Depression-Era Dark Chocolate Cake

depression era dark chocolate cake

This recipe dates back to the Great Depression, when resources were scarce and thrift was a way of life. It has gone by several names— “Crazy Cake,” “Wacky Cake,” and a few others. It’s a cake is made without eggs, milk, or butter. The ingredients list is full of pantry items, and cocoa is used instead of baking chocolate. You’d expect this cake to be dryer or denser than a normal chocolate cake. But it isn’t. It’s moist with a perfectly soft crumb.

sweetened whipped cream

This is my favorite chocolate cake. I love this cake because it is un-fussy. It can go from mixing bowl to oven to table in under an hour, served warm or cool. And I’ve never gotten a single complaint about flavor or texture. In fact, it’s one of my favorite no-fail chocolate cakes. And it improves after a day or two in the fridge. Since it keeps, it can be made ahead, or can be made in a larger batch to keep in the fridge. Wrap it in cling wrap, making sure the plastic is touching any cut edges. Simple toppings like whipped cream and fresh fruit go far, and frosting is definitely optional (but never discouraged).

pan greased and dusted with cocoa

The first recipe I saw for this cake, and many others after, called for it to be mixed in the pan. I’ve tried it this way, and it’s great for a cake you’ll serve straight out of the pan, after a casual dinner or for an afternoon snack. Most of the time, though, I prefer to mix the cake separately. I like to line my pan with a piece of parchment paper cut to size, grease the whole thing, and dust it with cocoa powder. This keeps the cake from sticking, and dusting with cocoa (not flour!) makes for a nice presentation.

mixing dry ingredients

Start by whisking together the dry ingredients with a fork.

with wet ingredients

The original recipe calls for mixing oil, water, and vinegar. I replace half the water with cold coffee to improve the chocolate flavor. Your batter will have some clumps and bubbles when you are done mixing, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s better to under mix, rather than over mix. Small clumps will bake out. Just make sure you’re not missing a big chunk of the dry mixture sticking to the sides of the bowl or corners of the pan.

ready to bake

Pour the batter into your prepared pan. This cake rises fairly high.

checking for doneness

Bake the cake, checking for doneness towards the end. It’s done when a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. A couple of extra minutes in the oven won’t hurt this cake, but it’s better when not over done.

cake dusted with cocoa

I turned out the cake onto a plate and dusted with more cocoa. If you want something sweeter, top it with powdered sugar or frosting instead. It’s great warm, room temperature, or chilled.

(carefully!) cutting a slice

Cut yourself a slice.

serve with whipped cream

And top it with lightly sweetened whipped cream. I imagine fresh berries would be great, too.

this cake is incredible.

This cake is super chocolatey, and a little bitter. If you like your cake sweeter, you’re going to need more sugar or something sweet to top it with.

cake with whipped cream

Just look at that.

chocolate cake

Depression-Era Dark Chocolate Cake
makes 1 9×13 inch cake


3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, plus more for dusting.
3/4 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing pan
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup brewed coffee, cooled to room temperature
1 cup cold water


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. If mixing in a separate bowl, grease pan with oil and dust with cocoa powder. Optionally, line the pan with a piece of parchment paper to make removal from the pan easier.
  2. Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl, or directly into the pan. Whisk with a fork until well combined.
  3. Make three wells in the flour mixture. Pour oil, vinegar, and vanilla extract into each of those three wells. Pour coffee and water over the mixture, and whisk with fork until smooth. Some lumps are okay, but avoid over-mixing.
  4. If mixing in pan, place in the oven for 30-40 minutes. If mixing separately, pour into the greased and dusted pan, then bake for 30-40 minutes.
  5. If the cake was mixed in the pan, serve directly in the pan. If not, and the pan was lined with parchment, the cake may be turned out onto a plate or cake stand. Serve with sweetened whipped cream.
Sweetened Whipped Cream
makes 3/4 – 1 cup whipped cream


1/2 cup chilled heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar


  1. Pour cream into a large bowl. Add sugar. Whisk until thick and fluffy, and almost doubled in volume. Beat until the cream holds stiff peaks, but not so much that it becomes curdled or separates.

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