Devil’s Food Chocolate Cake with “Piquant” Boiled Icing, Late 19th Century

June 20, 2016
2 Ratings
Photo by James Ransom
  • Makes one 8-inch three-layer cake
Author Notes

Recipe adapted from Victorian Cakes by Caroline B. King.

Considered a “reaction to Angel Food,” recipes for this popular chocolate cake start to appear early in the twentieth century, though it seems to have been enjoyed for a few decade prior. In Victorian Cakes, the 1946 memoir about her childhood in 1880s Chicago, Caroline B. King (née Campion) writes that the “dark and sinful” cake made its appearance on their Sunday evening tea table sometime in the later part of the 1880s.

Credit for its introduction to the Campion household belongs to Maud, one of Caroline’s four sisters. Considered the “socially inclined” one, Maud made frequent visits from house to house, gathering gossip, trends, and recipes. It was from one such visit, specifically to The Waterman Family, that she returned with the recipe for Devil’s Food.

The finished cake, three layers tall and covered in billowy white icing, was a hit with the Campions, even their selective father. His reaction to another Waterman recipe had been “enough to bring tears of disappointment and mortification to Maud.” That cake: Angel Cake. As for Devil’s Food, says Caroline, “Secretly, I have always thought its name appealed to him.”

The icing is the same boiled icing as in Malinda Russell’s Gold Cake, with the addition of citric acid (I haven’t seen another recipe that calls for this ingredient, so I can only assume it was a homebaker quirk of the time). “The Waterman’s receipt called for a thick boiled icing made pleasantly piquant with a few drops of citric acid. But citric acid sounded dangerous to Maud... so [she] used lemon juice, sparingly and judiciously, and the result was perfect.” I happened to have citric acid so I went with that, but feel free to substitute lemon juice (1 teaspoon). That said, I enjoyed the addition of the citric acid (though unusual), as the tartness cut the sweetness without adding additional flavor. —Jessica Reed

What You'll Need
  • For the cake:
  • 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
  • 5 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups sugar
  • For the “piquant” boiled icing:
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon citric acid or lemon juice
  1. For the cake:
  2. Preheat oven to 350° F. Butter and paper three 8-inch round cake pans.
  3. Melt the chocolate in a double-boiler or a small bowl set atop (but not in contact with) a saucepan of simmering water. Set aside to cool slightly.
  4. Separate the egg yolks from the whites, setting both aside.
  5. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
  6. In a small bowl or 2-cup glass measuring cup, whisk together the sour cream and vanilla. Set aside.
  7. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy and lighter in color, about 3 minutes.
  8. Whisk the egg yolks to break them up, then add them to the batter, beating at medium speed for 2 minutes. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl, then beat in the melted chocolate until combined.
  9. Turn the mixer to low and alternate adding the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt, and the sour cream in three total parts, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Stop when there are still a few streaks of flour left and fold by hand until all is incorporated.
  10. In the very clean bowl of a stand mixer or a separate bowl and with a hand mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the cake batter.
  11. Divide the batter evenly between the three pans. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the cakes start pulling away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or with just a few dry crumbs attached. Let cool in the pans for 5 minutes before removing the cakes to racks to cool completely.
  1. For the “piquant” boiled icing:
  2. In a saucepan, gently stir together the sugar and water. Place over medium heat and cover the pan. Let cook for three minutes, then remove the lid. Gently swirl the mixture and continue to cook at a low boil until it reaches 235° F on a candy or instant read thermometer.
  3. While the sugar syrup is cooking, whip the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment until they hold medium peaks.
  4. Once the syrup is done, carefully and slowly stream it into the mixer (while running it on low speed), trying your best to avoid both the whisk and the sides of the bowl. Once all of the syrup is in, turn mixer speed to medium-high and beat until the bowl is cool, and the frosting holds its shape and is a good, spreadable consistency. Whisk in the citric acid or lemon juice on low speed.
  5. To assemble the cake, spread a little of the icing between each cooled layer, then cover the cake completely with the remaining icing.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Liz
  • Moema Bentley
    Moema Bentley
  • Gordon Graham Best
    Gordon Graham Best
  • Sarah Jampel
    Sarah Jampel
A baker, artist, writer, historian, and unabashed bibliophile, I live in Brooklyn with my husband and our daughter and blog at Creator of THE BAKER'S APPENDIX, available here at Food52!

5 Reviews

Liz June 25, 2017
Made the icing from this recipe. I favor buttercreams and this was more marshmallow with a hint of lemon. Would prob use less lemon juice next time (1/2 tsp). Not sure if i would keep this recipe due to texture, but the taste was nice. Not overwhelming sweet like some icings can be.
Moema B. December 5, 2016
This was a very moist and fluffy cake. The frosting was amazing and very easy to make. I hope I get to make it again for a birthday or just a weekend treat! 😀
Gordon G. September 24, 2016
Given that this batter is prepared more closely related to the sponge method (folding in whipped egg whites). how would you prepare the pans?
Gordon G. September 24, 2016
More specifically should the sides be buttered?
Sarah J. October 7, 2016
Hi Gordon! Butter the three 8-inch round cake pans and line each one with parchment paper.