When I was a kid, my mother had a cookbook called "The I Hate to Cook Book". (I shall heroically refrain from commenting on that as pertains to her cooking. Suffice to say that she did, indeed, hate to cook.) And for years, on and off, I have been thought about a chocolate cake recipe in that book that I used to make when I was aged around 11 or 12. It was a really simple recipe, with several curiosity factors, including that you mix it all up straight in the baking dish and that it contains vinegar. So, on this cold grim winter Saturday with my heating broken down, feeling an urgent desire for the comfort of chocolate cake, I harnessed the power of the World Wide Web to track down that recipe.
And it turns out to be a cake that lots and lots of people are baking — nearly 9 million people, in fact, according to Google. (0.35 seconds to find 8,820,000 results for "chocolate cake with vinegar". I call that magic.) It dates back to the 1920s and is known in some parts as Depression cake, not because it makes you depressed but because its ingredients are cheap and — get this — don't include eggs. I'd forgotten that bit. It was also popular during the war, for the same reasons. Other names for it are wacky cake or magic cake, if you call those names.
So it goes like this: you mix flour, sugar, salt, cocoa powder and bicarbonate of soda together, add vegetable oil and vinegar, admire interesting bubbling effect (bicarb plus vinegar: this recipe does science too), add cold water, mix together, and bake for half an hour. I sprinkled chopped-up chocolate over the top just before slamming it into the oven, because I'm decadent like that. The whole assembly process took about eight minutes.
The result is a dark-brown, moist, dense chocolate cake exactly like I remember it. With something just a little bit weird about it. That would be the vinegar and the lack of eggs, I guess. It also manages to achieve the paradoxical double-act of being both stodgy and insubstantial at the same time. It melts in the mouth yet sticks to your teeth. It is definitely not the best cake in the world, as some of the nearly 9 million asserted. Yet it is hugely comforting, being, as it is, a dark-brown, moist, dense chocolate cake. It is pretty much exactly what you need if it's a cold, grim winter Saturday and your heating's broken down. And it also has that little touch of retro chic.