The Craziest Ingredients Grandma Put in Her Chocolate Cake

Leave it to Grandma to dream up these inventive recipes! Each of our top-rated chocolate cakes include secret ingredients you'd only find in her recipe box.

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The things that Grandma added to her cake batter might sound strange to modern ears, and were often the result of hard times. Pinched pennies during the Great Depression or rationed ingredients during wartime meant staples like eggs, buttermilk and white cane sugar were hard to come by.

But as the old adage says, necessity is the mother of invention. And our mothers’ mothers were nothing if not inventive. (Take a look at these Depression-era recipes.) You may have heard of tricks like using tomato soup in spice cakes or carrot cakes, but your grandma’s rich, delicious chocolate cake is where the real invention took place. So what are some of these unexpected ingredients?

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Mayonnaise in a glass jar with a spoon on white wooden boards.


It sounds strange, but if you think about it, mayonnaise is basically eggs and oil and something tangy—usually vinegar or lemon juice. All of which are classic ingredients in cakes (more on vinegar later). Mayonnaise surged in popularity as a cake ingredient during the Great Depression, when it made a convenient substitute for more hard-to-get or expensive ingredients like milk, butter, sour cream or buttermilk.

Our Mayonnaise Chocolate Cake Recipe still tastes great today.

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This is one of the strangest ingredients on our list, but there are cooks who swear it makes the best chocolate cake ever. Sauerkraut has the magic combination of acid to tease out the full flavor and rich color of the chocolate, moistness to help the cake stay dense, and a texture that is highly reminiscent of coconut. The drawbacks of sauerkraut—saltiness and a tendency to clump—are easily solved by rinsing it in cold water and giving it a quick pulse or three in a food processor. Check out these comforting depression-era desserts.

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Mashed Potatoes

Potatoes are widely accepted in bread, so why wouldn’t they be good in other baked goods? Mashed potatoes give the cake a moist, dense structure, and also make the cake a bit (just a bit!) healthier…as some of the fat is gone, and fiber and nutrients are added. And as an option, you can make your cake with sweet potatoes instead! Try this recipe for Contest-Winning Chocolate Potato Cake.

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white vinegar on the wooden table top
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Vinegar became popular as a cake ingredient during World War II, when eggs were scarce and subject to rationing. It reacts with the baking soda to render a fluffy, light cake, and works with the flour to set the cake as it bakes. Vinegar makes the batter more acidic, which results in an attractive dark brown cake (instead of a pale or red one). Its tanginess also helps to bring out the depth of the chocolate flavor. You’ll be surprised by just how tasty this vinegar-and-chocolate cake is.

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It’s not known what prompted the use of beets in cake, although it seems to have started in the American Midwest during the 1960s. During WWII, bakers swapped in beet sugar for heavily rationed white cane sugar. Beets bring natural sweetness, help retain moisture and add density. Beets also contribute a rich color. Recipes call for various preparations—grated raw beets, pureed cooked beets and canned diced beets all show up. Ready to give it a try? Start with our Chocolate Beet Cake.

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healthy ready-made baby food in jars on a wooden table
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Baby Food

One step further than pureed beets is baby food! Store-bought baby food shows up as a substitute for oil—but not every kind of baby food works. Look for ones that are pure water and pureed fruit. The best for chocolate cake is prunes; their color adds a rich, dark hue to the cake, and the flavor is distinctive and delicious. Looking for variations? Try this famous chocolate cake from Matilda.

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Applesauce is widely accepted in baked goods these days as a quick switch for more fat-laden ingredients. But its long history in baking that had more to do with convenience than health. Again, it was during a period of rationing (this time, World War I) that applesauce gained a foothold in American baking. While applesauce in spice and fruit cakes is almost expected these days, applesauce in chocolate cakes is a delicious surprise. If you enjoyed this recipe, then you’ve got to try our favorite chocolate ripple cake.

Try our uber-tasty cupcake recipe!

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Metal saucepan on electric stove in kitchen
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Boiling Water

This is a trick your grandmother knew, and it’s becoming common again. Boiling water brings out the full flavor in cocoa powder, a process called “blooming.” Some grandmas went for hot coffee instead—the cocoa blooms nicely but the coffee is nearly undetectable in the final flavor mix.

Try this old-school technique with Sandy’s Chocolate Cake.

Hazel Wheaton
Hazel is a writer and editor who has worked in the publishing industry for over 25 years in the fields of travel, jewelry arts and food. As the editor of the Taste of Home Christmas Annual (among other titles), she's in the holiday spirit all year round. An enthusiastic baker, she's known for her cookies, cakes and other baked goods. And she still wishes she could cook like her mother.