Aunt Lee’s Chocolate Cake

March 20, 2011

~gumdrops optional, dudes.

This cake recipe has been in my family a really, really long time. Because “Aunt Lee?” She was my great-grandmother’s sister.

Mama, obviously, was too young to know Aunt Lee, but she heard stories. Southern families are good with stories. They’re even better at secrets.

Apparently, something had happened to Aunt Lee’s husband and nobody wanted to talk about it. To this day, we don’t know if it was di-vorce or de-sertion or whatnot. Heck, maybe they were never really married…nobody with the scoop is above ground anymore, so we can just entertain ourselves in speculation.

Aunt Lee was a teeny-tiny woman; she stood under 5 feet. She also, due to the “husband issue,” had little money and nowhere to live. So she came, at intervals, to stay with different members of family. A few months here, a few months there, that kind of thing. But she was a warm and vivacious woman, and she could bake like nobody’s business. As soon as Lee arrived for a “visit,” she immediately got to baking this cake. It’s delicious. It’s been served, either in cake or cupcake form, at almost every family birthday for nearly 200 years.

Even I, who would rather sit in a pit of fire ants than bake, will bust out the Aunt Lee action when it’s time for some fanfare.

The girls and I did not bake this cake in honor of a birthday. We made it to celebrate the return of the Stringer family to our neighborhood. We missed Susan, Ted and the boys (horribly!) for the months they were away, and the girls are stone-cold thrilled to have the Outside Outlaws, Colin and Liam, back in the saddle and knocking on the door. Life is good; especially if you have friends who like to play with dirt and sticks and swords. I’m looking forward to another spring and summer of skinned knees and filthy fingernails. Hoo-ya!

A few things of note about this cake:

~You will notice that the recipe calls for shortening. This tells you how old this recipe is.  Cakes made with shortening stay moist for a longer period of time, so frugal bakers used shortening to extend the shelf-life of baked goods. I used half butter and half shortening, and the cake was still moist. I didn’t dare tinker any more with the recipe, though, because the alchemy of baking is a mysterious and delicate thing.

~It is hot-damn impressive to me that Aunt Lee knew to add coffee to the cake batter.  Just a few weeks ago, I saw Ina Garten remark smugly that her secret to a rich chocolate cake was to add coffee; for some reason, coffee makes the cake taste extra chocolatey. Aunt Lee has a lotta years on the Garten-ster. Lee may have had poor taste in men, but she sure knew her way around the kitchen.

~I made this at high altitude, so I added a few tablespoons extra of flour and decreased the sugar by 2 tablespoons. Then I sucked my thumb, in the fetal position, waiting to take the cake out of the oven. Voila! The cake didn’t immediately cave into a brownie-like sliver (Out of My Ass Cake is for another time). Still, when I frosted it, it insisted on listing to the side, like something out of Dr. Seuss. Thus, no photograph. But it tasted divine.

~Use any frosting you like. We prefer the purist method and stick with chocolate icing, but if you’re feeling racy, buttercream or white frosting works fine.

Aunt Lee’s Chocolate Cake

1 cup shortening

2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk or sour milk

4 tablespoons cocoa powder

1 cup hot, strong coffee

3 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

Mix together cocoa and coffee; set aside to cool.

Cream shortening and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, until well combined. Sift together flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Set aside.

To the butter/shortening mixture, add half of the cocoa/coffee mixture. Then add one cup of the flour mixture and mix well. Add the rest of the cocoa/coffee mixture and another cup of the flour mixture, beat to combine. Add the sour milk and the last remaining cup of flour mixture. Beat until well combined.

Butter and flour three cake pans.  Divide batter evenly among the pans and bake at 350 for about 25 minutes, or until the middle of the cake springs back when lightly touched.

*For cupcakes, bake in a 360 degree oven for 16-18 minutes.

Frost with your favorite icing.  I’ve made several chocolate frostings over the years, but currently, this one’s my favorite:

Chocolate Frosting

from Gourmet Today

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

1 pound semi-sweet chocolate (no more than 70% cacao), finely chopped

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into cubes and chilled

Bring cream, sugar and corn syrup to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and whisk in chocolate until completely melted. Add butter, whisking until melted and smooth. Transfer frosting to a bowl and cool, stirring occasionally, until spreadable, about 1 hour. *Depending on the chocolate you use, you may have to chill the frosting to spreadable consistency.

{ 52 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy March 20, 2011 at 10:40 am

Um, I have shortening because when I bust out the fried chicken it is shortening I use. Just doesn’t taste right any other way. But then again I do have Southern in my background. Thinking I will try this cake.


