Margaret Fox's Amazon Chocolate Cake

October 16, 2013

Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: Your new go-to birthday cake, bake sale cake, dinner party cake, late night snack cake -- for when the fridge is at its barest and you need chocolate cake now. (It's also vegan and parve and dirt cheap, but you wouldn't know unless we told you.) 

Amazon Cake on Food52

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There is almost nothing you can throw at this cake that it can't handle. Say you want chocolate cake but -- what's that? You're out of eggs? And butter? And chocolate? You're going vegan this week? You need a dessert that's kosher with brisket? You want it in 45 minutes? You got it. This cake balks at nothing. Even Duncan Hines asks for more.

Amazon Cake on Food52

If the Depression taught us anything, it's that in times of scarcity, there can -- and should -- still be cake. You must bake from what you've got, even if what you've got is mayonnaise or canned tomato soup.

But this cake is much better than those, and expects even less of you (and your wallet), if that's possible. There's no waiting for butter to soften just enough, no creaming of things, no wondering if your eggs are the right temperature. All you need are two bowls and a whisk, a cake pan of sorts, an oven, and to be armed with the most minimal of nonperishables in your pantry. 

Amazon Cake on Food52

Cocoa powder. Baking soda. Sugar, salt, oil, vanilla. Cider vinegar (or white vinegar, or even lemon juice). If you don't have these in your cupboard right now, you probably don't actually like cake.

More: 9 more chocolate cakes, just for you.

Margaret Fox, cookbook author and, for 23 years, the driving force behind the famed Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino, California, isn't sure how she stumbled on this formula -- similar to the crazy cakes and wacky cakes your grandmother might have made. But it was, as she says, "in a frenzy of cake baking, trying to find what I thought of as the perfect chocolate cake." When she spotted a recipe that was missing eggs and dairy, ingredients she thought were integral to a tender crumb, she thought, "I have to make this cake -- it's got to be weird."

Cafe Beaujolais on

But it wasn't weird -- not at all. In fact it looked eerily like the front of a cake mix box, and tasted better than it should. "This cake has legs, and a legitimacy and a flavor that's so wonderful, vegan or not," Fox says. 

Amazon Cake on Food52

As is, it's not the richest, most chocolatey cake -- if you like, you can amp up the chocolate by swapping in coffee for the water, or adding more cocoa. 

Amazon Cake on Food52

But you don't need to. It's a different animal: light, delicately strung together with cocoa, and not terribly sweet. You could eat a lot of it and still feel civilized, and not compelled to go ball up on the couch.

Amazon Cake on Food52  Amazon Cake on Food52

But how does it work? As we know from 4th grade science projects, baking soda reacts with vinegar -- and the acidity of the cocoa powder too. No need for airy creamed butter or eggs to leaven when you're harnessing a volcano

Amazon Cake on Food52  Amazon Cake on Food52

On top of that, we know oil makes an exceedingly moist cake too, and one that keeps for days without staling. Win, win, win.

Amazon Cake on Food52  Amazon Cake on Food52

Genius Amazon Chocolate Cake from Food52

So make like Fox and frost it with mocha buttercream or turn it into black bottom cupcakes. Dot it with crème fraîche or whipped cream or ganache. Or just serve it as is -- this cake can take it.

Amazon Cake on Food52

Margaret Fox's Amazon Chocolate Cake

Adapted from Cafe Beaujolais by Margaret Fox and John S. Bear (Ten Speed Press, 1984)

Serves 6 to 8

1 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa

1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup cold water
5 tablespoons neutral oil (like canola, vegetable, or grapeseed)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon cider or white vinegar
Confectioners' sugar (optional, for dusting)

