Cooking with a Pinch of History: Spanish Chocolate Cake

by Brittany Avila

Happy New Year! What better way to start off 2015 than baking up a delicious recipe from our Hispanic California predecessors.  And hopefully you haven’t started your 2015 resolutions of eating healthier, because this one is another sweet treat!

I have adapted this recipe from California Mission Cookery by Mark Preston and David DeWitt. It is a more savory twist on your average chocolate cake. And if you’re used to cake box mixes, don’t be intimidated by baking from scratch. Like past recipes, this one is just as simple as it is delightful.


Cake Batter

2 cakes Ybarra or Abuelita chocolate (this can be found at Hispanic supermarkets)

½ Cup butter

1 Cup piloncillo sugar (Brown or cane sugar could be a substitute if you have difficulty finding piloncillo)

4 eggs

1 Cup milk

3 Cups flour (as always, I used whole wheat flour to remain as similar as possible to flour used in Early CA)

2 Tablespoons baking powder

1 Teaspoons vanilla extract


1 Cake Ybarra or  Abuelita chocolate

¾ Cup butter

½ Cup piloncillo

Begin by preheating your oven to 300 degrees.  Start preparing the cake batter by melting the two chocolate cakes in a saucepan over the stovetop for no more than 5 minutes. Do not try melting in the microwave, they will burn and/or could start a fire.

The Spanish did not even recognize chocolate as a food until the 17th century, nearly a hundred years after they founded New Spain. But once they pronounced it edible, it made waves in Europe and become Spain’s largest export from their new-found territory.

Next, add the butter and piloncillo to the chocolate.  While the butter melts in with the chocolate, beat the eggs together. Mix your stovetop concoction in a bowl with the eggs. Then gradually add flour, baking powder and vanilla.

Spanish royalty were known to add a variety of unique ingredients to their new favorite import. They would consume chocolate with anything from vanilla, anise, chili peppers, hazelnut, and even powdered white roses mixed in.

Before adding the dry ingredients, your stove top mixture should be grainy and viscous. photo by Brittany Avila.

Once this is well mixed, place in a 15” baking dish that is lined either with butter, PAM, or some form of non-stick spray. If you want your cake a little bit thicker, you can place it in a smaller baking dish, but you will have to cook it for a bit longer at a lower temperature.

During California’s rancho period, sweet cakes would have been baked for “la merienda,” or the meal eaten following the afternoon siesta. This “light luncheon” usually consisted of pastries, cakes, sweet cured cheese, olives and wafers. Doesn’t sound that light to me!

The final cake batter consistency should be similar to a mousse. This leads to a fluffy, yet still moist cake. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Place the baking dish in the oven and allow it to bake for 35-40 minutes. To be sure your cake is cooked all the way through, use the “toothpick method” by sticking a toothpick in the middle of the cake. If there is no cake batter on the toothpick when you pull it out, it’s ready. If there is, then allow it bake longer and check on it every 3-5 minutes.

This cake is amazing by itself, but why not add a little bit more sugar to it with some icing? After all, it’s a dessert! Photo by Brittany Avila.

While your cake is baking, you can begin working on the icing. Simply melt the appropriate amount of chocolate, butter and piloncillo for the icing together over the stove for no more than 5 minutes over low heat. Mix this with a spoon the entire time. Allow this to cool. Once cool, you can ice your cake. You can also use this mixture as a filling for your cake if you want to make multiple layers.

Piloncillo was a type of sugar formed into a cone shape also imported to El Presidio de Santa Barbara and other establishments in Early California. Even the Spanish settlers maintained their sweet tooth!

The consistency of the icing should be similar to the stovetop mixture for the cake batter. If you use real cane sugar the consistency will be grainier than using brown sugar. Photo by Brittany Avila.

I brought this cake to my coworkers in the midst of other delectable Christmas treats and this was not overshadowed by any means! Definitely worth breaking your healthy eating resolutions just once for this!

Works Cited

Foster, Nelson, and Linda S. Cordell. Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World. Tucson: University of Arizona, 1992. 3-4

Packman, Ana Bégué. Early California Hospitality; the Cookery Customs of Spanish California, with Authentic Recipes and Menus of the Period. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark, 1938. 30. Print.

Preston, Mark, and Dave DeWitt. California Mission Cookery: A Vanished Cuisine, Rediscovered. Albuquerque, New Mexico: Border, 1994. 194.


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