10:47 am Aug. 21, 2012
Lost Foods of New York City is a column that celebrates the food and drink that once fed the city, but have disappeared.
By the time I was born, in 1982, Brooklyn blackout cake was already a quickly fading memory.
Today, the cake that once defined the borough’s sweet tooth is hardly a blip on New York’s dessert radar—unless you ask someone over the age of 55. Then the floodgates open and you begin to hear apocryphal tales like the one food historian Arthur Schwartz shares in his book New York City Food (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2004).
“[When my sister and I] were teenagers and didn’t have dates on a Saturday night," he writes, "we would consume an entire cake.”
To bring the youngsters (myself included) up to speed: blackout cake is a three-tiered devil’s food cake layered with chocolate pudding, slicked with dark chocolate frosting, and topped with additional devil’s food crumbs. The cake was popularized in Brooklyn by the Ebinger Baking Company, a one-storefront operation opened in 1898 on Flatbush Avenue that, over time, swelled to a baking institution with more than 50 locations around Brooklyn and Queens.
Ebinger’s was a contemporary of other turn-of-the-century German bakeries in New York like Entenmann’s, Drakes, and Holtermann’s. These bakeries turned out fresh pastries every day—a fragrant collection of crumb buns, lemon bars, nut cookies, and coffee cakes. Entenmann’s would eventually grow into a successful international brand, but only Ebinger’s can lay true claim to the blackout cake.
There’s no record to confirm exactly when Ebinger’s began selling it’s famous chocolate layer cake, though it was likely sometime after founder George Ebinger retired in 1906 and left the company’s care to his sons. According to a 1969 New York Times article, the cake’s name was solidified during World War II when blackout drills were performed in homes around the borough to avoid silhouetting battleships leaving from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Blackout, black cake—it was a no-brainer.
For mid-century Brooklynites, it was also the stuff of Pavlovian craving. Ebinger’s blackout cake was a staple hostess gift, birthday cake, and holiday table treat. Kids attacked slices of the wobbly chocolate cake, ending up with chocolate crumb mustaches. Adults found their heartbeats quickening whenever they saw the telltale pale green box tied with string. When people moved away from Brooklyn, they enlisted visiting family members to smuggle them a cake (or two) in their carry-on bags.
“For those who grew up in Brooklyn, when Brooklyn was the world, there is no sweeter sound than the Ebinger's brand name. No other word can pull such heartstrings, signal such salivation,” wrote Molly O’Neill in a 1991 New York Times article about the cake. Unfortunately, by the time O’Neill published those words, Ebinger’s, which filed for bankruptcy in 1972—a victim of poor business management and an increasingly health-conscious and supermarket-focused society—had been closed for nearly two decades. All that was left was a clutch of old bakery buildings spread around Brooklyn, a gaping hole on the dessert table, and a desire to reminisce about the Ebinger’s cake and the good old days that went with it.
“During holiday dinners my mom and aunt, who grew up near King’s Highway, would go on and on about Ebinger’s cake and how it could never be replicated,” said my friend Judith Belasco, who was born six years too late (1978) and in the wrong part of New York (Westchester) to ever sample the classic herself. “They pitied my brother and me because we would never get to taste this magic cake.”
O’Neill, who arguably became the patron saint of Ebinger’s memory, chronicled several false starts to revive the bakery’s magic in her New York Cookbook (Workman, 1992). In the early 1980s, for example, a Brooklynite named Lou Guerra tried unsuccessfully to revive Ebinger’s original recipes in his bakery in Brooklyn. A few years later, another hopeful fan and business man, John Edwards, attempted to, as O’Neill writes it, “manufacture commercial versions of Ebinger’s pastries … shipping them to supermarkets.” Customers were thrilled to see their beloved blackout cake again, but were ultimately disappointed by the mass-manufactured version of their old time favorite. Needless to say, Edwards’s effort also failed.
But there remain a few options. Today, you can order a Brooklyn blackout cake replica from Zabar’s and find versions (some close to the Ebinger’s classic, some significantly more interpretive) in a handful of bakeries, like Duane Park Patisserie and Little Cupcake Bakeshop in Manhattan as well as Brooklyn’s Lady Bird Bakery and The Chocolate Room. The Doughnut Plant and Cupcake Crew truck also offer riffs on the cake, serving up pudding filled, crumb-dusted chocolate cake doughnuts and cupcakes (pictured at left), respectively.
