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Depression Cake (Wacky Cake)

While depression cake doesn’t have the most joyful name, there’s nothing sad about this confection at all.

If you’re serving chocolate cake to someone who can’t have dairy, this recipe is for you.

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You can make a cake with no eggs and milk? It sounds impossible, but it’s true. 

Chocolate Cake with Buttercream and Sprinkles

I know what you’re thinking – this cake is most probably dry and bland. But you could not be any more wrong.

This cake is wonderfully moist, rich, and flavorful! 

Drooling for dessert? Give yourself some chocolate cheer with this depression cake!

Depression Cake

Depression cake, also known as wacky cake, is an age-old dessert that goes way back into the Great Depression (hence the name). 

During that time, common pantry ingredients such as egg and milk were hard to come by. But not even a war can stop people from having dessert! 

The love for sweets spurred them to come up with this chocolate cake recipe.

With basic ingredients that did not include dairy, people were able to make this cake any time a craving strikes. Pure genius.

Ingredients 

  • All-purpose Flour. The base of the cake. All-purpose flour is fine, but for an even softer cake, use cake flour instead.
  • Sugar. The cake sweetener. Granulated sugar, raw sugar, or coconut sugar all work. You can adjust the amount to suit your taste, but do not go below 3/4 cup as it will make the cake dry.
  • Baking Soda. The leavening agent. To make sure it’s still potent, test it by adding vinegar in a bowl. It should fizz upon contact. 
  • Unsweetened Cocoa Powder. It’s what makes the cake super chocolaty! Use natural cocoa powder for a lighter cake, dutch-processed for a darker one.
  • Vegetable Oil. Adding oil makes any cake seriously rich and moist.
  • Distilled White Vinegar. It reacts with the baking soda, causing the cake to rise. Apple cider vinegar works, too.
  • Water. Cake recipes need a form of liquid to saturate the dry ingredients. Most recipes will call for milk, but since milk was scarce during the Great Depression, water is used instead. 

Tips for the Best Cake

  • The recipe below is perfect if you plan on serving the cake in the pan. But if you want to serve it on a serving plate, use bowls for making the batter. 

Combine the dry ingredients in one, and the wet in another. Pour the wet into the dry ingredients and mix.

You’ll also want to grease the cake pan well, preferably with bakers’ secret (a mix of equal parts flour, shortening, and oil. Or, line the pan with parchment or wax paper.

Once baked, let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes, and invert onto a serving plate. 

  • Enhance the flavor of chocolate by using coffee instead of water. Don’t worry, you won’t taste the coffee at all.
  • The colder the water (or coffee), the better! Cold liquid slows down the reaction that takes place between the baking soda and vinegar, which is great because you want it to happen while the batter is in the oven, not right after mixing the ingredients. 
  • Be sure that the oven is preheated and the cake pan is greased before you combine the wet and dry ingredients. The cake will be extra fluffy if the chemical reaction takes place in the oven, not the bowl. 
  • You can definitely serve this cake as it is, but icing it makes it a hundred times more enticing. Here are some frosting suggestions:
    • Buttercream frosting. Add a tablespoon of cocoa powder to make it chocolate-flavored. Sprinkle with sprinkles for a colorful presentation.
    • Cream cheese frosting. Have you tried cream cheese and chocolate together? It’s awesome!
    • Chocolate ganache. Chocolate plus even more chocolate equals love. If you want it more extra, top it with mini-chocolate chips, too! 
    • Caramel or dulce de leche. An ooey-gooey, sweet, and salty frosting never disappoints. 
    • Powdered sugar. Simple but elegant.
  • Store leftover cake in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days or in the fridge for 10. 
  • For an extended shelf-life, pop the cake in the freezer. The frozen cake will keep well for up to 3 months. 

Before freezing, be sure the cake is completely cooled. Double wrap it in plastic wrap and aluminum foil to prevent freezer burn.

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To thaw, let the cake soften on the counter for 30 minutes. Remove the wrappings and continue to thaw for 2 to 3 hours. Frost (or not) and serve.

Homemade Depression Chocolate Cake

How to Turn Wacky Cake Into Cupcakes 

Pour the batter into a lined muffin tin and fill each cup 3/4 full.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, or until it passes the toothpick test. One batch of the recipe makes 24 cupcakes.

You can also turn it into a layer cake by doubling the recipe and dividing the batter into two round pans. 

Why Use Vinegar in a Cake?

There are two reasons.

For the first, here’s some science lesson for you. A cake relies on the combination of alkali and acid for it to rise.

The chemical reaction between the two releases carbon dioxide, which then lifts the batter.

Some cake recipes call for baking powder to make the cake rise.

In such cases, an acidic ingredient is not required because baking powder already contains both alkali and acid. 

Other recipes call for baking soda and buttercream to activate the chemical reaction.

But since dairy was scarce during the Great Depression, people depended on vinegar instead. Just like in this recipe!

The other reason is that the vinegar softens the protein in the flour, which makes the cake extra fluffy and moist.

If you’re concerned that the cake will taste sour, chill! You’ll only use two tablespoons for this recipe, so you will not taste the vinegar at all.

Other Easy Cake Recipes to Try

Granny Cake
Do Nothing Cake
Heaven on Earth Cake
Earthquake Cake
Crack Cake

Depression Cake (Wacky Cake)

Servings

18

servings
Prep time

10

minutes
Cooking time

40

minutes
Calories

250

kcal

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour

  • 2 cups granulated sugar

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 2 teaspoons baking soda

  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil

  • 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

  • 2 cups cold water

Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9×13-inch cake pan with oil or butter.
  • Sift together the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, and cocoa powder in the cake pan.
  • Make three wells in the dry ingredients. Pour the oil into the first well, the vinegar into the second, and the vanilla into the third. Pour cold water all over and stir well with a fork until combined.
  • Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean or with a few dry crumbs.
  • Let the cake cool in the pan and frost with desired icing.
Depression Cake

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INSANELYGOOD

Hey there! I'm Kim. I love running, cooking, and curling up with a good book! I share recipes for people who LOVE good food, but want to keep things simple :)

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