“Never Fail” Chocolate Cake

My mom was never much of a baker. However, she’s always had a great love of chocolate cake.

These opposing forces found an unlikely convergence point, back in 1974, in the form of a brief recipe tucked away in a school fundraising cookbook.

Back in kindergarten, my school put together a collection of recipes contributed by parents. These were typed out, printed up on blue paper, sandwiched inside a yellow cardboard cover proclaiming the contents were “like mother used to make,” and bound with a plastic comb.

Somerled Home and School Presents: Culinary Tid Bits: Like Mother Used to Make

For some reason no one can remember, my dad even got a shoutout in the acknowledgements, as having been “particularly “ helpful.

But that is not why this cookbook holds so many memories, all these years later.

No, it’s the recipe on page 56, you see.

Now, truth be told, the entire cookbook – which my mom recently passed down to me while purging ahead of a move – is covered in years of baking detritus. But page 56 is the filthiest of them all – even dirtier than page 52’s “Orange Cookies”.

On this page is an unassuming 7-line recipe, tantalizing in its simplicity and hugely promising in its title: “NEVER FAIL CHOCOLATE CAKE.” The uncredited recipe is rather bold in its claim, and somewhat unlikely in its ingredients, with shortening as a primary component, a paltry 2 1/2 tablespoons of cocoa, and no other chocolate elements. Oh, and you’re supposed to mix in half a cup of boiling water at the end. The pan size is also debatable, with both the original 8 x 8 inch and my mom’s handwritten “greased loaf” addition crossed out. And if you were expecting a baking time, you’re on your own, kids.

close-up of recipe: Never Fail Chocolate Cake

Despite this morass of questionable and confusing details – or lack thereof – I was compelled today to attempt this cake that my mom made so often while I was growing up. Would it be bland? Worth making again? If I’m being honest, I had so many doubts. But I had to try.

So I made the cake, albeit with two modifications: I used unsalted butter instead of shortening, and I added 1/4 teaspoon of salt. I used the originally indicated 8 x 8 inch pan and baked it for about 25 minutes, until a toothpick came out dry.

And… it did not fail! It was actually pretty good. I was even so distracted by its handsome looks and fine chocolate aroma that I forgot to take a picture before I cut into it. Moist, with a delicate flavour. Next time I think I’ll add a half cup of chocolate chips for some extra oomph.

Dear Never Fail Chocolate Cake, congrats on living up to your name… nearly 50 years later.

Never Fail Chocolate Cake, 2023 Edition

1/3 c. unsalted butter
1 c. brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/4 c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tablespoons cocoa (or a bit more)
1/2 c. boiling water
1/2 c. chocolate chips (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Cream butter and sugar in a medium bowl.
  3. Mix in egg, milk, and vanilla.
  4. Mix together dry ingredients in small bowl and blend well.
  5. Add dry ingredients to wet and mix well.
  6. Mix in boiling water.
  7. Mix in chocolate chips, if using.
  8. Pour batter into greased 8 x 8 inch glass baking dish.
  9. Bake for 25 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.
  10. When cool, dust with icing sugar. (Optional)

This cake would also work well as cupcakes, just reduce the baking time. It would also be good adorned with icing, if you wanted to fancy it up a bit.

7 replies on ““Never Fail” Chocolate Cake”

I am thrilled that the chocolate cake of old did NOT FAIL! I only regret that I couldn’t get a taste! Oh well. Time to buy some cocoa and flour, perhaps! (I already have chocolate chips!) Mmmm!

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