Old-Time Chocolate Cake with Fudge Frosting

“Oh no, this is a dire situation. Once she starts thinking about birthday cake, she's basically useless until she gets birthday cake.”
--Parks and Recreation Season 6, Episode 6 ("The Filibuster")

Quiz: what do these six things have in common?
A) Clothes
B) Fragrances
C) Massages
D) Mimosas
E) Fine leather goods
F) Chocolate cake

Answer: They are all things you should treat yourself to at least one day of the year.

This week, one of the Cowan family's favourite TV shows, Parks & Recreation, ended. We've been moping about it all week and had to put off watching the finale until last night (because of the time change and a really busy week), so to cheer us up on what would have otherwise been a pretty sad evening, I decided it was time to treat ourselves to... what else? Chocolate cake.

I think Leslie Knope would wholeheartedly approve. So, while we didn't have any Snakejuice, we did pour out a glass of wine in honour of the town of Pawnee while we ate what turned out to be a pretty awesome cake.

This recipe is from May 1959, a fact I know because the date is printed at the bottom of the leaflet. The cake (and its frosting) come from something called The Woman's Day Kitchen Collector's Cook Book #28: Chocolate Cakes and Frostings. It appears to be pages 50-56 of the May 1959 issue of Woman's Day, and it's retro and kitschy and printed on manila paper. I don't know why Eleanor ever thought she'd need this many chocolate cake recipes, but I guess when you have two little kids (like she did back then) you have to prepare for anything. I wanted a pretty straightforward chocolate cake with chocolate frosting for our finale-watching, so I went with something called “Old-Time Chocolate Cake with Fudge Frosting.”

The cake is good, but it's really small and doesn't rise much-- this was perfect for us, because I didn't need a giant layer cake, but if you're making this for a party, you might want to double the batch and make it as a layer cake. It's deliciously soft though (because of the cake flour), and it somehow manages to be both moist and lightweight. The description under the recipe notes that this cake is “square, dark in color,” but I didn't find it to be particularly dark... and it's only square if you bake it in a square pan, obviously.

I thought the frosting would be incredibly difficult, since it involves boiling (and a candy thermometer, if you have one), but it ended up being pretty easy to follow and remarkably forgiving, since I had no idea what I was doing. Also, let's be honest here, halfway through making the frosting, I realised I don't have a candy thermometer, so I was going to have to boil the frosting until it reached “the soft ball stage.” But I have no idea what that means, so I googled it. Do you understand? I googled the phrase “soft ball frosting.”

For the love of all things holy, don't make the same mistake I did, or if you do, at least think through your search terms a little better than I did. Let me just explain to you instead what “soft ball stage” means: basically, when you're boiling your frosting, have a small bowl of cold water next to you at the ready. It needs to be a bowl (not a glass or a mug) so you can reach inside it. After your frosting has been boiling for a few minutes, drop a bit of it into the cold water, then reach in and scoop out the frosting. If it forms a soft ball in your hand while underwater, then flattens out and kind of drips away when you take it out of the water, that's soft ball stage. (If you have a candy thermometer, it's 232F/111C.)

I made a lot of substitutions in both the cake and the frosting this time around: I didn't have cake flour, so I made my own by adding cornstarch to all-purpose flour (noted in the recipe). I also can't ever find buttermilk in the UK, so I made my own by combining lemon juice and milk and letting it sit for 5 minutes. And, as discussed elsewhere, I can't find corn syrup in Scotland, so I used golden syrup instead in the frosting.

Oh, also: this is obviously supposed to be a square cake, but I didn't have a plate big enough to hold the square cake, and I thought to myself “I wonder why no one makes triangular cakes?” so I cut mine on the diagonal and layered the two pieces with frosting between them, thinking I was clever. I was not clever. YOU try coming up with a way to slice a triangular cake that makes any sense whatsoever. If you make this, just let it be a square.


The verdict:

4 Spoons out of 5. It's delicious, the frosting tastes fudge-y and creamy, and it is set off nicely by the pillow-y crumb of the cake. Make it next time you need a no-particular-occasion pick-me-up and I can guarantee you: you'll be converted to the ways of Treating Yo' Self. It doesn't rise very much, though, so it's a little too unattractive for taking to a party.


Old-Time Chocolate Cake with Fudge Frosting

The Ingredients:

2 squares unsweetened baking chocolate (2 oz)
¼ c butter
½ c boiling water
1 c sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 c all-purpose flour
2 tbsp cornstarch/cornflour
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
¼ c buttermilk
½ tsp vanilla





2 squares unsweetened baking chocolate (2 oz)
1 ½ c sugar
½ c milk
¼ c butter
1 tbsp corn syrup/golden syrup
½ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla


Preheat oven to 350F/176C and prepare an 8x8 square pan by lining the bottom with parchment paper.
Melt chocolate and butter in the microwave, checking and stirring every 10 seconds.
Pour butter/chocolate mix into a medium mixing bowl and add boiling water.
Mix well and let cool for at least 5 minutes until it's very warm but not hot.
Add sugar, mix well.
Stir in egg.
Sift flour, baking soda, and salt together and add them, then the buttermilk and vanilla, mixing well.
Batter will be very runny.
Pour into prepared pan and bake 20-25 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
Let cool and frost as desired.


Note: This frosting takes quite awhile to cool, so you can make it as soon as you remove the cake from the oven and they should both be ready to use at the same time.

Combine all ingredients except vanilla in a saucepan.
Bring to boil.
Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture reaches “soft ball stage” (see above), or 232F/111C on a candy thermometer.
Pour into mixing bowl and allow to cool completely (this takes at least an hour).
Add vanilla once cool and beat to spreading consistency.
Frost cake as desired.