deciphering old recipes

I am going through some very old recipes I just received that were my 92-year-old mother's aunt's, if that gives a sense of their age. She was a wonderful baker. Unfortunately, some of the recipes are cryptic. Frequently, a cake calls for two squares of chocolate, but doesn't specify unsweetened or semi-sweet (I doubt she would have used bittersweet). Can any of you expert bakers help figure this out so I can recreate them?

  • Posted by: ATL
  • June 14, 2013


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ATL June 21, 2013
Thanks, susan g! I loved reading the German chocolate cake post--like a little short story. Here's an old recipe I'll share not related to cake. I found what must have been considered an ultra-fancy "frozen salad" in my great-aunt's recipes. Take halved canned pears. Frost each with Philadelphia cream cheese (Philadelphia is specified). Then place deep red grapes, halved, all over the surface. Place in a freezing unit (sic). Fashion a stem for the pear out of the stems from the grapes. Serve. I have no idea how this tasted but it must have been the equivalent of a Martha Stewart recipe at the time.
susan G. June 18, 2013
I went looking on a blog that I know has 'retro cakes.' A number from the 40's, a 'German' Chocolate Cake, and others from colonial America to the 70's. Not your great-aunt's, though, but if you're interested, it's here --
ATL June 18, 2013
I will make it soon and will be sure to report back. I too am intrigued and now want to see and taste the result!
Mi B. June 17, 2013
Did you make the cake? What did you decide to do? How did it turn out?
I read all the posts and I am intrigued about how it all went
cookbookchick June 16, 2013
You're welcome! I love doing edible detective work! :-) Please let us know what your mom says, how the cake comes out, and if it lives up to your memories of Mom's.
ATL June 16, 2013
Thank you so much, cookbookchick. I am intrigued with your detective work! That devils food recipe could indeed be the one. I'm going to ask my mother if it sounds like what she uses to make and regardless, I'm going to try making it. Everyone has posted such helpful comments--thanks!
Maedl June 16, 2013
If you are working on an iPad, cbc, you can turn auto correct off--it is in 'settings'. I did it the first hour I owned my iPad.
cookbookchick June 16, 2013
Thanks, Maedl -- I have turned it off in the past on my iPhone, but I found it was even more annoying not to have it! Sigh..
cookbookchick June 16, 2013
Shoot! Cakes not Cale's -- whatever that is! Autocorrect at it again!
cookbookchick June 16, 2013
I found a blog that seems to specialize in retro chocolate recipes. She has this post from an old Baker's Chocolate box. Could it be "the one"?
cookbookchick June 16, 2013
As you scroll down, you will see chocolate Cale's from Baker's boxes of the 1930s and 1940s.
Maedl June 16, 2013
Several suggestions:

For the chocolate cake recipe made from Baker's chocolate, contact Baker's and see if they have a test kitchen, a home economist, or someone who might have access to old company archives. Those old recipes are available--it is just a matter of tracing them. Another route would be to search for recipe booklets produced by Baker's at libraries with major food-related collections.

You might also want to read Ratio by Ruhlman or some of the other books by people who explore the science of food. If you understand the basic laws, you will find those old recipes are not so intimidating.
Pegeen June 16, 2013
Fun stuff, related to older recipes:
ATL June 16, 2013
Chef Ono, the cake I remember was not a German chocolate cake. My mother made that once in a while without enthusiasm. This was a very moist, very chocolate-y cake that wasn't heavy or dense. She always made it as a layer cake, the better to ooze lots of chocolate icing. I i called her this afternoon and asked her about the cake and some other things she used to make. She said she got the recipe off the back of the Baker's chocolate box and it was a cake popular in the '40s (not my era, but when she set up housekeeping with my dad.) I asked for any details she could remember, but all she said is that she made it almost every Saturday! Along with a pie and cookies. Except for baking, she never used a recipe, and since her parents were Serbian immigrants and her grandmother had been a chef in Budapest, we grew up
Eating an interesting mix of foods.
ChefOno June 15, 2013

Amen, jamcook, and don't put it off until it's too late. So much is lost to time…

ATL, can you define the cake you're looking to recreate, a particular ingredient or texture or something else to go by? It's not the traditional German Chocolate recipe by any chance is it?

jamcook June 15, 2013
Louisez says it all . ask your mothers and grandmothers and aunts and all those whose cooking you love to show you things. my grandmother never measured either, and one day I stopped her at each pinch and handful and measured, so that I could understand her proportions..I am so glad I did.
louisez June 15, 2013
My mother is 93, and I learned a lot about baking from her mother --so I think the ages match up pretty well. My grandmother, who, too, was a wonderful baker, never measured anything. She agreed to show me how to bake some of the things I especially loved, so I know that when she used chocolate for cake, she used unsweetened squares. I suspect this is the same in your mother's aunt's recipes. I have had to play around with my grandmother's recipes, and I suspect you may have to do the same -- which I also suspect you will enjoy. I envy you your treasure-trove of family recipes, and wish you a wonderful time using them.
jamcook June 15, 2013
The chocolate cake on the Hershey' s Cocoa box is an old recipe that has been around forever..maybe with your Moms frosting you'll,be on to the old timely taste you crave. also check out Maida Heatter's recipes lots of chocolate cakes from her.
ATL June 15, 2013
No apology needed, Chef Ono! I always appreciate your answers to a variety of questions. What people are saying about Baker's chocolate rang a bell for me. My mother always used the unsweetened Baker's for baking and I think the semi-sweet for icing. I've been trying to figure out a wonderful chocolate cake, very traditional, that she made when I was a child. I asked her recently and she said the recipe used to be on the Baker's box. It's not there now. I've visited the Baker's website and looked at the old recipes, but none look quite right. An addendum to my great aunt's recipes: it's like having a conversation with her as she carefully noted next to each recipe "good" or "very good." She also wrote the source of each recipe. The recipes she left without annotations have left me wondering--did they not turn out well or did she simply never try them?!
ChefOno June 15, 2013

