I have noticed that a lot of people shy away from any recipe that contains more than five ingredients or is longer than three paragraphs. In fact, long, detailed recipes are exactly the kind of recipes you should be looking for. That means that the author has taken great pains to give you all the details you need to successfully recreate the dish. Remember, it is easy to brush over excessive commentary, but impossible to create detail where none exists! I am always grateful for the extra time and effort put into long recipes.
One of my childhood favorites and one of my husband’s as well, German chocolate cake used to be a sickeningly sweet concoction of lightweight chocolate, sugar, nuts, and coconut. Executive Pastry Chef Gale Gand, one of my culinary heroes, developed an adult version that has a much deeper chocolate flavor that helps balance the sweet topping. Even if you think you don’t like German chocolate cake, try this recipe – you will be a convert!
As Chef Gand says: “German chocolate cake – mild cake layered with coconut caramel – is a classic, but I always thought it could stand to be more intense, nuttier, and less sweet. So my then-assistant Martha and I developed a powerfully chocolatey cake batter with a dark chocolate edge. Then I toasted the coconut and added macadamias to the topping. Now it’s an extreme version of the original: velvety dark cake, with a warm sticky topping full of crunch and nuts. The way it all combines in your mouth is spectacular. You’ll be making a big sheet of cake, then cutting it out into rounds for individual servings. Don’t worry about what to do with the leftover chunks of cake … I substitute them for the bread in my favorite chocolate bread pudding recipe. You can freeze the chunks to use later…”
Contrary to popular belief, German chocolate cake has nothing to do with the country of Germany or Germanic people. In 1892 Sam German created a mild baking chocolate bar for Baker’s Chocolate Company. It was named in Sam’s honor and thus Baker’s German Chocolate was born. It took another hundred years for a Texas homemaker to create a recipe utilizing it and combining that cake with the pecan/caramel/coconut topping we know today. Her recipe was printed in a Dallas newspaper in 1957 and America fell in love with her cake.
Never one to pass up an opportunity, General Foods who owned Baker’s Chocolate at the time, sent copies of the recipe and photos of the cake to newspapers across the nation. Everywhere it was published, food editors were swamped with requests for information on where to find the special chocolate. In the first year, sales jumped 73%! German chocolate cake is still one of this country’s favorite desserts and is always a hit when it shows up on a buffet.
Did you know that the pecan is the State Tree of Texas? While Georgia is nearly always the #1 producer of pecans, Texas is second (and occasionally first) with an average annual crop size of about 60 million pounds. In 1906, just before his passing, Texas Governor James Hogg asked that a pecan tree be planted on his grave instead of a typical headstone. He wanted the nuts from that tree to be distributed and widely planted to help Texas become a “land of trees.” In 1919 the Texas Legislature voted to make the pecan tree their state tree. It’s no surprise that it was a Texas homemaker that came up with the recipe.
Instead of using insipid chocolate bars, Chef Gand uses Dutch-processed cocoa to deeply flavor her cake. Using cocoa in recipes allows you to combine it with butter which gives you a luscious mouth-feel. Dutch-processed cocoa has been treated with an alkali compound, like baking soda, to raise its pH level, round out and balance its flavor, and which also darkens its color. If taken too far it will dull the flavor, as is the case with “black cocoa” which creates beautiful deep colored foods, but you have to use it in conjunction with regular cocoa powder for flavor. If you want to learn more about cocoa, take a look at this great article by Matthew Amster-Burton, and check out his blog, Spilled Milk.
There is no doubt that this is a chocolate cake – full of intense chocolate character – that stands up to the strongly flavored topping, giving it a run for its money. Usually the frosting easily beats the cake. With this darker rendition, in my opinion, it is a fairly equal battle. I’m not sure which I like better – and that is the best way for this kind of competition to end!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
You can buy both sweetened and unsweetened flaked coconut. I find that using unsweetened adds all the coconut flavor I am looking for without winding up with a sugary dessert. I urge you to make the same recipe twice, once with regular sweetened coconut, and again with unsweetened. See how much difference there is between the two and decide which you like better.
Kitchen Skill: Toasting Nuts
Toasting nuts gives them much greater depth of flavor and brings out their natural nuances. Most cooks automatically put nuts in a pan on the stove. I prefer to bake them in a 325°F oven because you get a more even heating and have less chance of burning them. Keep a close eye on them and don’t leave the kitchen or get too distracted. I always set a timer to make sure I don’t forget to check on them!
