An Heirloom Vinegar Cake

Let me be clear: I'm not a fan of cake. Not on a birthday, not at a wedding, not frosted, especially not with sprinkles. I was the kid who would request "ice cream, hold the cake" at birthday parties, and I certainly never got swept up in the whole cupcake craze. BUT, there is one cake that I've been known to down by the forkful, despite my cake-hating claims -- that being my grandma's chocolate vinegar cake. Tradition holds her to making one every Fourth of July when she visits us at our lake house, and it never survives the day. One year my brother and I annihilated the entire tin when we were supposed to be cleaning dishes before dessert. So now she brings two. 

I'll admit there is something odd-sounding about a dessert with vinegar in its name, but it is that single ingredient that upholds the science of its baking. Fundamentally, the recipe includes the essentials for a classic chocolate cake: butter, sugar, cocoa, flour, vanilla, water, salt, baking powder, and a single egg... but then it introduces a suspicious ingredient -- the secret weapon -- distilled white vinegar. It is not for flavor, but for its reactive nature that vinegar is involved. The exchange between the vinegar and baking powder makes for a cake that is exceptionally airy and moist compared to others. (It's a genius baking technique that was adopted during the Great Depression-era when ingredients like milk, butter and eggs were scarce and expensive). It has since become a timeless heirloom recipe. Nana cloaks hers in a mocha frosting -- simply powdered sugar, cocoa, and brewed (instant) coffee -- I used regular drip-brewed coffee, and stirred in additional fresh grounds to boost the flavor. It's enough to make even the cake-opposed among us swoon. 


3/4 cup butter
2 cups sugar
1 egg
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups water
2 scant Tbsp vinegar


1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/4 cup brewed coffee
ground coffee, to taste 

1. Preheat oven to 350 dg F. In a medium mixing bowl, beat together butter, sugar and 1 egg. In another bowl combine flour, baking soda, cocoa powder and salt. Stir with a fork to combine. Slowly add dry ingredients to the sugar mixture and then add water, vanilla and vinegar. Mix until well-combined. 

2. Grease a 9"x13" baking tin and spread batter into an even layer. Bake for 20-30 minutes until toothpick emerges clean. 

3. Meanwhile, combine powdered sugar, softened butter, cocoa, and brewed coffee (plus more fresh grounds if you want to boost the flavor. Adjust to desired taste and consistency. (Add more sugar if too wet, more coffee if too dry, etc.)

4. Allow cake to cool completely before frosting. 


  1. AnonymousMay 12, 2012

    The baking technic with vinegar sounds interesting and the cake just looks so yummy. I'm curious to try your grandma's recipe!

  2. This looks fantastic! I love those tried and true handed down recipes.

  3. AnonymousMay 26, 2012

    I love the idea of an heirloom recipe! I guess in my case it would be a lamb curry that's been passed down the generations.

    And I don't know why, let's just blame it on ignorance, I always had the idea that adding vinegar to a chocolate cake was a relatively new technique! Well, obviously not!

    1. I know, there's something really grounding about timeless recipes that are passed through families. Especially when you're stirring the batter with your great-great grandmother's wooden spoon....Would love to see a post about that lamb curry! (ps. Your chili chocolate banana cake looks divine. love pairing chili with chocolate.)

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. That looks awesome! I definitely would like to try that one out!

    Haley McAdams
    ISO Training

  5. This is delicious! I made it this afternoon in no time and 'taste tested' it while it was still warm. I still need to add the icing to finish it off, but it makes a wonderful light and fluffy chocolate treat! Thanks for sharing :)

  6. lovely ...................just awwww!!!
    the texture looks perfect !!!

  7. Making this cake for homecoming at church for thr cake contest smells so good I added 1/4 cup of coffee in thr mix with the water let u all know how it comes out ..thank u for the recipe