And then of course you can try your own hand at the cake. But the authentic recipe for Brooklyn blackout cake, which has never been shared by the Ebinger family, remains a mystery. As a 30-year-old Chicago native, I admittedly have no idea if the cake recipe below yields something that tastes just like the real deal. I adapted the recipe from the one in O’Neill’s cookbook, which she writes passed muster with “a panel of twelve Ebingerites.” So I have faith, even though her version includes a chocolate icing made separately from the pudding filling, while other recipes claim that the pudding should both fill and frost the cake. What I do know is that, perfectly authentic or not, this cake is delicious—airy, moist, and intensely chocolatey. And if it isn’t exactly how my Brooklyn elders remember it, then at least they have chocolate cake to console themselves.
Brooklyn Blackout Cake This cake isn’t terribly hard to make, but there are a terrible number of steps. Simplify the preparation by prepping the ingredients for each step before getting started on it. Also, since this cake is all about the chocolate, I recommend using good quality cocoa and chocolate.
For the filling:
1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa
1 3/4 cups milk
3/4 cup sugar
1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon cold water
1/4 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
For the cake:
Butter and flour for preparing the pans
1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa
3 tablespoons boiling water
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup milk
2 cups sugar
2 sticks butter, slightly softened
4 eggs, separated
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
For the frosting:
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
3/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/2 cup hot water
1 tablespoon corn syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla
- Start by making the filling: Put the cocoa into a small saucepan, pour in the milk and place over medium-low heat. Add the sugar and chocolate and mix a few times to combine. Dissolve the cornstarch in the cold water to make a smooth paste. Whisk the cornstarch paste into the water and chocolate mixture, add the salt and slowly bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil for one minute, stirring, until mixture looks thick.
- Remove the pan from the heat and immediately whisk in the vanilla and the butter. Let mixture cool for 5 minutes, then transfer the mixture to a bowl, cover and refrigerate until cool. (Pudding will continue to thicken as it cools.)
- Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees; butter and lightly dust two 8-inch round cake pans with flour, set aside.
- Place the cocoa in a small bowl and whisk in the boiling water to form a crumbly paste. Combine the chocolate and milk in a saucepan set over medium heat. Stir frequently as the mixture warms and the chocolate melts, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Whisk a small amount of the heated chocolate milk into the cocoa paste and then whisk the cocoa mixture into the milk mixture. Return to heat, stir for one minute until smooth, remove and cool until tepid.
- Meanwhile, using an electric hand mixer, cream the sugar and butter together in a large bowl. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time, then add the vanilla. Slowly add the chocolate mixture and mix to combine.
- Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda. Using a rubber spatula, slowly add the flour mixture to the chocolate mixture. Clean your mixer beaters well with cold water and dry thoroughly. In another bowl, whip the egg whites on medium-high until they form soft peaks. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the batter.
- Divide the batter between the two prepared cake pans. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until tops just spring back when pressed (Don’t overbake, or the cake will be dry.) Cool on a rack in the pans for 15 minutes, then gently remove the cakes from the pans and continue to cool.
- Make the frosting: In a double boiler, melt the chocolate, stirring often. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter, one chunk at a time, returning to heat if necessary to melt the butter.
- Whisk in the hot water all at once and stir until smooth. Whisk in the corn syrup and the vanilla until glossy and smooth. Refrigerate for 10-15 minutes (but not more, or it will harden) before using.
- Assemble the cake. Use a sharp knife to slice each cake into two disks to form four layers. Set one layer aside. Place one layer on a cake round or plate. Generously swath the layer with pudding. Add the second layer and repeat. Add the third layer. Quickly apply a layer of frosting to the top and the sides of the cake and refrigerate for 10 minutes. (You can anchor the cake with toothpicks if it’s sliding). Meanwhile, crumble the remaining cake layer. Apply a second layer of frosting to the cake, sprinkle liberally with crumbs and serve within 24 hours. Store cake in fridge.
Have a long lost favorite you would love to see resurrected? Suggest a dish for Lost Foods: New York City at LeahLostFoods@gmail.com.