Here’s the Story Behind Bumpy Cake — The 100-Year-Old Recipe That’s Blowing Up the Internet

updated Aug 9, 2020
Chocolate Bumpy Cake

A recipe for Michigan’s famous Bumpy Cake, originally created by Sanders Confectionery.

Serves15 to 20

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Credit: Paul Strabbing

In the Midwest, cakes tend to come in two varieties: those I like to call “counter cakes” (think: Bundts, loaves, and quick breads, to be kept on the counter and shaved off slice by slice over several days) and “special-occasion cakes” (those made and eaten just a couple of times per year, and the effort put into creating them reflects that). Some of the most storied special-occasion cakes of the region are ones that had a much-loved business behind them, and, as such, are usually store-bought — either mass-produced or purchased at local bakeries. 

One iconic Heartland cake that still brings oohs and aahs and a general sense of well-being that only nostalgic baked goods can bring is the chocolate variety of Michigan’s famous Bumpy Cake, originally created by Sanders Confectionery. You may have heard something recently about Bumpy Cake — especially if you know someone in or near Michigan. But what you might not know is how Bumpy Cake got its start.

A Beloved Midwestern Treat, Born from a Happy Accident

German confectioner Fred Sanders Schmidt first opened up his confectionary in Chicago, but that venture was short-lived, as it was a casualty of the Great Fire in 1871. Sanders and his wife, Rosa, quickly moved further east and landed in Detroit, where he reopened for business in the city in 1875. Sanders Confectionery has been a Detroit institution ever since.

For its first few decades in business, Sanders Confectionery was simply a good old-fashioned chocolate and candy shop, with most of the products handcrafted by Fred and Rosa. In 1912, Fred decided to begin selling baked goods to honor the passing of his father, who had been a prominent baker and business owner in Illinois. One of those items was a rich chocolate cake, first frosted with vanilla buttercream and finished with a glossy fudge icing, a nod to Fred’s candy-making skills. During one recipe test, Fred began to run out of vanilla buttercream, and instead of frosting the cake in a thick layer as planned, he playfully piped the white frosting in several rails across the top of the cake, which created a bumpy surface under the fudge icing and made for an attractive cross-section. 

Like many happy culinary accidents, the newly fashioned cake with its unique look took off with customers. Initially called “Devil’s Food Buttercream Cake,” so many people simply asked for “the cake with the bumps” that Sanders changed the name to “Chocolate Bumpy Cake.” These days, you can buy the cake from Sanders’ brick-and-mortar stores in Michigan, some select grocery stores in the Midwest, and online, but it’s even better when you set aside the time to make it yourself. 

How to Make Chocolate Bumpy Cake at Home

When it came to re-creating this cake for the home baker in my book Midwest Made, the cake layer and fudgy icing were fairly straightforward (everyone’s favorite one-bowl chocolate cake fits the bill perfectly here, and balances out the effort required to make two different icings). To pay proper respect to the original, a bit of digging was called for to get those creamy rows of white frosting just right.

My research drew me to a 2006 newspaper clipping from Wilmington, North Carolina’s Star-News (of all places!), which included a write-in question from a homesick Michigander wondering about the frostings used by Sanders over the years. The reader-generated responses were so plentiful that the answer held two distinct frosting recipes that were reportedly used by the company at different times in its history. I tested both, and determined that a sturdy, starch-based ermine frosting (described in greater detail in my Mahogany Chocolate Cake recipe) was the perfect way to balance the bittersweet cocoa flavor of the cake, and the healthy amount of confectioners’ sugar in the sweet, fudgy icing. 

Chocolate Bumpy Cake

A recipe for Michigan’s famous Bumpy Cake, originally created by Sanders Confectionery.

Serves 15 to 20

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the cake:

  • Cooking spray

  • 2 cups

    unbleached all-purpose flour

  • 2 cups

    granulated sugar

  • 1/2 cup

    unsweetened cocoa powder (see Recipe Note)

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    baking soda 

  • 3/4 teaspoon

    fine salt 

  • 1 cup

    well-shaken buttermilk, at room temperature

  • 1/2 cup

    hot brewed coffee or hot water

  • 1/2 cup

    vegetable or canola oil

  • 2

    large eggs

  • 2 teaspoons

    vanilla extract

For the filling:

  • 1 cup

    granulated sugar

  • 1/4 cup

    cornstarch

  • 1/8 teaspoon

    fine salt

  • 1 cup

    whole milk

  • 1 teaspoon

    vanilla extract 

  • 8 tablespoons

    (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature

For the icing:

  • 2 sticks

    (1 cup) unsalted butter, divided

  • 1 cup

    granulated sugar

  • 1/2 cup

    well-shaken buttermilk

  • 1/3 cup

    dark corn syrup

  • 1/3 cup

    unsweetened cocoa powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    fine salt

  • 1 cup

    powdered sugar

  • 1 teaspoon

    vanilla extract 

Instructions

  1. Make the cake: Position a rack to the center of the oven and heat it to 350°F. Spray a 9 x 13-inch light-colored metal baking pan with cooking spray. 

  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, granulated sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. 

  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, coffee or water, oil, eggs, and vanilla. Pour the wet ingredients in the dry. Beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Set the pan on a wire rack to cool completely. Meanwhile, prepare the filling.

  4. Make the filling: In a 2- to 2 1/2- quart saucepan, whisk together the granulated sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; boil for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and whisk in the vanilla. Transfer to the clean bowl of an electric mixer and let cool completely. Beating with the paddle attachment on medium speed, beat in 1 tablespoon of butter at a time. Increasing the speed to medium-high, beat until light and fluffy and resembling whipped cream, about 5 minutes. 

  5. When the cake has cooled completely, load the filling into a pastry bag fitted with a 1-inch large round tip. Pipe nine 9-inch lines crosswise over the cake, 1 inch apart. Freeze until the filling is solid, at least 30 minutes. 

  6. Make the icing: When the filling is solid, keep the cake in the freezer while you prepare the icing: In a 2- to 2 1/2- quart saucepan, combine 1/2 cup of the butter and the sugar, buttermilk, corn syrup, cocoa powder, and salt. Place the pan over medium-high heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and cook until the mixture reaches 235°F— no higher. Whisk in the remaining butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Stir in the powdered sugar and vanilla, whisking until the icing is smooth. 

  7. Remove the cake from the freezer. Immediately pour the icing in waterfall-like ribbons over the surface of the cake. If needed, gently rewarm any icing clinging to the pan, and pour it again. Freeze the cake until the icing is set, about 15 minutes, or refrigerate until ready to serve. Store any leftovers tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to a week. 

Recipe Notes

Cocoa powder: My first choice here is a half-and- half mix of regular Dutch-processed and black cocoa powders, for dynamite color and flavor. But if all you have is natural cocoa, that will work, too. 

Reprinted with permission from Midwest Made by Shauna Sever, Running Press, 2019.