It may surprise you to learn that German Chocolate Cake is not actually German. (But don’t worry, it’s still very much chocolate and still very much cake.) And it’s also very Texan.
Pecans aren’t historically found in the German diet, but Texans sure love them. Buttermilk — which is mixed with chocolate in the cake — is also a Southern staple. As it turns out, the cake is an American creation, not brought to us from German immigrants as many have thought.
After researching the origins of the cake, every bite and nibble took us back to a recipe that ran in The Dallas Morning News in June 1957 called German Sweet Chocolate Cake.
Mrs. George Clay of Southeast Dallas submitted her recipe to the food pages of our newspaper — Julie Benell’s Recipe of the Day column — using Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate, which still exists today. It was called “German’s” chocolate after Samuel German, who invented the sweetened chocolate while working for Baker’s Chocolate, which was then owned by General Foods. (It’s now owned by Kraft). It’s a chocolate that includes sugar, which provides a shortcut for bakers.
According to What’s Cooking America, the 1957 recipe was picked up by other newspapers across the country, and sales of Baker’s chocolate soared along with the popularity of the cake.
Confusion about the origins of the cake have persisted. In 1963, according to a story in The Dallas Morning News, even President Lyndon B. Johnson served the cake at his Johnson City ranch for a luncheon with German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard. We can’t seem to find any reports on if Chancellor Erhard liked the cake, or if he realized it was erroneously made in honor of his home country.
What’s in a cake?
So, what is German Sweet Chocolate Cake? It’s usually three layers (sometimes two) of chocolate cake made with melted sweetened chocolate and buttermilk, topped with a custard-y frosting of eggs and sugar mixed with coconut and pecans. The frosting is also sandwiched in between the layers. It’s decadent, sweet and chocolatey. It’s not really that pretty, but hey, there was no Instagram back in the ’50s and ’60s.
Plano recipe developer and frequent Dallas Morning News contributor Rebecca White tested the original recipe for us, in addition to the recipe we ran in ’63 from the Johnson City ranch, which was slightly different.
The first thing she noticed about the recipes were the limited instructions, which leads us to think that home cooks of the ’50s were a bit more skilled in the kitchen.
“If one is not a seasoned baker, certain instructions will be unclear, such as ‘cream the shortening and sugar, and egg yolks and melted chocolate,’” she says. “It lends the beginning baker to wonder 1. What does cream mean? 2. How long to cream the shortening and sugar? 3. When do I add the egg yolks and melted chocolate? 4. How do I melt the chocolate?”
White combined what she thought were the best elements of each recipe into one modernized version, which we’ve included below.
The original version used shortening in the cake, while the Johnson City version used butter. White liked the shortening flavor and texture better. For the frosting, the Johnson City version used evaporated milk instead of whipping cream. White preferred the milk to the cream because it gave the frosting a thicker, more custard-y feel.
German Chocolate Cake with Coconut Pecan Frosting
- 2-1/2 cups flour, sifted
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 4 ounces Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate
- 1 cup shortening
- 2 cups sugar
- 4 egg yolks
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 egg whites, chilled
- Coconut Pecan Frosting (recipe below)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Combine the flour, salt and baking soda into a bowl, set aside.
With a double boiler or microwave, melt the chocolate and let cool.
With an electric mixer using a paddle attachment, cream the shortening and sugar until fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Continue mixing and add the egg yolks to the shortening mixture one at a time. Once the eggs are incorporated, add the melted chocolate.
In multiple batches, add the dry ingredients into the chocolate mixture, alternating with the buttermilk.
Once combined, add the vanilla extract.
Place the egg whites into a separate bowl and whip on high with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form, about 3-4 minutes.
Gently fold the egg whites into the cake batter.
Pour the mixture into 3 greased (8- or 9-inch) layer cake pans. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes.
Remove the cakes from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes. Turn out the cakes on cooling racks for further cooling.
Once completely cooled, add a generous layer of coconut pecan frosting to the top of one cake. Top with an additional layer of cake. Continue this step until all cake and frosting is used.
Coconut Pecan Frosting: Place 1 cup evaporated milk, 1 cup sugar, 3 egg yolks, 1/2 cup diced, unsalted butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract into a saucepan. Warm over medium heat until the butter melts. Stir occasionally. Bring to a simmer and cook until thickened, about 12 minutes.
Pour the mixture into a bowl. Add 1 1/2 cups coconut flakes and 1 cup chopped pecans. With an electric mixer using a paddle attachment, beat until the frosting is thick enough to spread.