Prior to this, chocolate was consumed mainly as a beverage, and was often served as an alternative to tea or coffee. Hot chocolate was particularly popular during the Victorian era. In fact, Boston Cooking School instructor Fannie Farmer called cocoa a “nutriment as well as a stimulant,” and recommended it especially for children.
The earliest recipes labeled “chocolate cake” were actually meant to be eaten alongside hot chocolate and contained no chocolate at all. There were chocolate desserts, in the form of blancmanges, mousse, creams, cream pies, custards, puddings, soufflés and syrups, but chocolate cakes containing flour did not appear in the U.S. until the second part of the 19th century, when improvements in cocoa processing created a much smoother, more delicious tasting chocolate, which better translated to cake baking.
We can credit Eliza Leslie, a well-known 19th century cookbook author and student of Mrs. Goodfellow's Philadelphia cooking school, for publishing the first cake recipe in America truly made with chocolate. It appeared in The Lady’s Receipt Book in 1847. Although European bakers had already been baking with chocolate prior to this time, it took Americans awhile to catch on. Miss Leslie’s recipe uses finely grated chocolate, giving the cake an attractive speckled look. She also includes freshly grated nutmeg and powdered cinnamon, which provide a pleasant spiciness and enhance the chocolate flavor.
Containing ¾ pound of fresh butter and a whopping 10 eggs that were beaten separately, this would have been a rather expensive and time consuming cake, but well worth the cost and effort. Once the cake was baked and cooled, Miss Leslie instructed topping it with an icing made from powdered sugar and beaten egg white, with the optional addition of rosewater or lemon essence for flavoring. But a dusting of confectioners sugar was also acceptable and just as nice.
Here's the recipe updated for today's ingredients and measurements. I feel this is one of the best chocolate cake recipes ever - the nutmeg and cinnamon add a very interesting spicy component, meshing perfectly with the chocolate:
Eliza Leslie’s Chocolate Cake
(Makes one 10-inch Bundt cake, 12 to 16 servings)
- 3 cups sifted cake flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 whole nutmeg, grated (2-2 ½ teaspoons)
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3 ounces (3 squares) unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 8 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons milk
2. Sift the cake flour with the salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon; set aside.
3. Process the chocolate for 30 seconds in a food processor. Add ¼ cup of the sugar and process for 30 seconds to 1 minute longer, until the chocolate is chopped into very small granules. Set aside.
4. Beat the butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. On medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Add the ground chocolate mixture and vanilla and beat for 1 minute on medium-high speed. Beat in the remaining 1 ¾ cups sugar about ¼ cup at a time, beating for 20 to 30 seconds after each addition. When all the sugar has been incorporated, beat for 5 minutes. Beat in the eggs two at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition; stop to scrape the bowl and beaters occasionally.
5. On low speed, gradually add half the flour mixture, beating only until thoroughly incorporated. Beat in the milk, then the remaining flour. Scrape the bowl and beaters with a rubber spatula and stir to make sure the batter is smooth. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
6. Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the thickest part comes out clean. Any cracks on top of the cake should appear moist, not dry. Cool the cake in its pan for 20 minutes. Use a thin-bladed knife to loosen the cake from the pan, cover the pan with a wire rack, and invert the two. Carefully lift off the pan and let the cake cool completely upside down.
7. When the cake is completely cook, wrap airtight with plastic wrap and let stand overnight before serving. Cut into thin slices with a serrated knife.
8. Garnish with a sprinkling of confectioners sugar or an icing made from 4 egg whites beaten with 2 cups confectioners sugar.
Adapted from Baking in America: Traditional and Contemporary Favorites from the Past 200 Years by Greg Patent, 2002
For more information about the evolution of chocolate cake, check out the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion's blog: Chocolate Cake