Cake

The Fudgy, Swirly Chocolate Cream Cheese Cake My Mom Has Loved Since 1965

May  9, 2018

“Whenever it's my birthday, I hope this is the cake,” my mom wrote in one version of this recipe that lives in my parents’ online cookbook, a site born in the first dot-com boom of the 1990s. The cake she wished for—the cake in I hope this is the cake—is classic chocolate-chocolate with a swirling cap of buttercream, plus a thick ribbon of cheesecake snaking through, like a black bottom cupcake cloned to fill a 9 by 13-inch pan.

What I didn’t know—until I very recently thought to ask—is by that point she’d already been committed to the cake for over three decades. There was a lot I didn’t know about the cake.

To be clear, this isn’t just mom’s special cake—it came out for the rest of our birthdays, and whenever she found herself on call for a barbecue or dinner party or potluck dessert. It’s as much a part of our family as my grandmother’s biscuits and gravy and our series of oddball black and white cats. Growing up, I took my mom’s word as gospel that this is the finest cake, period, and I’m certain it’s what my brother and I were “helping with” below, judging by the two spatulas and mixer bowls (more on that later). But through all of this life lived with and through the cake, I never thought to ask where it came from or why we’d all latched onto it.

We weren't always so good at sharing. #tbt

A post shared by Kristen Miglore (@miglorious) on

Which is how, two decades later, the recipe was still living in two disconnected pieces online that my mom would weave together from memory every time she baked it, and still missing all the intuitive tips and clues that only she knew. It’s not that she was intentionally keeping them secret—she just didn’t need them recorded anywhere. Why would she?

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But I sure do. I don’t yet have kids or the sorts of social engagements that demand a steady stream of sheet cakes, so I haven’t had to learn this one by heart yet. A couple months ago, I finally went to make it myself, and—despite having spent two years testing hundreds of cakes for Genius Desserts—I could barely figure out how to make this one without her at my side. Not the way she does, anyway.

So I set to recording it all. After interrogating her by phone and text, I would send her photos of my oddly puffed layers and cutaways of inner swirl activity. I made her tell me exact zigzag dimensions to try to reproduce how she casually swirled the two batters together—then I requested a diagram, just to be safe. I tested and tweaked until I could reasonably recreate the cake from across the country. And like any good reporter and annoying daughter, I also asked why, why, why—why did you first decide to mash these recipes together? Where did each piece of the puzzle come from? How did this become your one true cake for more than fifty years?

Here’s what I found out: The chocolate part of the cake was handed down from my grandmother’s cousin Louise Pribble, who lived in Dove Creek, Colorado and had been making this cake at least as far back as the 1950s—all of which explains why my family has always called the chocolate cake alone “Pribble Cake” (though perhaps you can see why “Pribble Ribbon Cake” never caught on).

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Top Comment:
“And my Gram's (my dad's mom) favorite cake recipe is Black Bottom Cake, a different chocolate cake recipe which a lot of Pa. Dutch women have made for generations that is a less dark cake, but with a cream cheese and chocolate chip swirl on top. So this is a wonderful mix of two of my favorite women in the world's favorite recipe. Well, since my mom got her recipe from her mom, it's really a mix of all three of my favorite women's cake. I can't wait to try it!!!💖”
— Jennifer G.
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The cheesecake-chocolate pairing was imprinted on my young mom early, after her grown-up sister Peggy sent her a Girl Scout camp care package of cream cheese-swirled brownies from the back of the German’s chocolate box. Later, when my mom saw a cake with the same qualities on the cover of the 1965 Pillsbury Bake-Off cookbook, she bought the book for 50 cents and started making the cover cake's cream cheese ribbon to swirl into her Pribble Cake.

From then on this combo would be her go-to, and eventually she bought a second stand mixer bowl just so she could whip out the two batters faster. She’s generally used canned chocolate frosting, because it tastes right and by this point in the recipe she wasn’t looking to dirty a third stand mixer bowl. Feel free to take her shortcut. But for those who want a homemade frosting, I asked our test kitchen to help conduct a taste-off. This one, adapted from Hershey’s Perfect Chocolate Cake, is excellent and the closest facsimile to canned frosting, but I also loved this one from Food52er EmilyC, which whips in still more cream cheese, for a richer, well-balanced milk chocolatey experience. (And if you really don’t want to take out the mixer bowl again, you can go with a ganache like this instead, but the deep chocolate flavor is almost too much for a homey cake like this.)

Because it’s my job to try to figure out what makes great recipes tick, I also tried to better understand Louise Pribble’s unusual batter technique—why did she add the sugar, eggs, cocoa, and shortening (my mom now uses butter) all at once, instead of creaming in stages? And why wasn’t cocoa lumped in with the other dry ingredients, as it usually is now? Why dump a cup of boiling water over the batter at the end?

On that last count, I found a few clues: Boiling water makes cocoa powder’s flavors bloom and helps it to evenly dissolve—but it needs to be added at the end or else it could activate the baking soda too soon (thanks go to Rose Levy Beranbaum for that warning). Cocoa powder also absorbs more liquid than flour, so a chocolate cake can dry out if you don't overcompensate with (a lot of) liquid. The end result, as my mom says on the Online Cookbook: “A nice moist homestyle chocolate cake.”

