Go Wacky

Cake is a blast from the past that's perfect for today

July 02, 2008|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun reporter

The first cake I learned to make is memorialized in a dog-eared compilation of my mother's favorite go-to recipes. "Cockeyed Cake," which my mom probably copied from Peg Bracken's I Hate to Cook Book, is rated in her spidery handwriting with three hearts and an "E," for "easy."

Mixed up in five minutes right in the pan, ready to eat in half an hour, the moist and chocolaty Cockeyed Cake - also known as Wacky Cake, Crazy Cake and Three-Hole Cake - was a small miracle. Not only was it easy enough for a child of 10 to put together, but it turned into cake without the help of eggs, milk or butter.

We put it together with flour, sugar, baking soda and everyday cocoa powder (Mom left out the salt), then made three grooves in the dry ingredients. Plain vegetable oil - I remember Mom called it "salad oil" - and vanilla went in the first two grooves.

Vinegar was the gee-whiz addition, fizzing with baking soda to create lift for the dessert and glee for the young baker. Water was poured over the whole mess, which we then mixed carefully to weed out the lumps.

Over the years, though, I thought of the cake more as a happy childhood memory than as something to make in my own kitchen. As I became a more "serious" cook, I was drawn to baked goods with bells and whistles: delicate cheesecakes, poundcakes with unusual spices, brownies with premium chocolate.

Fortunately, a recent request for the similar Chocolate Lush Cake in our Recipe Finder column - which prompted perhaps a dozen readers to send their Wacky Cake recipes - brought this gem back to me. Since then, I've concluded that the Wacky Cake, an invention born of war rationing and often considered a "lost recipe," is actually the perfect cake for today. If we were creating it now, we'd call it Smart Cake.

It's quick, vegan and, with everyday ingredients you'll probably find in your pantry, frugal. It's easily dressed up or down, and surprisingly adaptable to tinkering. Make it into cupcakes. Adorn it with berries and whipped cream for the Fourth of July, or double its chocolate with a decadent, equally quick vegan ganache. Kick it up with coffee, or even chipotle pepper and cinnamon. Or just serve it plain, with a tall glass of milk.

Published recipes for Wacky Cake can be traced back to the 1940s, Lynne Olver, a reference librarian, writes on her culinary history Web site, foodtimeline.org.

It was in a number of 1960s and '70s cookbooks, but then faded away for a time.

"The '80s came through, and fads completely changed," Olver says. "People started getting more complicated in the '80s, and everything's cyclical. ... In the '80s, you would be making a molten lava cake and a Mississippi mud pie. You had your tall desserts. Now [the Wacky Cake] is brilliant, because it's simpler and people are looking back."

Now the cake reappears on allrecipes.com as Vegan Chocolate Cake, and on the vegan recipe blog Where's the Revolution?, where writer Bahar Zaker suggests a topping of chocolate chips melted with a bit of soy milk.

"If someone asks me for a simple vegan recipe, I love giving them Wacky Cake, because it doesn't have any ingredients that would scare them off," Zaker says.

Jack Bishop, editorial director of America's Test Kitchen, which tested and published a version of the cake for last year's book America's Best Lost Recipes, says the cake fits the needs of today's economically stressed cooks. Without eggs, milk or butter, it's inexpensive to make - and quick.

"You almost always have these ingredients on hand," Bishop says. "There's nothing really perishable in the cake. It's a recipe you can bake out of a decently stocked pantry."

It also can be turned into something sophisticated. The new book Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining by Braiden Rex-Johnson includes a recipe from Paul Vandenberg, co-owner of a small Yakima Valley, Wash., winery, for Chipotle Chocolate Cake.

It's basically a Wacky Cake with wine instead of vinegar, and it gets sweet spark from the combination of ground chipotle and cinnamon. Drink it with a fruity red wine, and serve with whipped cream.

Many of the Wacky Cake recipes we received for the Recipe Finder column were almost identical to the one my mother wrote down more than 30 years ago.

But one, sent by Phyllis Morris of Catonsville, caught my eye. By increasing the amounts of ingredients (though not really changing the proportions), her recipe could be made in a tube pan, lined with parchment paper to help unmold the moist cake.

The prospect of a fancier Cockeyed-Wacky Cake was intriguing.

Morris' recipe worked beautifully for me, in a bundt pan and in a 9-inch springform pan. It worked as cupcakes. It worked with a couple of tablespoons of brewed coffee thrown in, which deepened the already rich chocolate flavor. It is my new Wacky master recipe.

Morris says she, too, made the cake with her mother. Ever frugal, her mother used a recycled brown paper bag instead of parchment to line the pan.

kate.shatzkin@baltsun.com

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