Saying Yes to German Chocolate Cake

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

-Contrary to the name this cake is mysterious in origin.-

I often say yes without thinking about what it is I'm saying yes to. It's something that's gotten me into trouble more often than I care to admit.

For example, there was that time in college when the housing department put on a Tunnel of Oppression event and I had agreed to preform as a Nazi. They asked me because I had a stereotypical German look due to my blue eyes, pale skin, and at the time my hair was still Children of the Corn white-blonde as opposed to the dirty-blonde it's shifted to in the past few years. I said yes because I had to ingratiate myself to housing so I could get a job the following year as a Resident Advisor; a job I really wanted. I would have said yes had they asked me to run naked through the Student Union.

I spent the entire night screeching horrible things to people in German. What I screamed was not only horrible because of the content of what I was saying, but also because I didn't speak German. Each stomach-turning phrase I knew I had only learned an hour earlier so every word I said sounded like I had beaten it to death with an old chain. (Years later, I still know those phrases. When I visited Austria, I had no idea how to ask for directions to the bathroom, but once there those phrases yelled out loud would clear a line for the toilet in no time.)

Between all of this I would screech a well placed "Schnell!" (mainly because I could say that word without it sounding like I jammed it through a meat grinder) and push around people in the tour groups. This played brutality was actually a welcomed respite from the room itself, which had been fashioned to look like a death camp. What made it so bad was that multiple televisions around the room that were playing the most horrifying scenes from movies like Boys Don't Cry and American History X, and clips from a graphic documentary on WWII extermination camps in continuous loops. They were meant to traumatize and demonstrate to the audience the kind of violence that minority groups face.

By the end of the night I was so traumatized by these images that I ended up spending the entire night alone in my dorm room sucking on lozenges for my sore throat, and terrified that if I left the room a gang armed with aluminum bats would bash me into a coma.

Then there was the time in high school I told a bunch of friends that I knew how to do the choreography from Michael Jackson's Thriller. A total lie said only to up my cool points in high school. The next day they asked me to teach it to them at a party the following night. Unable to come up with a decent excuse (for the record, I've never actually been a good liar) I left for the video store and rented a collection of Jackson's music videos. At home I played and replayed the music video - which I had never actually seen until that night - memorizing every single dance move so I could make good on my fibbing and make it truth.

Though, given, I did pull it off. That leaves me to question of whether I actually, in fact, did lie.

-Filling and ganache. Please, readers, if you make this cake don't start just eating these with a spoon like I did.-

Knowing all this it shouldn't be a surprise that when Roommate asked if I knew how to make a German chocolate cake and, if so, would I make him one for his birthday that I replied with an emphatic "Yes!" The moment he was out the door I ran to my cookbook shelf. Sadly, all of them were German chocolate cake-less, so I hopped online and Googled the hell out of it.

For the most part I knew it had something to do with coconut in some pecan-colored mash. (Were there pecans in this cake? I think so...) I recalled that this kind of cake was supposed to be a few layers high and I gathered there was chocolate frosting involved. Second guessing myself as I waited for the results to load I realized that the only vague picture I had of a German chocolate cake probably came from the dessert menu of a Denny's when I was twelve.

Wikipedia popped up with a simple explanation of the recipe, noting "German chocolate cake is a layered chocolate cake filled and topped with a coconut-pecan frosting. Sweet baking chocolate is traditionally used for the chocolate flavor in the actual cake, but few recipes call for it today. The filling and/or topping is a caramel made with egg yolks and evaporated milk; once the caramel is cooked, coconut and pecans are stirred in. Occasionally, a chocolate frosting is spread on the sides of the cake and piped around the circumference of the layers to hold in the filling."

Simple enough.

-Normally, I wouldn't suggest chocolate cake be served on white linen. But, damn, if it isn't pretty.-

However, the first thing I realized upon reading this was that German chocolate cake could in no way be German due to the pecans, which are nuts native to North America. My friends in Europe tell me that pecans are all the rage in France and Austria right now as the countries only just started importing them. My friend, Nikita, an Austrian citizen and mercurial girl who frequently travels to Germany told me that it's a dessert she's only seen stateside.

