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Exploring German Chocolate Cake: Surprising History, Scrumptious Recipe, and Super Spin-Offs

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

What's In a Name?

French fries are not from France. Russian dressing was first made in New Hampshire, not Moscow. Romaine lettuce was not cultivated in Rome (or Romania). Philadelphia cream cheese? Nope, not from the city of the same name. And German chocolate cake has nothing to do with Germany.

So What's the Real Story?

The year was 1764 and John Hannon was a man in despair. He had left his friends, his family, and everything he knew to travel to the Colonies. And for what? A new beginning, new opportunities, new hope. What had his foolish idealism netted him? Nothing. Cold, tired, emotionally beat. Down on his luck, down to his last penny, and down on his knees, he found himself on the bank of the Neponset River, where he wept.

Dr. James Baker was a Harvard graduate and the manager of a general store. A shrewd businessman, he had a pocket full of money and the desire for fame. He happened upon John Hannon that evening and listened to his sad tale. In that meeting, he also learned that Hannon had a skill, a craft that he had brought with him from his native Ireland. He knew how to make chocolate.

The Neponset River where the two men met had the power to run factories; there were paper producers, gunpowder manufacturers, and grist mills. Dr. Baker recognized the possibility of expanding the home production of chocolate to large-scale manufacturing by harnessing the potential of the river. With the know-how of John Hannon, that is exactly what he did. Baker leased a small mill on the lower banks of the Neponset, and together they produced Hannon’s Best Chocolate.

Business was good. In fact, three years later in 1768, they moved their enterprise to a larger space. A separate mill was opened by Baker alone in 1772. Had the duo parted ways? No one knows for sure, but by 1773 Baker on his own was producing 900 pounds of chocolate in one year. Life took an eventful turn for Hannon as well; he married Elizabeth Gore on July 1, 1773.

raw cacao beans

raw cacao beans

In 1779 Hannon traveled to the West Indies to purchase cacao . . . and never returned. It was assumed that he had perished, lost at sea while smuggling shipments of the beans through the ring of Royal Navy warships on the eastern seaboard (remember, this was during the Revolutionary War). So it came to pass that one year later his widow sold his portion of the company to James Baker who changed the name to “Baker’s Chocolate Company.”

But You Still Haven’t Explained Why It’s Called “German's” Chocolate

The company remained in the family for many years. After four decades, when Dr. James Baker retired, his son Edmund took over the business. In 1832 Edmund retired and his son assumed the helm. That son, Walter Baker, was a Harvard graduate with a keen business sense. He had the family name trademarked and hired a number of new employees to expand the company. One of those was an English immigrant named Samuel German.

German recognized that chocolate could be temperamental—intense and bitter, but by reducing the amount of cocoa butter and adding sugar it became a “happier” more agreeable product (sugar has that effect on me too). Walter Baker liked the new product, he liked it so much, in fact, that he put German’s name on it. “German’s Sweet Chocolate” was born.

Let’s Get On to the Story about the Cake

It was not long before cake recipes utilizing the sweet “German’s” chocolate began to appear in print. “The Housekeeper Cook Book” (1894) contained a recipe for a “Novel Chocolate Cake” with sweet German chocolate in the batter and a white frosting. A similar recipe appeared in “Club Woman’s Cook Book” (1911). The 1922 cake in “The Battle Creek Cook Book” was edging us closer to the recipe known today—this one included baking soda and buttermilk.

The first print version of the chocolate layers paired with coconut-pecan frosting appeared in the May 10, 1956 issue of The Irving News Record. Thereafter, German’s chocolate cake recipes began to spread through Texas faster than a Porsche on the Pickle Parkway (Google it).

And the rest is . . . history. By the way, June 11 is National German’s Chocolate Cake Day. Mark it on your calendar.

The Original Recipe

The original German's Chocolate Cake recipe has been reprinted by Kraft Foods:

Ingredients for Cake

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  • 1 pkg. (4 oz.) BAKER'S GERMAN'S Sweet Chocolate
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 cup buttermilk

Instructions for Cake

  • Heat oven to 350°F.
  • Cover bottoms of 3 (9-inch) round cake pans with parchment; spray sides with cooking spray. Microwave chocolate and water in a large microwaveable bowl on HIGH 1-1/2 to 2 min. or until chocolate is almost melted, stirring after 1 min. Stir until chocolate is completely melted.
  • Beat egg whites in small bowl with mixer on high speed until stiff peaks form; set aside. Combine flour, baking soda, and salt. Beat butter and sugar in large bowl with mixer until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks, 1 at a time, beating well after each. Blend in melted chocolate and vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk, beating until well blended after each addition.
  • Add egg whites; stir gently until well blended. Pour into prepared pans.
  • Bake 30 min. or until a toothpick inserted in centers comes out clean. Immediately run small spatula around cakes in pans. Cool cakes in pans 15 min. Remove from pans to wire racks; cool completely.
  • Prepare Coconut-Pecan Filling and Frosting; spread between cake layers and onto the top of the cake.