- For the chocolate cake
- 3 cups sugar
- 2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1-1/8 cups cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-process
- 2-1/4 tsp baking powder
- 2-1/4 tsp baking soda
- 1-1/2 tsp salt
- 3 eggs
- 1-1/2 cups milk
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
- 1-1/2 cups very hot water
- For the coconut macadamia nut goo
- 1-1/4 cups sugar
- 1/3 cup water
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup macadamia nuts, toasted and roughly chopped (you can also use pecans, almonds, cashews, or walnuts, or a combination of several)
- 1/2 cup flaked sweetened or unsweetened coconut, toasted
- Equipment required
- Two large sheet pans with sides, about 13 x 17 inches
- Parchment paper
- A 1-1/2 to 2 inch (approx.) round biscuit or cookie cutter
- Whisk and pastry brush
- For the cake: Heat the oven to 350°F. Grease one sheet pan and line the bottom and sides with parchment or waxed paper.
- Sift together the 3 cups sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Transfer to a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment (or use a hand mixer) and blend briefly.
- Whisk together the eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla extract in a medium bowl. Add to the dry ingredients and mix at low speed for 5 minutes. Gradually add the hot water, mixing at low speed just until combined. The batter will be quite thin.
- Pour the batter into the pan. Bake until a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean (a few crumbs are okay) and the center feels firm to the touch, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool in the pan. Chill, covered, until ready to cut the cake. Can be made up to 1 day ahead. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
- Meanwhile, make the caramel: Pour the 1-1/4 cups sugar into the center of a deep light-colored saucepan. Carefully pour the water around the edge of the pan, trying not to splash any sugar onto the walls. Do not stir. Gently draw your finger twice through the center of the sugar, making a cross, to moisten it. (You can also very carefully tip the pan, again trying to keep any sugar crystals off the sides of the pan.) Over high heat, bring to a full boil and cook without stirring, swirling the pan occasionally to even out the color, until medium caramel in color, 5 to 10 minutes. Immediately turn off the heat and use a wooden spoon to slowly and carefully stir in the cream, as it will bubble up and may splatter. Stir in the nuts and coconut. Keep warm till ready to use or re-warm when ready to use.
- To serve: Cover the top of the cake with a piece of parchment. Hold back of second baking sheet on top of cake and flip (invert) the cake onto the back of parchment-covered sheet pan. Peel the parchment off the side now facing up. Trim off the edges of the cake and cut out rounds of the chilled cake with a biscuit or cookie cutter, 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. If the cake seems to be sticking, dip your cutter in cocoa powder between cuts. Place a cake on each plate and drizzle with coconut macadamia nut goo.
- Yield: 30 (2-inch diameter) individual servings; can be halved
- For a change of pace you can turn this into a beautiful roulade. Cover the cool cake with a piece of parchment paper and turn it out onto the back of another baking sheet. Ease it off the baking sheet onto a flat work surface. Remove the top sheet of parchment and spread a layer of the frosting over the top, leaving 1/2-inch all around the edges uncovered. Using the bottom sheet of parchment as an aid, very gently roll the cake up into a fairly tight roll. Lay seam-side down on a serving platter and sprinkle top with powdered sugar. (See bottom photo)
- You can also make this into a more traditional 2-layer cake if you like; use 2 (8 or 9-inch) cake pans to bake batter in. Stack and frost as usual. Or double the recipe and make a 4-layer cake!
Thank you for your great article. Also the pic is very nice.
Jane Bonacci, The Heritage Cook
Thank you very much. Welcome to the Heritage Cook Family!
The Food Hound
I LOVE learning food history!!! I never knew the story of German chocolate cake!! Gale Gand is awesome– I have her book “Brunch,” and want to make something from it. I have a hard time believing you can fit this whole recipe into 2 9″ cake pans– looks like it will fill 3 or 4! Oh well, more to bake 🙂 Looks awesome– can’t wait to try it!!
Jane Bonacci, The Heritage Cook
I love food history too! It is always fun for me to research these recipes for an article. Gale Gand is one of the best in the country and I have yet to make one of her recipes where it wasn’t perfect the first time out!
Barbara @ Modern Comfort Food
You’ve really hit a home run with this sensational recipe, Jane! Like so many other American of a certain age (ahem) I grew up on this classic cake. But your (and Chef Gand’s) flavor-packed version is such an improvement on the original.
Jane Bonacci, The Heritage Cook
I grew up with these too. I always liked the frosting but now with the intense chocolate flavor, I am in love all over again!