Kelly March 20, 2011 at 10:43 am

A 200-years-old recipe is pretty impressive in and of itself.

Also? Where in the world did the Stringers go? Is that a story for another time?


Dawn March 20, 2011 at 11:36 am

Can’t resist making this. Was watching some cupcake TV show a couple of nights ago and got the urge to make cupcakes. And this recipe just might make them interesting enough to pay for the work. I love to bake and I always have shortening in the house! Cupcakes from a recipe kept in the family that long have GOT to be great!

Have soup going in the crock pot thanks to the Kale lady…and looked for red lentils today at the store (still unsuccessful)…you’re adding to our culinary life exponentially! :)


Lindsey March 20, 2011 at 11:50 am

This looks absolutely delicious. Am laughing out loud at the hot-damn impressiveness of Aunt Lee and the coffee, too. xoxo


Heather March 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm

You know that my blonde babe is having a birthday party this coming weekend AND this same baby likes nothing better than chocolate and A LOT of it!!! I’ve been hankering for a good cupcake recipe since I’ve been nominated to be the cake baking master for said party. Thanks to Aunt Lee for helping me out!!! And, for the record, Aunt Lee would beat Ina hands down at pretty much any cookin’ I reckon!


Gibby March 20, 2011 at 12:49 pm

I gave up chocolate for Lent, so you can imagine just. how. good. this looks to me…

((salivating, slurp, slurp))


Sherri March 20, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Definitely NOT a shrink your ass recipe, but…. so in love with this. My Mom’s family is southern – and also full of good recipes and secrets (and a lot of silent treatment for past grievances…. hmmm….). I’ve seen them add cola to a cake and have heard tell of coffee….. copying this NOW – baking tomorrow….. :-).


Foodiewife March 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm

What? No canned icing? You used “good” coffee, right? I love using buttermilk when I bake– moistness guaranteed. I’ll pick lemon over chocolate, any day. But, I’d eat a token 2-3 slices of this, if presented to me. Just to be polite.


TKW March 21, 2011 at 7:49 am

Of course I used “good coffee!” The horror of using anything less!


bryan March 20, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Looks yummy to me! Mr Man and I were just planning his birthday cake (still 2 months out) thanks for the ideas. I have similar Southern roots and get the stories/secrets. Nobody in my family talked unless they were drinking, when I found out some of the stories I was happy that they didn’t talk often.


TKW March 21, 2011 at 7:49 am

Bryan, that little anecdote about your family made me laugh!


Maria March 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm

I actually laughed out loud at “Then I sucked my thumb, in the fetal position, waiting to take the cake out of the oven.” Baking scares the beejeezus out of me too. I probably would have done the same thing.

Regardless, I will be trying this when I am out of school for the summer.


Virginia March 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I shall make this pronto. I heart a good chocolate cake. I also live at a high altitude, so i enjoy cakes that won’t collapse on me. :)


Christine March 20, 2011 at 4:22 pm

I need this. Like now. Do you deliver?


SuziCate March 20, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Old fashioned chocolate cake, you’ve stolen my heart!!!!!


Klz March 20, 2011 at 5:44 pm

I kind of love aunt lee. And speculating.


BigLittleWolf March 20, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Chocolate cake. NOW you’re talking! (Shortening, I had to smile. I could picture it immediately.)

Sounds like a delish cake. With or without the joys of gumdrops!


Privilege of Parenting March 20, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Aunt Lee from the south had me thinking about Harper Lee, and hoping that Aunt Lee had some good secrets beyond cake baking—maybe some great men we’ll never know anything about except what sort of cake they were lucky enough to sample.


Katybeth March 20, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Now that is one fine chocolate cake. Maybe Aunt Lee’s murdered her husband–I love a good murder your husband story. Wait. That does not sound right….Let’s go back to that is one FINE chocolate cake.

Happy Spring!


gigi March 20, 2011 at 10:12 pm

I have a fear of shortening. I can’t seem to bring myself to bake with it. This sounds really good. And I love the story behind it. But the frosting? Wow. That is some seriously rich shizzle.


Anthea March 20, 2011 at 11:23 pm

YUM!! Yes, I’d heard of adding coffee to chocolate cakes to make them richer. ..and I’ve tried it. It does work! I’ll definitely be adding this recipe to my list of cakes to be made SOON!


Nancy C March 21, 2011 at 3:29 am

Ina’s Jeffery is kinda smarmy, if you ask me.

I love how your recipes always have such amazing stories behind them. My grandmother had a “bad picker” when it came to men. She never told the story why, but she left my grandfather—when he was in a TB ward in Colorado–and returned to Cleveland with her four children under six on a train.

