The History of Wacky Cake

This is another recipe that I did not grow up with. I think it was because by the time the eighties and nineties came around, box cake mixes were such a part of life and made baking a cake just as easy as this recipe. Unbeknownst to me, I had made this cake (but under a different name) when I was testing out recipes for my Peg Bracken posts. Ultimately “The Cake” recipe won but this cake was a close second. This is not a pretty cake but the results is something you can not argue with!

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Who and where was Wacky Cake created?
So figuring out when this cake was created took me down a bit of a rabbit hole. First I looked up the cake in Jean Anderson’s The American Century Cookbook where she remembers the cake vividly in the 1970s but feels she has known about it longer, though can’t prove it. This made me remember a recipe I made in Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cookbook called the Cockeyed Cake. I made a bee line for the 1960 cookbook and sure enough the recipe was for Wacky Cake just called a different name. Now I knew that it dated at least sometime around the 1960s. Then in a 1985 article, a reader wrote in about the cake saying that it was at least from the 1950s. So 1950s it is…..until I came across a Mary Moore newspaper column. In the 1958 article, a reader writes in asking for a recipe she saw printed a few years ago called Wacky Cake. Mary Moore answered that a “‘few years ago’ was March 3, 1940!” and that she guesses that “we can afford to repeat it”. Now we know that it was around 1940 but still did not have the who. Then a chance encounter with Anne Byrn’s cookbook American Cake (2016) at the library added that the cake became popular in the 1940s due to the recipe being used during cooking demonstrations. It was most likely created by an anonymous food economist at the time for this purpose. Other names for the cake besides Wacky and Cockeyed are Crazy or Wonder cake.

What ingredients are in Wacky Cake?
This chocolate cake gets its name due to the way it is mixed together in the the pan it will be baked in and the fact that it includes no eggs. After the dry ingredients are mixed together and three holes are made with vanilla, vinegar and oil placed in each of the holes. Then water is pour all over it, mixed together and then baked. The outcome is a super moist cake.

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When was Wacky Cake popular?
It was a popular recipe from the the 1940s but its heyday was the 1960s and 1970s. This recipe could be found on many school lunch menus of the day all the way to the early 2000s. Dorothy Dean in one of her 1958 newspaper articles called the cake a great last minute dessert and it is “so good and so simple that we wonder sometimes why we go to so much effort to make cakes”. Two articles from the 1960s proclaimed the greatness of this cake. One mentions in it that a young homemaker loves to make this cake for her family and liked the fact it can be made in a “jiffy”. The other called the recipe a “long-time favorite”. Amy Vanderbilt suggested that the cake was perfect for first time bakers in the 1960s.

In a 1985 newspaper column about wacky cake, a reader wrote that her boyfriend’s mother had been making the cake since the early sixties. She goes on to describe the cake as “so rich and dark and good. There was never any leftover.” Another reader in the same article called this cake her standby since the 1950s. In the 1990s, this cake got a microwave makeover due to the rising popularity of cooking with your microwave.

Why should I make Wacky Cake?
This cake is beyond easy to make with very little mess that makes a pretty darn tasty cake. For that alone you need to try it out. It is also a cake that you do not have to frost if you don’t feel like it. Many articles I read mentions that most people just top it with some powdered sugar and call it a day. If you love chocolate cake then I do say you need to give this low maintenance cake a try. A reader of of 1993 newspaper submitted a wacky cake recipe with the note “I’m sure all your readers will love this cake”. I completely agree with this statement.

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How do you make Wacky Cake?
The original recipes has you prepare and mix everything in the greased cake pan. I prefer to mix it in a mixing bowl and then pour it into the pan. It is just much easier to combine the mixture in the bowl then something with squared corners. This is the way I put it in the recipe but just know that this can be done all in one pan.

I kept in the making the three holes as a nod to the original recipe but you really can just make one large hole to put the vanilla, oil and vinegar before pouring the water over. Also some recipes call for using warm water while other says it has to be cold. I have tried both and I personally could not see a difference.

Wacky Cake

  • Servings: 6 to 8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A super easy and quick chocolate cake that does not use eggs. This can easily be double and baked in a 9x13 pan. Just increase the cooking time accordingly.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 6 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 cup water

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degree and grease a 8 inch cake pan.
  2. In a mixing bowl sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa and baking soda. Then give it a quick stir to combine.
  3. Make three holes in the dry mix and put vinegar in one, vanilla in another and the oil in the third.
  4. Pour water over the mixture and mix till well combined.
  5. Pour the batter into greased pan and bake for 30 minutes.
  6. Let cool and top with powdered sugar or frost (see suggestions in the notes).

Notes: Many recipes call for just dusting the cake with some powder sugar but here are two other serving suggestions:

  • This one is from a 1980s community cookbook and is the one I used in the photo: Mix together 3 tablespoons of softened butter, 1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar, 2 tablespoons cocoa, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons coffee (sub milk or cream if you do not want to use coffee) and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract. You can either spread this on the cake warm and it turns glossy and fudgey or wait for the cake to cool completely and the frosting stays like fluffy buttercream.
  • This one is from a 1990s article about a Home Economics teacher: She liked to sprinkle a handful of chocolate chips on the batter before baking. Then she served it warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
  • Another article (in which I wrote no information down for), poked holes in the warm baked cake and topped with some caramel sauce in which it seeped into the cake. They then spread some homemade whipped cream on top of that and finished it off with a sprinkle of chopped up heath candy bars.


Sources:

Anderson, Jean. The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1997.

“Baked Dessert for Fall Menu”. The Pittsburgh Press. October 15, 1964.

Byrn, Anne. American Cake. New York: Rodale, 2016.

Cicero, Linda. “‘Very Best’ Wacky Chocolate Cakes Stirred up right in the cooking pan.” the Evening Independent. November 13, 1985.

Dean, Dorothy. “Fill Square Cake with Jam to Get Change of Scenery”. The Spokesman-Review. January 30, 1953

“Former Teacher Submits Recipe for ‘Wacky Cake'”. Reading Eagle. January 13, 1963.

Hawks, Ellen. “Candy Cake Recipes Worth Keeping”. The Bulletin. August 31, 1993.

Lovegren, Sylvia. Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads. New York: Macmillian General Reference, 1995.

Moore, Mary. “Marry Moore’s Meals: Reader Asks for Quantity Salad.” Ottawa Citizen. May 22, 1958.

Scripps, Howard. “Wacky Cake from ’60s Can Be Made in Microwave Today”. Times-Union. October 7, 1996.

“Wacky Cake – Still One for the Cookbooks”. St. Petersburg Times. July 9, 1970.

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