Sorry, ATL, I meant when baking, "chocolate" was assumed to be unsweetened chocolate. Sweetened chocolate, if used, would have been called for specifically. Unsweetened chocolate + sugar was more economical than sweet chocolate (which was intended to be eaten out of hand). If it were me, I'd stick with Baker's for those recipes.

jamcook June 15, 2013
Recipes calling for German's sweet chocolate or Maillards Eagle sweet chocolate..
(Another wonderful brand no longer with us), usually called for the whole bar which was
3 1/2 or 4 ounces...they were dark semisweet chocolates .
You could substitute a Lindt or Ghiradelli bar.
boulangere June 15, 2013
One of my favorite family recipes came from my mother via a neighboring farm woman, Belle Foley's Chocolate Cake. You can take a look at the headnote to see how my mother explained Belle's methods of measuring:

The moral of the story is, don't be surprised if your initial efforts aren't perfect, inasmuch as we tend to use measuring cups and spoons and prize accuracy!
ATL June 15, 2013
Sorry everyone--I accidentally left out the sugar in the example I provided. It's two cups of sugar. Given what everyone is saying, I'm sure it is unsweetened chocolate. Chef Ono: none of the recipes say "baking chocolate." They simply say chocolate. I appreciate all the detailed information, everyone--thank you so much!
jsdunbar June 15, 2013
Another thing to be careful of is quarts, pints & 1/2 pints in old recipes. If the recipe came from England or Canada, a quart is 5 cups/40 oz so a pint is 20 oz & 1/2 pint = 10 oz. This could be very important Have fun!
cookbookchick June 15, 2013
I recently looked through a very old Betty Crocker cookbook I own and noticed that every chocolate cake recipe called for a number of squares of chocolate without specifying what kind. Like jilhil, I am thinking unsweetened chocolate was simply assumed back then; possibly that was the only kind of chocolate available in that format. I find old recipes fascinating!
amysarah June 15, 2013
You don't list the sugar in the recipe in your 2nd post either...but assuming it's substantial, I'd guess unsweetened chocolate (taste the batter to see.) Regardless, when I baked with my grandmother as a child, I distinctly remember unsweetened chocolate being the norm - I recall always thinking it odd that it tasted so little like the chocolate we ate as candy and such. If that helps...I think unsweetened was more commonly used in baking back when.
Greenstuff June 15, 2013
Totally agree with Chef Ono and nutcakes that it's an ounce of unsweetened chocolate. Just reading the recipe, I could almost see the box, the wrapping, and the squares. The former headquarters of Baker's Chocolate in Dorchester, Massachusetts was converted to condos some years ago.
nutcakes June 15, 2013
In your example, there is no sugar in the recipe, so maybe you left that out since you mention a lot of sugar just after. I have found that old recipes from my grandmother used Baker's Unsweetened Chocolate, a company that has been around more than a couple of hundred years. Unfortunately, from the mid 1800's they also made a German's sweetened chocolate, so there is always the chance of that. I'd use a better brand of chocolate myself, using 1 ounce for each square. and use beejay's suggestion of tasting a bit to see if the product seems sweet.

Wikipedia can be so illuminating, the company is named for owner Dr. Baker, not because it is used by baker's. German chocolate cake is not named for the country, but for an employee named German who developed the German's sweetened chocolate product. The right name should have been German's chocolate cake but it was misprinted in a major newspaper.
ChefOno June 15, 2013

From the cobwebbed corners of my memory, "baking chocolate" = "unsweetened chocolate", Baker's German's, 1 ounce per square.

jamcook June 15, 2013
FRIENDS not fiends iPad autospell!
Bill F. June 15, 2013
It's ok to be a chocolate fiend.
jamcook June 15, 2013
I have my grandmothers recipes and they are similarly sketchy. Some were transcribed from fiends, or from radio programs (like Mary Margaret McBride.) It was assumed that people knew how to cook,and that they had basic equipment ..eggbeaters or whisks , not too many pots and pans , and no electronics. You can fiddle around with the recipes and see how you do,and adapt as you go along. My grandmother taught me how to Cook,I feel as if i am channelling her when I make applesauce with her old foley food mill, or roll out pastry with her rolling pin. Have's not just cooking, it's history.
jilhil June 15, 2013
Based on how old these are I also would guess that you are looking at unsweetened chocolate . The older family cookbooks that I have all assume chocolate is unsweetened unless otherwise specified. Where you have to be careful is when you work with a recipe that calls for a specific kind of candy bar - I'm thinking of one of my Grandmother's that called for a designated number of 5 cent Hershey bars - I had to figure out how many ounces used to be in a Hershey bar and work from there.
ATL June 15, 2013
powder, not power!
ATL June 15, 2013
Sorry--I guess I should have provided a recipe, but they vary. One example calls for 4 tbsp shortening, 2 eggs, 1 and 1/2 cup milk, 1 tsp vanilla, 3 tsp baking power, 1/2 tsp salt, 4 squares melted chocolate, 2 cups cake flour, and 1 cup chopped nuts. I would guess unsweetened chocolate given the amount of sugar, but would like the opinion of other bakers more skilled than I am.
beejay45 June 15, 2013
Can you be more specific? I'd say, off the top of my head, that the amount of sugar in the recipe might be a clue as to unsweetened or otherwise. If all else fails, you could start with unsweetened, make up the batter and give it a taste. ;) You'd know then if it needed more sugar. Not much help, I don't suppose.
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