Monday, June 19, 2017

Maryellen's Chocolate Cake with Coke

Straight out of 1952!

Now don’t get me wrong, I like Coke just as much as the next person, but I’d never thought to put it in a cake before starting to do research for recipes for this blog. Recipes for cakes using soda as an ingredient are more common than you might think, and this southern favorite is an interesting ancestor of those cakes we've been enjoying, especially since the 1990's. Known as Cola Cake, Chocolate Coca-Cola Cake, or basically any variation thereof, it's a solid chocolate cake with a unique ingredient.

Note that you don’t need to use brand name Coca-Cola for this recipe: Coke is the general term for soft drinks in different parts of the south, and any kind of cola beverage will do fine.

Also, it comes with a pretty weird frosting, that I still haven’t decided if I like or not. Maybe you guys will be able to help me make up my mind about it!

Like many recipes, no one really knows why people decided to start putting soft drinks in their cake mixes. They’re sugary and liquid, so it’s logical to think it might be a good addition to a cake recipe. Whether that happened accidentally or intentionally the very first time might never be known, but cola cakes have remained a popular staple in southern home style cuisine. Several restaurants boast it as a specialty dessert, and it’s a fan favorite as a sheet cake at any community gathering.

The recipe I used is one of if not the earliest examples of cola cake. I found it published on Yesterdish, which has a great archive of historical recipes. This one was found in the August 8, 1952 edition of The Charleston Gazette, a West Virginia newspaper. There’s no real information about how or why this dish came to be, but the newspaper does note that it’s unique, and it did come in third place in a weekly contest run by the paper.

It’s probably a stretch to say that Maryellen would have seen this exact recipe considering she lives quite a bit away from West Virginia, but since her grandparents live in the home state of Coca Cola and this is an authentic 1950’s recipe, it seemed only appropriate to give this one a try.
To start, you mix two cups of flour, a half cup of cocoa, one and a half cups of sugar, one and a half teaspoons of baking soda, and one teaspoon of salt in a large bowl. To this, you add two thirds of a cup of Coca Cola, two thirds of a cup of buttermilk, and a half cup of shortening.

You beat this for a minute and a half with an electric beater before adding one whole egg and two egg yolks. Save your egg whites! When the eggs are added, you beat the mixture for another minute and a half.

Split the batter between two greased and floured cake pans. I only have one round cake pan and one square, so I wound up with two differently shaped cakes. Someday I’ll invest in another pan!

The cakes bake in a “moderate oven” for about thirty to thirty-five minutes. Mine seemed a little wet after being in the oven at 350 for thirty-five minutes, so I wound up leaving them in for about forty minutes all together. Just check on them if you know your oven isn’t always the most faithful when it comes to following cooking times. Both cakes came out of the pan without much issue, which is always fun. No tearing or anything!

Now for the weird part: the frosting.

This was one of the most involved frostings I’ve ever made because it involves cooking all the ingredients in a double boiler, but the recipe doesn’t remind me of any of the fancier frostings I’ve seen or read about. Maybe I’m missing something? If you know the official name for a frosting like this, please let me know!

To make it, you take the two egg whites you saved from the cake, three fourths of a cup of sugar, a third of a cup of light corn syrup, a third of a cup of Coca Cola, one fourth of a teaspoon of salt and one fourth of a teaspoon of cream of tartar and mix them together in a double boiler. With the boiler going, you whip the frosting quickly with a whisk until it stands in peaks. As expected, this took forever because hand whipping is hard work, but I did manage to get it to peaks and took it off the heat.

Every picture I’ve seen of cola cakes show it with frosting that’s dark or light brown. I figured the light brown frosting would be from some kind of caramelization of the sugars or something, but my frosting was pure white and had the texture of half melted marshmallow. It was super difficult to spread on the cake and felt almost like fondant when it hardened.

Now, I’ve made cake with soda as a primary ingredient and flavor before, and the cake itself tasted fine, but lacked the flavor I was looking for. I was kind of anticipating that being the case here too, and honestly, it was.

The cake itself was really nice, with a similar texture to the chocolate war cake I can’t ever shut up about, but it was sort of just a regular chocolate cake. I really couldn’t pick out any of the flavors of the Coke itself, which again while expected, was sort of disappointing. The frosting on the other hand definitely kept the flavors of the coke, and had a nice marshmallowy consistency when it first got taken off the heat.

Unfortunately, the frosting kind of… disintegrated the next day, even though it was refrigerated. It oozed down the sides of the cake and had this really unpleasant, wet texture that kind of seeped into the rest of the cake. It’s one of those situations where I’m not sure if it’s something I did while cooking it or if this is just a flaw of the recipe, but either way, I’d give caution to anyone planning on doing stuff with the leftovers. The cake might be ruined if you have any frosted pieces sitting around.

Bottom line? This was another fun culinary experiment, but probably isn’t a recipe I’m going to be in a hurry to make again. The cake was tasty, but it wasn’t anything particularly special. I’d definitely be curious to try other variations of this cake to see how it’s grown and changed over the years: I mentioned briefly that this cake enjoyed an upswing in popularity in the 90’s, and there are a lot of recipes from that era floating around the internet. Maybe they’ve got better frosting ideas!

Have you ever tried a cola cake? What did you think about it? Got any other unusual cake suggestions for me to tackle next?

We're always happy to hear ideas!


  1. Apologies. I have to re- enter my comment, because I published it with tty
    Ographic errors, and could not fix it.
    Making the cola cake sounds like a fun process, and I am intrigued by the frosting recipe. I have never had cola cake. I am game to try this recipe. Could one scoop the frosting on to individual slices of cake, and try storing it in a bowl in the refrigerator?
    Our family bakes "Aunt Eva's cake" for special occasions. It is a spice cake, and I don't know if it is umusual. I think it dates to the 1920's or 30's and handed down through the generations.
    Thank you for another educational and fun to read blog post.

    1. More embarrassing errors. Accessibility tools are not my friend sometimes. Apologies.

    2. Hey no worries, technology is helpful but also a pain sometimes. :)

      I think storing the frosting separately might be helpful, and I'd love to hear about it if you give it a shot! Old timey recipes like this are always difficult to judge based on me making a mistake or the original writer intending on it ending up that way, you know what I mean? So having more data is always helpful.

      You had me at spice cake. So cool that you've got a family dessert that's been passed down for so long!

  2. Add Coke to your pancake mix. I've been known to add anything bubbly I have to pancake mix just to make it more fun. You won't taste the Coke per say but it does add to the fluffiness of the pancake.

    I think the frosting behaved as it would have then. They really didn't store cakes in the fridge either. The frosting would have been meant to simulate a marshmallow type flavor and would more likely covered the entire cake like a baked Alaska type covering.

    The corn syrup in Coke made it a simple baker's choice to substitute as a flavored syrup when baking. The carbonation was often ignored as beneficial. Frequently, since Coke was a luxury, you would try to make something else with it if it went flat or someone didn't finish one.

    1. Ah, thanks for this! This recipe was surprisingly difficult to research, so I'm grateful to have this. :)

  3. This sounded interesting, but disappointing on the cola front. I would have wanted some flavor from that. I have had frosting like that before and I must say that I really like it. It's fun to have the marshmallow texture as something different from buttercream.

    1. It was a lot of fun until it got all sticky and gross the next day! I'd love to find a version that didn't deflate like that.