Chocolate cake, Homemade vs store bought


I recently had the opportunity to dine at what I call a “hoity toity” restaurant here in Florida’s Palm Beach district. While I didn’t get a glimpse of Donald Trump or Jimmy Buffett, I did get a taste of the food they eat on a regular bases while dining out.

I have no complaints about the food in general, in fact both the Sous Chef and Head Chef there are friend’s of mine and produce absolutely excellent dishes equal to any famous ‘Top Chef’. When I started my own restaurant in the Florida Keys a decade ago, both had volunteered their recipe knowledge and culinary skills in my start up .

The meal went well, my fellow dinner guest raved and wished they could get the recipes… until desert came.

While there were a number of choices, the ‘Old fashioned chocolate cake’ was pushed on us by our server. She exclaimed it was made from scratch by the Pastry Chef from an old passed down recipe. We didn’t doubt her so most of the table ordered the cake.

When it arrived on its small golden rimmed white china plate drizzled with chocolate and caramel sauce in fancy artistic patterns something seemed strange about it. It was perfect. I mean absolutely perfect.

I know some of you have had the chance to see or watch videos on how food is photographed. Rarely, if ever is real food used. Real food looks terrible through a camera lens. Nothing looks worse on TV than seeing a cheaply done commercial for some local restaurant using it’s own real food. The colors are off and meat becomes an object of unrecognizable origin. Pizza looks like a plastic Play-Doh disc a kid made.

This dessert had the appearance of the perfect stand in ones used by the professional food video industry. But… I figured since the much bragged about Pastry Chef made it from scratch, it may just taste as good as it looked.  Maybe he was just incredibly good. I figured wrong!

Partway through the silent dessert session, I looked up and glanced at my fellow dinners. Each face showed a different expression. Some looked puzzled, others like they had already over eaten and were eating only out of politeness and others took a bite or two and stopped and like me, looked at the others. I swear, the Old fashioned chocolate cake was nothing more than a Sara Lee job with fancy artwork drizzles over it. Finally someone spoke up loud enough for half the restaurant to hear. “This cake taste like crap!”

All at once everyone agreed and began putting in their own two cents. The server, upon overhearing our comments quietly made her way back to the kitchen. She returned moments later trailing behind the huffy looking Pastry Chef. He stopped and with mocking politeness asked if we had a problem with the desert. The look he gave us was saying, “You better say it was excellent or I’ll kill you with my wildly overgrown Scottish eyebrows.”

Figuring my fellow guest lives were in jeopardy, I flung myself at him as the sacrificial goat offering.

“We we’re just wondering about the cake,” I said, “Our server told us it was home made from a passed down family recipe of yours. Our taste buds say different  and wanted to know if you would tell us which food purveyor you used to purchase it.”

The Scottish eyebrows scrunched, quivered violently and as if having a life of their own, grew in size and became even more disheveled. He sputtered for a few seconds, then realizing we may just have a bit of food knowledge ourselves, turned and stomped back into the kitchen without uttering a word.

“Well,” I said, “I think I just offended Scrooge McDuck.”

The thing is folks, DON’T ever try and pass off an institutional premade food as ‘Home Made’, your dinner guest will know you’re trying to snooker ‘em.

To prove my point, Many ‘Home made’ recipes are not anywhere near as complicated as those premade ones. Ingredients used in many of the institutional recipes are not even readily available to the average cook.   I use ‘Cook’ instead of ‘Chef’ because I still hold that only a school trained cook should title themselves as a Chef.  But, that doesn’t mean cooks are less qualified by any means in producing a great dish. In fact the famous BBQ sauce maker, Stubbs, proudly proclaims on each bottle, “Lady and gentlemen, I am a Cook!”  But I digress.

If you question whether or not those strange sounding additives in an institutional recipe change the flavor, ( or are even good for you) I challenge you to make this old fashioned ‘from scratch’ chocolate cake and compare it to the taste, texture and post dining sugar / caffeine  rush of  the store bought variety. I think your Grandma would approve of the homemade one and you can honestly tell your guest, “It’s from scratch”!

“Andy? If you mention that hussy Sara Lee one more time, you’ll be sporting this spoon where the sun don’t shine!”


Real, from scratch, Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake*

Preheat oven to 350

Dry ingredients

1 ½ cups of all purpose unbleached flour

1 cup of granulated sugar

3 Tablespoons of cocoa powder

½ teaspoon of salt

1 teaspoon of baking soda

Wet ingredients

1 teaspoon of vanilla

1 Tablespoon of vinegar

½ cup of melted butter

1 cup of warm water



In a large mixing bowl, mix all dry ingredients until well blended. Set aside.

