Before Red Velvet, There Was Mahogany: America’s First Chocolate Cake

updated Jan 21, 2020
Mahogany Cake with Ermine Frosting

Mahogany Cake, which boasts a soft crumb and a light, whipped buttercream, dates back to the late 1800s and is the first "chocolate cake" on record.

Serves8 to 10

Prep30 minutes

Cook30 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

In an increasingly busy world — and Valentine’s Day season — where a single scroll can give you a bombastic array of gorgeously futuristic, pushing-the-envelope dessert photos, it’s reasonable to think that we’ve already seen just about everything when it comes to the world of cake.

And that’s why it’s worth looking back.

Because when you dig back in history and attempt to unearth some forgotten gems, you can land on the kind of cakes we need right now. Cakes that can be a part of personal moments, not a publicized event in and of themselves. And lately I’ve fallen in love with a cake that’s so demure on a platter and gentle in flavor, it feels like a balm. So old-fashioned and underrated, it somehow feels new. The recipe defining this radically simple way of cake thinking? Mahogany cake.

Before There Was Red Velvet Cake, There Was Mahogany Cake

According to Anne Byrn’s book American Cake, Mahogany cake dates back to the late 1800s in America, and is the first “chocolate cake” on record, appearing in major cookbooks of the day such as Sarah Tyson Rorer’s The Philadelphia Cookbook, published in 1886. As it happens, Mahogany cake is also an awesome study in the subject of baking chemistry — and the alchemy of the ingredients creating not only a lofty rise, but also a phenomenal texture and a beautiful, unique reddish-brown color as well. In many ways, Mahogany cake was the gateway cake to the technicolor Red Velvet.

In Praise of the “Velvet Cake” Technique

Let’s start by examining one of the most winning qualities of Mahogany cake: It’s got a fantastically soft and fine crumb, created by the unique combination of vinegar or buttermilk and baking soda. This combination of ingredients was a late Victorian-era technique for creating “velvet cakes,” in reference to their super-soft, velvety interiors — a grand departure from the heavier, denser cakes that had previously defined the era.

Towards the end of the 19th century in America, the concept of the velvet cake was given the addition of a few spoonfuls of natural cocoa powder or squares of unsweetened chocolate. In the early days of cocoa manufacturing, products weren’t alkalized, and therefore were quite acidic. When natural cocoa meets the combination of vinegar and soda, the bright-red pigments in cacao known as anthocyanin are released. So with this serendipitous marriage of ingredients, the velvet cake took on a reddish-brown hue along with a whisper of chocolate flavor — and the magic of Mahogany cake was born.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Ermine Frosting: The Original American Cake Icing of Choice

The original Mahogany cake was most often paired with a white ermine frosting, also known as “flour frosting,” “boiled milk frosting,” or (my personal favorite) “cloudburst frosting.” Whatever your grandmother or great-grandmother called it, it’s an impossibly light, whipped buttercream so named for its silky, luxurious quality, thanks to a pudding-like base made with flour, milk, and granulated sugar. Ermine was the American cake icing of choice before confectioners’ sugar became a widely available bakers’ staple, and a clever way to frost cakes while not blowing through expensive (and later rationed) ingredients like sugar and butter. It has the mouthfeel, not-too-sweet flavor, and gloriously swoop-able quality of a meringue-based buttercream with a fraction of the effort, making it truly deserving of its own prominent place in your cake recipe arsenal.

Throughout the early 1900s, Mahogany cake continued to rise, with lots of twists on the concept becoming popular as the century progressed and new baking ingredients were introduced and became more affordable. The earliest versions of red velvet cakes (and indeed, even some current recipes) are essentially Mahogany cake recipes with either beet juice or food coloring added. This also explains why the first versions of red velvet cakes don’t call for cream cheese frosting (which didn’t really trend until the 1960s), but rather the aforementioned ermine frosting that was classically paired with Mahogany cake.

When you take the red velvet cake back to its mahogany roots, and experience its subtle vintage flavors and velvety crumb — without the Red #40 — it’s every bit as delicious, if not more. And while by today’s standards chocolate cakes only register as such if they shout it from the rooftops, this lightly cocoa’d cloud and modest slick of creamy vanilla frosting is a welcomed respite. It’s a cake you can build a real conversation around, meaning the conversation can be about other things, in addition to the cake itself. How about that?