Another possibility is that the cake might be named for German chocolate. Before WWII, German chocolate was considered peerless. Only during and after the war did many countries stop using it. Attitudes shifted and people and began to see the Swiss as the most talented chocolatiers. Maybe its original, creator was German in decent and, after using some new world ingredients with and some decidedly European techniques, decided to christen it after the family homeland? Is that what made it German? Who knows?

But, no, German chocolate cake couldn't be, and isn't, German.

A bit more research brought up other information to light. The first recorded reference to the recipe was supposedly in 1957 and it was created by a Texan housewife. Thus, it seems German chocolate cake is most likely Texan in origin. Surprise, surprise. Apparently, you're more likely to have it with barbecue than schnitzel. However, recorded buttermilk chocolate cake recipes have existed since the early 1920s, so there may very well have been some earlier versions of this cake in the United States.

So I wondered, was I really making a German chocolate cake? Could it simply be telling a hopeful fib? This cake was claiming something in it's identity that it couldn't seem to back up. It seemed that we would be colluding together, this cake and me. The cake, its name; and me, my claim.

Now, the reason I said yes was due to my being all ego'd up after my externship. After pounding out 200 blue cheesecakes I figured that one simple chocolate cake wouldn't be a problem. I'll be the first to admit that I can be a bit egotistic, not to mention narcissistic and attention hungry. You see, without constant reassurance and praise I wither and die. It's a fact. This all results in me possessing a mouth that often bites off more than it can chew leading to my self-inflicted suffering and possible humiliation. All well worth the risk to garner praise and appreciation.

-Chocolate, coconut, pecans, and a hint of bourbon. Yes.-

Still, it's a cake. It couldn't be that hard. A quick drive to the store and back and I took to my task. Though the cake consisted of many different parts (e.g. frosting, filling, cake, and syrup) it was all relatively easy. After an hour or so the cake was completed. Four layers high, packed with coconut-pecan filling, and a hearty ganache poured over it, it made for a stylish and rustic-chic cake.

Looking at it in its completed form brought up many questions: Did I lie? Did I simply fib? Is there a difference?

I had said that I could make this cake without being fully sure if I could. Given, it wasn't like this was an artsy wedding cake for the princess of Monaco. I possessed the skills required and knew how to put this cake together without having ever actually done it before. The failure rate was significantly low. Either way, I had said yes being only 99% sure I could do it. Yet, isn't that how sure we usually are in life? I can only think of a few times that I really felt 100% about anything and truly believed it.

And then there was the cake. German. A misnomer. The cake was a lie. A tasty lie, but a lie none the less.

Lie or not, misnomer or otherwise, it's a delicious cake. One that can be served after sauerbraten or ribs and still please all at the table. It brings to light the questionable nature of truth or lies, the confusion of history, and the grey areas both in our lives and our food. A perfect cake for such a curious topic. Though, once you begin to eat it, I doubt you'll care one way or the other.

So, in the end, aying yes with haste may get you in trouble. But other times, especially when those times include cake, it can be worth the risk.

Update: It seems, that I missed a clear piece of research that many of my commenters do know. German chocolate cake was based on a recipe using chocolate made by a guy named Samuel German in 1852, hence the name. His method and factory were bought by Bakers™ Chocolate later on. It seems afterwards that the history of the cake got a little lost. At least, it seems, to my generation of bakers. (Probably, just me though.) Seems I just don't have the right history books on my shelves.

So, maybe the cake isn't a lie. Still, the name is probably one that will confuse and confound many generations of bakers (and, as my friend Nikita points out, many German people). Regardless, the cake still stands as a shining example of chocolate decadence and the twisting turns of history.

-Cake. Post-Party. In the end, does it matter what we call it?-

-Decicious layers of pecans, coconut, and chocolate.-


  1. Nice riff. But it's pretty well known that the cake got its name from the brand of sweet chocolate (German's) used in the original recipe. David Lebovitz points this out on his site, in the introduction to his version of the recipe.


  2. German chocolate cake isn't named for Germany ... It was developed for the Baker's chocolate company to promote a sweetened dark chocolate they produced, which was named after the the person who came up with the formula, Samuel German.

    Confusing generations of American bakers!

