Caketastrophe 2013 (A Disaster with an Edible Ending)

The bar was set very low. I wanted to recreate the Olive Garden chocolate cake that we used to get for our non-birthdays, growing up (non-birthdays because my parents would lie and say it was somebody’s birthday so we’d get a free cake) and would keep in our refrigerator for the week. I’d eat it cold with a glass of milk and it always hit the spot. I wanted something simple like that, so I turned to Twitter. A follower suggested I make the chocolate cake on the back of the Hershey’s Cocoa container. I was sold.

These recipes, on the back of containers, are usually pretty good. I mean that’s a big risk to put a recipe that doesn’t work on the back of your container that goes to stores across the whole country (and possibly the whole world). I imagine it’s tested pretty well. Here it is:


The first step is where everything went wrong. The recipe tells you to spray and flour two pans. I did that but I didn’t line them with parchment. If I had lined them with parchment, I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened.

Everything else is pleasurably easy. You mix all your dry ingredients in one bowl and then add wet ingredients. (I added a little espresso powder for an extra kick as Lolita looked on, disapprovingly.)


Into non-parchment lined cake pans the batter goes, and that’s pretty much it.


You bake and wait. Your home begins to smell really good. Hopeful, even.

And then, when they come out, you let them rest for 10 minutes then flip them out. That’s when disaster struck.


Both cakes totally broke apart when I flipped them on to their respective cooling racks. The old me would’ve been in tears, the new me cried virtual tears. People on Twitter were sympathetic and helpful. “Make a trifle!” said one. “Cut them into cupcakes!” said another.

Meg of Megnut, though, said that icing acts like glue and I could potentially glue it all back together. So I set about making the icing on the back of the package, which is an excellent and easy recipe made with just melted butter, cocoa powder, powdered sugar and milk (I substituted a little buttermilk for a little tang).


Then the great work began. Here’s what I did. I took one cake and used a spatula to lift the rest out and patched it together on the rack.


Then I flipped that on to a cake stand.


And I applied a generous slathering of frosting.


I piled it into the middle and then spread it outwards.


Ok, ok…we’re getting somewhere, right? I pieced the other broken cake on top.


And applied the rest of the frosting.


There wasn’t enough frosting left to do the sides, but look!


My Caketastrophe was now a sloppy, lovable assemblage of chocolate pastry and chocolate icing. Cut into slices, no one would know the difference.

And, sure enough, that proved to be true that very evening when I served this up to my dinner guests. Here’s what a slice looked like:


Despite how awful it seemed earlier, this cake was actually REALLY good. The cake itself is super moist (that’s probably why it’s so sticky and stuck to the pan) and the icing is sweet and chocolatey and clearly homemade. The cake tastes like childhood, which is precisely what I was going for.

So if you make this–and you should–learn from my mistake: use parchment paper to line the pans before you pour in the batter. Oh and double the icing recipe so you can do the sides of the cake too. And know that no matter what happens, you’ll recover. If this cake can rise up from the ashes, any cake can.

27 thoughts on “Caketastrophe 2013 (A Disaster with an Edible Ending)”

  1. The cake looks delicious, despite its infirmities. My feeling always is, unless you are baking for a special event, these esthetic mistakes are acceptable as no doubt the cake will be delicious, despite its deformities. And so, it appears, that was true.

  2. The Hershey’s back-of-the-container frosting recipe is my go-to for chocolate frosting…you can’t go wrong. I often use sour cream instead of milk for the extra tang. And I have been known to make the frosting for no other purpose than to keep in the refrigerator so that I can eat spoonfuls of frosting for several days…:)

  3. My go-to easy chocolate cake is Laurie Colwin’s buttermilk chocolate cake. It’s in More Home Cooking (I think) — super simple, takes five minutes to put together, and about 30 minutes to bake. I don’t frost it, just dust with powdered sugar and serve with ice cream and berries or whipped cream.

    1. Mine too. I would always make it for my daughter after finals, so we started calling it Finals Cake, Very easy and delicious!

  4. This is my most favorite cake recipe, EVER. In fact, I used this recipe when I made my wedding cake! I used the Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa, though, which takes it to another level of awesome. I also cheat and use the Baker’s Joy spray, and it comes out of the pan, perfect every time. Glad to see you enjoyed it.

  5. Childhood cake is comforting – it’s always what you expect and never quite tastes of what it’s meant to. I had chocolate cake slice from a box today and it tasted like brown, but in a good way.

    My cakes always go wrong when I’m baking under pressure – there was one village flowershow where my lemon drizzle cake went wrong twice in different ways. I gave up after that as I was out of eggs.

  6. My mother, rest her soul, often baked this cake (and Miracle Whip cake) for potlucks and other social occasions. But always in a 9 X 13 glass baking dish, with the icing spread on top. No flipping caketastrophies for her, no siree.