Tester’s Note

I’ll go ahead and say it. Mahogany cake is better than the shockingly scarlet red velvet cake you’ve been eating. This cake is subtly sweet with a mere suggestion of cocoa flavor and a crumb so tender no wonder its offspring is called velvet. As my first attempt at ermine frosting, and despite my unfamiliarity with the procedure, the icing was simple to make and easy to work with. It had a slight tang to the flavor, reminiscent of the more modern cream cheese frosting. I admit that almond extract is not my favorite flavor, so next time I make ermine frosting I’ll increase the vanilla extract rather than use a combination of extracts.

Patty, February 2019

Mahogany Cake with Ermine Frosting

Mahogany Cake, which boasts a soft crumb and a light, whipped buttercream, dates back to the late 1800s and is the first "chocolate cake" on record.

Prep time 30 minutes

Cook time 30 minutes

Serves 8 to 10

Nutritional Info


For the cake:

  • Cooking spray

  • 2 cups

    cake flour, spooned and leveled

  • 3 tablespoons

    natural cocoa powder

  • 1 1/4 teaspoons

    kosher salt

  • 1 teaspoon

    baking soda

  • 1 1/2 sticks

    (6 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • 1 1/2 cups

    granulated sugar

  • 1 teaspoon

    vanilla extract

  • 3

    large eggs, at room temperature

  • 1 cup

    well-shaken buttermilk, at room temperature

  • 1 teaspoon

    distilled white or apple cider vinegar

For the ermine frosting (makes about 4 1/2 cups):

  • 1 1/2 cups

    granulated sugar

  • 6 tablespoons

    unbleached all-purpose flour

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1 1/2 cups

    whole milk

  • 3 sticks

    (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    vanilla extract

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    almond extract


  1. Make the cake: Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350°F. Coat 2 (8-inch) round cake pans with cooking spray and line the bottom of each pan with a parchment paper round; set aside.

  2. Place the cake flour, cocoa powder, salt, and baking soda in a medium bowl and whisk to combine; set aside.

  3. Beat the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until creamy, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

  4. With the mixer on low speed, add the eggs one at a time. Once fully incorporated, stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl.

  5. Whisk the buttermilk and vinegar together in the measuring cup or small bowl. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture to the mixer and combine on low speed. Add 1/2 of the buttermilk mixture and incorporate on low speed. Add another 1/3 of the flour mixture to the mixer and combine. Add the remaining buttermilk mixture and combine. Add the remaining flour mixture and combine. Stop to scrape down the mixture as needed. Use a large flexible spatula to fold the batter gently several times to ensure it’s well-blended. Divide the batter evenly among the prepared pans, about 1 1/4 pounds of batter per pan.

  6. Bake until the cakes just begin to pull away from the sides of the pans and a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs, about 30 minutes. Cool completely in the pans set on a wire rack.

  7. Make the frosting: In a medium (2-to 2 1/2-quart) saucepan, whisk together the sugar, flour, and salt. Whisk in the milk. Place the pan over medium heat, and whisk occasionally until the mixture comes to a full rolling boil. Cook for 1 minute, whisking constantly, until pudding-like. Remove the pan from the heat. Let cool completely at room temperature, or to speed up cooling, scrape the mixture into a clean bowl, cover the surface with parchment paper, and chill thoroughly in the refrigerator, at least 1 hour.

  8. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the butter with the vanilla and almond extracts on high speed for 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and add the cooled flour mixture. Beat until the frosting on medium-high speed until it is very fluffy, mousse-like in texture, and noticeably lighter in color, about 5 minutes. Use immediately.

  9. Assemble the cake: Remove the cake layers from the pans, discarding the parchment paper. If the top of the cake layers are domed, use a serrated knife to shave the top, mounded portion off. This leaves you with flat, even cake layers. Place one cake layer on a cake plate, serving platter, or cake round. Spread about 1 cup of the ermine frosting onto the layer into an even layer. Top with the second layer. Scoop the remaining frosting on top of the cake and use a spatula to work it down the sides until the whole cake is completely frosted. Smoothing the top and sides as much as possible.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Store in a cake dome at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Make ahead: The cakes can be baked 1 day in advance, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerated.