Vintage Chocolate Cake

merry xmas cake

Here were are in the midst of another holiday season, albeit a strange one. A winter storm is coming and it’s time to bake and eat delicious decadent desserts like this incredible chocolate cake (recipe at bottom of page). While you’re decorating your house this year, here are a few fun facts about New England Christmas.

Given what we experience today, it’s hard to believe that Christmas was outright banned in Puritan New England.  Considered pagan and materialistic, a large fine was imposed on anyone found to be celebrating the Christmas holiday. If you can imagine, New Englanders didn’t see their first Christmas tree until 1850. This is why it’s all the more amazing that New Englanders wrote many of the Christmas carols we know and love today.

bird house cake
cake stand
overhead shot

Here are a few things we never knew. Abolitionist Reverend Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear at his church in Wayland, Massachusetts. His poem was set to music in 1850.

In 1857, Reverend John Henry Hopkins Jr., the first Episcopal bishop of Vermont wrote We Three Kings and set the poem to music for a college performance.

If you’ve visited the Trinity Church in Boston, you’re probably familiar with Reverend Phillips Brooks. Reverend Brooks travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve in 1865. Two years later, when reflecting upon the experience, he wrote, Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.
crane estate
sweeping lawn

Of course, there’s also the happy tune that we now know as Jingle Bells, which was written by the unemployed wanderer James Lord Pierpont at a boarding house in Medford, Massachusetts. The song was originally entitled One Horse Open Sleigh and describes the sleigh races held on Pleasant Street in old Medford Square.

Much later, in 1948, the orchestral piece Sleigh Ride was written by Cambridge, Massachusetts native, Leroy Anderson, and was recorded by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1949.

If you’re a lover of Christmas bells, the Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Company began making Christmas bells in East Hampton, Connecticut. Sadly, a fire in May 2012, requiring 200 firefighters, completely destroyed the 19th century factory which had been in the family for six generations. No worries. They’re still making jingle bells and you can buy them online. In fact, we have an entire article dedicated to where you can but New England holiday decor.

bird house cake
cake stand horizontal
cake overview

Speaking of bells, of all the Christmas carols written in New England, perhaps the most heart-wrenching is the poem, Christmas Bells by poet and abolitionist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The story is a bit depressing but  serves as a good reminder that those who came before us also lived through trying times.

Here’s the story: While preserving a lock of their 7 year old daughter’s hair in wax (customary in the 1800’s – as were large dresses with hoop skirts) the dress of Henry’s beloved wife Fanny caught fire and engulfed her in flames. Henry threw himself on his wife in an attempt to extinguish the flames, burning his face, neck and arms. She died the next day and was buried on their wedding anniversary. Henry was too badly burned to attend the funeral. A year later, his son suffered a life-threatening injury fighting in the American Civil War.

In deep despair, on December 25, 1864, Henry wrote,

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

As you can imagine, his original writing is a bit different from the lyrics you hear today but this by far is the most heartfelt interpretation of the song we could find.

first snow
xmas trees
deer in winter

Traditions link us to the past and provide us with a bit of understanding about who we are today. Learning a little about history makes the holidays much more interesting – even when we know they’ll be virtual!

While your playing your New England Christmas carols, consider giving this cake a try. We call it Vintage Chocolate Cake because it tastes like something we wish someone’s grandmother would make. It’s a simple recipe and  tastes so good that we ate the whole thing in three days.

We also want to mention that the outdoor photographs were taken at the beautiful Crane Estate in Ipswich, Massachusetts on the day of their holiday open house a few years ago.

We do hope you enjoy the cake. And, whatever you’re celebrating this season, we hope it’s happy, healthful, and safe.

full-shot of cake
chocolate cake

Vintage Chocolate Cake

1 1/2 c (165 g) cake flour
1/2 c (60 g) good quality cocoa powder
2 tsp (10 g) baking powder
1 tsp (2 g) salt
1/4 c (55 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 c (285 g) cane sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tsp (4 g) vanilla extract
4 oz. melted chocolate, cooled
1 1/2 c (350 ml) milk
2 egg whites
pinch of cream of tartar
1/2 c (95 g) cane sugar

Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C)

Grease and flour two 9″ cake pans or two 7″ spring form pans if you like the cake tall (as pictured).

Sift together dry ingredients and set aside. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugar. Mix in egg yolks, vanilla, and melted chocolate. Stir in milk alternately with dry ingredients. Set aside.

