According to food historians, this is one theory. However, as Greg Patent surmises in Baking in America, it could be from the cake’s slightly reddish tint. The red color was thought to be due to a chemical reaction that occurred between early varieties of baking soda and cocoa, which also gave the cake a soapy taste, notes Dawn Marie Schrandt in Just Me Cookin Cakes. This eventually branched off into the southern favorite - Red Velvet Cake (originally called “Red Devil’s Cake). Today cooks add red food coloring to provide the deep scarlet tint (or for those who eschew artificial dyes, try beets: All Natural Recipe for Red Velvet Cake).
In any case, Devil’s Food had its origins in the last decade of the 19th century, a few years after chocolate as a cake flavoring started regularly appearing in cookbooks. Prior to this, chocolate was mainly a beverage – improved chocolate processing techniques in the latter part of the century created a much smoother, more delicious tasting chocolate, which better translated to cake baking. When recipes for this denser, richer chocolate cake first began appearing in cookbooks, they were called “Devil’s Cake,” and they were often loaf cakes, not multi-layer. The earliest reference I found was in the April 1893 issue of Table Talk Magazine:
One cup of light brown sugar, one cup of grated chocolate, one and a half cups of sweet milk. Scald the milk, adding the grated chocolate and the sugar, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Beat to a cream one cup of powdered sugar and half of a cup of butter, then add to the yolks of three eggs beaten light, half a cup of sour milk, to which has been added one small teaspoonful of soda and two cups of flour. Add the first part to the second before adding all of the flour, and bake as a loaf cake.
An 1895 cookbook called the Friends' Cookbook (from Wilmington College, Ohio), was the first to feature recipes for “Devil's Food cake” (it also has recipes for Devil’s Cake). These two interchangeable names continued through the early part of the 20th century. It looks like Devil’s cakes could also obtain their darker color through the use of molasses, brown sugar and other spices, enhanced with chocolate filling and frosting.
According to a 1922 publication called National Baker (courtesy of the National Baker Publishing Company, “a good Devil's Cake may be made from an ordinary chocolate cake mixture or a spice cake mixture.” Directions for the spice cake are as follows: 1 quart molasses, 1 pound lard, 5 eggs, 1 quart water, 2 ounces soda, 3 pounds crumbs, 1 pound sugar, 1 ounce mixed spices, 3 pounds flour, 4 ounces currants, 4 ounces chopped peel. Rub the crumbs through a coarse sieve. Dissolve the soda in water. Cream sugar and lard; add molasses, spices, water and soda, and mix in the crumbs and flour. Add more water if required to make a soft mixture. This can be made in several layers if you wish, with chocolate filling between and all iced with a good chocolate coating. At the end the recipe clarifies: “Actually a Devil's Cake is a dark mixture and you can make pretty near anything that your trade will pay for.”
By the mid-twentieth century, most of these dark cakes were chocolate and called Devil’s Food Cakes. Many just added more chocolate for a richer look and taste and/or used egg yolks instead of whole eggs for a custardy texture; some call for beating whites the separately and then adding to the batter. One popular early recipe was from Philadelphia Cooking School Instructor Sarah Tyson Rorer. Published in Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book in 1902, she basically just doubles the amount of chocolate and cooks it with milk until smooth and thick (like a custard) to produce a richer taste. She also specifies pastry flour and warns, “The success of this cake depends on the flour used.”
The version I tried was based on one of the Devil’s Cake recipes featured in Mrs. Owen's New Cook Book (1897). It is very similar to the one printed in Table Talk a few years prior. I changed it up a bit by beating the egg whites separately and then adding them at the end because I like a lighter crumb. I also baked it in a springform pan as just one layer (instead of a loaf pan) and frosted it using the Devil’s Food Cake frosting recipe from Greg Patent’s Baking in America. You could also use the extra whites to create a boiled frosting – in fact, some of the older cookbooks suggest this. It was delicious and got rave reviews from my testers (I had made it for my Dad’s 85th birthday – Devil’s Food has always been a favorite of his). To make it more festive and give it a modern touch, I added a few rainbow sprinkles.
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup (unsweetened) grated chocolate
1 ½ cups sweet milk
½ cup butter
3 eggs, separated
1 cup powdered sugar
½ cup sour milk (I used sour cream)
1 level teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour
Scald sweet milk, add chocolate and brown sugar until dissolved. Beat to a cream powdered sugar and the butter, add yolks of 3 eggs beaten light, the sour milk, flour and soda. Add the chocolate mixture to this before the flour is all in. Then add the 3 egg whites beaten to stiff peaks form. Bake in one loaf (or a springform pan).
4 ounces (4 squares) unsweetened chocolate
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ cup sour cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 cups confectioner’s sugar
Melt the chocolate with the butter in a small heavy saucepan over low heat, whisking occasionally until smooth. Remove from the heat and set aside until completely cool. Whisk the sour cream, vanilla, and salt together in a large bowl. Add the confectioner’s sugar about one fourth at a time, whisking until very smooth. Whisk in the cooled chocolate until very smooth. If necessary, let stand until spreadable.
* (I halved the recipe for my version since my cake was just one layer)
Sources: Baking in America by Greg Patent; Just Me Cookin Cakes by Dawn Marie Schrandt;
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America edited by Andrew Smith; Friends' Cookbook (Friends Church, Wilmington, Ohio); Mrs. Owens' New Cook Book and Complete Household Manual By Frances Emugene Owens; National Baker, Volume 27