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

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]. Thanks to Laura Perry for this one!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Soph
  • Pamela D Woodberry
    Pamela D Woodberry
  • LBKap
  • Bobbi Rongstad
    Bobbi Rongstad
  • Chit.Chaat.Chai (Rumin)
    Chit.Chaat.Chai (Rumin)
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Soph July 15, 2019
We make this a lot and it never disappoints. Need it for a getaway. Can it be made ahead and frozen?
Allison K. July 15, 2019
Absolutely--it freezes beautifully.
Soph July 15, 2019
Thanks! I’ll give it a try...
Pamela D. April 27, 2017
I know this cake as a "Three-Hole Cake. You combine the dry ingredients and put them directly into a lightly-greased pan, poke one large hole and two small holes into the dry mixture (oil in the large hole, extract and vinegar in the remaining small holes), pour the water over the entire mixture, and using a whisk or a fork, thoroughly combine to make a loose batter. However, I prefer making the batter in a bowl and then pouring it into the prepared pan. I also add a bit of espresso powder to the dry ingredients for extra flavor.
LBKap April 26, 2017
Swiss processed chocolate or no?
Pamela D. April 27, 2017
I used Dutch-processed cocoa powder (Valrhona) and the cake was wonderful! :)
MacGuffin March 20, 2021
Wouldn't you need natural cocoa to react with the baking soda?
Bobbi R. April 26, 2016
I learned this recipe from my grandma 50 years ago. Love that you are sharing it here.
Chit.Chaat.Chai (. April 25, 2016
Amazing, you all are always amazing to me! I am going to combine this with the recent post on how to make gluten free flour. I need to gluten-free + egg free recipe. Can I use raw cocoa?
MacGuffin March 20, 2021
I would think you could. Raw cocoa isn't Dutched, so it retains its acidity.
mosteff September 14, 2015
This cake is so barebones and delicious as is so I hesitate to play with it too much - BUT what would make a good flour substitute here you think? I want to try it with buckwheat. Would it work or is there another wheat-free grain that might work well?
Sharrie Y. September 14, 2015
Mosteff, usually wheat-free baking requires a mixture of non-wheat flours to get a nice texture. I've found this combination of flours give the best texture for cakes...1 C. Sorghum flour, 1/3 C. Almond meal & 1/4 C. Potato Starch (not potato flour) in place of the all purpose flour. You'll also have to add 1 tsp. of xanthan gum. The amounts I've listed should work for a recipe calling for 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour. Good luck and please post how it works out for you.
mosteff September 16, 2015
okay. So there is officially a great wheat-free option here if anyone is interested. I used what I had in the house: no way to get sorghum flour in Italy...1/3 cup almond flour, 1 cup buckwheat, 1/4 cup coconut flour. Came out pretty fantastic considering, and it even rose...I just discovered I have potato starch so I will replace coconut flour with it next time and I believe the result will be even better.
Allison K. June 21, 2015
I've known this "crazy cake" my entire life (I'm 50)--it is the standard chocolate cake in my extended family, and is also used as the base for "black-bottom cupcakes", "Suzy Q Cake", and others. Best gooey frosting ever for this cake: 1 can sweetened condensed milk + 6 oz chocolate chips--heat until it starts to bubble, then pour over cake for the final ~5 minutes of baking time.

Also, I've done all sorts of substitutions for the water in the cake: strong coffee, stout beer, red wine are all fantastic. Even root beer or cola works (I cut the sugar back by a bit if using soda).
Christine T. June 19, 2015
I'm in the UK how much does a cup of flour weigh?
Ursula |. November 4, 2015
1 cup all-purpose flour = 130 g
Cheers, Ursula
Sharrie Y. May 17, 2015
If you really want this cake to be amazing...substitute cold coffee for the water, it really enhances the chocolate flavor to a deep rich level.
Growing up I've always known this cake as "Crazy Chocolate Cake" and have made it all my life.
April I. May 17, 2015
just made this a half hour ago. i cannot believe how good it is. used coffee for the water. this is now in my regular rotation.
TimKarla D. May 16, 2015
This is the "wacky cake" or "Depression cake" recipe and it is really good-amazing with such simple ingredients-I've done a Kahlua version that is delish too!
gabby March 7, 2015
This is prettying a puddle cake my husband has baked for years. He mixes in the baking pan. One less item to clean. (Cupcakes, someone asked, bake at a little less than half time depending on your pans/oven)
gabby March 7, 2015
Also, it's better day 2. We frost with either powdered sugar or Meyer lemon cream cheese.
lorie B. March 3, 2015
The mocha buttercream from that cookbook is the best with these cupcakes. Also doing the cream cheese and choc chips is excellent too. Never get enough of this cake/cupcake. Cannot remember how long I baked these as cuocakes
steph M. March 3, 2015
So, I made this last night as a sample to offer some friends for whom I'm baking wedding cupcakes. This cake turned out AWESOME! Rich without being overly sweet, moist and luscious without being overly crazy. Total winner. ONE CRITICAL QUESTION - I don't want to overbake or ruin these in cupcake form - can anyone offer the baking time difference from cake to cupcake, assuming that there is one? Thanks much. Looking forward to finishing the "test" and enjoying them with buttercream in cupcake form.
Fran M. March 1, 2015
I just made this with cocoanut oil & used coffee for the water. Smells wonderful.
Ashley March 1, 2015
On a mission to clean out the cupboards and had a jar of coconut oil that's been slow in the consuming so used that for the oil and cake flour for my all-purpose variety, and added a little coffee to the wet ingredient mix (but still equal in volume to the 1 cup of water). The result was a light and tender, dark, not too sweet cake - which was appreciated by those who often avoid dessert for that reason. Serving with a spoonful of homemade whipped cream was a great addition for those wanting a little more richness.
JCCraves February 25, 2015
I like mine spiked with ancho chile.
Gracela999 February 25, 2015
Do you think this would work with melted coconut oil? I know it might add a tad of coconut flavor but I wouldn't car about that !
Heather K. February 25, 2015
We have made this cake for three generations, but we have always called it Crazy Cake
Dishlicious February 25, 2015
There's an egg in the pictures, but none in the ingredients. ?
Sophie G. February 25, 2015
I believe that's oil and vinegar. I thought it was an egg too at first :)
Dishlicious February 25, 2015
Thanks, Sophie. On second look, I think you're right.