Chocolate Cake

Why I’ll Never Stop Baking Mom’s Groovy Chocolate Cake

The magic is in the memories—and all that chocolate.

January 23, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.

This article is a part of Chocolate Week—seven days of recipes and stories, all chocolate—presented by our friends at Guittard. A fifth-generation family business, Guittard has been crafting an array of chocolate offerings (like top-quality baking chips, cocoa powder, and baking bars) in San Francisco since 1868.

As a child, I had a serious obsession with Dairy Queen dipped cones and Hostess Cupcakes—probably because they are two of my mother’s favorite desserts.

A Berkeley graduate (she never hesitates to tell anyone she attended college at the quirky, liberal enclave during the 1970s), my mom was a firm believer in old-school "clean eating" (of the hippie variety, naturally). But while she shunned most sugary treats, she could never say no to chocolate.

It must have been genetic, because neither could I.

“Want to go to Dairy Queen?” she was known to throw out there on particularly long road trips, combing her thick black hair with her left hand and guiding the car’s steering wheel with her right.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“What a great homage to memories of your mom, your childhood and a love for chocolate. I will be making this very soon. Right now, I am going to enjoy reading all the comments. Good to know this can be halved - sometimes I cannot find a lot of cake consumers!”
— Paula B.

The answer was always yes.

We’d fly off the highway onto the service road, then pull up to the nearest drive-through and order what I thought for many years was the only thing on the menu: dipped cones as long as my arm, with smooth vanilla ice cream painted in a thin chocolate shell. Ah, the satisfying crack of that coat!

I was equally enamored of Hostess Cupcakes, which were doled out so rarely (special occasions only) that their pristine white curlicues and shiny chocolate ganache frosting became the stuff of legends.

But the highest prizes were the ones my mother baked herself, usually on someone’s birthday or if you begged long and hard enough: Please, Mom, pleeeeeeeease!

Her top-two recipes—big surprise—both involved chocolate. The first was L.B.J. Chocolate Cake, a pound cake from my great-grandmother’s (and President Johnson’s) day that was sweet and satisfying. The other was her renowned Groovy Chocolate Cake, which came from a cookbook called Chocolate Kicks that she bought in the 1970s, probably in Berkeley. (Did she mention she went to Berkeley?)

Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.

A riff on Texas sheet cake, Groovy Chocolate Cake defined my childhood more than any cone or cupcake. One of my earliest memories is placing a batter-encrusted mixing bowl on my head, thinking that I could more easily lick the good stuff off if I simply stuck my tongue out and rotated the bowl. (I was wrong.)

I would write poems celebrating it as I watched the batter rise gloriously in the oven. I dreamed of it for weeks before my birthday. I even devoted to it the first words of my book all about chocolate, Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution. In other words, it’s my Platonic ideal of chocolate cake. There is nothing better.

The magic lies in its simplicity—along with sour cream, which makes it super moist. That secret ingredient is folded into the batter, along with a cup of hot water. After it cooled, my mom would top it with a simple chocolate buttercream frosting made with a splash of rum extract.

My sister and I would devour our slices, lick our lips, and collapse into bed for the night. But somehow, by the time we woke up the next morning, a few more pieces had always disappeared. “Who ate all of this cake?” my mother would ask innocently, knowing full well that it wasn't one of us.

Since those days, I’ve made the cake for so many occasions, from late-night study sessions to parties, or for friends going through a hard time. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t love it just as much as I do.

Of course, as I’ve learned more about specialty foods and chocolate over the years, I’ve become more selective about the types of ingredients I use, opting for grass-fed dairy, organic sugar, and good flour whenever possible. I’m especially particular about the chocolate, because it definitely makes a difference: I always try to buy bean-to-bar baking chocolate, whether it’s from makers as ubiquitous as Guittard or as hard-to-come-by as Map, a small-batch craft chocolate company. But even if you can’t find artisan ingredients, this recipe always turns out great.

My intense love for chocolate has rubbed off on my family, too—especially my mother. Nowadays, everyone uses the best-quality chocolate they can find to bake with, not to mention, nibble on daily. During a trip to Los Angeles for my sister’s baby shower, for example, a pop-up store by Dandelion Chocolate (one of my favorite bean-to-bar brands) received multiple drop-ins from my tribe, all of whom oohed and aahed over the single-origin bars and pointed out my book on the shop’s shelves.

“Well, the Gillers are still in town,” Dandelion’s staff must have said to themselves upon their third (and by no means final) visit.

When I expressed my mortification over this matter (perhaps it was the fifth chocolate run?), my mom shrugged it off. “Chocolate is in our blood,” she said. And she’s right. It makes sense, then, that our favorite recipe brings together two things essential to my family’s DNA: chocolate and a hint of ’70s flare.

Even though I live in New York City now—2,000 miles away from my mom and her kitchen in Dallas—I bake this cake as often as I can. The smell brings back memories: of petting my cat, Silver, on the couch as the cake baked a few rooms away; or that time when my mom forgot to add the sugar to the batter and we cried, then laughed at the mistake.

Each slice is like an homage to my childhood—and my mom, too.

What's your all-time favorite chocolate dessert? Tell us the story behind it in the comments below!

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Megan Giller

Written by: Megan Giller


Rhonda August 16, 2020
This is in the oven as I write, and it’s definitely not a “sheet” cake as they are known here in the Midwest. Has anyone tried this in a jelly roll pan?
Jill F. March 20, 2020
I first made this recipe for my husband shortly after the start of 2020. I’ve made it probably 3 or 4 times since. Made one today and have dubbed it Corona Cake, as I plan to make one every week until we get through this. Chocolate helps everything!
anniette March 20, 2020
This is a request/suggestion for food52:

Is there any way that comments on a recipe and comments on the corresponding article can be combined or linked?

