In a Word: German Chocolate Cake Isn’t

If you’ve been bringing German Chocolate Cake to your family gatherings to honor your Teutonic ancestry, you’re about to be disappointed.

Chocolate cake with pecans

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

If you’re looking for a bit of an Old World twist on dessert for your next holiday pitch-in or family gathering, you should steer clear of German Chocolate Cake. Not only is it not old, it isn’t even German.

The original recipe for German Chocolate Cake — with its layers of chocolate sponge cake separated and topped with pecan-coconut frosting — appeared as the Recipe of the Day in The Dallas Morning News in June 1957. That’s Dallas, Texas; there is no Dallas in Germany.

“But,” you might surmise, “if it isn’t chocolate cake of German origin, could it be a cake made from German Chocolate?” Not exactly: German Chocolate was originally called German’s Chocolate. It was named after the man who formulated it in 1852, Samuel German, who was either American or Englishman, but definitely not German. He created his formula of sweet baking chocolate for Walter Baker & Company.

Ad for Baker's cocoa and chocolate cake
An ad for Baker’s Chocolate from a December 1906 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

Which leads to another misconception: The product known as Baker’s Chocolate isn’t so called because it was formulated specifically for baking (although German’s Chocolate was) but because of the company that created it. In 1764, John Hannon and Walter Baker began importing cocoa beans and creating and selling chocolate. After Hannon mysteriously disappeared at sea in 1779, Baker became the sole owner of the company they had created, and in 1780, it became Walter Baker & Company, Ltd.

The brand name of the most important ingredient in the original 1957 recipe for German Chocolate Cake was Baker’s German’s Chocolate. Newspapers around the country reprinted that recipe, and it was a big hit — so big, in fact, that, according to All Things Considered, sales of German’s Chocolate shot up 73 percent that year. No one knows exactly how it ended up being called German Chocolate Cake. Perhaps when the recipe was reprinted, newspaper copy editors and proofreaders who were unfamiliar with Baker’s German’s Chocolate dropped the apostrophe-s, assuming it was an error. We may never know.

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Comments

  1. What a wonderful, tasty article THIS one is! I had NO idea ‘German Chocolate Cake’ wasn’t even German, and was so NEW. This wonderful, misleading Dallas recipe only came out when I was a month old; in the Jet-Age for cryin’ out loud Andy—my goodness!

    What’s more outrageous is the origin of ‘Baker’s Chocolate’. I never knew the guy that invented this baking chocolate was named Baker, and that it went back to 1764. I’m thinking Walter Baker had John Hannon ‘mysteriously’ vanish at sea in 1779 so HE could take over EVERYTHING, which he did.

    Well, regardless of all that, I might have a slice of the familiar German chocolate cake this Holiday season myself. After all, it still tastes great which is the real frosting on the cake anyway, despite this embarrassing story!

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