From mayonnaise, to soda, to ice cream, there is a long list of unusual ingredients that can be mixed into cake batter with surprisingly delicious results. This unexpected add-in, however, takes the proverbial cake. Thanks to the addition of sauerkraut – yes, sauerkraut – your chocolate cake will never be the same.
We know, it sounds super weird, right? But don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!
It turns out that there are many nontraditional takes on cake that can be traced to the Great Depression, earning these unconventional cakes the moniker “Depression cake.” Given a scarcity of standard baking ingredients, like eggs and butter, cooks were forced to get creative when their rations ran low. Like other odd-sounding ingredients like vinegar, sauerkraut was one of grandma’s Depression-era tricks for enhancing the rich flavor of a chocolate cake by adding a hint of acid.
There’s a few different stories on just how sauerkraut remained cake-worthy across the decades. One legend holds that an excess of sauerkraut in the 1960s led to the USDA’s Surplus Committee tasking school cafeterias with incorporating the canned sauerkraut into their menus. Yet another take is that sauerkraut cake started as a prank, and that sauerkraut in cake was a popular gag for April Fool’s Day in the ’60s.
“Alright, here’s the deal you guys. The thing about a practical joke is that you have to know when to start as well as when to stop.”
No matter its origin story, sauerkraut chocolate cake has weathered the sands of time. Bakers today are turning to retro recipes with good reason – sauerkraut belongs, believe it or not, in chocolate cake.
Sure, we all know and love sauerkraut as a condiment atop hot dogs or brats. But what exactly is it? Essentially, sauerkraut is cabbage that has undergone fermentation. Initially, circa 2,000 years ago, the fermentation process was key to keeping fresh heads of cabbage from spoiling. Today sauerkraut is still widely popular, and no stranger to recipes, from a toasted reuben, to pizza, and pierogies.
Just why, you might be thinking, would adding salty, fermented cabbage to cake be a good idea? First things first: Sauerkraut chocolate cake does not taste like sauerkraut, or overly sour at all, for that matter. The slight acidity sauerkraut does impart works to balance the sweetness of the cake, not overpower it.
And a little sourness can go a long way. During World War II, vinegar was commonly combined with baking soda to replace an egg in cake recipes. The resulting “wacky cake,” as these ad hoc desserts came to be called, was light and airy – and slightly acidic. The acidity brought out a rich, complex flavor in chocolate cakes. Sauerkraut can have the same delicious effect.
This secret ingredient may be mistaken for coconut by unsuspecting eaters, earning it a comparison to German chocolate cake with its quintessential coconut-pecan layers and frosting. Adding one cup of drained, rinsed, and finely chopped ‘kraut to your cake batter introduces a moist and not dense texture.
Still doubt? When you think about it, adding vegetables to cake to increase the moisture content is not without precedent. Shredded beets, carrots, and zucchini are vegetable all-stars in the dessert game.
And a perfectly moist cake calls for a complementary frosting, like a luscious cream cheese spread. One recommendation is to mix the cream cheese with melted semisweet chocolate to keep the chocolatey goodness going. You might even use powdered cocoa instead of baker’s chocolate.
So, what’s the secret behind this weird-sounding cake’s success? Salt is the key ingredient for fending off harmful microbes while cabbage transforms into sauerkraut, and it also makes the finished ferment taste delicious.
And salt is actually critical for experiencing full flavor, even in sweets. Each of our taste buds host 50 to 100 taste cells which distinguish the foods we eat – like a slice of sauerkraut chocolate cake – into individual flavors of salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami. Research supports that sodium plays an important role in activating our tongue’s taste buds for sugar.
Research has also found that our tongue’s sugar receptors can only carry sugar into cells with the help of salt, and that same salt also helps to mellow out the natural bitterness found in cocoa. In adding salty sauerkraut to chocolate cake, you’re ultimately boosting flavor, and there’s nothing bad about that. Sounds pretty amazing, right?
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