  3. Oh dear Being older than dirt, I think I recall reading that German Chocolate cake should actually be called German's chocolate cake, after a chocolate made in the US Midwest by a guy named Sam German, now made by Baker's. (Verified by checking Chocolate Cake, a cookbook by Urvater) Actually, it is much better with bittersweet I think. And the filling is addictive!! You did a great job with it. That Texas thing with pecans and chocolate may be a Texas sheet cake, also delicious. Enjoy your cake!

  4. Annonymous, Jade, and Burttoast: Thanks so much for catching that. I went through a few websites, books, and people and none of them knew that critical piece of information! D'oh!

    Would you believe I actually teach how to research to high school college students? ;)

    I updated the post at the end. I think that maybe this cake then shows how some information sort of slips through the cracks or gets distorted as time goes by.

  5. I don't care what people call it. It was my favorite cake growing up, and still is, though I don't get a chance to make it often.

    Years ago in a magazine, I found a recipe for an "Inside Out" German Chocolate Cake, which is almost what you made here. Fill with the traditional frosting, and cover the entire cake in a ganache poured smooth. I still have the page around here somewhere.

    Great pics, by the way. You've upgraded your camera? I know you mentioned getting a new one a while ago.

  6. Erin: Yes, went with something a bit more deconstructed. Thanks for the comment on the pictures. Yes, I have upgraded from the point-n-shoot to a Canon Rebel. Plus, with posting a little less I have time to really set up the shots for once.

    The previous few years I mostly went home on my lunch breaks and snapped pictures like a crazy person. The goal was to just get a shot, any shot, during good day light. Now I have time to budget for setting up good shots. =)

  7. German chocolate cake is one of my favorites. A non-baking fellow once offered to bake one for my birthday. We started dating immediately.

    Oh, and I used to know ALL of the moves to Thriller. I learned it at USA Cheer Camp.

    I am not kidding.

    I have purposely forgotten most of the moves, but there are one or two I seem to do almost reflexively every time I hear that song.

  8. So I have to ask, after reading the great backstory and drooling over the pretty pictures - what recipe did you use? Or can you please point me to where to look for a good recipe?

  9. Your cake looks AMAZING. I'm definitely storing this one away to make at some point. I also I have a feeling that I will end up eating the ganache with a spoon even though you advise against it. Somehow I don't think I'll be able to stop myself.


  10. Haha this is great - German chocolate cake named after Sam German, now made by Baker's Chocolate, named after Walter Baker!

    Reminds me of the Outerbridge Crossing connecting NY to NJ - there are a number of bridges between the two states, and the Outerbridge Crossing is on one extreme, but... it's named for Mr. Outerbridge. Love these accidentally descriptive last names.

    (And I love German chocolate cake too, wherever the name came from!)

  11. Yeah, no worries about the history of the cake! It's just delicious, regardless. My favorite.

  12. Time to replace the kittens on the ledge "Hang in there" poster with a homemade one:
    dead flower in a pot
    "You see, without constant reassurance and praise I wither and die"
    You are hilarious and I don't even like gc cake

  13. Nisha - I sort of combined various recipes from all over to something I felt would work for me. Joy of Baking and David Lebovitz have great recipes.

  14. The cake looks unbelievably addictive. I should add "mastering the german chocolate cake" to my life's every growing to-do list. ;)

  15. Even today you can go to your grocery store and purchase a box of Baker's German Sweet Chocolate in the green box and find the recipe for the original German chocolate cake printed on the back of the box. It's cool that the recipe has remained popular for so long.

  16. However you slice it and whether it's named after a guy named German or the country it's a delicious cake

  17. Quite a post. Singing, dancing,
    lots of audience participation, great writing--now doesn't that take the cake??

  18. Would anyone really so NO to German Chocolate Cake? I don't think so. Also, I just made the cranberry cake that you posted last year. Oh my fricking God! It was amazing. Little pockets of cranberry goodness just burst in your mouth. Meow!

  19. Awwwww!
    Where's the recipe, babe????
    Please share the wealth with us poor mortals....
    Did I not see it?
    Dammmm that was anti-climatic!
    Still luv the site though... ;)

    Kiss, kiss
    Bang, bang
    PatrĂ­cia from Lisbon/Portugal

  20. Patricia: I used a few various recipes and sort of whipped something together. David Lebovitz has a great one.


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