Turns out German chocolate cake isn’t really German, but Michelle Magidow’s version is moist, voluptuous and easy to bake at home.

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DID YOU KNOW German chocolate cake isn’t German? Mrs. George Clay’s original recipe, published by The Dallas Morning News in 1957, called for Baker’s German’s sweet chocolate, a baking chocolate developed by Samuel German for Baker’s Chocolate Company. Hence the unwieldy designation. After other papers picked up Mrs. Clay’s recipe, and Baker’s then-parent company, General Foods, printed it on the wrapper, it went the midcentury equivalent of viral. Careless apostrophizing subsequently turned German’s chocolate cake into the American classic known as German chocolate cake, with its own national day of recognition (June 11).

I love cake, but I was never fond of German chocolate until I encountered the one Michelle Magidow makes at Union Saloon. Long before she opened her cozy Wallingford bar and restaurant, Magidow was a chef and baker. She keeps her hand in baking by making cakes, and one of them is always German chocolate. Cake-making appeals to her because of the warm, homey smells that waft from the oven, and, “Unlike pie, you can whip up a cake in less than an hour.” She can. The rest of us might take a little longer.

Magidow developed her German chocolate cake recipe in the early ’90s. At the time, she was living on a farm in Snohomish and baking for The Sweet Life Café, which was owned by Dennis Lebow and Paula Inmon. The now-defunct cafe oozed “hippie homemade-ness” but was somewhat of a trendsetter, too. It had the first espresso machine in Snohomish, according to Magidow.

The recipe originated with Phyllis Lebow, Dennis’ mom. It includes sour cream, which keeps the cake extremely moist. Magidow reduced the sugar and upgraded the chocolate. Most recipes use evaporated milk or sweetened condensed milk for the coconut-pecan topping. Too often, the result is thin or cloyingly sweet. Magidow’s topping — essentially crème Anglaise custard thickened with butter — has a far more voluptuous texture.

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German chocolate cake was always a big draw at The Sweet Life Café, just as it is now at Union Saloon. Magidow bakes two a week to meet the demand. “If it went away,” she says, “people would be upset.”

 

German Chocolate Cake

If you aren’t feeding a crowd, as Magidow does at Union Saloon, this recipe is easy to scale down. Halve the recipe and use 8-inch cake pans, or quarter it and use 6-inch pans. Reduce topping accordingly.

 

Serves 16

 

Cake

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (such as Valrhona or Ghirardelli, 70 percent cocoa content)

8 ounces unsalted butter, sliced

2 cups hot water (heated to just below boiling)

4 cups sugar

4 eggs

2 cups sour cream

2 teaspoons vanilla

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

 

Topping

2 cups sugar

2 cups heavy cream

6 egg yolks

8 ounces unsalted butter, sliced

2 teaspoons vanilla

1½ cups pecans, toasted and chopped

1½ cups unsweetened coconut, toasted

 

Preheat oven to 350 degree (325 for convection ovens). Line the bottom of three 10-inch cake pans with parchment paper.

 

To make the cake rounds:

1. In a mixing bowl, combine chocolate and butter. Whisk in hot water by hand or with a mixer on low speed until chocolate is melted and butter is incorporated. Add sugar, and mix until there is no longer granulation to the sugar. Add eggs one at a time. Add sour cream and vanilla. Mix well. Sift in flour, baking soda and salt. Mix until smooth.

2. Divide batter among three cake pans. Bake for 30 minutes, turning pans halfway through. All ovens bake differently, so check after 25 minutes. They are done when a toothpick poked in the center of each round comes out clean. When cake is cool, run a knife around the sides, and release onto flat plates.

 

To make the topping:

1. In a sauce pot, whisk together sugar, cream and egg yolks. Place over medium heat, and add butter bit by bit, whisking until butter is melted. Stir with a spatula, being sure to scrape bottom and sides, until topping is very thick. Remove from heat, and stir in vanilla. Set pot in a bowl of ice and water to cool the mixture slightly, stirring occasionally. Stir in nuts and coconut.

2. Spoon one-third of topping on one cake round, and spread it almost to the edge. Repeat with the second layer. Place the third cake round on top, and spoon the last of the topping, spreading just to the edge of the round. The edges of the cake are meant to be naked, but don’t worry if the topping oozes out or slips down the side. That will only add to its rustic charm.

— from Michelle Magidow, Union Saloon