A New Take on the Original Accidentally Vegan Chocolate Depression Cake

chocolate depression cake in pan

Vegans refer to the Chocolate Depression Cake, a cake whose origins date to the Great Depression in the ’30s as the accidentally vegan cake. Recipes for this cake, which is made without eggs, butter, or milk are found everywhere. You’ll see it labeled the Craters of The Moon Cake, Crazy Cake, Wacky Cake, WW11 and Joe Cake, and in my cookbook, Vegan Chocolate, it’s the Mix in the Pan Cake. The differences, if any, are minimal and the ingredients are simple: flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda oil, water, vinegar. The cake was usually served plain or with a simple dusting of confectioners’ sugar instead of icing.

Years ago, multi-award-winning cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum, the highly respected authority on all manner of desserts sent me a stack of handwritten recipes for the Chocolate Depression cake. They’d been sent to her by the Food Maven, Arthur Schwartz, during his stint as food editor of Newsday, way back in the day.

The point of the original Depression Cake, again,  is that it was egg, butter and milk-free, important when ingredients were scarce.  That surely works for today’s quarantine pantry. The cocoa powder used in these cakes is natural (non-alkalized), likely because cooks had few choices then and the cake was leavened with baking soda and vinegar.  Is it my favorite chocolate cake? No. Is it a good solid chocolate cake, especially when spread with a thick layer of frosting? Definitely.

Last week while doing an inventory of my cocoa powders (natural, Dutch-process, and black), I found myself wondering if using Dutch-process cocoa instead of the natural would result in a more deeply chocolate cake.  Of course, I knew some baking powder would have to be added. As a test, I baked a half recipe of the cake in a 6-inch pan, and when it was finished,  I was frankly astonished.

Interested in learning more about swapping out cocoa powders? Check out our recent newsletter for some information on cocoa powder and other common ingredients. Be sure to also sign up for my newsletter so you don’t miss the great information that I share.

The color, as I expected, was darker, but the taste and it was the flavor and texture that blew me away. Sensational!  I made the cake with all-purpose flour only, since I had very little whole wheat pastry flour. I bet many of you are having problems finding flour! You can use up 50% whole wheat pastry flour if you like.

Try the cake with both types of cocoas and see which you prefer, and please, please, please let me know what you think. The batter makes nice cupcakes too.

By the way, my mother in law, Wini, made another Chocolate Depression Cake– the one made with mayonnaise, which stands in for eggs.  She used Hellmans. I use vegan mayo. I’ve made the cake with both Just and Follow Your Heart Vegannaise. You can find the recipe here. 

chocolate depression cake in pan

Vegan Chocolate Depression Cake

Ingredients
  

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose glour
  • 1 cup cane sugar, vegan preferred
  • 1/4 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/8 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup room temperature water
  • 6 tablespoons neutral-flavored vegetable oil I used grapeseed
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider or white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoons vanilla extract

Instructions
 

  • Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat to 350° F.
  • Oil a 9-inch cake pan (or 8 inch square) and line the bottom with parchment.
  • Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt through a mesh strainer set over a medium bowl.
  • In a separate bowl, whisk the water, oil, vinegar and vanilla until emulsified.
  • Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and whisk until the batter is smooth.
  • Pour the batter into the prepared pan.  Bang the pan on the counter to pop some of the air bubbles.
  • Bake for 24 to 28minutes or a toothpick inserted into the center is clean or has only a few crumbs clinging.
  • Cool for 5-10 minutes or so and turn out of the pan onto a baking rack to cool.

Notes

When the cake is completely cool, ice with frost with any favorite icing. I glazed the cake with chocolate ganache.  You can serve the cake simply dusted with confectioners’ sugar and a scoop of a vegan ice cream on the side isn't a bad idea.
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

Happy Mother’s Day to all moms.

Enjoy these recipes:

Baked Millet Polenta Fries
Mother’s Day Chocolate Cake (Updated)
Tapioca Berry Parfait from Jill Nussinow
Strawberry Cocoa Mousse

Comments
  • Hi there! I was just curious why “vegan”is written after the cane sugar on the ingredient list. Isn’t cane sugar always vegan?
    Thanks!
    Tania

    • Cane sugar is filtered through bone char and it is not considered vegan. Organic and fair trade sugar are always vegan

      I hope this helps.
      Fran

      • Anna,
        If Google translate got your note correct, you asked if the oil
        Can be eliminated in this cake. I have not tested that but suspect it won’t be great. You can test a half recipe using applesauce in place of the oil.

