Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake Was a Childhood Joke—So Clearly, I Had to Try It

When life hands you fermented cabbage…

the author and her grandmother and mother, as well as their homemade chocolate sauerkraut cake
Candace Davison/Dasha Burobina/PureWow

Something was off about my mom’s 13th birthday cake; it was a bit chewy, maybe stringy? “Is there coconut in this?” she remembers asking, only to see my grandmother’s grin broaden. It didn’t taste like coconut, but it wasn’t bad. She took another bite.

By then, my grandmother’s grin had turned Cheshire cat-like. Something was up.
“It’s sauerkraut,” she announced.

Sauerkraut?! Really? In a chocolate cake?! She’d read it was the secret to moister desserts and decided to give it a whirl. She was right to keep the secret ingredient a surprise for as long as she could; the mental hurdle of a fermented cabbage and cocoa pairing was too much for most people. But that day—and that cake—would become a family legend, retold at nearly every birthday party both because of its shock value—the look on people’s faces delighted us all—and because it summed up my grandmother’s personality pretty succinctly. She never shied away from trying new things, especially if it led to a great story to tell later. And she loved adding a little mischief into the world, a trait she possessed her whole life (exhibit B: getting in trouble as a kid for putting the phrase, “it’s so hot you could fry an egg out here!” to the test, attempting a scramble on the dashboard of a relative’s car).

Growing up, the mere thought of the cake disgusted me. But now, five years after she died, I wish I would’ve gotten to try it.

Where Did This Cake Come From, Anyway?

Then, one morning, at my mother-in-law’s house, I retold the Legend of the Sauerkraut Cake. And my MIL, Diane, stopped me halfway: “There’s a recipe for chocolate cake with sauerkraut in it in one of my mom’s old cookbooks!” She turned to her shelves, popping up moments later with a community cookbook that featured a Beer and Kraut Fudge Cake with chocolate cream cheese frosting.

Wait, was this actually a thing? A deeper dive revealed all kinds of riffs on the combination of chocolate cake and sauerkraut, some also calling for beer, some suggesting baking it as a buttercream-frosted sheet cake or as a Bundt and topping it with cherry pie filling instead.

A few theories exist as to how this cake came into existence—in his book, Baking Yesteryear, author and recipe developer B. Dylan Hollis mentions that some believe a wartime shortage of coconut in the 1940s led people to use drained, rinsed sauerkraut instead. (This seems plausible, considering how the Ritz Mock Apple Pie, using crackers doused in cinnamon-and-lemon syrup, rose to popularity during the Great Depression, when apples were hard to come by.)

In researching the topic, I’ve yet to come across a recipe dated before the ‘60s. That may be why many others credit the creation of Chocolate Sauerkraut cake to Geraldine Timms, a lunchroom supervisor at Waller High School in Chicago in the 1960s. It’s said the USDA Surplus Committee sought ideas for using its stockpile of extra sauerkraut in schools, and she delivered an idea no one (likely) saw coming.

chocolate sauerkraut cake drizzled in ganache
eatsmarter_de/Getty Images

Still, there’s a good chance if you scoured community cookbooks before that era, you’d probably find the cake somewhere. As Sandor Katz, author of Fermentation Journeys told Atlas Obscura, “the idea of using vegetables in a cake to moisten it, to make it more nourishing, that’s not exactly alien,” citing carrot and zucchini cakes. Plus, “using a sour product of fermentation to aid in the rising of a cake isn’t so strange,” considering that creative bakers had to find shelf-stable sources of acid to leaven their desserts before baking powder was invented.

For my grandmother, the practical result—a moister, fluffier cake—was what compelled her to create it, though—like the cake’s origin story—that’s perhaps only half of the true story. And in both cases, I can only guess at the full answer.

the author with her grandmother and at a family birthday party
Candace with her grandmother; a family birthday party // Images: Candace Davison/Dasha Burobina/PureWow

Baking New Memories

When my son was born late this summer, I found myself wanting to text my grandmother, like I had when my daughter was born, both to check in and see what quirky home remedies she’d suggest for anything that troubled us (vitamin E oil for stretch marks and itchy skin; bran muffins for everything else). Instead, I found myself re-reading old emails and Facebook posts, searching for little glimmers that’d connect us again. And then I remembered that cake.

She was a firm believer that dessert—and a little lighthearted mischief—could cheer people up. (Exhibit C: The time she surprised my mom at dinner with every server at Cheddar’s singing happy birthday as they brandished a sparkler-candle-topped cake in her face…six months before her actual birthday.) Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake was the perfect cross-section of those worlds—and now, I had a recipe.

I settled on I Am Baker’s Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake as a base, topped with King Arthur Flour’s Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting to lean into the tangy notes.

The process itself was much like baking any other cake: cream butter and sugar, add the wet ingredients, slowly incorporate the dry—until the kraut was involved. It needed to be rinsed and drained, losing some of its pungent aroma and flavor. Then it was finely chopped and folded into the batter, and I could see the coconut flakes comparison; it made a perfect doppelganger.

Half an hour in the oven and a coat of frosting later, and the cake was ready to be devoured. Still, I hesitated on that first bite. Sauerkraut? Really? In chocolate cake?! The disbelief crept right back up. And then I dug in.

homemade chocolate sauerkraut cake on plates
Candace Davison/Dasha Burobina/PureWow

The cake was…fine. Not so decadently moist I needed to hold a press conference and tell the world we should never make cake another way, or petition Betty Crocker to start adding sauerkraut packs to their mixes. It was like adding mayo or pudding mix, offering a fluffy crumb and moist texture, but nothing over the top. And, blessedly, no hint of sour flavor, tang or crunch. It was like having the occasional bite of coconut flakes without any of the coconut flavor—much like my mom had been saying for years. (Sorry, Mom, for never listening.)

Dylan Hollis writes that this is because the flavors complement each other, rather than compete for your attention: “The unique sour and tart nature of sauerkraut manages to perfectly blend and complement the sweet and bitter notes of cocoa. The added moisture and unique crumb are only of additional benefit.”

But for me, the joy was finally being fully in on the joke. It was never about the cake. It was the chance to make the everyday unforgettable, using whatever you have on hand. 

candace davison bio

VP of editorial, recipe developer, kitsch-lover

Candace Davison oversees PureWow's food and home content, as well as its franchises, like the PureWow100 review series and the Happy Kid Awards. She’s covered all things lifestyle...