August 28, 2021

HERITAGE RECIPE : Devil's Food Cake

My mom's birthday was on Monday and I invited Luke and Riley to come over and help me bake her a birthday cake. Since I've been baking a lot this year, thanks to this heritage recipe series, I thought it would be fun to make a cake and frosting from scratch.

There were several cake recipes to choose from, but not many that seemed like "birthday" cake. I know my mom likes chocolate, so I picked a recipe for Devil's Food Cake.

This recipe was submitted to the Rockwood, Michigan Area Historical Society by Betty Gay, in memory of Mrs. Frank Gay.

Being from Rockwood (which is literally only two square miles), I recognize just about all of the surnames of people that live there. However, I hadn't heard of anyone from Rockwood with the last name "Gay", so I was definitely curious to see if I could learn anything about Betty or "Mrs." Frank Gay.

Mrs. Frank Gay was Betty's mother-in-law, Louise. Louise was born in 1894 and was one of FOURTEEN children! Louise married Frank Gay in 1950 and they had several children. Their son, Samuel (Sam), married Betty (Betty is the one who submitted the recipe).

Sam and Betty were honorary life members of the Golden Retriever Club of America--I'm not sure what that is, exactly, but I'm pretty sure it means they loved dogs ;)  Interestingly, the couple lived on Sam's family farm, which is now the center portion of Lake Erie Metropark (that's the Metropark where I've done a LOT of race training over the years).

As I was looking for some info on Betty and Louise, I saw this nice tribute that someone wrote after Betty's obituary--it's quite the coincidence!

"Betty Gay was a passionate family historian. Pre-computer or Internet, she'd travel to courthouses and graveyards, researching. I contacted her in the late 1970s about the Shew and Bentley line. The information I received back was abundant and well researched and documented. An inspiration to all who love the hobby of genealogy."

Louise passed away in 1980 at age 86; Betty passed away in 2009 at age 80.

I have to say, Louise had a great Devil's Food Cake recipe! I really love how it turned out.

I told Luke that if my mom asked him what kind of cake it was to tell her, "It's Devil's Food Cake from scratch". He asked me a couple more times on the way to her house--I could see his mind working and that he wanted to remember what to call it. Just before we went inside, I asked him what it was called. He said, "Devil's Food Scratch Cake". Close enough! Hahaha.

As always, I'm sharing the recipe exactly as written in the heritage cookbook, and I made it without substituting ingredients or altering it at all. (See my notes after the recipe.) I've re-typed the recipe with specifics and clarifications, which you can find in the "printer-friendly" version.

Here is a printer-friendly version!

Devil's Food Cake

2 c. sifted flour
1/2 c. cooking cocoa
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. shortening
2 c. sugar
2 eggs
1/2 c. sour milk with 1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. vanilla
1 c. boiling water with 1 tsp. soda

Cream shortening; add sugar. Blend, then add eggs and beat well. Mix flour, cocoa and salt together (in separate bowl) and add this mixture alternately with sour milk/soda mixture (start and end with flour mixture). Add vanilla and water with soda added. Beat well. Bake at 350 F for about 1/2 hour. Test with toothpick.

My Notes:

The only ingredient that made me pause was the sour milk. I see it in a lot of the old heritage recipes and I've avoided them because sour milk back then was not the same as "soured milk" today. Back then, sour milk was just milk that started to go bad and developed a sour taste; it wasn't yet spoiled, though. I don't know if I'd be able to tell the difference between sour milk (safe for consumption) and spoiled milk (may make you sick).

These days, we can intentionally sour milk by adding an acid (like lemon juice or vinegar) to pasteurized milk. Rather than trying to test out milk that has gone sour, I went the acid route. To make sour milk, you just use 1 Tbsp. of vinegar or lemon juice and add enough milk to equal one cup.

To make the 1/2 cup of sour milk needed for the recipe, I used 1-1/2 tsp. of vinegar and enough milk to equal 1/2 cup--I let it sit for about 5 minutes, and it was thickened and a little clumpy. Then I added the baking soda as called for in the recipe.

Since the recipe called for sifted flour, I sifted the flour together with the cocoa powder and salt (to avoid clumps of cocoa powder).

The recipe didn't specify about cake pans. I used two round cake pans--I greased them with shortening and then dusted them with flour before adding the batter.

Other than that, the recipe was pretty cut-and-dry. I baked them for 30 minutes (maybe a couple of minutes longer, if I remember correctly) until the toothpick inserted in center came out dry. (Luke liked looking at the toothpick a couple of times and telling me whether it was done or not.)

I let them cool about 10 minutes in the pan and then turned them out onto a wire rack to finish cooling.

I made a chocolate buttercream frosting (I modified the recipe on a bag of powdered sugar just a little. Instead of melting chocolate chips, I just used cocoa powder and added a little more shortening.) But here is how I made it:

1 stick of butter, softened
1/2 cup + 3 Tbsp. shortening
2/3 cup of cocoa powder
16 oz. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla

Cream the butter and shortening until smooth, then add the vanilla. Add the cocoa powder and powdered sugar a little at a time, beating until smooth after each addition.

I spread a layer of frosting over one of the cake layers, then topped with the other layer and frosted the whole thing. It was the perfect amount to be able to frost the whole cake. (Somehow, I was able to frost this without getting crumbs all over the place. When I use boxed cake/canned frosting, I make the biggest mess ever. I don't know if it has to do with the fact that it was homemade, but I managed to frost this pretty neatly. (I don't have a cake dish for serving, so I just flipped over a CorningWare dish for the cake! Not the prettiest, but it worked.)

Of course, top with sprinkles if you'd like! ;)


  1. Replies
    1. Yes, you can substitute with buttermilk! There may be a slight difference in texture, but from what I read, the change is subtle for most recipes.

  2. Your niece and nephew are so adorable! That cake looks delicious. Like the commenter above mentioned, when I read the recipe, I assumed you could substitute buttermilk for sour milk. In face I have a recipe for “Texas Cake,” with buttermilk that you bake in a sheet pan. It is super moist and delicious. I got the recipe in 1974 when I was a para educator for a year after I graduated from college. I have probably made it a couple hundred times since then.

  3. YUM! I'll bet your mom loved it (and now it will forever be called Devil's Food Scratch Cake)! ❤️

  4. yum! another heritage recipe to try. i'm loving all the stories that you are sharing along with the recipes.


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