American Beauty

The only thing German about German chocolate cake is its name.

André Baranowski

Contrary to popular belief, there's nothing German about German chocolate cake, that dark and decadent triple-decker dessert topped and layered with a buttery frosting laden with shredded coconut and pecans. The sweet is a purebred creation of mid-20th-century America. More specifically, it is the brainchild of a Mrs. George Clay of Dallas, Texas, who submitted a recipe for "German Sweet Chocolate Cake" to the Dallas Morning News in 1957. The paper ran the recipe, and it caused such an enthusiastic response that newspapers around the country reprinted it. Within a few years, Sara Lee was selling a frozen version and Betty Crocker developed a packaged mix.

Many people took it on faith that the cake was German in origin, but even a cursory examination would have undermined that assumption: traditional German-style layer cakes are usually filled with whipped cream, jam, or both, and coconut and pecans are par-for-the-course Southern dessert ingredients. So, whence the name? Like many desserts of the postwar era, the cake called for a store-bought product, in this case German's Sweet Chocolate, an ingredient originally manufactured by the venerable Walter Baker & Co. of Dorchester, Massachusetts. (The product's name was derived from that of Samuel German, who developed the chocolate for the company back in 1852, adding to it an optimal amount of sugar for baking.) In fact, desserts made with German's Sweet Chocolate, such as "German Chocolate Pie," custards, and puddings, had been popular since the latter half of the 19th century. But it was Mrs. Clay's recipe that put German's Sweet Chocolate on the map. Within a year of the recipe's publication, Walter Baker & Co. capitalized on the cake's popularity by printing a recipe for German chocolate cake on every box of its sweet chocolate. Today the company (now owned by Kraft) sells more than 1.7 million boxes—still bearing the recipe—each year.

I'm not much of a back-of-the-box baker, but I recently decided to give the official recipe a try. Making the cake layers was simple enough: I beat the butter and sugar, added the egg yolks and melted chocolate, and then added the flour-baking soda mixture and some buttermilk. Finally, I whipped the egg whites and folded them in. The only tweak I made was to reduce the amount of sugar by a quarter cup; considering that the frosting contained equal parts sugar and evaporated milk, I figured the dessert would be plenty sweet already. Indeed, the cake's traditionally unfrosted sides made total sense; any more of the silken frosting would have been overkill given the richness of the cake itself. In the end, the only ingredient I wanted more of was chocolate, which seemed upstaged by all the other ingredients. The next time I made the cake, I added a few more ounces. Perfection. I'm sure Mrs. Clay wouldn't have minded.