In a smaller bowl, using a fork, whip the wet ingredients together until blended.

Making a depression in the middle of the dry ingredients, slowly pour the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry ingredients. Mix the wet and dry ingredients together using the fork.

Do not whip, just blend them well.

Pour into greased and floured cake tins. (I still don’t trust the non stick stuff.)

Place in the ovens middle rack and bake for 30 minutes.***

When finished, remove from cake tins and cool on a cooling rack.

When cooled, use a bread knife to slice off the rounded top of one of the finished cakes. Use this shaved cake as the bottom layer. Place the rounded unshaved one as the top when frosting the cake.

* This chocolate layer cake recipe is from my collection of heritage recipes. Modern measurements have replaced the originals (eg; a tad bit of cocoa, a few spoonfuls of butter,  a scoop of sugar…)

** In the ‘olden days’, fresh eggs were not always available, especially out west. It was common to use vinegar mixed with milk to prevent crumbling. The vinegar soured and curdled the milk bonding the flour together.

*** Use a toothpick to determine doneness. Each oven bakes differently. When inserted into the middle of the cake, the toothpick should come out dry.

Cocoa chocolate frosting

10 Tablespoons of very soft room temperature of butter

5 cups of powdered sugar

1 ½  teaspoons of vanilla

15 Tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder

½ cup of milk (hold back 2 Tablespoons of milk and add as needed while mixing to achieve desired thickness)


Beat the butter in a large mixing bowl until fluffy. Slowly add ½ of the powdered sugar amount (2-3 cups) and mix well. Beat in 6 Tablespoons of milk and add vanilla. When well blended, add the cocoa powder and remaining powdered sugar. Beat well until desired consistency is found. If too thick, add the last of reserved milk as needed.

Apply to cooled cake ( ¼ inch in thickness) then chill cake until frosting sets up.

How to frost a cake ;

25 comments on “Chocolate cake, Homemade vs store bought

  1. A good story, and very well written. I am all for homemade. Better than the ones you buy, and if you buy an industryproduced cake I don’t even think it is healthy.. Must see if I can make an oldfashioned chocolate cake again soon..

  2. I will definitely be trying this recipe! Homemade is better than store bought any day! 🙂

    • The thing to remember is store bought food is made for convenience. The makers use two main ingredients to get our nod of approval, salt and sugar. Taste, is another matter. You can usually taste each ingredient in a from scratch recipe, not so when it’s hyper inflated with sugar and salt.

      • My favorite way to bake is from scratch. I like knowing exactly what is going into what I eat. 🙂

      • Two giant thumbs up on that one! I can remember as a child having terrible episodes of illness. It ranged from hives, to swelling up to abdominal pain. It wasn’t until 1977 that I ended up in the hospital, near dead. It was discovered I was allergic to yellow die #5. The whole problem was from my favorite dessert… store bought apple pie…Now I make my own!

  3. tbnranch says:

    Yep, you’re a real chef for sure… but then there are folks like me who don’t understand what you probably just take for granted. I have no idea what this means, help!
    “When cooled, use a bread knife to slice off the rounded top of one of the finished cakes. Use this shaved cake as the bottom layer. Place the rounded unshaved one as the top when frosting the cake.”

  4. Jennirific says:

    Loved your story! It’s true, you can tell real homemade from a fake right off, and homemade is ALWAYS better 🙂

  5. rumpydog says:

    I’ve never been a food professional, but I am sure I can tell the difference between a store-bought and a home-made cake. Duh!

    • What was he thinking? I have seen (since the cake shows on TV became popular) cakes that I would have sworn were institutionally perfect looking. But this was way too perfect and he tried covering it up with fancy drizzeling.

  6. Oh wow – that would be such a disappointing way to end a great meal! Can’t believe they tried to pass it off as homemade. Although I did hear that more and more restaurants are doing it… Homemade wins every time (unless there is some terrible kitchen disaster!)!

    • There are numerous companies now selling high end desserts for restaurants. How can you tell the homemade from the factory made besides going by the looks? Food that is premade needs to be transported. This requires food stabilizers and preservatives. Salt and sugar are excellent everyday food preservatives. Shipping premade food any distance or over time will either mean an increase sugar or salt level to keep the food safe, or refrigeration/freezing. If your desert is ‘very rich’ it just might be factory made.

