Auntie’s Chocolate Birthday Cake


I’m just back in Paris after nearly a month in the U.S. talking about Keeping the Feast, and the one thing I learned through a series of talks I gave in bookstores and libraries from Washington, DC, north to Portsmouth, NH, is that a lot of people seem to be in search of just the right recipe for a good, moist, chocolate cake. In nearly every group I met, there was someone asking me, often forcefully, for this recipe, with which I was NOT traveling.

What follows is the recipe my mother’s sister, always “Auntie” to me, and my mother’s mother, Jennie, used to make for all the birthdays of my childhood, and which I still make at least once or twice a year no matter which country I’m living in. That means hand carrying a few ingredients across the Atlantic occasionally, a small chore I’ve come to enjoy over the last nearly 30 years.

Please note: I never have cake flour, so I just measure two cups of regular flour and remove 4 level tablespoons from it. I usually use unsweetened Baker’s Chocolate. As a child, my family always made this cake with fresh milk soured with vinegar. Buttermilk works just as well, but you don’t have the fun of watching the vinegar go to work to coagulate the milk. If all the ingredients are at room temperature, the cake seems to taste better. I use a pair of battered metal cake pans, which seem to cool down quicker than glass ones, and keep the cake from drying out. I only wish I had thought to ask my aunt from whom she got this recipe, but it never occurred to me until after her death.

Auntie’s Chocolate Birthday Cake

1 cup boiling water
4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, cut into small pieces
2 cups cake flour
2 cups sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup soft butter
½ cup buttermilk or fresh milk soured with a half-teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two round 8-inch cake tins with butter, then flour them. Set aside. Stir boiling water and chocolate together until chocolate melts. Cool. Blend flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir into chocolate mixture. Add butter. Beat one minute on medium speed of electric mixer or 150 vigorous hand strokes. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl constantly so that everything is well mixed. Then add milk, vanilla and eggs. Beat one more minute. Pour into prepared cake tins. Bake 35 minutes at most, so the cake stays very moist. You can test it with a wooden toothpick if you like. I start checking it after about 25 minutes because our old oven runs hot. Let cool in cake pans set on a rack for 10 minutes, then remove from pans and let continue to cool. Frost with Jennie’s White Icing, below.

Jennie’s White Icing for Chocolate Birthday Cake

(With corrected ingredient list here, adding vanilla! My grandmother’s recipe didn’t have an ingredients list, and it was only today that a friend mentioned that the vanilla was missing from my list.  SORRY ABOUT THAT!)

2 ½ heaping tablespoons flour
½ cup milk
½ cup Crisco or other vegetable shortening (but no butter or margarine)
½ cup regular sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
Grated coconut

Into the flour, gradually blend the milk, stirring very well with a whisk so that there are no lumps. Cook to a very thick paste, stirring constantly, over low heat. Cool to lukewarm. Meanwhile cream the Crisco with the regular sugar and the salt. Add the flour/milk paste. Beat with electric beater till very fluffy. Then stir in the vanilla. Finally, add the powdered sugar and beat till well incorporated. Frost the cake ONLY after the cake had totally cooled. Sprinkle fresh or packaged grated coconut on top of the frosting and between the layers.

Please note: These days I only add about ¾ cup powdered sugar to the frosting, after my daughter let me know that her French school friends were scraping it off the cake every year because they thought it was too sweet. French kids love desserts, but they’re accustomed to a lot less sugar then American kids; that’s proof positive that you learn to like whatever it is you’re fed as a child. So, avoiding sugar from the beginning of a child’s life makes sense on many levels.

Many happy birthdays forever!

8 Responses to “Auntie’s Chocolate Birthday Cake”

  1. Bellezza says:

    Thank you for this, Paula. You have no idea how much of a chocolate cake fiend I am. My first wedding (my first husband has since passed away, and I’m remarried now) I inisisted on a chocolate wedding cake. There it was, four tiers of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and chocolate roses. I didn’t care that it was ‘supposed’ to be white.

    Every year for my birthday my mother would ask, “What cake do you want?” and I’d say, “Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting.” Every year she’d make me something different, saying, “I just know you didn’t want the same dessert again.” It makes me laugh because she likes different, I like same; she likes vegetables, I like chocolate.

    Anyway, now I have your recipe from you aunt, passed to me, and I feel so blessed! I’m going to make it as soon as I can.

  2. Bellezza,

    Just wish I had a good chocolate frosting recipe to pass along too, but ours was always white…


  3. Carolyn Jones says:

    Paula, I was just sitting outside in the warm, Texas sun, in the middle of your chapter “Birthday Cake” when I decided to check your website; wondering if perchance you had posted the recipe for Auntie’s cake. And, here it is!

    I am enjoying your book so much. Thank you!

  4. Carolyn,

    Glad you found what you were looking for, and I only wish we were able to sit around in warm sunshine; it’s been cold, rainy and seriously gray in Paris, and this morning I’m sitting at my computer wrapped in a down jacket! I really miss early springs.


  5. Wonderful recipe (and blog!). I had a penpal from Texas after moving from there at age 5. She sent a recipe for a chocolate cake that was quite similar. She used cocoa, though, and added a bit of powdered cinnamon. Also a fudge-like frosting. Although I have always preferred white frosting on chocolate cake. She called this cake Texas chocolate sheet cake or some such.

    A woman in one of my book clubs — a Texas transplant — makes the same cake as described and served that as the groom’s cake at her wedding. The cinnamon makes me wonder whether there is a Mexican-Spanish link. Fun to speculate.

  6. Hi Carole, I had no idea you had a Texas connection; I am SO looking forward to getting back there this summer, and seeing a bunch of the old gang. My guess is that your hunch about the Mexican/Spanish link is dead-on. I doubt the Germans or Czechs would have thought to mix chocolate and cinnamon. And CLEARLY I have been away from the U.S. too long: never even heard of a groom’s cake!

  7. Keeping the Feast is so wonderfully stuck in my mind that when I began a blog about my daughter and I living together, it became a testimony to your writing. (
    Thank you again. . . . Your Auntie’s recipe does look very similar to the Texas Cookie Sheet Cake, a standard for carry-in dinners here in Dallas. I haven’t tried it as a layer cake–um, possibilities.

  8. How wonderful to get your message just now; I had gotten a Google Alert earlier in the day, telling me about your blog and I was terribly moved by it, especially it coming out of the blue the way it did. Thanks ever so much for taking the time to write, both the blog and your comment. I had already told myself while reading the Google Alert that I have to be sure to get a copy of your book when I come back to the US this summer. I’m very interested in reading it; I find myself still hooked on memoirs…

    And I hope you have an absolutely fabulous time at the Mayborn, which I loved last summer. I am never, ever around writers, groups of writers, etc., and so it was a completely new experience for me to sit around and talk about writing to people. I did a fair amount of that while I was a reporter, but it’s a very different thing. In any event, the Mayborn was a marvelous three days and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Be sure to look up my dear old UPI colleague and old friend, Cathy Booth Thomas, who teaches up there now, and is responsible for the Mayborn magazine. She’s super.

    I am so glad you and your daughter moved in together, and that you’re cooking and eating with relish these days. It’s one of those very basic signals that things are better in your life now. All the best, Paula

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