        A better choice is the no- oil
        added Chocolate Cake To Live for in my cookbook.

        Good luck! Let us know what happens.

        Take care
        Fran

  • Thanks for this recipe. Would you please share the measurements for the half recipe. I’m living alone and would rather make a smaller cake. Thanks in advance!

  • Hi again. Made this several times with great success – thank you!
    Wondering if you think it could be used to make whoopie pies? I suspect the batter would need to be thicker, but not sure if I should decrease the liquid, add flour, both? Any thoughts?

    • Hi Susan,
      I’m glad- but not surprised that you had success with the Original Accidently Vegan Chocolate Cake.
      While this batter is relatively thick and might make whoopie pies if baked differently, adding dry and subtracting ingredients to make a thicker batter, that is recipe development for a new recipe. If you’d like to try, then cut the recipe in half and make one change at a time. That really is the way.

      Take care,
      Fran

      Let us know how it goes.

  • 5 stars
    Hi, I’ve been making this recipe for years after finding it in a small selection of recipe books of cakes slices and biscuits, and although yours has salt in it, the one I make doesn’t.
    The batter for this can actually be frozen for a few months, but I haven’t bothered. I double the mixture to make a 35cm cake 3″ deep. An option for frosting is decorating with chocolate buttons while it’s hot and spread it into swirls or just blend the buttons slightly. I use a mixture of white and dark chocolate to make it interesting. If tripling the mixture, you can spread raspberry jam and mock cream between the layers, or just use the chocolate buttons, but that needs to be done while hot for it to work best. This is my all time favorite recipe, whether chocolate or coffee cake, also makes a great banana cake because of the baking soda.. Give that one a try, totally yum!! Haven’t tried it as a carrot cake yet, that would be interesting.. I’m not into vegan, I don’t believe in it, this recipe is a budget way of a great cake for those whom can’t afford eggs and butter all the time..

    • Hi Chrissy,
      It’s always interesting to read variations on a recipe. In the case of this recipe that dates from the Depression era, many similar recipes are available, all with slight variations. What’s always the same though in the original recipes is the use of baking soda as the leavener and water or coffee, instead of eggs and milk and oil, not butter.
      Thanks for letting up know about yours.
      Take care.
      All best,
      Fran

    • Hi Donna,
      I’m so glad to know that following my recipe gave you a much better result for the Accidently Vegan Chocolate Cake. Part of success is finding reliable recipes. Thank you for trusting mine and for baking.

      Take care.
      Fran

  • What can be used to make this oil free? I’m thinking either peanut butter, bananas or applesauce. What are your thoughts? I used to make this as a child and it was called crazy cake but I remember making 3 wells in the dry ingredients and then putting different wet ingredients in each of the wells and the warm water poured all over.

    • Hi Janet, The cake you reference is called Craters of the Moon Cake or Wacky Cake or as you said, Crazy Cake.
      I have not made this oil-free but suspect you might do best to try by cutting the recipe in half and adding some applesauce.

      Let us know how it goes.

      Fran

  • Has anyone tried making this gluten free? I usually use Bob’s 1 to 1 gluten free flour but haven’t tried this yet. Also, if I have an allergy to baking powder can I just use 1/3 baking soda in place of the baking powder? It already has vinegar in it.

    • Jeanette,
      The original ‘Depression’ cake was made with natural (non-alkalized) cocoa powder and baking soda with vinegar, so that will work. I have not tested it as a gluten-free cake so I cannot give you an opinion on the final texture and flavor. When I do use a gluten-free flour mix though it is Bobs Red Mill 1:1 All-purpose baking flour. I suggest you make a half recipe and bake as cupcakes or in a smaller cake pan to see how it works. Please let us know.

      Take care.
      Fran

    • Hello!
      I do not have an oil-free version of this cake but you can try cutting the cake recipe in half and adding some applesauce to replace the oil. Bake some cupcakes and see how you like it.
      Let me know how it goes.
      Happy 2021
      Stay safe.

      Fran

    • Hello Gavin,
      This, as are 100% of my recipes dairy free, which means they are lactose free. There are no eggs in any of my recipes as well.

      Thank you for writing.

      Be well,
      Fran

    • Hi Ghislaine,
      You cannot substitute a granulated sweetener with a liquid one. You can use the coconut sugar to replace the organic cane if you like, just mke sure to grind it first in a blender, after measuring.

      The Chocolate Cake to Live For might be a better choice for you as the predominate sweetener in that cake is maple syrup.
      Let me know what you decide to do.
      Thanks for writing.
      Best
      Fran

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