Are you familiar with each of these irresistible chocolate confections?

By Ellen Morrissey
February 10, 2020
Yuki Sugiura

Chocolate cake comes in all shapes and sizes, and with all manner of frostings, fillings, and flourishes. Plain and simple, with swooped and swirled frosting, marbled or molten, any chocolate cake option is an easy sell. Very few among us will turn down a slice when it's offered. Its appeal is universal, though interestingly, many chocolate cake lovers get specific about their favorite types. My husband, for example, requests German chocolate cake for his birthday every year. And, for a while at least, it seemed that no bridal or baby shower was complete without a batch of red velvet cupcakes. I'm partial to devil's food cake myself, preferably covered in billowy white icing. One bite takes me straight back to the Devil Dogs of my school lunchbox days.

If you ask most people what distinguishes those three common chocolate cakes—red velvet, German chocolate, and devil's food—however, and you'll get no such specificity. While almost everyone can describe what they love about each, few can say what makes the layers themselves all that different. Even food historians disagree on their origins. I've spent days poring over cookbooks and newspaper articles, reading up on the history of American layer cakes, and found myriad variations and historical theories for each. Some say the red velvet cake made its debut at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City in 1930s, for example, while others claim it originated in Texas. (No one argues that its appearance on Sex and the City accounts for its recent popularity.) And did you know that German chocolate cake is not from Germany?

Read enough recipes and backstories, and your head may start to spin. Other than the color of red velvet, it can be hard to tell which cake layer is which by sight alone. What gives them away, usually, are the fillings and frostings, though even those are not entirely consistent. Here, we explain the differences (and similarities) between this delicious trio.

Related: Jelly Roll, Swiss Roll, and Roulade, These Cakes Are Ready For a Comeback

German Chocolate Cake

German Chocolate Cake is famous for its filling—it has a rich, sticky-sweet custard studded with coconut flakes and chopped pecans. The sides are traditionally left bare so the cake is easy to recognize, though some variations (like this delicious one) keep everything under wraps beneath a blanket of dark chocolate frosting. Of these three cakes, German chocolate is the only one that relies entirely on melted chocolate, as opposed to cocoa powder, for its flavor. In fact, its name comes from Sam German, the man who developed a sweet baking chocolate for the Baker's chocolate company of Boston. (While on the topic, it's important to note that Baker's chocolate company is named for a man named Baker, not for the products he sold. See how the head starts to spin?) A popular cake made with Baker's sweet chocolate was known as German's Cake, after Sam German's variety; eventually, the apostrophe was dropped, and the confusion began. Modern German chocolate cake recipes call for semisweet chocolate, since Baker's brand sweet chocolate baking bars are no longer widely available.

Red Velvet and Devil's Food Cake Compared

These two cakes rely on cocoa powder for their chocolate flavor, though the other ingredients vary wildly. Early red velvet cakes incorporated beets, though red food coloring is widely (and very generously) used now; most recipes call for a whole bottle per cake. As for devil's food cake, you'll find that recipes incorporate sour cream while others feature coffee. Some even incorporate melted chocolate for a variation in texture.

Frosting Finishes

As for frostings, the earliest examples of red velvet cake were finished with ermine icing, which combines a boiled mixture of milk and flour with lots of butter and sugar, all whipped until fluffy and "light." More recent red velvet treats are paired with cream cheese frosting or seven-minute icing. The key is a snow-white exterior, which serves as a nice contrast to the interior's super saturated red hue. Vintage recipes for devil's food cake feature meringue-based frostings like seven-minute icing, though you can finish the cake any way you want. You'll find deep, dark devil’s food topped with deep, dark chocolate ganache, milk chocolate frosting, Swiss meringue buttercream, or even whipped cream. Since there's no official international cakes tribunal that sets the rules for such things, if devil's food is what you fancy, you can frost it with any of those options—or one of your own choosing.

A Quick Word About That Devilish Name

Many believe that devil's food cake is so named because it's the polar opposite of light, ethereal angel food cake, though others theorize that the name comes from its "sinful," decadent, irresistibly tempting taste. Other accounts cite the reddish nature of the cocoa powder, which lent a "devilish" appearance, but that's the same explanation given to the name red velvet. Honestly, there are no conclusive answers. There is only very delicious, very appealing chocolate cake.

Celebrate Each Cake

If you are inclined to bake and share any one of these deeply satisfying desserts, know that each has its own special day (as does nearly every favorite food). Devil's Food Cake Day is May 19, German Chocolate Cake Day falls on June 11, and Red Velvet Cake Day is celebrated on September 18. But just as there are no absolutely definitive recipes for the cakes themselves, you're free to enjoy a slice any day of the year. Whatever you do, don't think too long and hard about what differentiates them, lest you spoil all the fun.

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