Everything you ever wanted to know about chocolate cake, plus 26 mouthwatering recipes to try. Ooooh!
Did you know chocolate cake used to be a yellowy spiced cakey thing that tasted nothing like chocolate but was in fact served alongside a drink of hot chocolate? Or, that it was first discovered (well, created) by an American physician? Well, it was.
We’ve got the whole history of how chocolate cake came to be and all the recipes you need to celebrate your love of the dark stuff: from simple chocolate cake to a vegan version, a dairy-free one and even one made with mashed potato. Yes, really.
So, if you love chocolate, grab a cuppa and feast your eyes on this lot.
Our story starts, like many good fairy tales, with beans. In 1764, American physician Dr James Baker worked out how to create chocolate from cocoa beans, grinding it between two huge millstones. As the Baker Chocolate Company, he invented the very first ‘chocolate cake’ – but it was, in fact, a solid block used to make a chocolate drink. Chocolate would remain a liquid luxury for several decades more, until the 1820s when father-and-son double act Casparus and Coenraad van Houten invented a press method to extract the cocoa butter from cocoa beans, and make a water soluble powder that could be used to make things taste chocolatey. Voila! The first cocoa powder. Thanks, chaps.
This drinking chocolate cake recipe is a perfect homage to the days when chocolate was a tipple, not a solid snack. Here’s to having our cake and drinking it too.
The pursuit of perfection
Luckily for us, greedy visionaries saw the potential of chocolate to be more, so much more, than just a beverage. But, for the whole first half of the 19th century, ‘chocolate cake’ was more likely to mean a regulation yellow spice cake, served to be eaten with hot chocolate. Later, more cake appeared with chocolate icing, but it wasn’t until near the turn of the century that the good stuff actually made it into the mixing bowl.
No fakers here – this marbled chocolate cake recipe is proof that yellow and brown cake can be as much of a joy as a monochrome mouthful.
Cake it up, baby
Around the turn of the 20th century, cooks finally got wise to the potential of cocoa powder and the simple chocolate cake was born. Early varieties used a lot less cocoa and sugar and more flour than modern versions, making them more like a pale cocoa-tinged bread (choc horror). But appetites got more adventurous, bakers made up for lost time, and by the 1920s and 30s chocolate cake was looking a whole lot more decadent. Yum. One of the earliest types of chocolate cake to seduce sweet teeth, especially in America, was devil’s food cake. A rich, highly chocoholic riff on fluffy, snow-white angel-food cake, it cemented the eternal association between chocolate cake and louche behaviour. Recipes varied massively, but one thing was agreed: anything this delicious had to be a sin…
This shamelessly wicked spin on devil’s food cake uses coffee and extra cocoa powder to pack the most devilish punch – and two types of packet mix. Because if you’re going all-in on gluttony, you may as well tick ‘sloth’ off the list too, right?
Meanwhile, in Europe
While ‘German chocolate cake’ was, confusingly, another mid-century American invention (using cooking chocolate made by confectioner Samuel German), there was one bona fide European chocolate cake getting everybody’s lederhosen in a twist: the Black Forest gateau. A million times more fun to say in German (“schwarzwälder kirschtorte” – like pudding poetry, isn’t it?), this dense, boozy chocolate cake is named after the signature cherry liqueur, kirsch, that originates from Germany’s Black Forest region. The gateau is usually made from several chocolate cake layers, sandwiched with whipped cream, doused in kirsch and decorated with cherries, chocolate shavings and more cream until the whole thing makes your nan’s best wedding hat look chic and understated.
The heyday of the Black Forest gateau was, of course, the 1970s – famously the decade taste forgot (possibly because everything was doused in half a bottle of strong spirits). But the winning flavour combination still lives on today in recipes like this gluten-free chocolate and cherry trifle cake. Which is almost a tongue-twister in itself.
She wore red velvet...
A sumptuously coloured variation on a classic cocoa chocolate cake, red velvet cake first emerged during the swinging 1960s (hey, why stop at a red velvet suit and matching sofa?) but it wasn’t until the cupcake revolution of the 90s and 00s that it really took off in Britain. Since then there’s barely a baked good that hasn’t had a scarlet makeover – red velvet whoopie pies, red velvet cookies, red velvet pancakes, red velvet ice cream, you name it – but you can’t beat the carmine classic. This merry, berry loaf version is a winner.
