Have you heard of the Mahogany cake ? Some say it was the ancestor of today’s red velvet cake . True or not one thing is for sure, it is an incredibly delicious confection. It is an old fashioned cake that has cocoa and coffee in the batter. Not a rich chocolate cake , but with very mild flavors of chocolate and coffee.
This is not the only old fashioned cake t o experiment with cocoa and coffee – devils food cake for one comes to mind. Mahogany cake recipes use much less chocolate than devils food – in fact much less than to be considered a chocolate cake. There is chocolate flavor here , but barely.
The same goes for red velvet cakes – there is chocolate in the batter , but you can barely taste it. Baker’s started adding chocolate to cake batter to make cakes with much smoother, finer texture (hence the velvet reference). The chocolate cakes with intense chocolate flavors as we know today came much later.
Natural cocoa is acidic. Baking soda is alkaline and reacts with the acidity (remember middle school chemistry? ) and turns it slightly red. Some culinary historians think it is this reaction that gave the baker’s the idea for red velvet. The dutch processed cocoa (or dutched or European ), is washed with potassium carbonate and is no longer acidic. As a result it does not react with the baking soda leaving the baked cakes with a darker color and milder chocolate flavor. You could use either in this recipe, the natural cocoa will give a little reddish hue. The effects are not as pronounced as there are many other dark and acidic elements, black coffee and dark brown sugar both mildly acidic , here.
All this talk about color and chocolate was the reason I discovered this cake. Years back I was looking for a red velvet recipe that did not use food coloring. There were no natural food dyes available near where I lived then ( I know , I was living in the dark ages). I did come up with a beet based red velvet recipe that is still a hit. Interestingly my family still prefer that I use actual beets in it rather than the derived coloring.
I do not remember how I made my first Mahogany cake – but skimming through the recipes I came across this one from a cake bakes in Brooklyn – Jack Berch’s Mahogany Cake of 1947 . There are many wonderful old recipes here – if not this then you might find something else to inspire you.
So here are all the ingredients that go into the cake – butter , flour , cocoa, salt, baking soda, coffee , brown sugar, vanilla and vinegar. As old fashioned recipes go this is pretty lean !
Being a baker and not quite from the same era as Jack Berch , I did make a few changes to the recipe. In other words I tweaked it based on my understanding. Here are the step by step pictures of what I did.
Interestingly this time I decided to make it without the help of an electric mixer. A way to honor the old fashioned recipe . This was not that hard though – as the leavening was baking soda and not aerated egg whites. If I had to whip egg whites into stiff peaks the I would gone looking for my electric mixer.
Few things to remember
- Sift the dry ingredients really well (2 to 3 times).
- Mix in vinegar towards the end. The original recipe asks to mix it at the very end but I find it easier to do it just before adding the last batch of flour.
- Do not use Ph neutral coffee – use regular coffee.
- Once the batter is mixed do not let it rest – into the oven ASAP.
Cool, decorate and serve ! My favorite here is cream cheese icing – but use any you like.
How about that slice ??
I do not make cakes as much as I bake bread. But the stories behind old fashioned cakes always hold a fascination to me. And trying to do all this by hand gives me a new appreciation for the cooks and bakers of yore.
So I came a cross this book the other day – American Cake by Ann Byrn . There is a wealth of information in here about the evolution of cakes as we know it and of course the American cake history. How cakes were leavened in the olden days, and even what was considered fashionable/ cool/healthy in those days have changed quite a bit. If you like to know more about the traditional cakes how they got their names and what was used give this book a try.
Enough about the chemistry and history – this here is the recipe for Mahogany Cake adapted for the modern kitchens .
- 2 C Flour
- ½ C Butter
- 1 ½ C Dark Brown Sugar
- 3 Eggs Large
- ¼ C Cocoa Powder
- 1 C Strong Black Coffee
- 1 Tsp Vanilla
- 1 Tsp Baking Soda
- ½ Tsp Salt
- 1 Tbsp White Vinegar
Cream Cheese Frosting
- ½ C Butter 1 stick / 110 g (Notes)
- 8 Oz Cream Cheese (220g)
- 1 Tsp Pure Vanilla extract
- 3- 4 C Confectioner’s Sugar
- Make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature before making the batter Pre-heat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Place the oven rack in the center. Butter and line two 8 inch circular pans .
- Sift together flour, salt , baking soda, and cocoa powder. Sift 2 to 3 times until all the flour looks uniform and aerated well.
- Cream butter and brown sugar together until smooth. Add the eggs 1 by 1 to the mix and beat in. Beat in the vanilla. Fold in a third of the flour mix. Add ½ C coffee and mix in until combined well. Repeat this process one more time, this time adding in more than 1/3 of the flour. Mix in the vinegar add fold the remaining flour.
- Divide the batter equally into the prepared cake pans. Transfer to the preheated oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or till done. When done the center top will look form and set and a tester inserted in the center will come out clean.
- Cool in pan for 5 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely before frosting.
Crème Cheese Frosting
- Bring the cream cheese and butter to almost room temperature. Beat the butter until it is fluffy . Add in the cream cheese and beat well until mixed well. The mix should look uniform and a little fluffy. Mix in 1 C powdered sugar along with vanilla. Add the remaining sugar in batches until desired consistency is reached.
- The cooking times are for 8 inch circular pans. The times will change if using different sized pans.
- You could use salted or unsalted butter for creme cheese frosting. Most salted butters contain very little sodium , but if the butter has discernible salt taste avoid it.
Important: Values are only estimates. Actuals vary depending on ingredients and serving size.
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