Chocolate Wacky Depression Cake Recipe

by Alice Currah on January 3, 2010. Updated January 10, 2010

[donotprint] This recipe has been around longer than I have.  Chances are your granny or great granny may have made this in the Depression era.  Some may know it as “Wacky cake” or “Depression Cake”.  During the Great Depression, someone figured out how to make a moist, delicious cake without eggs, milk, or butter because these ingredients were expensive and hard to get.  I call this a timeless generational recipe – passed down from generation to generation.

Since then, this cake has become quite popular for people who are vegan or allergic to dairy… like my daughter, Abigail.  She is allergic to dairy and like her mama, she loves her cake but can’t always eat it.  This cake  taste remarkably good with great flavor and texture – very similar to chocolate cakes made with boxed cake mix.People are always surprised to discover there is no dairy when I tell them.  Top off with your favorite chocolate frosting or a dusting of powered sugar and you’re good to go!  Enjoy! [/donotprint]

Chocolate Wacky Depression Cake

INGREDIENTS:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup white sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 cup cocoa powder

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon white vinegar

1 cup water

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a medium mixing bowl, mix all the dry ingredients together by hand.  Add all the wet ingredients until well combined.  Pour into a 8×8 pan which has been prepared with non stick spray.

Bake for 30 until done.  Allow to completely cool before serving. Cake is even better if eaten the next day.  Enjoy!

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{ 81 comments… read them below or add one }

Em May 16, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Just tried this (doubled the cocoa and added chocolate chips on top as it was baking) and it was the perfect not-to-sweet treat tonight! Definitely a keeper, stashing it away as the perfect thing to make in a hurry before company comes over

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Lillian Russo August 6, 2011 at 11:20 pm

I found this recipe on another site and tried it…it was VERY good! I topped it with a chocolate ganache…YUM! This is a must try recipe…and one that I will pass on to family and friends!

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Mariah October 27, 2012 at 2:01 pm

This recepie has been in my family for generations. It is best if the entire cake is mixed in the baking pan. The reason is you dont want to loose the reaction of the vinigar and baking soda as this is what makes it rise. Also it is best not to over mix. Sprinkle with powdered sugar or ganache.

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rebecca knowles September 25, 2011 at 12:18 am

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Cassandra Bailey October 14, 2011 at 3:17 pm

This is a great recipe for sure. I’ve been making it for years but substitute olive oil for vegetable oil (it gives a rich, buttery flavour) and instead of sugar I use 1/3 cup maple syrup so it’s vegan. It is moist and delicious. I also make a ganache icing for it using soymilk and dark chocolate. Excellent cake and very easy to make.
Enjoy!

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Jennifer May 20, 2014 at 10:46 pm

How is sugar different to maple syrup – vegan wise ?

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Alice Currah May 22, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Wouldn’t it depend on the sugar? Cane sugar is vegan. I have not made this with maple syrup, so I couldn’t tell you as far as the texture and taste.

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Shenorai November 20, 2011 at 4:50 pm

I can’t help but to say, “You’re doing it wrong.”

Traditionally, everything is meant to be mixed into the baking pan. First mix all the dry ingredients together and put them into the pan.

Create three craters with a spoon and put all wet ingredients (save for the water) into their own crater. Add water and THEN mix everything together. Once mixed, the pan goes straight into the oven.

Due to the lack of milk and butter, it’s the reaction between the vinegar and baking soda that keeps the cake moist. Which is also why everything is done in the pan rather than taking the time to mix everything in a bowl and pour everything in: This saves that time and bakes the cake while the reaction is still occurring rather than waiting a couple minutes as it’s subsiding.

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alice November 20, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Hi Shenorai,
Yes, the method that you shared is how I was taught in home ec. close. However, I discovered you don’t need to do the three hole method – although it does save you from having to wash an extra bowl. I like making my batter in a separate bowl so I can spray the baking pan with non-stick spray. This way the cake comes out of the pan easily.

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Tereca February 10, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Oh, yeah, this is how my depression era mother in law taught me. Mix it all in the baking pan. SO easy and delicious. Used to send this “Poor Man’s Cake” (as we call it) cupcakes to school as my son had a class mate allergic to milk and eggs.

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Lauren January 13, 2013 at 11:53 am

We make all of our baked goods egg-free because of my kid’s allergy (muffins, cakes, everything) and replace the egg with a vinegar / baking soda substitute. The whole “mix right in the pan” idea is quaint, but not at all necessary. I promise. The key is to handle the batter gently and not overmix.

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Nixy June 25, 2013 at 9:00 am

That is SO considerate of you – bless your kind heart. It must have been really tough for that kid always missing out on baked goods when they’re being shared around, I bet you made their day!

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Abby September 29, 2013 at 10:09 pm

I feel like I’m 2 years too late, but wanted to say this anyways: the baking soda and vinegar are responsible for leavening the cake, not really keeping it moist (that’s what the oil and water are for). If you take too long between mixing and baking, you’ll end up with a flat, dense cake because the vinegar and baking soda are done fizzing before the gluten has time to set.

Personally, I mix in one bowl and pour the batter into the baking pan. I toss in a teaspoon of double-acting baking powder just for a little extra boost.

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Kelsey February 2, 2012 at 11:52 am

This is pretty much the exact recipe my husband got from his great-grandmother. It is the cake he requests every birthday. His family traditionally tops it with a caramel frosting made from brown sugar, butter, cream, and powdered sugar.