By the 1980s, chocolate fiends had grown bored of your standard chocolate cakes and started looking for something more in keeping with the decade’s reputation for extravagance. Enter: the molten chocolate cake. Baked on the outside with an oozing liquid centre, the decadent pud (also known as chocolate fondant or chocolate ‘lava’ cake) was the ultimate way to round off a night of fine dining in the late 80s and 90s. In 1981, French chef Michel Bras patented his chocolate coulant, which had a frozen lump of ganache in the centre. As the cake baked, the ganache would melt for the perfect gooey surprise. Meanwhile, in 1987, New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten also claimed to have invented the molten chocolate cake – like so many legendary puds – by accident, when he took a pudding out of the oven too early but discovered that the middle tasted just as delicious runny as it did cooked. Though anyone who’s ever licked a brownie bowl could have told him that.
Now a fixture on menus the world over, melt-in-the-middle chocolate cakes aren’t just for fancy-pants dinners – you can even buy instant microwave mug versions, because the 21st century is amazing. But they’re still a surefire way to get an ‘ooh’ from your guests. Try this recipe for chocolate and banana molten cakes with hazelnut and date sauce, to bring the 80s favourite bang up to date.
Bruce Bogtrotter and beyond: the chocolate cake in pop culture
“The cook disappeared. Almost at once she was back again staggering under the weight of an enormous round chocolate cake on a china platter. The cake was fully 18 inches in diameter and it was covered with dark-brown chocolate icing.” - Matilda, Roald Dahl. Apart from the obvious –um, it’s delicious – we don’t know just what it is about chocolate cake that sees it so often the target of fictional young thieves. But from Matilda’s chocoholic classmate, who devours an entire cake as punishment for pinching a slice, to Michael Rosen’s sneaky protagonist, who manages to accidentally put away a whole cake in the middle of the night, a big slab of chocolate cake isn’t only seen as ‘naughty’ for grown-up dieters. It’s the ultimate foodie loot.
Loaded up with extra goodies, this triple-decker caramel rocky road cake recipe makes the kind of party centrepiece that has even well-behaved adults thinking about stealing back under the cover of darkness to grab another piece.
The ultimate chocolate cake
Butter or margarine? Melted chocolate or cocoa powder? Brown sugar, muscovado or plain old caster? How about extras like vanilla extract, cinnamon or a shot of espresso? Should you use the creaming method, or the all-in-one? There are almost as many subtle variations on the classic chocolate cake as there are greedy mouths to eat it – and everyone will tell you their Gran’s is the best, naturally.
This simple chocolate cake recipe swaps out the butter altogether in favour of sunflower oil and golden syrup, for a light, silky finish. Meanwhile the creaming method, which involves beating the butter and sugar together before adding anything else, tends to give the fluffiest cake, although some recipes use whipped egg whites to produce a cloud-light soufflé effect.
Merrily merrily, life is buttercream
Once you’ve settled on your method, a key question remains: how to ice a chocolate cake? Like the supermodel of the tea table, chocolate cake looks good in almost anything. Glossy chocolate glazes, rich chocolate ganache, solid chocolate topping that splinters gorgeously when sliced... or something a bit tangy and different.
Traditionalists tend to favour a generous slather of chocolate buttercream, made with butter, cocoa powder and sugar – try this classic chocolate cake recipe for a cocoa-rich sandwich sponge that would do any refreshment marquee proud.
While light, fluffy chocolate cake is the holy grail, there are plenty of rebellious recipes that go against the grain – quite literally. Flourless chocolate cakes tend to be denser, heavier and more pudding-like than traditional versions... but since when was that a bad thing? Many types skip starch altogether, for a silky mix of chocolate, sugar, butter and whipped eggs that’s more like a baked chocolate mousse or a solid chocolate ganache.
