I have no memory of when the Wacky Cake recipe invaded my repertoire of family favorites. My children, all now in their 50s, just remember it as always being the cake they requested for their birthday celebrations. All of them continued to bake it, in one form or another, for their kids.
This cake takes center stage at every family gathering, except maybe at Christmas or Thanksgiving, when pies emerge as necessary desserts.
Taking into consideration the use of staples from the pantry during this time of limited shopping capabilities and resources, this cake recipe offers the solution for a comforting, old-fashioned dessert. And, with its simple ingredient list, lends itself to many variations such as cupcakes, layer cake, or a thick or thin sheet cake. We even have lots of icing variations ranging from a thick decorator butter cream, to a thin glaze embellished with nuts.
Taking a recipe you’ve used for decades for granted is not uncommon, as you’d just assume everyone has the same recipe. So, amusingly, I have noticed the “discovery” of this wonderful recipe emerging all over the internet.
It flourishes under many names, such as Depression Cake; Poor Man’s Cake; Crazy Cake; Eggless, Milkless, Butterless Cake; and, of course, Wacky Cake. There are as many variations in ingredients for this cake as there are titles for it, and because it arose out of the Depression era, most cooks just substituted what they had on hand.
Some even substituted applesauce or apple butter for the oil, long before the low-fat diet craze became popular. I have added shredded zucchini to this recipe and no one even knew it was there.
My daughter CJ has developed a vanilla version and I have included her recipe here. She often cuts the quantities in half to serve just two people, and also likes to pour the batter over fruit for a cake-style cobbler. CJ also told me she has even baked the 1half-portion in a glass dish in the microwave. I haven’t tried that, but it bears testing.
Skeptics will question how a recipe that includes no butter or shortening, no eggs and no milk can work to produce such a rich, moist, satisfying cake. The secret really just lies in the chemistry of specific ingredients doing their work.
This recipe uses vegetable oil instead of butter or shortening, and coconut oil works great, too. Although milk adds some structure in a cake, it isn’t necessary in this recipe, as the ratio of flour to sugar to cocoa does the trick here. And the spring, or rise, that eggs give to traditional cake recipes is taken care of by the addition of baking soda and vinegar reacting with each other.
When I stopped buying any vegetable oil except olive oil and avocado oil, I just started using whichever oil I had on hand. My preference today is olive oil, as it adds a fruitiness and a moist density to the final cake. Southern European recipes are famous for their olive oil cakes.
As far as the cocoa is concerned, any sort of unsweetened baking cocoa is fine, and if you don’t have cocoa, check out my last blog entry for substitutions.
I use unfiltered apple cider vinegar, but plain white vinegar is good. I would not use a seasoned vinegar in this recipe as it may throw off the chocolaty deliciousness.
Makes any one of these:
- One 9-by-13-inch cake
- Two 8-inch layers
- 12 regular cupcakes
- One thin sheet cake in a 12-by-16-inch cookie sheet
Moisten surface of pan with a little oil or baking spray. Layer pans should be dusted with flour after oiling.
- 3 cups all-purpose flour (I have substituted up to 1/2 whole wheat flour or cup for cup gluten free flour)
- 2 cups sugar
- 3/4 cup unsweetened baking cocoa
- 3 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups water
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon vanilla
- 2 tablespoons vinegar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place dry ingredients in bowl and whisk together to combine.
Make a well in the center, and add the liquids. Whisk liquids into dry ingredients until well combined, and pour batter into prepared baking pan.
Bake 25-30 minutes or until cake springs back lightly when touched with finger.
The large sheet pan may take less time, the 9-by-13 may take longer. Do not overbake.
When thoroughly cool, ice with preferred method or simply dust with powdered sugar.
CJ’s Vanilla Variation
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons white vinegar
- 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons oil
- 2 cups water
Decorator Butter Cream Icing
Beat together 1/2 cup softened butter, 1 tsp vanilla and 2 cups powdered sugar. Slowly add milk or other liquid one tablespoon at a time until desired consistency is reached. To make chocolate icing, add 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa with the powdered sugar,
June’s Boiled Fudge Icing
Combine 1 cup sugar, 1/4 cup butter, 1/4 cup cocoa and 1/4 cup milk or water with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Heat slowly until the sugar is dissolved, then bring to boiling point and boil for one minute.
Remove from heat, let cool a few minutes, then beat behind or with an electric mixer 3-5 minutes until icing begins to lose its shine, spread quickly over the surface of your cake. This is a thin, fudge icing, not a fluffy one.
Note: For a Texas Sheet Cake, baked in a cookie sheet, spread the icing thin over the surface and sprinkle with chopped nuts of choice.