“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.
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?
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).
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).
For the chocolate cake:
- 1 1/2 cups (300g) sugar
- 1/2 cup (60g) unsweetened natural cocoa powder
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 cup (113g) butter, softened
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup (125g) milk
- 2 cups (250g) all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
- 1 cup (235g) boiling water
- 1 tablespoon instant espresso, optional for a deeper chocolate flavor (or substitute coffee for the water above)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
For the cream cheese ribbon & frosting:
- 6 tablespoons (85g) butter, softened
- 12 ounces (340g) cream cheese, softened
- 3/4 cup (150g) sugar
- 3 tablespoons (27g) cornstarch
- 3 large eggs
- 1/3 cup (80g) milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- Chocolate frosting of your choice (see note above for recommended recipes)
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].