But I have to accept that some aspects of the 1950s-era baking science in this recipe will stay a mystery (although if you have answers, tell me!). What’s a whole lot more important to me is that I better understand the recipe's place in my family’s history. I highly recommend you do the same—for the pancakes or Caesar salad or rum cake that you just accept as a food of your family that will always be there. Ask your moms, ask your grandmas, ask your dads and neighbors and best friend’s uncles, too—whoever makes something that you want to hold onto. Write it down. Share it. Keep it alive.

And then there’s this, a mom’s message of acceptance and comfort: “Sometimes the cream cheese floats to the top, sometimes it sinks to the bottom, sometimes it stays in the middle. However it comes out it comes out,” she told me. “Once you get the chocolate frosting on top, it doesn’t matter how it looks.” And she’s right (of course she is).

Photos by Bobbi Lin

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

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18 Comments

Julie September 10, 2018
In our house this is called Never Fail Chocolate Cake. We use Hershey's Chocolate syrup instead of the cocoa which gives it even more moistness. We, too, "dump" all ingredients except boiling water together and mix all at once. We have tested the Never Fail part of the title--someone once left out the eggs, someone else left out the butter, I left out the milk. And the cake was pretty okay in the end, not like the wonder it is when everything makes it into the mix, though. <br /><br />We got it from my partner's mother. He doesn't know where it came from. But she was a housewife and mother and major mover and shaker in the Dutch Reform Church from the late 1940's right up to her death in 2009. We think of her whenever we eat the cake which isn't often enough. <br /><br />Think I'll give your Mom's a go today and maybe start a new tradition.
 
Jennifer G. May 9, 2018
To me it's amazing how the cake part is almost exactly my mom's chocolate cake recipe, which she is well known for in our family, at church, and the Ladies Auxiliary of the fire house. And my Gram's (my dad's mom) favorite cake recipe is Black Bottom Cake, a different chocolate cake recipe which a lot of Pa. Dutch women have made for generations that is a less dark cake, but with a cream cheese and chocolate chip swirl on top. So this is a wonderful mix of two of my favorite women in the world's favorite recipe. Well, since my mom got her recipe from her mom, it's really a mix of all three of my favorite women's cake. I can't wait to try it!!!💖
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. May 10, 2018
That *is* amazing! The 1965 Pillsbury Bake-Off sure picked a universal winner. I've been wondering about working in chocolate chips here myself, like some black bottom cupcakes do. And the recipe evolution continues...
 
billy May 9, 2018
Y'all should make this! Man, I wish I could still pull off a diaper
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. May 9, 2018
Thanks, Billy. Good baking with ya!
 
Shannon B. May 9, 2018
thank you for sharing such an awesome glimpse of your childhood..and life. you took me back to time spent being my aunt's "helper" as she baked. i can see the stand mixer on the counter..her apron, hear her hum as she moved from one step to the next. yeah, what a smile you've put on my face :) and your mom's cake, i can smell the cocoa blooming, the richness of the scent filling the air..YUM! we have a version in my family too, the cake i always asked for.
 
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Kristen M. May 9, 2018
Thanks so much Shannon—and just think: the more people we bake with, the more memories we're making like this!
 
Debbi S. May 9, 2018
I’m making this today but 9x13 is too big for the 2 of us. Hopefully I can 1/2 the recipe and use an 8x8” pan? Thx so much for sharing!
 
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Kristen M. May 9, 2018
Hi Debbi, I think that should work fine, since they're about the same surface area, as long as your 8x8 pan isn't too much shorter than a standard 9 x 13 pan (ours is 2 inches deep). The batter will puff a lot in the oven, so if it's looking close to the rim, be sure to bake it on a foil-lined baking sheet (and/or pour some of the batter off to bake separately in a muffin tin).
 
Debbi S. May 9, 2018
Worked out great in 8x8 pan and 1/2 ingredients! Tastes wonderful!!
 
Amy May 9, 2018
This is so good. All of it. Thanks for the story, testing and sharing. I can't wait to make the cake and ask my Mom for some recipe clarifications!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. May 9, 2018
Thanks so much, Amy!
 
Lis May 9, 2018
This cake recipe takes me back to my childhood, a neighbor made the exact cake only she used her husband's cold coffee and it enhances the cocoa flavor tremendousely. She did it however since she use to have to carry her water into the house and she didn't want to waste anything. I am not sure she ever knew just how wonderful her trick was. Love this recipe and your time investment in updating this recipe for us. Many thanks!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. May 9, 2018
What a great story—thank you for sharing, Lis. Even though we have more conveniences now, I still feel like some of the best things I make come from scrappiness like that.
 
moosetracks May 9, 2018
Wow - my mom made this for my birthday every year from the Pillsbury bake-off cookbook, which I have inherited from my mom, who can no longer cook. A well-deserved blue ribbon winner, and a great mom-memory. This cake is fabulous! Thanks Kristen!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. May 9, 2018
That's amazing! I was hoping that other fans might pop up.
 
Monika May 9, 2018
I enjoyed reading! Thanks for sharing.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. May 9, 2018
Thank you, Monika!