German chocolate cake looks pretty good for 50 -- the combination of tangy-sweet layers and nutty custard is as irresistible as it was when the recipe was first published in a Texas newspaper back in the Eisenhower era. If it were a Reese’s cup or an Oreo, German chocolate cake would be into its 10th reincarnation by now.
But this is one venerable dessert that needs an homage more than a makeover. If you take the same concept, with essentially the same ingredients, you can produce any number of variations with just as much extravagant flavor and texture but with 2.0 attitude.
The cake is one of the great American desserts, despite its name, that comes from the brand of chocolate rather than any homeland. Sam German was the chocolatier who came up with the formula for sweet chocolate that the Baker family sold; the green boxes in the baking aisles of supermarkets today still say “Baker’s German’s.” The name of the genius who first thought of making a cake with the chocolate, and layering it with custard flecked with coconut and pecans, is apparently lost to history.
All that’s certain is that the result is essentially a torte that’s as American as apple pie.
You can replicate it just by following the recipe on the chocolate box, maybe tweaking it by adding vanilla at the end for maximum impact and using kosher salt for more flavor in both the cake batter and the custard. Substituting heavy cream for the original evaporated milk in the custard produces an airier, better-tasting custard too.
But why stop there? You can easily transform the cake into brownies, pudding, cookies, crepes and other desserts that are German in name only And rather than reinventing the wheel, the simplest way to do that is by adapting recipes for other chocolate wonders, and adding the custard in some form to make the dessert properly over the top.
German’s is much sweeter than most chocolate, more like regular chocolate chips, and its effect is comparable to substituting a Dutch process cocoa such as Droste for Hershey’s. Depending on the recipe, the sugar should be cut back by one-fourth.
The most obvious makeover is cake into brownies, and one obvious way to do that might be to bake the custard between layers of brownie batter. But an Alice Medrich recipe for bittersweet black bottom pecan praline bars was inspiring -- the topping bakes right into the fudginess. I added coconut to the topping and made the bottom using half a batch of a favorite recipe, Jack Bishop’s fudgy double mocha brownies from his little book “Something Sweet.”
German’s chocolate substitutes for the semisweet Bishop prescribes, and of course the Kahlua and espresso powder in the original are omitted. You can cut and eat the brownies right away, but they are better covered for a few hours or overnight and then tucked into; the brownies get gooier, the top crumbles less.
Cookies are even easier, and when I went trolling through cookbooks from the cake’s apparent birthplace looking for “German,” I came across a recipe from a pecan dealer for brownie drops using the right chocolate. The cookies are impossibly rich to begin with, but with a schmear of the custard, they are an altogether different experience.
My usual crepes, when given the German chocolate cake treatment, turn the outside in: The crepes themselves are made with melted chocolate, enfolding the custard filling, then topped with just a drizzle of melted chocolate and cream.
The crepes are not as light (or dull) as regular crepes; they are denser and sturdier, to the point that you could almost serve them as dessert tacos without the sauce (or make them silver-dollar-size to pass out at parties).
But the richest way to honor the original dessert is with pudding: Add custard to pots de creme and you reach the same edge of excess. The base is key -- at first, I tried adapting lame pudding recipes made with cocoa before stumbling across a sensational recipe by Rose Levy Beranbaum in one of Marcel Desaulniers’ many chocolate cookbooks.
With some adjustments for scale, the recipe simply calls for melting chocolate, whisking in egg yolks, adding scalded cream and milk and cooking until thickened.
And while the pudding is drop-dead rich all on its own, the layers of custard take it to another level of intensity.
Countless other recipes could be given the German chocolate treatment. But as one last reason for tweaking the classic, consider this: As baked from the recipe on the box, German chocolate cake is a pretty hefty investment.
You need a whole box of the chocolate (which, interestingly, costs more than Lindt these days), nearly a pound of butter (a substance that might as well be solid gold lately), eight eggs, a whole bag of sweetened coconut and nearly half a pound of pricey pecans. And that’s without counting all the sugar and vanilla and buttermilk (for which you will buy a quart to use a cup).
With the economy sinking like a poorly blended torte, a little nip and tuck is a good thing.