Unraveling the secret Texas origin of German chocolate cake

Kevin Farrell

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Ahhh, German chocolate cake. Coconut-pecan frosting as sweet as the hills of Bavaria. Rich chocolate as dark as Baden-Württemberg’s Black Forest. Pillowy layers, stacked as high as Dallas’ Trammell Crow Center tower. Wait, what’s that about Dallas? I hate to break it to you, chocoholics, but German Chocolate Cake isn’t a product of Germany. This confusing cake is 100% Texan.

In retrospect, the clues were there all along. The Germans aren’t exactly known for their frequent incorporation of buttermilk and shortening into their cooking, now are they? And the sweeping boulevards of Berlin are hardly lined with majestic rows of coconut-bearing palm trees. So how did we Americans all come to believe that this retro dessert hailed all the way from Deutschland?

Although we can all easily conjure up visions of great-great-great-grandmothers passing down their traditional family recipe for the cake from one generation to the next, the very first recipe for German chocolate cake to ever appear in print dates back to just 1957. It wasn’t Süddeutsche Zeitung or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that debuted the dessert. Nope, the first German Chocolate Cake recipe first appeared in The Dallas Morning News, as the feature in food reporter Julie Benell's June 3 recipe-of-the-day column.

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I made this German chocolate cake for Teacher Appreciation day last week, and it was so good I’m going to share the #recipe on the blog. I was running behind the morning of (story of my parenthood) so this is pretty much the only picture I got, but trust me - it’s good! I adapted the cake from the #fearlessbaker cookbook, so it’s rich and amazing, and the sweet coconut pecan filling is the perfect contrast. * * * * #todaywebake #foodblogger #foodblogfeed #foodphotography #f52grams #feedfeed @thefeedfeed #foodofinstagram #recipeoftheday #thekitchn #buzzfeast #buzzfeedfood #instafood #homebaker #bakefromscratch #thebakefeed @thebakefeed #marthabakes #hautecuisines #beautifulcuisines #gloobyfood #bakersofinstagram #germanchocolatecake #chocolate #cake #cakesofinstagram

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First called German’s chocolate cake, the cake was credited to Mrs. George Clay, a homemaker living on Academy Drive in Dallas. The titular German stemmed not from any sort of association with the country, but rather from the headlining ingredient: Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate, itself a confusingly named product.

Baker’s German’s chocolate was, at the time, a 105-year-old product named after a Massachusetts general store owner, Dr. James Baker. After befriending an Irish chocolatier named John Hannon who had immigrated to the states, the two formed the Hannon’s Best Chocolate company in 1765. When Hannon died at sea 14 years later, Baker bought out Hannon’s widow’s inherited share of the company, and renamed the flagship product, Baker’s Chocolate.

When Baker’s grandson Walter eventually inherited the company, he brought in a number of new employees, including an English immigrant, Samuel German. Chocolate available for sale in markets had up until this point been strictly bitter blocks, hardly the sort of thing we buy in candy bar form today. German though, managed to crack the code on producing a chocolate that already had sugar mixed into it, eliminating a step in the baking process for those attempting to prepare a dessert. The product was a hit. So much of a hit in fact, that Baker added German’s name to the product, leaving us with a best-selling chocolate called Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate, named after two men who were neither bakers nor German.

By the time Mrs. Clay’s recipe ran in The Dallas Morning News in 1957, the company producing the sweet stuff had traded hands a few more times. Today, Kraft owns the rights to the product, but in the mid 20th century, General Foods was the one producing Baker’s German’s. When the company caught wind of Clay’s cake recipe, it launched into marketing overdrive, sending the clipping out to newspapers and magazines across the country. As new markets reprinted the recipe, sales of Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate skyrocketed. When the recipe was reprinted in new publications, the possessive was dropped, leaving new readers with the impression that this German chocolate cake was a classic European dessert.

If you’ve thought all this time that the cake had German roots, you’re not the only one. And you’re certainly not the responsible for the biggest German chocolate c/ake gaffe in history. That distinct honor goes to President Lyndon B. Johnson – or perhaps his wife, Ladybird – who famously served the cake in 1963 to German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard during a state dinner at the first family’s Johnson City ranch. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall, or a fleck of coconut on the cake!

Kevin Farrell

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