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Wacky Cake

During both world wars, butter, sugar, milk, and eggs were often in short supply, leading American women to devise a variety of "make-do" cakes. We found several sources suggesting that wacky cake was invented during the 1940s, but we couldn't understand how it earned its name until we found a recipe in The Time Reader's Book of Recipes, a collection of reader recipes compiled by the editors of Time magazine in 1949.

Mrs. Donald Adam of Detroit, submitted this strange recipe, which called for mixing the dry ingredients — flour, cocoa powder, sugar, salt, and baking soda — right in the baking pan. If that wasn't strange enough, three holes — two small and one large — were made in the dry mix. Into the large hole went melted vegetable shortening, while vanilla and vinegar were destined for the smaller holes. Cold water was poured over everything, then the whole mess was stirred and popped into the oven. How does this strange recipe work?

Without eggs, this cake depends on the last-minute reaction of vinegar and baking soda to lift the thick batter. The three holes ensure that the dry ingredients (including the baking soda) remain dry until the last possible second. The lift provided by the baking soda and vinegar reaction is fleeting, and the recipe's odd mixing method ensures that the batter gets into the oven quickly.

Serves 6 to 8

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup natural cocoa powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup water

Confectioners' sugar

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan.

2. Whisk the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in the prepared pan. Make 1 large and 2 small craters in the dry ingredients. Add the oil to the large crater and vinegar and vanilla separately to the remaining small craters. Pour the water into the pan and mix until just a few streaks of flour remain. Immediately put the pan in the oven.

3. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, about 30 minutes. Cool in the pan, then dust with confectioners' sugar. (The cake can be stored at room temperature for up to 3 days.)

Notes from the Test Kitchen

To simplify things, we replaced the melted shortening with vegetable oil, and to boost the chocolate flavor we added another tablespoon of cocoa powder. The cake was a bit sweet, so we cut back on the sugar, and, because several tasters complained about a slight "soapy" flavor, we also decreased the baking soda. On a whim, we decided to try this cake with more "timely" ingredients. We replaced the oil with melted butter and used milk instead of water. This cake was less chocolaty and more crumbly — the original was better. Be sure to use natural cocoa powder rather than Dutch-processed cocoa for this recipe. The two types of cocoa powder react differently in recipes with baking powder and baking soda and don't always produce similar results.

A Wacky Mixing Method

1. Using a spoon, make 1 large and 2 small craters in the dry mix.

2. Pour the vegetable oil into the large crater, then the vinegar and vanilla into the smaller craters. Pour the water over all the ingredients. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, mix the batter, taking care not to overmix; the batter should still contain a few streaks of flour.

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