or if there were times she had to go without and get inventive with her cake.

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If so, she might have made Depression cake, also called crazy cake or wacky cake, on account of the absence of butter, eggs and milk. (Don’t worry, all is not lost. There’s still sugar.) Today, we’d call that vegan — that is, containing no animal products. Because I love experimenting in the kitchen, I simply had to try it.

Dear readers, I baked that cake. And it was extremely OK, especially with powdered sugar-and-cocoa icing. Is it as yummy as a chocolate cake with two sticks of butter? Oh, you make me laugh with your funny questions! No. Is it a pretty dang tasty treat? Absolutely. It was actually more moist and chocolatey a day after baking, although I’m not sure why. (The mysteries of cake science!) I would not know unless I’d made the cake myself that it was missing butter, eggs and milk. If I were stranded on a desert island and this cake suddenly appeared in front of me, then I would eat it and be mighty glad. (But I’d wonder who sent the cake and how it got there and if they could get cake to the island, why couldn’t they get me off it?)

Because I love coffee and chocolate together, I made it into a mocha cake by adding a teaspoon of instant coffee to the cake and the icing. I also threw in a teaspoon of cinnamon because that’s how I roll.

To make your own mocha crazy cake, whisk together 1½ cups flour, 1 cup sugar, ¹/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Next, in a liquid measuring cup, add 1 teaspoon of instant coffee, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar to 1 cup of water and ¹/3 cup vegetable oil. Mix together. Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the wet ingredients all at once, stirring until batter is smooth and no bits of flour remain.

Pour the batter into an oiled 8-by-8-inch baking pan and bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. (Because there’s very little fat in this cake, overbaking can easily dry it out, as I learned the hard way.) Allow the cake to cool for one hour if you intend to make icing. If not, dust the cake with powdered sugar and then serve it warm from the oven, maybe with a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream.

To ice your crazy cake, combine 1½ cups of powdered sugar with ¹/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder and a pinch of salt. Whisk until combined. Add 1 teaspoon of instant coffee and 1 teaspoon of vanilla to 3 tablespoons water and mix well. Slowly pour the coffee-water into the sugar and cocoa, stirring all the time. The icing is done when it’s completely blended and cohesive enough to spread on the cake. It will form a glaze over the cake and lose a bit of its stickiness as it dries.

I’m sure Greatgrandma Ruth’s chocolate buttermilk cake was irresistibly scrumptious. I wish I could go back in time and taste it. But in these cushy modern times with office jobs, long commutes and giant soft couches, maybe vegan cake is a better idea all around.

At any rate, I can honestly say that, of all the cake I have ever eaten, this mocha crazy cake is the most recent. In fact, I just finished my sixth piece a few minutes ago. Now please excuse me. I must get these crumbs off my keyboard before I develop an unsightly callus.

Mocha Crazy Cake

  • Chocolate Cake:

11/2 cups flour

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 cup sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (though any vinegar will do)

1 tablepoon vanilla

1 cup water mixed with one teaspoon instant coffee (or one cup black brewed coffee)

  • Icing:

1½ cups powdered sugar

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

3 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon instant coffee

Set oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together flour, cocoa, sugar, salt, baking soda and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, mix oil, vinegar and vanilla. Add 1 teaspoon of instant coffee to water (or add 1 cup of black brewed coffee). Pour the water into the oil. Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the wet ingredients all at once. Mix until all the flour has been incorporated. Pour into an oiled 8-by-8-inch baking pan. Bake for 30 minutes. If not icing, serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream. For icing, mix powdered sugar and cocoa. Mix water, coffee and vanilla together then pour slowly into dry ingredients, continuing to stir until icing is smooth. Pour or spread icing over completely cooled cake. Cut into squares and serve.