Adapted from The Ladies Receipt Book by Eliza Leslie.
This, friends, is the earliest-yet-found printed recipe for Chocolate Cake. “Wait, really?” you may be thinking… but it’s true! Older recipes that mention Chocolate and Cake were actually referring to cakes meant for serving with chocolate, usually of the hot and drinkable variety. Though cakes containing chocolate as an ingredient date back further—the Marquis de Sade mentions one in a 1779 letter sent to his wife from prison—we have found no written recipe until Eliza Leslies’ 1847 book, The Ladies Reciept Book.
Eliza’s recipe calls for using grated chocolate or “prepared cocoa.” I love that both the Chocolate Cake and the Chocolate Chip Cookie evolved containing bits of the heavenly stuff, so grated chocolate it is. As with the Indian Meal Cake, Eliza used an entire nutmeg. In fact, you rarely see an early 19th-century recipe that does not call for nutmeg. They were crazy for the stuff.
The highlight of this cake, for me at least, is the icing. The word icing evolved from this thick mixture of egg whites and sugar; for ages, bakers would pour it over a hot cake, then return it to the oven until it was dry and, well, ice-like in its smoothness. Eventually bakers stopped icing the hot cake, and, like in the recipe below, poured the mixture over the a cooled cake, then set it aside to dry for a few hours (hello Royal Icing).
As an aside, Eliza calls for lemon oil, rose extract, or vanilla extract to flavor the icing. Until the early 19th century, vanilla was used as a perfume by those well-off rather than for cooking or baking purposes due to the high cost of production (second only to Saffron). —Jessica Reed
Heat the oven to 350° F. Generously butter a 10-inch tube pan.
Grate the chocolate on the fine side of a cheese grater or with a microplane. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, nutmeg, cinnamon and pinch of salt. Fold the grated chocolate into the dry ingredients. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or, my preferred method, in a large bowl with a hand mixer), beat the eggs on medium speed until lighter in color and voluminous, about 3 to 5 minutes if using a stand mixer. If using a hand-mixer, this should take a little under 2 minutes.
In a clean mixer bowl using the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed until fluffy and lighter in color, about 3 minutes.
With the mixer running on low speed, alternately add the eggs and the flour, spices, and salt mixture in three parts, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Fold the batter with a rubber spatula a few times to ensure all of the flour is mixed in.
Spread the batter into the prepared tube pan. Bake for 55 minutes, or until a tester inserted comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan on a rack for ten minutes, then remove the cake from the pan to cool completely.
For the early icing:
In a very clean bowl, vigorously whisk the egg whites until foamy. (You can also do this in a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.) Whisk in the powdered sugar, a little at a time, until you have a nice, smooth icing. Whisk in the vanilla extract.
Set the cake on top of a wire rack which has itself been set on a rimmed baking sheet. Liberally pour the icing all over the cake, using a small off-set spatula to smooth and even it out. Let dry at least 2 hours before slicing the cake.