What the hell did he do in a TB ward that was so awful? She never told.

(She did take him back and return to Colorado)


TKW March 21, 2011 at 7:51 am

Nancy C,

Now my imagination is working overtime! What did he do, I wonder?


Chiara March 21, 2011 at 5:12 am

Aren’t family recipes the best? I wish I had a 200 year old recipe to share, but am afrain I can barely make it to 100 years.


blueviolet March 21, 2011 at 5:57 am

It sounds delicious! I could see how shortening would make a huge difference, but like you, I would have subbed part of it. YUM!


Justine March 21, 2011 at 6:33 am

I am STILL in search of a really good chocolate cake recipe and although I balk at shortening, I have to say if you think this is DA BOMB, then it’s gotta be fanstastic. It also means it’ll have to make it to my “must try” list. Like you, I’m not a fan of baking and since my mom’s due to arrive tomorrow, perhaps she wouldn’t mind giving it a shot since she’s the baker in the family. “Here mom, work off your jet lag with this recipe will ya?” ;-)


bellini March 21, 2011 at 7:03 am

Coffee in the batter is an excellent tip. Don’t fix something that doesn’t need fixing they always say and this recipe is a classic.


Gale March 21, 2011 at 8:00 am

I think Ina’s been taking tips from Aunt Lee. This recipe is remarkably similar to the Beatty’s Chocolate Cake recipe in Barefoot At Home, which has long been a favorite of mine. Ina acts like she’s got all the secrets, but she’s got nothing on Aunt Lee. (As always, love the childhood pics of you!)


Jenna March 21, 2011 at 9:50 am

Sounds like an awesome cake. And I love that this recipe beat Ina’s advice by 200 years or so. Nice. =)
A summer playing in the dirt sounds pretty magical right now. Why can’t adults do that?? We could grind the economy to a halt for a few months and just play, right?


faemom March 21, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Just when I swear off desserts until I lose these last few pounds, I post this! Why do you hate me?

Seriously, I love your posts. I love your writing. I love your recipes.

And is it wrong to save this to celebrate the losing of said pounds?


Tiffany March 21, 2011 at 1:11 pm

The fact that your Aunt Lee knew about the coffee makes me happy.


Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri March 21, 2011 at 1:27 pm

I’m not a baker KW, but perhaps with Aunt Lee I can make an attempt. Thanks!


Contemporary Troubadour March 21, 2011 at 5:54 pm

I have been craving a hunk of a cake exactly like this. Must see about sugar substitutions … I think, since this one doesn’t have brown sugar in it, I can actually make it work.

PS: Shortening, believe it or not, can also be used as a moisturizer. You can thank my Southern pediatrician for that tidbit — he prescribed it for very dry skin. It’s as gross as it sounds.


Bonnie March 21, 2011 at 8:15 pm

I’m pretty sure that your great aunt Lee’s husband ran off with my great aunt Lizzie. She made a cake very similar to this. The only difference being that it had to sit for three days before it could be cut. This was a real bother if we were visiting on it’s first day out of the oven!! Anyway, she said the recipe was from her husband’s family. I should have known you have southern connections. Deep south? Mid south? Genteel south? = )



Belinda March 21, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Oh, my weakness! I don’t turn down any kind of chocolate cake; even the bad ones, so i’m sure this is one i’d devour. And the gumdrops? Superfun! And the pictures are uber charming!


Paula (Salad in a Jar) March 22, 2011 at 3:55 am

You would rather sit in a bed of ants than bake? That’s kinda the way I feel about gumdrops…jelly beans too. So I sure am glad you made them optional ’cause the cake sounds terrific.

ps. I have no problem with shortening if it makes a better product. I’ve already figured out I don’t want to live to be as old as my parents (90’s) and they ate tons of it.


Alexandra March 23, 2011 at 8:30 am

You are so cool..

and I wouldn’t mind it a bit if you knew I was coming, and you’d bake a cake.


Liz March 24, 2011 at 9:44 am

I had to laugh when I skimmed the comments and saw Kelly’s….I, too, wanted to know where the hell the Stringers went for months.


rebecca @ altared spaces March 25, 2011 at 12:37 pm

skinned knees and dirty fingernails are a reason to bake a cake, especially chocolate. I’d celebrate anytime those hot numbers returned to my neighborhood. Around my house we eat special “dinner” cake for breakfast the next morning. Then we commence getting dirty.


Dawn April 3, 2011 at 5:38 am

Made it. Used espresso. Yummy…chocolate pudding for frosting. :)


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