      • It’s such a shame too, because puddings should all be amazing so you end the meal on a high – it completely lets down a great meal if the pudding isn’t up to scratch! And for me, I will usually choose pudding over having a starter, so it is very important! Restaurants are getting lazy I guess…

      • It’s all about the money. The ingredient cost of making a dessert from scratch is less than purchasing a pre-made one but, the cost of labor actually makes the from scratch dessert more expensive.
        It all depends what you want to be known for. I once was at a western trail cook out and saw a fellow placing frozen biscuits in his cast iron Dutch Oven (see my blog on cast iron cooking). When he served them, he actually took credit for how they turned out. He was no different than many restaurants that serve and then take credit for food they did not make. I attended the Rich’s Food Corporation (US and Canada) baking class. Everything is premade and frozen, all you do is bake it. Myself and others attending were very disappointed. We thought it was a ‘from scratch’ class on Bakery goods. The Master Baker (instructor) kept telling us, “No one will ever know you did not bake these in house”. No, but I would.

      • A baking class on how to put frozen food in the oven?! That’s crazy. And a bit insulting to everyone attending too…

      • We were! The advertizement talked about cake decorating, making pastries etc. Yeah, from frozen stuff! LOL The only nice thing was is that afterward, the school paid for our day at Disney world in Orlando. It was their first attempt at baking classes. They got an earful from the class! I think they took us all to Disney to calm us down.
        I just made a bunch of Christmas pastries. Boy does my house smell nice! Lots of cinnamon smells 🙂

      • Well that does help, yes! Ooh yum 🙂 Sounds good – I’m assuming you’re just re-heating some frozen goodies from the supermarket like you were taught 😉 Haha

      • Ha ha ha! Hush your mouth Ma’am!
        No, I’m actually using some of my posted recipes. Today is also bread making day so right now my house is smelling more like a traditional bakery than a house of pastries! I have two house bunnies (yes they have free run of the house 24/7 and are litter box trained) I make them treats out of ground alfalfa hay, applesauce, ground oats and just a wee tad of honey. I mix it all up and bake it in sheets. When done. I break it into small pieces and store it in a plastic container in the fridge. They love their treats! I actually posted their photo’s on my blog once under the april 7th post called, “Wild animals in my home”.
        Check it out and NO I don’t cook rabbit!
        What are you doing to prepare for Christmas? BTW, where are you located? (Not your house, just a town) No, I have no desire stalk you… besides, I can’t swim that far! LOL
        I’m here in Sunny Florida but would rather be back out west in Idaho. My name is Joe…very common name but then I’m glad. My family has some strange names. Mostly throwbacks from the old West days (cowboy times) LaFelle, Deloy, Verda, Hamblin… you get the idea 🙂 Take care my Dear, I enjoy gabbing with you. Oh, here is a link to my audio book. It’s just the first draft so it’s a bit rough. I promise the finished one will sound much better 🙂 Just copy and paste it to your address column. have a great day my friend, Joe

      • Aw house bunnies are so cute! One of my friends has one and she’s so adorable! I’m glad you don’t eat them! When I was about 10, I went to France with my parents to visit some family friends. They had rabbits, so I spent many a happy hour playing with them. At the end of our stay, we went over for a lovely dinner of what my parents told me was “chicken”. I’ve since found out that I was, in fact, eating my little rabbit friends, but my parents didn’t want me to cause a fuss and seeing as I didn’t understand French then, it was quite easy to hide the truth from me!

        Nice to meet you then (kinda!) – I’m Katie and I live in a tiny little village that no one has ever heard of… the nearest town of note is Leamington Spa. It’s a lovely part of the world though (well, I like it anyway!). Then again, sunny Florida does sound more appealing than rainy England right now… 😉

        As for Christmas preparations, I’m planning some more baking this week, but we don’t usually start getting too Christmassy here until after mine and my brother’s birthday (this Thursday!).

        Thanks for sending me the link for your audio book – I have bookmarked it so I can listen to it as soon as I have unlimited internet again (my parents barely go online, but it’s driving me crazy, haha!) 🙂

        Merry Christmas,
        Katie x

  7. I think where you live sounds wonderful! I have always thought it would be nice to live in a small English type village. I prefer rural to city. As for the French…well, if they eat rabbits then BAH on them! I’ve worked with some in restaurants over the years and have found few that I could call my friend. They had an attitude of “I’m better than thou”. Sorry if you like the French, I mean no harm, just saying what I know of those I met. Maybe they were not good examples. I have a few online friends from England that I’ve been in contact with for years. Those I can truly call my friends even though I’ve never met them. Who knows as the years go by, we may find that the two of us have become friends. 🙂

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