I don’t have an overabundance of happy memories from childhood, but this is one: making German Chocolate Cake for my birthday. It was my favorite cake and my mother made it every year, and I always got to help. Eventually, I got big enough to make it on my own.
I don’t make it so often anymore because it’s very, very fattening. You’d think I could get it away with it once a year, but see, I have no willpower where this cake is concerned. I will gladly eat the entire thing over the course of two or three days. So now I only make it when I’ve got a crowd to feed. Today’s cake is going to my daughter’s pig fest tomorrow.
There’s a new generation of cooks out there, and I have a little suspicion that most of you don’t know what I’m talking about. You think I picked up a cake mix, right? Or maybe I ordered a cake from the fancy bakery down the street, with plain chocolate icing around the outside?
No. Pay attention now, this is important: I am talking about HOMEMADE German Chocolate Cake. The kind your great-great grandmother made in the log cabin around 1852, when Samuel German first created the sweet chocolate baking bar. Wikipedia says that the recipe was actually created in 1957, or at least that’s when it appeared in the Dallas Morning Star. Maybe so, or maybe that’s just when someone got it published.
This cake is infused with joy for me. That means something. My mother and I did not have a great relationship, yet I can reach back and feel the joy in my memories of making it with her, all wrapped up in the heady touch and smell and taste of chocolate, butter, and sugar.
I’d love to take you on the journey with me, because I don’t want the human race to lose this recipe. Most people really do think the cake mix is fine, or that the German Chocolate Cake from a bakery is actually a German Chocolate Cake. I really want to show you how wrong that is. Not morally wrong (it’s just cake, after all), but oh-you-don’t-know-what-you’re-missing wrong.
Yes, it takes a bit of time and a bit of effort. But the best things in life always do.
It starts by buying a bar of German Baking Chocolate. The recipe is inside the package, but I learned today that they (corporate marketing) have messed with it. It’s the same general recipe, but they skipped some steps and combined others. At first, I thought, “Eh, okay,” but about halfway through, the brakes came screeching on, and I said out loud, “No SIR, we are NOT skipping that step!”
So I’m going to give it to you the old-fashioned way, except for the beginning where I was still trying to follow the recipe. I’ll tell you what changed and you can decide how you want to do it.
The original recipe called for placing the chocolate in a bowl and pouring 1/2 cup of boiling water over it. Let it sit for a few mintues, then stir it until it’s all blended. While that’s happening, you place softened butter (3/4 cup, and that’s real butter. Don’t you dare use margarine) and sugar in a big bowl and beat it on medium speed (hand-held or stand mixer – either one) until it’s thick and creamy.
I guess they wanted to make it easier for the instant generation (you know who you are), so the MODERN recipe has you put the chocolate and butter in a big bowl and microwave for 1 or 2 minutes, then mix until blended. This is where I was following the recipe, so here’s what we have, before and after mixing.
I was not happy that I did it this way because… memories. In my memory, every step has it’s own flavor, probably because I was always tasting the batter at each step along the way. And I missed stirring the chocolate in the water, and tasting the seductive mixture of butter and sugar. Now I had a mix of butter and chocolate.
That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself. It’s just not the memory.
Well, all right. We have butter and chocolate, so it’s time to add sugar. Pour in 1 and 1/2 cups and beat for a minute or so. Add 1 tsp vanilla.
Now we move on to the eggs. There are 3 eggs separated. This is something else the modern recipe has changed. Now they just have you throw 3 whole eggs in there. This is what made me put on the breaks. I’m sorry, but it’s essential to separate the eggs. Do this one egg at a time, putting the whites in another bowl, and the yolk in the batter. After each yolk, beat the batter for one minute. No, this is not too much bother. This helps make a fluffier cake. We want fluffy cake, no?
Now it’s time for the dry ingredients. First, get a smallish bowl and mix 1/2 cup flour with 1 tsp baking soda and 1/4 tsp salt. This is me, so of course I used whole wheat pastry flour. There is no white flour in my house. Stir this until thoroughly mixed, then add to the batter, beating it until smooth.
Next, scoop 1 and 1/2 cups of flour into your bowl. In a measuring cup, pout 1 cup of buttermilk. Now you are going to alternate mixing in some flour, beating it, then buttermilk, beating it, then flour, etc., until all the flour and buttermilk is beaten thoroughly into the batter. I usually do it in thirds, but I just eyeball it. Just be sure to mix well after each addition. In the pictures below, you’re seeing the dark brown batter of chocolate, butter, sugar, and egg yolk. By the time you finish adding the flour and buttermilk, you will have a thick, gloopy, light brown batter.
Now is the most important step. I can’t believe the modern version skips this. Remember the egg whites we put in another bowl? We are going to beat them till firm peaks form, then fold them into the batter. You will end up with a large amount of thick, pale, fluffy batter. Please, if you make this cake, do what I say, not the directions. Separate those eggs, beat the whites, and fold them into the batter. You will rejoice later. I promise.
That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now just pour that thick, gorgeous batter into a greased cake pan. Spread it around till it’s even – it’s so thick, it doesn’t really pour.
Usually, this cake is baked in three layers, and you can do that if you want to. For me, it’s always just been a sheet cake, and I’m happy with that.
Bake it at 350 for 30 minutes. While it’s baking you can move on to Step 2.
The cake is great, but it’s the frosting that sends it over the edge to galaxy-wide, too-good-to-be-true-goodness. And once again, you cannot skimp on this. You won’t find this flavor in a box or can or bakery-made cake. Fortunately, there are far fewer steps. This is actually pretty easy to make.
Get a medium-sized saucepan. Add 3/4 sticks butter, 1 can evaporated milk, and 4 egg yolks. (Yes, you have to separate the eggs again. Sorry). Whisk this up and put the pan on medium heat. Add 1 and 1/2 cups sugar and 1 tsp vanilla. Stir. Tradition demands you use a wooden spoon. I think it adds something to the flavor.
Set the timer for 12 minutes and stand right there stirring the whole time. I find it helps to have a book to read. Don’t stir fast… slow and steady is what you need. After 9 or 10 minutes, your pudding will be bubbling along merrily. Keep stirring. It thickens up a bit and turns a slight golden brown. Usually 12 minutes is the magic number. Take the pan off the heat and turn the burner off.
Add 2 and 2/3 cups shredded coconut – the recipe calls for a 7 oz package of Angel’s Baker Coconut, which is pre-sweetened. Honestly, the last thing you need is more sugar. What were they thinking? Just use plain shredded coconut. Also add 1 and 1/2 cups chopped pecans. Stir it up, pour into a bowl, and refrigerate for an hour or two. It will thicken a lot as it cools. Perfect, caramel-y goodness!
It goes without saying that you can taste at every step in the process. This frosting is not safe from me, even while it’s cooling.
When all is cooled and ready, I just pour the frosting over the cake and spread it around a little. No fancy decorating needed. If you do the 3 layers, spread frosting between layers and on top. It’s too heavy to work on the sides, which is maybe why bakers came up with the idea of plain chocolate frosting there. I think it ruins the experience, but hey, it’s subjective.
THIS right here… is heaven!
Oh, those extra egg whites? Make an omelet if you want. I made Lemon Macaroons.