Does German Chocolate Cake Come from Germany?

Posted on 14 Oct 2017 01:35

German chocolate cake, with extravagant richness, is just the kind of recipe German immigrants would have brought with them to the United States. We wouldn't have a hard time associating such a rich chocolate cake, with its decadent coconut and pecan filling, with Germany. And, in fact, it was German immigrants who settled in the midwest that introduced America to one of its favorite chocolate cakes. Or was it?

No, it wasn't. German Chocolate Cake is an American cake. The name actually has nothing to do with Germany. It is simply the case of a dropped possessive. We should have clued in when we saw pecans in the recipe. Pecans are native to North America, after all.

Introducing Samuel German

Good old Sammy. I'd like to say he was American. But Samuel German (1802-1888) came from Biddeford, Devonshire, England. He came to the Dorchester, Massachusetts at some time during the 1830's or earlier. There, German met Walter Baker and became his coachman, later going to work at Baker's chocolate plant, Walter Baker & Co.

In 1852, German perfected a recipe for a sweet and mild dark baking chocolate. In those days, sugar was touted as health food. German's chocolate, which contained more sugar than //Baker's Premium No. 1" was advertised as "palatable, nutritious and healthful, and is a great favorite with children." 1

Walter Baker bought German's recipe for $1000. He marketed it as "Baker's German's Sweet Chocolate." Well before the later 1800s, the public had already begun calling the product German Sweet Chocolate, dropping the apostrophe and S. The chocolate was so well-known by this name that the company even had a row in 1888 with a company selling a knockoff chocolate using the name "Sweet German Chocolate."2

Professional quality German Chocolate Cake

Cake a German would be proud to call their own.
Image by Tracy Hunter via flickr[Image Credit

German's Chocolate Cake

It was not until a century after Sammy created his chocolate that the recipe that launched German Chocolate Cake appeared, on June 3, 1957, as a "Recipe of the Day" in the Dallas Morning Star. The recipe had been sent in by Mrs. George Clay of Dallas, Texas. The recipe was called German's Chocolate Cake and called for an 8-ounce bar of German('s?) Sweet Chocolate, later corrected to 4-ounces and then to a paultry quarter-ounce. Most readers must have used the larger amount of chocolate because the recipe proved extremely popular.

At this time, the Baker's brand was owned by General Mills, which in 1958 made the recipe available to the public in a recipe booklet.

In later publications of the recipe, the possessive form became permanently dropped. As well, since recipes began appearing calling for unsweetened chocolate and dropping "German's chocolate" altogether, it is no wonder that "German Chocolate Cake" was eventually assumed to be German in origin.1

As for the recipe itself, it probably was not original to Mrs. Clay. Many have pointed out that similar cakes, using buttermilk, sweet chocolate, and pecans, had been around in the South for a long while. Even when General Mills became involved, the Dallas Morning News, which announced General Mills' intention, reported that although Mrs. Clay's recipe had been the first to appear in the paper, a similar recipe had been sent to Miss Bennell's television kitchen by Mrs. Jackie Huffines, also of Dallas. The recipe does not appear to have been unique, but it was the published recipe that became permanently identified with the combination, leading to the cake becoming a standard. You can even by German Chocolate cake mixes.3

1. Sammarco, Anthony Mitchell. The Baker Chocolate Company: a Sweet History. History Press, 2009.
2. Browne, Irving. The American Reports Containing All Decisions of General Interest Decided in the Courts of Last Resort, vol. 8. Bancroft-Whitney Coompany, San Franciso, 1888
3. Herbst, Ron, and Sharon Tyler Herbst. The Deluxe Food Lover's Companion. Barron's, 2015.

Follow or Subscribe

© 2018 by Eric Troy and CulinaryLore. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.