Who decided to put sauerkraut in chocolate cake?
Well…actually the infamous recipe is better than it sounds!
It was October 21, 1965, when a recipe for what it described as “a moist luscious piece of chocolate cake” appeared.
The newspaper promised a dinner-party crowd pleaser, yet added “your guests will not guess your secret until you are ready to reveal it to them”.
Crisp, crunchy sauerkraut.
And years later it seems someone dubbed the chocolate sauerkraut creation “Don’t Ask Cake” literally because people who eat it can’t guess what the secret ingredient is—and don’t want to believe it when they find out.
From the beginning, home bakers have always reveled in a secret ingredient, and the weirder the better.
Whether it’s mayonnaise, which first appeared in a chocolate cake recipe in 1927, or vinegar, which makes the eggless, butterless, Depression-era chocolate cake rise, there is something good about adding an unusual culinary trickery.
Either way, it seems the sauerkraut cake was the invention of a creative and enterprising cook, such a Geraldine Timms, a lunch-lady who worked at Waller High School in Chicago.
Not by chance, in 1962, canned sauerkraut was among the surplus foods distributed to lunch programs in the city’s public school system by the government, and school officials tasked lunchroom supervisors with finding ways to get rid of a massive stockpile of pickled cabbage.
As a result, our Geraldine rose to the challenge spectacularly with an improbably kraut-filled chocolate cake topped with mocha whipped cream.
It sounds good, although as is so often the case with food origin myths, it may or may not be entirely true.
According to others, in fact, the cake was created during World War II.
When wartime rationing rendered butter, sugar, and flour scarce, home bakers got inventive with transforming vegetables from their gardens and cans in their larder into a cake ingredient.
However, although it is an interesting theory, probably if you went to a library with a big collection of historical cookbooks, you would find similar recipes predating World War II.
But the problem is that most food traditions, people just don’t know.
About the sauerkraut itself, most sources claim that nomadic Central Asian people carried fermented cabbage with them to Europe from China.
However suancai, a form of pickled cabbage in China, has been around for centuries, if not millennia, and it’s impossible to prove that no one else came up with the idea on their own.
Much like our chocolate sauerkraut cake.
Once people invest themselves in a sedentary agricultural lifestyle in a temperate climate, people need strategies for surviving the winter, like preserving cabbage, a vegetable filled with nutrients.
And thus there is some credibility to the idea that Mrs. Timms independently came up with the idea to plunk sauerkraut into her chocolate cake.
Ever since the creation of the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation during the 1930s, school lunch programs have often been used as a way to unload excess stockpiles of commodity foods.
And she probably wasn’t the first one to do it, as we already had carrot and zucchini cakes.
Carrots alone show up in 19th-century bourgeoisie French cookbooks, and they appeared in European desserts as early as the Middle Ages.
In any case, recipes for chocolate sauerkraut cake popped up everywhere from a 1973 edition of Recipes from the Tower Kitchen from Detroit to a 1981 edition of The New York Times for “Sauerkraut Kuchen,” which apparenly came from German immigrants in Texas, even if German blogs and magazines regularly referred to American cake with incredulous descriptions.
Regardless of whether it was invented in response to wartime rationing or meager school lunch budgets, this creation has all the hallmarks of one of those great ideas that was born out of necessity, most of them now forgotten, a little bit like “slugburgers”, a Depression-era recipe for patties that stretched limited ground beef supplies with potato starch, or “victory cakes” sweetened with boiled raisins due to wartime sugar rationing.
Yet sauerkraut cakes have survived through the generations because they are ok, particularly with the addition of copious amounts of chocolate.
Sauerkraut is the product of lacto-fermentation, a process in which the Lactobacillus—the same helpful bacteria that lend a subtle tang and funk to everything from yogurt to Belgian lambic beers—naturally found on cabbage create lactic acid, which keeps other harmful bacteria at bay.
The added acidity limits gluten development, resulting in a tender-crumbed cake with a mild tang that stays moist for days.
And just like little students in the 1960s, no one will ever guess how you did it!
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1/2 cups white sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup water
1 cup sauerkraut, very finely chopped
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Grease and flour a cake pan.
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter or margarine and sugar until light.
Beat eggs, one at a time, then add vanilla.
Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder.
Add to creamed mixture, alternating with water, and beating after each addition.
Stir in sauerkraut.
Pour batter into prepared pan.
Bake at 350 for 35 to 40 minutes.
Let cake cool in pan.
Frost with sour cream chocolate frosting.
For sour cream chocolate frosting:
1.5 sticks softened salted butter
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 cups powdered sugar
3/4 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Place all ingredients into the bowl of a stand mixer and mix on low to combine. Scrape sides of bowl and mix again, then whip on high for 1 minute. Use to frost sauerkraut cake, above.
Store leftovers in the fridge.
Images from web – Google Research