Friday, August 8, 2014

Swans Down Chocolate Cake

by Sheila Connolly

A couple of months ago I drove to Pennsylvania and Maryland for a couple of bookstore signings, including a nice one at the Chester County Book Store in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I chose that because it’s literally right down the road from where my most recent book, Razing the Dead, is set. Is that serendipity or what?

I love that area of Pennsylvania—my family lived there for decades, and I lived there for a while myself, years ago. It includes Kennett Square, mushroom capital of the country, so of course I stopped at a café for a bowl of mushroom soup. And then I went antiquing, and I ended up with four hexagonal Swans Down baking pans (among other things!).

A brief history of the company, founded in Evansville, Indiana, can be found here. They’ve been around for a while!

Of course I wanted to try out my new old pans. A quick scan online suggested that they date from the 1920s, so I set out to find a Swans Down recipe from the same era. This one comes from an ad from that time (note: the original recipe was made by hand—I’ll let you use a mixer!). What sold me was the attached recipe for mocha frosting, which was one my mother made often. (BTW, the hexagonal pans hold 3 cups of batter. This is the same as a standard 8” baking pan, BUT it is not as wide and it is deeper, so I had to adjust your cooking time.)

Once again let me note that this is a half-recipe (I like cake, but not enough to eat a whole one!), or one pan’s worth. If you want a more typical two-layer cake, just double it (use only five eggs total).

Swans Down Chocolate Cake

1-1/4 cups Swans Down cake flour

1/2 tsp baking soda
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
3 eggs, well beaten
1-1/2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted (originally this called for 1-1/2 squares of Baker’s Chocolate, when 1 square = 1 oz. There are a lot more options these days, and the measurements have changed.)
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease your baking pans well.

Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt.

Cream the butter, then add sugar gradually with the mixer running, and continue until the mixture is light and fluffy.

Add the eggs and beat well. Then add the chocolate, and mix to blend.

Add the flour alternating with the buttermilk, beating after each addition. Add the vanilla last.

Bake for 45-50 minutes or until done (when a toothpick comes out clean). Remove from the oven and let cool before frosting. When you are ready to frost the cake, remove it from the pan and cut it in half crosswise.

Chocolate Mocha Frosting

2 Tblsp butter

5 cups confectioner’s sugar
1/8 tsp salt
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted
1/2 cup strong coffee
2 tsp vanilla

Cream the butter and add 1 cup of the sugar, blending thoroughly. Add the salt and the melted chocolate, and mix well.

Add the remaining 4 cups of sugar, alternating with the coffee, beating after each addition. (You may not need all the coffee—you want a smooth spreading consistency, not soup). Add the vanilla and blend.

And frost your cake! I have to say, the cake was lovely—light in texture, with a nice chocolate flavor. There’s something to be said for the old ways!

Swans Down wanted you to know that their flour is 27 times finer than ordinary flour! in the 1920s—and the same line is still on their box today.

Oh, right--there's a book coming out in October. In Picked to Die, Meg Corey is too busy harvesting apples and solving a murder to even think about baking a cake. But vintage cooking equipment will play a part in the next book!


  1. Mmmm, would like a piece of that for breakfast! always looking for a good mocha icing recipe too...

  2. Breakfast! Lucy, you are a gal after my own heart. LOL

    The icing recipe reminds me of my grandfather's. He was the family cake baker, and his buttercream icing always included strong coffee. It's still my absolute favorite, even more than chocolate. But this mocha sounds like the best of both worlds, Sheila.

  3. Did the cake pans behave well? The cake came out without trouble? I always worry that older pans can be tricky, but you seem to have done beautifully.
    The recipes look great. I think I'd add a little espresso powder to the cake to give the chocolate a boost.
    I'd love to see what a slice looks like.

    1. I just grease everything well! The cake came out with the logo perfectly clear (but reversed). I would have gone with espresso powder myself, but I can't find the blamed stuff any more! My market no longer carries any. Generally I support better coffee, but the powdered stuff does serve a purpose now and then.

      I should add that overall, this is a cake that is everything a cake should be--nice texture, great flavor--even though the recipe in 90 years old (but Swans Down is thriving, so they must be doing something right!).

    2. Oh, I love the idea of the logo showing on the cake (albeit in reverse). What fun!

  4. We get King Arthur cake flour here in Brooklyn,

  5. I remember Swans Down when I grew up on the East Coast. I don't think we can get here now, but I always thought it sounded lovely and fluffy. Your cake does too. Yum!


  6. Sheila, I remember using Swan's Down before I had to eat gluten-free. It was the best flour! So light and fluffy! Great recipe.

    Daryl / Avery

  7. Save me a piece, please! It's hard to believe that's half a cake. Imagine how large a whole one would have been!

  8. One more thing I should add: when I wanted to make this recipe, I emailed Swans Down (or the conglomerate that owns them now) asking if they had any record of recipes made specifically for this pan shape. I had a response within a few hours, from a real person (who likes to read mysteries!). They didn't have any record of a specific recipe, but they'll be sending me others. I was impressed by their public relations efforts--seems like a good company!

  9. I like that little cake pan. It's something to treasure. In the old days when I took Home Ec in school, the teacher told us that if we didn't have cake flour we could sift regular flour a few times and that would be the same. I guess it would take 27 times. Buying cake flour would be so much easier. I believe I have seen Swan's Down flour here in MI.