Often, there are useful observations or tips in the comments, but unless one remembers to go to both places to read the comments for the one recipe, one is likely to miss some of these. (For example, this article has 37 comments; at the recipe itself, there are 23 more.)

I understand that it may not be possible. I notice that the New York Times cooking site has the same issue—some comments beneath the article, some beneath the recipe itself, both concerning the same subject, but in two different places, so one had best check both before proceeding. Thank you!
Caitlin G. February 25, 2020
Dairy Queen! I worked at an ice cream stand upstate and summer people used to call the choc dipped cones "brown bonnets" - a NYC thing I think? So good <3
Paula B. February 24, 2020
What a great homage to memories of your mom, your childhood and a love for chocolate. I will be making this very soon. Right now, I am going to enjoy reading all the comments. Good to know this can be halved - sometimes I cannot find a lot of cake consumers!
Judith M. February 24, 2020
Had it last night to overwhelming raves, including my husband whose idea of heaven is intensely dark flourless or molten chocolate cake. I don't like that much chocolate, but this cake really is the kind I had growing up - in the 50s and 60s - which is almost impossible to get in bakeries and restaurants nowadays. Groovy indeed!
TKM C. February 23, 2020
Super dense, but super good. Needs a cold glass of milk to wash it down. Yum!
Eva February 21, 2020
Any suggestions for making this into cupcakes?
lee G. February 21, 2020
As a graduate of the early 80s, Berkeley is not quirky. 😛
Cecilia C. March 20, 2020
As a graduate of the late 70's, I agree
anniette February 21, 2020
I still have my copy of Chocolate Kicks. I am sorry that I've never made this cake—will fix that oversight straight away, thanks to you. My own favorite recipe from Chocolate Kicks is a smooth, rich, cheesecake called Chocolate Hash.
Cecilia C. March 20, 2020
Another Chocolate Kicks owner! I feel as if we are members of an exclusive club.
Karen March 21, 2020
I had Chocolate Kicks, too, when I was a teenager. This brought back lots of memories!
Foodie41 February 13, 2020
I grew up with CRAZY CAKE at one point had it memorized! Always used cold coffee. Mmm.
But this one sounds delish. I shall try it 1/2.
Miss N. February 3, 2020
What kind of flour of flour are you using
PegS January 28, 2020
Oh my gosh, I am glad to see this. That cookbook was a favorite of mine since the 70's. There were so many terrific recipes in it. Groovy Chocolate Cake is a staple for me and has never been displaced by anything since. It's still a favorite for birthdays, potlucks, and special occasions. It can be dressed up a few sprinkles, shaved chocolate, or a white chocolate marbled frosting. Never grow tired of it.
Cecilia C. March 20, 2020
Peg, I happy to meet another Chocolate Kicks cookbook owner. I agree with you , this is the only chocolate cake I ever make.
Lauracm January 28, 2020
My favorite chocolate cake is “wacky cake,”which uses vinegar and baking soda instead of eggs for lift and powdered cocoa ( I use quality European cocoa). The texture is fantastic and it is so chocolatey!
Hannah February 22, 2020
I love wacky cake myself. I grew up with it as a kid and even found a peanut butter version of it online that I like for breakfast once in a while. 😊 PB wacky cake is a great beginning to a very active snow day!
Leah January 28, 2020
Quick looks possible, but has anyone halved this recipe, amended the baking time and used an 8X8 pan? Thanks, fellow baking fiends!
Cecilia C. January 28, 2020
I always make half the recipe and bake in an 8 inch square pan. The cooking time is the same.
Leah February 21, 2020
Thanks so much, Cecilia!
ML R. January 27, 2020
This is the chocolate cake I grew up with. I am over 70 and HV never seen it anywhere until today. I was so surprised. Was wondering where you grew up? IT IS THE ONLY CHOCOLATE CAKE I WILL EVER MAKE. It is super easy. I don't melt chocolate in double boiler though. I boil the water in microwave and pour over chocolate in a small bowl and let it sit until melted but stir gently a few times.
I just made last week and put in a 10"x10" pan.
Megan G. January 27, 2020
How cool! I grew up in Texas, but my parents bought the book with this recipe in California, I believe. It's the best!
ML R. January 29, 2020
BTW...just went to Amazon site to see about getting copy of cookbook you mentioned. Sit down...the price is $952 plus shipping...yes, you read it paperback. I decided not to get it.
GeekKnitter January 24, 2020
Picturing a toddler with a batter bowl on their head....
Paula B. February 24, 2020
Me, too.
Sally S. January 24, 2020
In your blog you said that your Mom added a cup of hot water along with the sour cream. I don't see it in the recipe. Did I misread the blog? Should I add the water?
Sally S. January 24, 2020
Sorry, I didn't read the whole recipe -- a perpetual failing of mine.
Cecilia C. January 24, 2020
Megan, I have groovy chocolate cake sitting in my kitchen right now! I have often thought that I was the only person who owned (and cooked from) Chocolate Kicks. Over the years, I have perfected the 1/2 cake (baked in an 8 inch pan) which is the perfect amount for smaller households.
Megan G. January 24, 2020
Oh my gosh, that's amazing! I wish I had it on my counter at this moment too.
Betty M. January 28, 2020
Would love your 1/2 cake recipe. One person household doesn’t need
large cake, too tempting!
ML R. January 28, 2020
Half recipe is 8x8 pan. Easy to halve it. It goes really fast though
Victoria January 24, 2020
You need to YouTube Michael Rosen reciting his poem, "Chocolate Cake".
Megan G. January 24, 2020
Ha, yes! That felt very familiar...