On October 21, 1965, the San Bernardino Sun published a recipe that promised to be a crowd-pleaser at dinner parties. It also added that guests would not know the secret until they were ready to learn it. In this case, the mystery was crisp, crunchy sauerkraut.
The more bizarre the secret ingredient, the better. The Washington Post published a similar recipe many years later. It dubbed it “Don’t Ask Cake” because the people who ate it couldn’t guess the secret ingredient.
According to San Bernardino Sun, Geraldine Timms was a Chicago lunch lady who invented the krautcake. The government distributed canned sauerkraut to Chicago public schools in 1962. The school officials asked lunchroom supervisors to find a way to eliminate a large stock of pickled vegetables. Timms rose spectacularly to the challenge with a “real winning” – a double-tiered chocolate cake filled with improbable kraut and topped with mocha whipped cream.
The story is good, but as with many food origin stories, it might or may not be true. Bob Channing of California, a reader of the Baltimore Sun, wrote to request the recipe in 2003. He said, “Before she passed away, my mother lent her one copy of this recipe to a neighbor and forgot about it.” The cake was made during World War II. As butter, sugar, and flour were scarce in wartime, homebakers turned to their victory gardens or cans of vegetables for their cakes. Maybe that’s why cabbage became a cake component.
Sandor Katz is the Fermentation King who wrote Wild Fermentation and Fermentation Journeys. He says that the origins of food are murky. We have a rough idea of the geographical places where different cultivated plant species originated. “But most people don’t even know the origins of food traditions.”
He uses sauerkraut as an example. The majority of publications state that nomadic Central Asians brought fermented cabbage from China to Europe. “I’ve never seen a reference.” Katz claims, “I’ve never come across a footnote.”
It’s plausible. Suancai is a Chinese pickled cabbage that has been around for centuries if not millennia. But no one can prove they came up with this idea. Katz explains that “histories are repeated a lot in history.” “That doesn’t mean it’s false, but I would be skeptical that this is the entire story.”
Like chocolate sauerkraut, Katz thinks sauerkraut was born of pragmatism. He says that once people commit to a sedentary lifestyle of farming in a temperate environment, they need ways to survive the winter. It would seem logical to preserve cabbage, which is a nutritious and abundant vegetable. It wouldn’t be surprising if different people from Europe figured out sauerkraut independently of this story.
It is plausible that Mrs. Timms, the lunch lady, independently thought of the idea to put sauerkraut in chocolate cake. Since the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation was created in the 1930s, the school lunch program has been used to get rid of surplus stocks of commodity food. She probably wasn’t the first to do this.
Katz explains that the idea of adding vegetables to a cake in order to moisten or make it healthier is not new. We already had carrot and zucchini cakes. Carrots are mentioned in French cookbooks from the 19th century, while they were used in European desserts dating back to the Middle Ages.
Before the invention of baking soda in 1856, many home cooks used acidity, sometimes in combination with an alkaline leavener, to lift their cake. Katz says that the idea of using an acidic product of fermentation as a leavener for a cake to help it rise is not so strange.
There are many recipes for chocolate sauerkraut cakes, from a 1973 issue of The Tower Kitchen, which is from Detroit to a 1981 issue of The New York Times that identifies the recipe as coming from German immigrants from Texas. German blogs and magazines regularly describe American chocolate sauerkraut cakes with astonishment, such as: “for anyone brave and who wants to try something different.”.
“Don’t Ask Cake,” whether it was created in response to the rationing of wartime or the limited budgets for school lunches, has all of those hallmarks of a great idea that was born of necessity. These inventions are often forgotten in times of prosperity. Modern restaurants rarely serve “slugburgers,” a recipe from the Depression era for patties made with ground meat and potato starch, or “victory cake,” sweetened with boiled raisin due to sugar rationing.
Sauerkraut cakes are still popular today because they work. They’re even more delicious when you add copious amounts of chocolate. Sauerkraut comes from lacto-fermentation. This is a process where Lactobacillus, the same bacteria that gives yogurt and Belgian lambic beer a subtle tang naturally found in cabbage, creates lactic acid. This keeps harmful bacteria away. The fermentation process provides the cake with a subtle flavor, and the acidity helps to limit the development of gluten. This results in a moist cake with a soft crumb. No one will guess what you did, just as in the 1960s when schoolchildren were taught how to bake.
Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake
- Twelve to sixteen servings
- 12 tablespoons of butter at room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups of granulated Sugar
- Three large eggs
- One teaspoon of vanilla extract
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- One tablespoon of baking soda
- One teaspoon of baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- 1/2 cup Dutch Process Cocoa Powder
- 1 cup hot, strong coffee
- One cup of sauerkraut, washed, drained, and squeezed to remove excess moisture. If necessary, chop finely if needed
- 1 pound of bittersweet chocolate finely chopped
- 1 cup of heavy cream
- Two tablespoons of granulated Sugar
- Two tablespoons of light corn syrup
- Four tablespoons of butter, cut into small pieces
- A pinch of salt
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour two 8-inch round cake pans.
- Mix the all-purpose flour with salt, baking soda, and baking powder. Set aside.
- To bloom the cocoa, mix the hot coffee and cocoa powder in a liquid measurement cup or bowl. Stir until well combined, then set aside.
- Cream butter and sugar with a stand mixer or handheld mixer until fluffy. Add eggs one by one. Make sure that each egg is completely incorporated before adding another. Add in vanilla extract.
- Add the flour in three additions. Add the coffee and cocoa to the mixture when there are no more flour streaks.
- Mix until well combined. Fold in the drained sauerkraut.
- Distribute the cake batter evenly between the two pans. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until the toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake is mostly clean. Let the cakes cool on a rack after removing them from the oven.
- Once the cakes have cooled, prepare the ganache. Heat heavy cream, corn syrup, granulated, and crystalline sugar in a saucepan over low heat. Whisk until all the sugar has dissolved.
- Add the chocolate finely chopped to the cream mixture gradually, whisking each time until the chocolate has melted. Once all the chocolate has been incorporated, add the butter, one tablespoon at a time. Add a pinch of sea salt to taste.
- Transfer the ganache into a bowl and set it over iced water. Continue whisking until the mixture is cool but not completely hardened.
- Remove the cake layers with a knife and carefully invert them onto plates. Frost the layers, and serve.