Devil’s Food Cake

A late 19th century innovation. Conceptually, a Devil’s food cake is a chocolate cake that’s particularly rich and intense, although new innovations and chocolate and baking may well make it seem more like a middle-of-the-road affair. I guess I’d put it this way: it’s as much chocolate as you can leaven with baking soda.

Devil’s food cake by megan.chromik, on Flickr (CC license)
An early mention from the January 20, 1894 edition of The (Frederick, Maryland) Daily News, in a pseudonymous society column signed “Mary Jane:”

Last Sunday was a summer day; the girls were sorry they hadn’t their spring clothes, but it is never customary to get them made before Lent. I have mentioned that I’ve been out teaing, not spreeing. The menu at both layouts was recherce in the extreme. There was antique china, and the silver belonged to some of my ancestors. There was “angel food” beautiful as the moon shining on the bay of Venice. Next time there will be “devil’s food.” These two cakes differ from each other; like their namesakes one is white as snow, and the other black as only his satanic majesty can be. They are made over recipes known only to the bakers, which recipes can be purchased on the receipt of ten cents. The German last night was a vision of loveliness, particularly the girls. They danced for all they were wroth, for because they know their time is short–for dancing–as the day after they bake fassnachts they will have to go to church and confess their sins for forty days.

(Emphasis added.)


Early recipes tended to use chocolate, rather than cocoa. From the January 19, 1898 edition of the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Daily Gazette:

Devil’s food — Heat one cup dark brown sugar, one cup grated chocolate, and one-half cup sweet milk until chocolate is melted. Add one-half cup butter, beaten yolks of three eggs, one cup of dark brown sugar, one-half cup sweet milk. Stir in two cups of flour sifted five times with a small teaspoon of soda. Bake in moderate oven, being very careful not to scorch.


Compare this one from the March 16, 1898 edition of The (Syracuse, New York) Evening Herald:

Devil’s Cake.

For Ursula: This recipe was sent me from Chicago and I have found it excellent:

The yolks of 2 eggs, 2 squares of unsweetened chocolate, 1 cup of sweet milk, 1 cup white sugar, 3 tablespoons melted butter, 1/8 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon soda, 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, 1-2/3 cup flour.

Melt the chocolate by setting the mixing bowl in boiling water until the chocolate is softened, then beat the yolks and rub into the chocolate; add half the milk and set the bowl back into the boiling water until the contents cook smooth and creamy; remove from the fire and add the sugar, the melted butter, the salt and the remaining half cupful of milk into which the soda has been dissolved; [less if it’s sour?], stirring until perfectly smooth and bake in 4 well-oiled layer cake pans.

When baked, put together with this icing: Two egg whites beaten stiff, cook 1-1/2 cups of sugar and 1/3 cup of hot water until the syrup “threads.” To determine this, dip the spoon into the syrup, hold up to the light, and when of the proper consistency the last drop falling will spin a fine thread as it leaves the spoon; remove instantly from the stove and pour gradually while beating constantly the eggs, onto the beaten whites; wait until the mixture is cool., When it becomes stiff enough to spread, add 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract.


La Belle.

Which brings us to the sort-of-odd topic of whether Devil’s food cake originally got its name from somewhere kind of like Red Velvet Cake, where anthocyanins in cocoa react with acids in buttermilk, sour milk, or vinegar to produce a reddish-brown color. Here’s the short version: probably not.

In his post Seeing Red Over the Origins of Red Velvet Cake, food writer, professor, and history buff Gary Allen points out that baking soda is a strong base, and stirring baking soda into mild acids like buttermilk will result in a basic solution–one that will turn anthocyanins brownish-gray.

Fair enough. I’d point out, however, that some early 20th century Devil’s food recipes did suggest the use of sour cream, which has a pH of around 4.5, and which is accordingly more than acidic enough to result in an acidic environment despite the baking soda. But those recipes came after Devil’s food was already named. And It’s not entirely clear to me that chocolate–even strong, bitter baking chocolate–reacts as cocoa would.

From the box of G.Y. from Wichita, Kansas.

Devil’s Food

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
2 eggs
1/2 cup sour cream; stir in 1 teaspoon soda (rounded)
2-1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa; fill cup with boiling water


1 cup cream
2 cups sugar
1 heaping Tablespoon cocoa

Boil until thick when dropped in cold water.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked:*