Make Ahead

Belle Foley's Chocolate Cake

October 11, 2022
11 Ratings
Photo by Julia Gartland
  • Prep time 20 minutes
  • Cook time 35 minutes
  • Serves 8 to 10
Author Notes

My mother was the saddest person I ever knew. Life and everything in it failed her utterly. I've never understood fully the roots of her disappointment, though heaven knows I tried. Nonetheless, one of my best memories of her is this cake.

My mother, Marilyn Joan, known as Joan, grew up on a farm in the general area of Fenton, Michigan. On a neighboring farm lived a woman by the name of Belle Foley. Over the years, I've nurtured an image of a woman described by my father, who came to know her, as warm and smiling.

This is the cake she taught my mother to make. It was always our go to cake for anyone's birthday when my sister and I were children, then eventually for our children and their friends as we grew our own families. The ingredients and directions are exactly as I inherited them from my mother. My notes are in parentheses.

Measurements are fairly approximate. According to my mother, "Belle measured cups with teacups and teaspoons with something you'd use to stir sugar into coffee." As well, "rounding" measurements mean just that. Butter was something they churned from the milk and cream from their own cows, eggs were gathered from beneath their chickens, and need I explain that the milk was anything less than "whole"?

You really can mix it in one large bowl. Sift together dry ingredients? Forget about it. Whisk? Sure, if you have one, which I'm fairly sure Belle Foley did not. Alternatively, mix with a rubber spatula.

I like to think that Belle Foley took a nervous, unsure young woman to her side and shared this cake recipe with her, and gave her some joy. The greatest tribute to both her and my mother is to pass this on.

Enjoy! And please pass it on. - boulangere

And now for something entirely new, some of you may have followed the story on foodpickle of the miraculous gentleman who posted a question as to how to get in touch with me because, you see, Belle Foley was his mother. You can read the very long thread here:

For the sake of ease of use, I'm posting the frosting recipe on the page Belle Foley's Chocolate Cake Chocolate Frosting: This cake has created miracles. —boulangere

Test Kitchen Notes

While making this cake I felt sent back in time: stirring up batter in a country kitchen, before the time of electric mixers and air conditioning. The batter came together quite easily with just a bowl and wooden spoon, however it was very watery. I admit to skepticism when I poured it in the pan and popped it in the oven and I sent a little prayer up to the kitchen angels. But after about 40 minutes I beheld a glorious chocolate cake. Belle Foley's creation is pure, home-cooked, delicious chocolate goodness. It makes a wonderful treat to snack on as is, but I will definitely be trying it out with a variety of frostings and fillings...think coffee, caramel, nutella. —Food52

What You'll Need
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 6 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup whole milk, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • Whipped cream, for serving
  • Vanilla ice cream, for serving
  1. Trace the outline of a 9-inch round cake pan onto a sheet of parchment. Cut inside the line so that the circle fits inside the cake pan. Drop the circle into the cake pan. Don't spray or grease the sides; you'll get a more level rise.
  2. Preheat oven to 350° F.
  3. Mix together the sugar, cocoa, butter, eggs, milk, vanilla, and flour. Add baking soda and mix to combine. Add 1 cup of boiling water and combine. The batter will be runny.
  4. Pour into a cake pan. Bake for about 35 or 40 minutes (or until the cake feels springy).
  5. Let cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes before removing from pan. Depan and let cool until room temperature. Sift some powdered sugar over the top. Cut warm, generous slices and serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Allison
  • Hannah
  • Jennifer Gorman
    Jennifer Gorman
  • TheWimpyVegetarian
  • em-i-lis

87 Reviews

Heather V. November 13, 2023
This is my great-grandmother's recipe and love that you have shared this with others. Grandma Foley truly was an amazing bake, cook and just overall lovely woman! You should try the rolls!!
boulangere November 13, 2023
You are so fortunate to be among her family, Heather! I'll never forget Max Foley contacting me via a very circuitous thread, writing: "Belle Foley was my mother." I'm making the cake in a couple of weeks for a surprise 80th birthday party for a sweet friend's mother. Thank you so much for reaching out!
boulangere November 13, 2023
Now, what rolls?!
Allison February 20, 2022
I think the story is very sweet and heartwarming, however, without the sentimental value/memories of the cake it is just not great. I’ll give credit where it’s due, the cake is moist and the appropriate texture for a cake. If you’re looking to make a chocolate cake that tastes nothing like chocolate, then you’ve found the recipe for you. But I will not be making again.
Allison February 20, 2022
Also to note: I had to use two cake pans or else this would’ve overflowed/taken a lifetime to bake.
boulangere February 25, 2022
Gosh, I’m so sorry, Allison. I made it just two days ago in the recommended cake pan and baked for the requisite time. It had the typical dark chocolate color and flavor. I’m wondering if there was a scaling issue.
Ryanm2468 September 11, 2021
I made this tonight! I have to say…this was one of the worst cakes I’ve ever made. It took twice the time it said bake and after to failed attempts making the disgusting frosting, I gave up and just put powdered sugar on top of it. The cake was so dense and tasted like garbage. Don’t waste your time!!!
Beth P. September 8, 2021
My mother made this cake, too - with coffee instead of water to heighten the flavor a little! Has anyone tried making it gluten free?
Hannah August 27, 2020
When I saw that there was only a quarter cup of cocoa to 2 cups of sugar, I cut the sugar by 1/2 cup and added another tablespoon of cocoa. It worked out really well, especially with the frosting on top.