The ‘chocolate nemesis’ at London’s iconic River Cafe is one of the originals and best, but notoriously tricky to make. Try this four-ingredient version instead, for a nemesis that might not defeat you – until you try to finish a second piece...
Twists and tricks
The 21st century has brought with it more jazzy variations on the chocolate cake that you can shake a Twix at, with every diet and desire catered for. Here are a few of our favourites, from fancy flavours and toppings to low-sugar, vegan and raw – but still phwoar.
Maybe a few years ago ‘vegan chocolate cake’ would have meant a bowl of dates with a carob drizzle on top, but these days free-from desserts are playing in the big leagues. This luscious vegan chocolate cake uses coconut oil, almond milk and apple cider vinegar, with a silky smooth pumpkin and almond butter frosting. Betty Crocker, watch your back.
Even raw diet devotees can join the party. Made from nuts, dates, pure cacao and some serious food processing, this type of ‘raw chocolate cake’ is very different from licking batter of the spatula – but it’s possibly even more exciting.
You love potatoes and you love houmous – so what’s not to love about a chocolate cake that pays tribute to both those things? Mashed spud might not be top of your list of delicious things to eat for pudding, but it brings denseness and moisture to the mix without the fat or calories of extra butter. So you can have two slices. That’s just common sense.
Is there a nut in the world that doesn’t work with chocolate? Not that we’ve found. Roll up and try a new pairing with this chocolate and chestnut roulade, an autumnal spin on the standard Swiss roll.
Chocolate and flowers work together even when it isn’t Valentine’s Day, you know. The rose-infused nougat icing on this triple-stacked chocolate sponge from Sunday Baking gives it a Middle Eastern flavour. So much fancier than fudge.
There was a time before salted caramel and chocolate began their beautiful relationship, but if we’re honest we can barely remember it now. This supremely squidgy cake is a love song to contrasting flavours and textures, with salty-sweet filling, glossy ganache and digestive biscuits for surprise crunch. Next-level chocolate cake: unlocked.
France and Germany might get all the glory, but Scandinavia knows how to champion a chocolate cake too. This flower-strewn adaptation of traditional gooey Swedish ‘kladdkaka’ is A Midsummer Night’s Dream in baked form – and easy enough to try without making an ass of yourself.
We’re living in the age of the vegetable cake, and that is no bad thing. Just like carrots, courgettes bring lots of lovely moisture to a cake – and their neutral flavour makes them the perfect stealth ingredient to sneak a few vitamins into a choc-fest. You cunning thing.
Gluten-free chocolate tortes are easy to come by; dairy-free ones not so much. But this wickedly rich recipe manages to tick both boxes, and the ‘blooming delicious’ one too.
One mug. Five minutes. A Friday night to remember. Solo puds like this chocolate brownie mug cake recipe are one of the great pioneering inventions of the 21st century, and isn’t life richer for them?
Another popular way to bulk out your cakes with moisture-giving goodness, chocolate beetroot cake might once have been unthinkable, but now it turns up as regularly as Meryl Streep on a red carpet. Unlike courgette it’s not a flavour that disappears into the background, but that earthy hum makes a great contrast to the sweetness and richness of the chocolate. This version is the real deal: dense, sticky and proudly purple.
Airy, buttery, cocoa-rich chocolate mousse on a thick slab of shortbread, this is what happens when a flourless chocolate cake has a baby with a biscuit tin. Totally different; just as decadent.
The milky-mild flavour of white chocolate might not pack the same punch as cocoa, but it can still hold its own in a cake – and pose less of a threat to your tablecloth, too. This three-in-one white chocolate magic cake recipe features a cakey top, gooey custard middle and fudgy bottom layer, all from the same mixture. Is that enough excitement for you?
Just when you thought chocolate brownies couldn’t get better, they put the word ‘cake’ on the end. An all-round triumph.
Sure, no-bake refrigerator cake is stretching the definition of ‘chocolate cake’ a tad… but with a hunk of this nutty, biscuity beauty in front of them, nobody’s going to be pedantic.
Pull your finger(s) out and make someone king of the castle with this, possibly the ultimate chocolate birthday cake. A simple recipe with a stunning result – because it’s the fort that counts.