  7. Another thing I learned from smitten kitchen is to let a cake cool longer than you think it needs to cool before trying to get it out of the pan. Patience is not virtue for which I’m known, but I’ve learned my lesson with moist chocolate cake. I’m glad you didn’t resort to tears.

    1. This depends on what you used to grease the pan. If an oil, then yes let it cool completely. If butter/shortening, then no, because the butter will re-solidify. So best to do it when the cake is still a little warm– you kinda have to go with your gut.

  8. I’m laughing as I read this because something very similar happened to me with this exact recipe. This was one of the first chocolate cakes I ever learned to bake and it usually turned out quite well. One time, I was making it with a friend and it exploded in the oven (I think she may have added too much baking soda without realizing it), and we ended up doing careful frosting-surgery with the cake to glue it back together. And, sure enough, just as with you — no one could really see the difference. :)

  9. My opinion is that the place it all went pear-shaped is where you sprayed and floured. That has never, ever worked for me. Baking requires actual, hands-on GREASING of a pan (preferably with Crisco), then the flour-shaking part. Using spray-on oil (or, really, oil of any sort) is a recipe for disaster.

    However, looking at how delicious this cake is, even broken, is inspiring me to dust off my mixer and baking pans and start baking again. I baked up a storm as a teenager.

  10. my grandma’s chocolate cake recipe is almost like the one from the back of the hershey’s box with a few little tweaks. Only it doesn’t need any parchment paper. Some good old fashioned Pam sprayed onto a 9×13 cake pan and it doesn’t stick. I’ve also done it in 2 pans and had no real issues turning them out of their pans.

  11. Surprised the box instructions don’t suggest dusting the pan with cocoa powder instead of flour – adds flavor and a nicer presentation. There’s none of the off color residue you get with floured pans and it works just as well. And well done, reshaping your cake’s destiny!

  12. just a tip…if you ever have a problem with baked good sticking again, try putting the pan straight from the oven onto a dishcloth soaked with water. The hot pan hitting the towel creates steam and lifts the cake out. This has worked for me time and time again, from cakes to pizza, etc. Also if you use shortening or butter to grease a pan, then let the cake cool in the pan, the grease will re-solidify, so you’ll need to put it back in the oven for a few minutes to let it re-liquidify (is that a word?). But yes, parchment circles are always the best route!

  13. This is why I only use a cake tin with a removable base! Maybe this would have prevented a caketastrophe?! Cake looks delicious though and that’s all that matters :) I think it would be complete with a generous dollop of cream!

  14. The Hershey’s cake is pretty good, but I am sort of skeeved out by baked goods that call for oil instead of butter. Have you tried the Barefoot Contessa chocolate cake? It’s the one in the first BC cookbook — I think it’s called Chocolate Buttercream Cake. It’s as easy as the Hershey’s but uses butter instead of oil and tastes (I think) better, especially when spackled with a basic cream cheese icing. (Or chocolate would work too, I’m sure.) I make it using half regular cocoa and half of the special dark cocoa, and it’s always good and soft and chocolate-y.

    1. As an enthusiastic cake baker I used to share the aversion to oil based cake. However, butter cakes taste best the same day and oil based lasts longer so I make butter for same day eating and oil when it won’t be eaten until the next day.

  15. This recipe (on the back of the cocoa) has been my go-to chocolate cake and frosting recipe for years and years. However I’ve never tried it in two round pans – I always make it in a metal 9×13 and serve it from there. SO good! Glad you didn’t toss yours!

  16. Yum! Love this cake recipe. This has, as is also the case with many of your other readers, always been the family recipe for chocolate cake. We rarely make a layer cake with it though; however, I always use butter to grease pans. I don’t use it for much else, but it is the best stuff for that job. Mom always added coffee to the butter cream frosting. My only minor failure with this cake happened when I decreased the sugar to such an extent that it ended up having a texture that was more like a brownie than a cake.

  17. I saw this on twitter…love how you patched it together. So many kitchen disasters happen with guests never the wiser so long as you don’t panic. You did a great job! I don’t remember ever making this cake, but since we love the Hershey’s cocoa brownies I imagine we would love this one too. It’s going on my list of things to try.

  18. Awesome – nice work!

    ProTip for seriously cake-impaired bakers: re-assemble your cake and “glue” (I’ve even used ice cream, but then you have to keep them frozen after frosting) inside paper-lined cake pans and pop them in the freezer for 20 minutes or so before you turn them out and frost them – this will work no matter how badly they are broken.

    Not that I’ve ever had to do that, because MY cakes always flip out of the pans perfectly and I NEVER forget one of the important cake-release-insurance steps…

    (or maybe not…) ;-)

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