Actually American: Despite its name, German chocolate cake is a product of the U.S.A.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Paula Cunningham showed her culinary specialty, a German chocolate cake. She recently retired as manager of the Johnson Faculty Center at Southeast Missouri State University. (Fred Lynch)

America has rightly been called a melting pot, and nowhere is this more true than in our cuisine. Thus, several typically "American" foods actually had their origins in other countries, including the most quintessentially American foods of them all: the hot dog and the hamburger.

They, of course, came to us from Germany, a country whose cuisine I'm partial to, both because it is my heritage and also because it tends to be a bit, well, on the heavy side.

But one of my favorite "German" foods isn't German at all, even though the word German appears in its title. I'm referring to German chocolate cake.

It turns out that German chocolate cake did not come from Germany any more than Swiss steak came from Switzerland (the word "Swiss" is actually an English term describing how such steaks are flattened) or French fries came from France (Belgium claims credit for inventing them).

This is not to say that the Germans haven't created some pretty spectacular chocolate cakes, like the Black Forest cake. In fact, in my experience German bakeries are often superior to French ones, where appearance sometimes takes priority over taste. (The differences between the two cultures, I've often thought, can best be discerned by visiting their respective bakeries.)

But the Germans can't take credit for German chocolate cake.

Baker's German's sweet chocolate, invented in 1852, still carries the recipe for German chocolate cake. (Fred Lynch)

It is a thoroughly American invention.

It all goes back to 1852. That's when an employee of the Baker Company, the oldest chocolate company in the United States, invented a new baking chocolate which, as a convenience to cooks, contained extra sugar. The employee's name was Samuel German, and the company called the new product German's chocolate in his honor.

Though German's sweet chocolate sold well enough, it would be a hundred years before it really took off. In 1957 a Dallas newspaper printed a recipe for a cake using German's chocolate and there was a run on the stuff. Soon the recipe spread to other parts of the country and an American classic was born. Leading to confusion about its origin, the apostrophe and the "s" got dropped from the name along the way -- except on Baker's packages of the chocolate, which still carry the recipe to this day.

Paula's German chocolate cake

For nearly 20 years Paula J. Cunningham, an inveterate baker who retires this month from Southeast Missouri State University, has delighted the campus with her made-from-scratch cakes. This recipe, with its cloak of extra icing, is her specialty and a fine way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this American -- not Teutonic -- standard.

4 ounces Baker's German's Sweet Chocolate

1/2 cup water

4 1/4 sticks softened butter, divided

4 1/4 cups sugar, divided

4 egg whites

10 egg yolks

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 teaspoons Mexican vanilla, divided

1 cup buttermilk

18 ounces Milnot

12 ounces flaked coconut

2 cups chopped pecans

Heat chocolate in water until completely melted. Cool. Cream 2 sticks butter and 2 cups sugar until light and fluffy. Whisk together 4 egg yolks, and beat into butter/sugar mixture.

Stir in chocolate mixture and vanilla. Combine flour, baking soda and salt and add alternately with buttermilk, starting and ending with flour mixture, beating well after each addition. Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form and gently fold into batter. Pour batter into three 9-inch round greased and floured cake pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Immediately run a spatula between cakes and sides of pan, then cool 15 minutes. Remove cake layers from pans, cool completely and refrigerate until cold. Mix Milnot, remaining 2 and 1/4 sticks butter, remaining 6 egg yolks (slightly beaten) and vanilla. Cook over medium heat for about 12 minutes or until thickened and golden brown, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add coconut and pecans, mixing well. Cool until of desired spreading consistency and fill and frost cake.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.

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