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Author Notes: Recipe adapted from The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken. (Note: Peg includes three frosting recipes in the book, but makes no mention of who Maggie is.)
One of the greatest cookbooks ever (in my humble opinion) is The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken. Published in 1960, the only cake recipe in the book is Cockeyed Cake. A treat of many names, what this easy chocolate cake has in common no matter what you call it is the lack of butter or eggs; the inclusion of vinegar; and a mixing method that requires little more than a bowl and a whisk. An example of a “make-do” cake commonly seen beginning in the early twentieth century, its appeal is not only in its ease, but also that it is one-step-up from a boxed mix.
The first boxed cake mix to appear was the Duff brand gingerbread mix in 1931. Many others followed, but sales languished until the mid-1950s, when manufacturers thought to remove the powdered eggs from the mix, thereby giving women the job of adding fresh eggs because, as Peg notes sarcastically, “they miss the creative kick they would otherwise get from baking that cake.” She goes on to write, “We don’t get our creative kicks from adding an egg, we get them from painting pictures or bathrooms, or potting geraniums or babies, or writing stories or amendments, or, possibly, engaging in some interesting type of psycho-neurochemical research like seeing if, perhaps, we can replace colloids with sulphates. And we simply love ready-mixes.”
This mix of seriousness and sarcasm was common throughout Peg’s work, which also included books on etiquette and housekeeping. In the era of The Joy of Cooking, Betty Crocker, and Julia Child, Peg wrote for those women who, at the cusp of the modern liberation movement, needed to laugh at bit in the face of what was expected of them.
Note: Many recipes for this type of cake call for mixing directly in the pan. As that method never fails to leave my baked cake with pockets of flour, I always mix in a bowl. That said, the following recipe can be mixed and baked in the same pan. Just add the ingredients in the order they are given and mix well.
Makes one 8- by 8-inch square cake
For the cake:
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons cocoa powder, any kind
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 5 tablespoons neutral oil
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup cold water
- Preheat oven to 350° F. Butter an 8- by 8-inch cake pan and line with a parchment paper sling. Butter the paper.
- Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt into a medium-sized bowl. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the oil, vinegar, and vanilla. Pour over the cold water. Whisk well until smooth and combined.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and set a timer for 25 minutes.
- Meanwhile, prepare the sugar topping.
For Maggie’s sugar topping:
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at warm room temperature
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream or whole milk
- Optional: “As much as you want or have” of walnuts, almonds, or coconut. Or all three.
- In a small bowl, stir together the butter, brown sugar, cream or milk, and any optional ingredients until smooth.
- When the timer goes off at 25 minutes, pull the cake out of the oven and spread the topping all over the hot surface. Return the cake to the oven and bake for an additional 5 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and set the pan on a rack. Let cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then use the sling to remove the cake from the pan. Let cool completely.
- This recipe is a Community Pick!