Ingredients for Frosting

  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk
  • 1-1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup butter or margarine
  • 1 pkg. (7 oz.) BAKER'S ANGEL FLAKE Coconut (2-2/3 cups)
  • 1-1/2 cups chopped PLANTERS Pecans

Instructions for Frosting

  • Beat egg yolks, milk, and vanilla in large saucepan with whisk until blended.
  • Add sugar and butter; cook on medium heat 12 min. or until thickened and golden brown, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.
  • Add coconut and nuts; mix well. Cool to desired spreading consistency.

Brownies

I'm the Carb Diva, and so (in theory) I love all things carb. However, if you asked me what my favorite carb is, a cake would not be at the top of the list. Not even in 5th place. So, that said, these brownies really got my attention.

I adore brownies, and the coconut-pecan frosting/filling of German's chocolate cake is sublime. Put those two together, and I am in my happy place. These brownies by CelebratingSweets are my happy place.

Cakeroll

Don't allow the prospect of rolling a cake turn you away from this recipe from FoodNetwork. It's not difficult. Trust me. I made my first one in Home-Ec when I was in the 9th grade. It didn't break, it didn't crack (and I got an A+). If I can do it, you can too, and think how impressed your friends and family will be!

Cheesecake

Lindsay is the blogger for LifeLoveAndSugar. I want to be her when I grow up. Honestly, she has published an amazing book on cake decorating (the photos are gorgeous!), she has twin boys (well, maybe I'm too old for that), and a sweet black lab puppy. She created this stunning chocolate cheesecake which is an absolute show-stopper.

German Chocolate Cake Cheese Ball

This might be the strangest and at the same time most wonderful snack/appetizer you could have at a party. Imagine the flavor of a German's sweet chocolate cheesecake. Form that into a ball and then coat with a "frosting" of brown sugar, vanilla, coconut, and chopped pecans. It's cheesecake without the crust and chocolate cake frosting without the cake.

OhSweetBasil shares this recipe with us. They suggest chocolate and vanilla graham crackers as the dippers, but I think apple slices or fresh strawberries would go well too. (Or, maybe just grab a spoon).

Cookies

Tessa Arias (HandleTheHeat) gives us this recipe for addictively soft but chewy chocolate cookies loaded with melty chocolate chips and topped with a gooey crunchy coconut topping.

Ice Cream

This is real ice cream; The base is a custard of whipping cream, egg yolks, chopped chocolate and pure vanilla. Process in your ice cream freezer, fold/stir in your homemade coconut-pecan frosting and then pack in an airtight container and place in the freezer.

The hardest part? Waiting for 8 hours (or overnight) for the ice cream to be ready to eat. Thank you to Carla who blogs on ChocolcateMoosey for this wonderful summertime treat.

Macarons

Macarons have been given a bad rep. Yes, they are blissful to eat, but what about trying to create one in your own kitchen. This is the stuff that makes contestants in "Master Chef" quiver in fear in front of Gordon Ramsay.

Don't fear. Wives with Knives understands all of the foils and quibbles of macaron construction and assembly. These German chocolate macarons are a delicious sweet treat.

No-Bake Pie

It's summer, it's hot, you don't want to bake, but does that mean that you have to forego dessert? Not if you use this recipe for no-bake German chocolate pie. Thank you, Ashley (BakerByNature) for sharing your creativity with us.

Pie

This dessert by Danelle (LetsDishRecipes) is absolute perfection. Imagine a buttery flaky pie crust, filled with dark moist brownie and then topped with a rich coconut pecan frosting. This will be my next birthday pie (I'll take pie over cake any day).

Slow Cooker Dump Cake

For the uninitiated, a dump cake is one in which all of the ingredients are "dumped" into the baking dish without stirring, blending, or mixing. Magically it transforms into a beautiful dessert, like this one which is what I can only imagine would occur if a chocolate cake fell in love with a cobbler and they had a baby.

Thank you, Sarah (LifeShouldCostLess) for this wonderful easy-peasy recipe.

Truffles

Each year my older daughter and I pick a "theme" for our Christmas baking. After a week-long flurry of baking, we have a half-dozen (or more) treats for gift-giving. One year it was fudge. Another year it was biscotti. Perhaps this year we will do truffles, and, if we do, this German chocolate truffle recipe by TastesBetterFromScratch will be on the list.

Upside-Down Cake

SpicySouthernKitchen has created a masterpiece. First, Christin combines all of the wonderful things in coconut-pecan frosting and places them in the bottom of a 9x13-inch baking pan. Then she makes a luxurious chocolate cake batter and places spoonsful of that on top. Think we're done? Not even. Next, cream cheese, butter, and powdered sugar are whipped together and then spooned in-between the dollops of cake batter. Bake. Invert. Swoon.

Questions & Answers

Question: What kind of flour is used to make German chocolate cake?

Answer: I used all-purpose flour in this recipe. Thank you for the reminder that not all flours are alike. I have clarified the type of flour used in the recipe.

Question: When did Southern Kitchen create this upside down chocolate cake?

Answer: The date on her post is March 23, 2019.

© 2018 Linda Lum

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