boulangere February 25, 2022
Hannah, 4 tablespoons of cocoa powder is, yes, 1/4 cup. 4 rounding tablespoons is significantly more.
The I. February 14, 2017
I really wanted to love this nostalgic recipe, but after making the cake batter (using heaping tablespoons of cocoa) I found it to be too sticky sweet and much to light on chocolate flavor.
Jennifer G. February 13, 2017
I love this story, and just have to comment that it is exactly my beloved Aunt Jackie's chocolate cake recipe, which means that it is ALMOST my mother's, which is the same measurements, only that hers calls for a cup of hot coffee instead of the hot water. Where each of them got each recipie years and years ago I don't know if either woman remembers, but to say that within our family each cake has it's own loyal fandom is to put it mildly, we all have to be loyal to our own mothers, the other cousins to their tastes, but that addition of the coffee is to put it over the top, as you can imagine. My mother made this cake weekly for many years for our local volunteer fire company, where both her and my aunt were the President and Treasurer, respectively, for the Wednesday night Bingo Hall, until that was stopped several years ago, and the Ladies Auxiliary as well..She continues to make it for many church gatherings and family functions, since people are always eagerly expecting it, but they are certainly not disappointed by her from scratch lemon meringue pie either!!
CyndyK January 17, 2014
So nice- Thx
ShannonC March 25, 2013
Thank you very much for this recipe! My family enjoyed it...we added fresh strawberries before serving (not terribly inspired but the clasics work).
debradrodvillo March 10, 2013
Just made the cake. looks beautiful, especially with the powdered sugar. the taste is okay. I will try again, but add less sugar and more coca powder. It just does not have a deep enough of a chocolate flavor. But it is super easy and if I can get a more deep chocolate flavor, it will be a great go-to cake. i'll let everyone know!
softpunk April 25, 2012
I'm not sure what went wrong, but this cake turned out very, very sweet, but not terribly chocolatey. More importantly, the cake fell as soon as I took it out of the oven. The crumb is full of huge air bubbles that look like carpenter ant tunnels, and the texture is squidgie with the cake sticking to the teeth unpleasantly. Could it be the humidity outside? I so wanted this to be the perfect, go-to chocolate cake. I will try it again another day to see if I get better results, but for today's birthday I'll have to go with an old reliable that calls for 3x as much cocoa. If anyone can suggest a cause for the weird carpenter ant air bubble tunnels I would love to know!
Lucas4Food February 19, 2012
I just made this cake for my son's 3rd birthday party (the one mentioned on my handle name) and everyone loved it! him specially. It was so easy to make, that I decided to make a second one just in case. One, I used powdered sugar, the other I used chocolate fudge icing (also a recipe from Food52), then cut strawberries and made a Mickey Mouse face on each of the cakes. Thank you for sharing the recipe. I am not a cook at all and still was able to have evryone talk about how delicious the cakes were.
TheWimpyVegetarian January 6, 2012
What a lovely story, and what a wonderful ending. It's really so perfect. My grandson's birthday is tomorrow and I'm looking at all the wonderful chocolate cakes here. I find I really need to make this for him. I love sdebrango's chocolate cake recipe too as it's another family one, and it feels right that I should make a family recipe for him, even it it's not from my family. I might make both!
TheWimpyVegetarian January 29, 2012
I ended with another cake for that grandson's birthday, but am going to the birthday party shortly for my oldest grandson (he's all of 8 now), and made this cake this morning. It smells wonderful - as does my whole house now, thanks to your (and Belle's) wonderful cake. And the batter was runny, as warned, but tasted great too. I iced it, because I think he'd want me to, and can't wait to try it at the party!!
boulangere January 29, 2012
Happy birthday to that sweet boy! I hope you all enjoy the cake and have a lovely party. Thank you CS.
Foley77 September 29, 2011
Belle Foley was my great grandmother. She was a special lady, and the best baker around. This recipe is a Foley favorite, I now make this cake for special occasions.
boulangere October 26, 2011
Well aren't you one of the luckiest people around! What a great heritage you have behind you, and I'm so glad you carry on the tradition, too.
Lauren F. April 10, 2016
We must know each other, she was also my great grandmother!
em-i-lis September 15, 2011
Many thanks, drbabs-it's really interesting to hear your experience with the added lemon making things kind of nutty! the lemon cake you mention here sounds marvelous. i ended up creating this recipe which i just love, both for flavor and b/c it skirts the issue of the lemon in the batter:
drbabs September 15, 2011
yes, I just saw that--it looks so good! And I was laughing to myself because having grown up on Betty Crocker cake mixes, I thought I was so sophisticated when I changed to Duncan Hines (which tasted a lot less artificial to me).
em-i-lis September 15, 2011
:) I love it!!!
em-i-lis September 15, 2011
Hi there, Just wanted to let you know what I did and how it turned out re: the lemon adaptation. I used your recipe but instead of cocoa subbed 12 T lemon juice and the zest of three lemons. I increased the baking soda to 1.5 tsp. The batter never looked terribly thick so I used 1/4 c boiling water instead on the full cup. As I pulled the cake out of the oven, I dropped the darn pan about 3" and part of the cake dipped in. I put it back in the oven for 2-3 minutes as I'd already cooked it just under your recommended 35 (my oven bakes warm). It puffed back up some. Here's what I was shocked by: it really wasn't terribly lemony. How is that possible? It was a tad chewy, maybe b/c I didn't use all the boiling water? Maybe b/c I dropped it? Anyway, it was a nice cake but not stand out so I'll stick with your beauitful chocolate recipe in the future. I adapted a different cake to update my grandma's lemon-lime, and that turned out deliciously, terrifically, intensely citrusy well. This was a really fun process of creation, boulangere, and I appreciate your advice! Thanks!
drbabs September 15, 2011
em-i-lis, last year I was trying to change a cake recipe (I actually think it was orange cake) to make lemon cupcakes for a friend's birthday. The acid in the lemon did all sorts of weird things to the cake batter--made it runny and gummy and the resultant cakes were chewy and somewhat unpleasant. After that I found and tested this recipe from kitchenbutterfly:

The texture of the cake was perfect and it was just lemony enough. The differences were significant--hers is a yogurt pound cake with almond meal, and she uses a lot of lemon zest as well as juice; baking powder instead of soda. But you might want to try it and see if it gives you a better result.
boulangere September 15, 2011
Darn. Cakes just hate being dropped on their heads. Yes, I have a feeling the trip to the floor affected the poor thing's texture. It seems this was born to be a chocolate cake. Glad drbabs helped you find your way to a lemon cake.
em-i-lis September 13, 2011
my 2.5 yr old and i are getting everything out for lemon belle foley #1. :) if i want to do a 9x13 sheet cake, do you think i need to double your recipe? your cake is so fluffy in the pic- maybe just 1.5x the original recipe? many thanks!!!!
em-i-lis September 13, 2011
and boulangere, what about subbing buttermilk for reg milk? i'm sorry to ask you all these questions but i'm feeling inspired over here. have you ever used cake flour vs AP? thank you!
em-i-lis September 12, 2011
i could not agree with you more re: lemon extract=pledge. and i will definitely let you know the result of this. i'm pretty excited!!!
many, many thanks for all the helpful tips and for sharing the love and fun you have in the kitchen. truly, i can tell you have a great spirit. love it!
and family recipes are so special. i've become the de facto historian for my family. my grandma, now 92 and very frail and ready to go, gave me my first cookbook and has always been one of my dearest friends. keeping her recipes going is special on so many levels, not least because doing so honors her over and over again.
thank you, boulangere!! i'll keep you posted!
boulangere September 12, 2011
Oh my goodness, what a treasure you have in your living grandmother! And great kudos to you for taking on the role of family historian. My sister and I have divvied up those duties: she's taken on filling out the family tree from my father and his brother (the last of the 3 brothers died just a few months ago, and our father a year-and-a-half ago), and I've inherited my mother's recipe card files and binders, from which this obviously stems. Isn't that the heart of food52 - cooks who love where their food comes from and know it isn't always from them.
em-i-lis September 12, 2011
boulangere, you have great spirit! i was actually wondering about going all the way to lemon (no chocolate), and here's why i ask. my grandma used to make a divine lemon-lime sheet cake with lemon whipped pudding as the frosting. it was insanely good and used a Duncan Hines cake mix as the base. that is a solid cake-from-a-box but i like to make cakes from scratch w/o all the weird additives. so i was wondering about using yours but changing the choc to lemon. what do you think? many thanks!
boulangere September 12, 2011
Well I think that's pretty brilliant. Leave out the cocoa, add the lemon juice and zest. I'm guessing you want a true lemony flavor here (and bless you, bless your for not going the mix route!), so probably go with the zest and juice of two lemons. Again, strain and measure the lemon juice and let its quantity determine how much baking soda you use: 1/2 tsp for every 8 ounces. And as I said, taste your batter and let that tell you if you've used enough lemon juice. And I am so happy you're using real lemon, not extract. If the latter, you may as well use Pledge. And do let us know the result!
boulangere September 12, 2011
There's nothing like those family recipe memories.
em-i-lis September 12, 2011
hi boulangere, this sounds lovely. i wonder if it could be adapted to a lemon cake? what do you think?
boulangere September 12, 2011
What a great idea! If you're asking if you add lemon (zest and juice, right?) to the chocolate cake, hell yes! That's a fantastic combination. Measure your lemon juice (taste the batter to see if you have enough), and increase the baking soda via this formula: 1/2 teaspoon for every 8 ounces of acidic component. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that you're likely going to be adding considerably less than that, so think in terms of an extra pinch. And please let us know the results!