Whisk together egg whites with cream of tartar until the mixture starts to hold it’s shape. Gradually whip in sugar. The mixture will form peaks when you pull the whisk away from the bowl. It will be thick, like a light marshmallow creme. Fold the mixture into the cake batter. Bake until 3-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Once cool, carefully trim off any skin on top and tough edges on sides with a serrated knife. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator. Chill for up to 3 days.

Vanilla Frosting (see note below before proceeding)

26 tbs (375 g), unsalted butter, slightly softened
2 c (220 g) powdered sugar, sifted (add more to taste)
3 tbs (45 ml) milk
3 tbs (5 ml) vanilla extract

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, whip butter for 5 minutes on medium speed.

Add remaining ingredients and mix on low speed for 1 minute, then on medium speed for about 4 minutes. You may need to add more milk or sugar as you go to get the consistency that you want.

Note:  We’re home bakers, not professionals. Because of this, we often have difficulty adding frosting to the chocolate cake – sometimes chocolate cake crumbs get into the frosting.

Here’s our solution to the problem: Double the frosting recipe. Separate out about 1/3 of the frosting into a separate bowl. From that separate bowl, apply a thin layer of frosting to the completely cooled cake as a crumb coat. Basically, the crumb coat is an ugly thin layer of frosting where chocolate crumbs may get into the white frosting. It helps contain the crumbs.  Just make sure you keep the crumb coat bowl of frosting separate from the clean frosting without crumbs. Refrigerate the cake with the crumb coat until it the frosting begins to harden on the cake (about 3-5 hours).

Remove the cake and apply a fresh top coat of room temperature frosting from the larger bowl of frosting you set aside earlier. It may be overkill but this is how we prevent chocolate crumbs in the frosting. You may be more experienced and in that case, one batch of frosting may be sufficient for your needs. Hope this helps.


Fresh New England

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  1. Where did you get the adorable little bird and house for this cake? I love the way you set it up.

    I learned so much from this. Sad story of Longfellow too though the Sara McLaughlin version seems to express it well.

    Happy Christmas to you and your family!

  2. Dear El, I love this beautiful cake, so rustic and simple, but I especially loved all the history you wove into your story. I had no idea New Englanders contributed so much to the beloved traditions of Christmas. I find the history of songs so moving and fascinating, and I’m always amazed at the beauty that some are able to create after such deep tragedy.

  3. Vanilla Sugar- The picture is of the Crane Estate in Ipswich, MA. The boarding house is in Medford, MA. I think there’s a plaque there now but the house is gone. Happy holidays!

  4. Gorgeous photos, El. Would so love for my kids to experience a holiday season that looked like yours. Your cake looks even more perfect. Happy Holidays and much love and gratitude in the New Year! x

  5. Merry Christmas! Loved the history lesson. Did not know any of these tidbits and found each compelling! The story of Henry Wadsworth is especially tragic…
    A deeply thoughtful and unexpected pleasure this early morning.

  6. OMG. The cake is adorable! I love the little bird. Is it German? You’d never know from looking at the cake that the decadent chocolate yumminess is inside.
    I really liked the r of the carols too. Poor Longfellow. I’ll never hear the song the same way again.

    Happy Holidays!

  7. What a wonderful post, El! I never knew much of the background of Christmas in New England, its ban, and how many Christmas songs came from New England. I just read the original lyrics of Christmas Bells. How very sad. Even more interesting since I recently saw the movie, Lincoln.

    What a gorgeous cake and I love how you’ve decorated it!

    I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and best wishes for a very happy 2013!

  8. I wish I were in New England for the holidays. So pretty! I could really go for a piece of the chocolate cake right now. Beautiful, cozy pictures.

  9. We have such an interesting, albeit brief history. History lesson are even better when paired with chocolate cake. Hope you had a wonderful Christmas and wishing you a fabulous new year.

  10. El,

    I love this post; so much history about New England. I really had no idea.

    Wishing you a wonderful evening today, and an amazing 2013!!

    xo ~ Denise
    ps… thank you for the great recipe, I have been looking for a fall back on chocolate cake recipe!

  11. Oh so beautiful!!! Stunning cake!

    Just catching up on posts i missed over the last couple of weeks I have been traveling!

    Anyway, I am reading the book “The Evolution of God” and it talks about how many things were banned because they were considered pagan and not ‘civilised’ religion. Yet, in many countries like Ireland, pagan traditions have been absorbed into mainstream Christianity to make it more acceptable to the people there…

  12. It’s stunning that so many Christmas classics were born in a time and place that restricted the grandeur we affiliate with the holiday today. Then again the lyrics sing of a joy, or the yearning of it, so purely that I wonder if it was absence that inspired such richness.

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