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Gina May 14, 2012 at 9:47 am

I made this wacky cake into a cupcake bouquet for my mom for mothers day because she’s allergic to eggs. The cupcake was super moist, its my new favorite chocolate cupcake, I even like it better than martha’s one bowl. I also made a coffee frosting that made my buttercream rose cupcakes smell delicious! check them out at
http://cookingwith-gina.blogspot.com/2012/05/mocha-bouquet.html

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Diane August 27, 2012 at 8:34 pm

I grew up eating this cake! My Mom renamed it ‘Day Before Payday Cake’ and would melt chocolate chips for the frosting. My kids loved this cake and when I put it in their luches I was directed to add an extra piece to share with their best friend!

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Liz October 7, 2012 at 1:24 am

WOW, good stuff! I’ve never heard of using vinegar and baking soda, though the chemistry behind it makes sense. I’ve made this twice in the last few weeks, once without anything extra and the most recent time with sliced almonds and some pecans. Tasted awesome both times. We’ve added confectioner’s sugar on top for an extra little something.

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Injla December 21, 2012 at 10:46 am

Hey, I am not allergic to dairy and I really like your recipe for the simplicity of ingredients. Just one question, if I substituted the water for milk or buttermilk, would the cake come out more moist/decadent? Or do you have some other recipe for a richer cake? Please share :)

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Vicky Whittaker January 21, 2013 at 10:09 am

Ahhhh, the whacky cake! It’s been in my family for years and is our favorite. In fact, we usually don’t make any other.
Howsomever, do NOT use white vinegar! Use apple cide vinegar. Used the white vinegar once and it didn’t taste right.
The perfect frosting for this cake is White Mountain Frosting (see Betty Crocker cookbook).

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Nicole January 23, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Do you think you could substitute a GF multi-purpose flour mix in recipe? Of course would have to add Xantham gum but not sure what else? May be too complicated but had to ask.
Thanks!

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alice rice January 31, 2013 at 11:17 am

I have made this wacky cake with GF all purpose flour mix that I make myself (I use Betty Hagman’s recipes and mixed 3 feather lite to 1 GF mix to make my all purpose, got the recipe at eatingglutenfree.com) and I didn’t add xantham. The density & texture was different. It came out like a brownie, which made it a big hit. I don’t know what xantham would do, maybe make it raise more and be lighter and not so dense.

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mandy February 16, 2013 at 3:48 pm

I have a recipe for depression cake that uses a lot of vinegar, so the cake actually comes out quite dry, but to make it moist/frost it i poke holes into the cake with a butter knife, then i use a combo of semisweet choc chips, any type of nuts (almonds are my fave for this) and a can of sweetened condensed milk. then i hurry up and cover with seran wrap to let the condensed milk soak in…its mmmmmmm super yummy. Here’s my recipe:
12 Tbs oil
6 Tbs cocoa powder
3 C flour
1 tsp salt
2 Tbs vinegar
2 C sugar
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp vanilla
2 C cold water
in 9×13 pan mix the dry ingredients with a fork, make 3 wells and in center well add oil. add vinegar/vanilla in the other 2 remaining wells, pour water over all of that and mix until well blended. bake in same pan at 350 for 35 min. for frosting see above (poke holes, add choc chips/nuts and can of sweetened condensed milk, cover w/plastic wrap to allow condensed milk to soak in) Eat while still warm with glass of cold milk (soy or almond is also yummy with this) or vanilla ice cream :)
I’ve pleased plenty of crowds with this easy recipe…best thing about it? only one pan gets messed up and thats the pan i’m cooking in :)

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Liz April 2, 2013 at 12:31 am

I made this last week, I used coconut oil. It was delicious! I am toying around with a “just add water (and maybe oil)” mix to have at work. Thinking of using cream of tartar as the acid in place of vinegar.

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Alice Currah April 4, 2013 at 10:22 am

Liz – Would love to know how your adaptations work out.

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Heather June 17, 2013 at 10:41 pm

Since finding this recipe here, I have made this cake at least ten times. It’s fast, cheap, easy and keeps well for days! I just made it again tonight–this time for my brother-in-law’s birthday. We usually forgo the canned frosting and just let a few handfuls of chocolate chips melt on top (after the cake comes out of the oven), then evenly spread the melted chocolate around.

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Loretta June 21, 2013 at 1:17 pm

To those that insist on making it in the pan, it really doesn’t matter. My mom made it in a bowl and poured it into the pan (and she was born at the beginning of the depression). All of us do it this way. And we never ever frost it. Let it sit…it will form a nice moist top to it.

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Toni June 21, 2013 at 5:45 pm

I made this cake about a month ago because my nephew is allergic to dairy. It was a hit and since then have been asked to make it for at least five different functions. Each time I am asked for the recipe and a few times have received follow up emails reminding me to share the recipe with them. Yummy, and we laugh at the depression cake for the times we live in and the mood some of us get in from time to time. Thanks!

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cbitikofer January 10, 2014 at 11:16 pm

I have made this recipe for years and have never used the vinegar. So if you don’t have vinegar, don’t sweat it. It’s just as good.

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Giant Sis January 18, 2014 at 11:42 am

This has been a family staple for years! We love Wacky Cake – although we do it in a 9×13 pan, and I think the recipe is closer to Mandy’s (listed in comments) – where you mix everything in the pan (yay for no cleanup!) and do “wells” – although it’s not that vital.

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