Birthday Tradition: Chocolate Wacky Cake

Birthday Tradition: Chocolate Wacky Cake

Taking a break today from healthy recipes – after all, life is all about balance, right? Wacky Cake is a Swensen family birthday cake tradition, and a very gooey chocolatey tradition at that!

Dads birthday

                               Please ignore the fact that we didn’t have any birthday candles around. . .

August was always a busy birthday month in my household, with my dad, brother, and myself all having birthdays. Besides frequent going out to eat, it seemed every week there would be a new pan of cake sitting on the counter. How do four people eat three cakes in a month? By eating a slice at breakfast as well as for dessert – yes, somehow I became a dietitian. Luckily we all had different cake preferences. My brother has always been a traditional yellow cake with chocolate frosting kind of guy, while I changed my mind on what type of cake I wanted every year. My dad’s cake though was always extra special as it was a tradition for him growing up: chocolate wacky cake.



Wacky cake gets it origins from the great depression when eggs, butter, and milk were too expensive for many families. Instead, flour, sugar, and cocoa powder were mixed together with oil and vinegar to create this incredibly moist, chocolate cake. To this day, wacky cake is the only chocolate cake I like, as traditional chocolate cake rarely comes close to being as soft and flavorful. If you don’t add frosting, this cake is actually vegan. But come on, who wants cake without fudge frosting?!

The traditional family recipe calls for shortening and corn syrup in the frosting. While I can accept that birthdays are a time to indulge on a big piece of birthday cake, the dietitian in me just can’t bring myself to use, let alone buy, shortening and corn syrup. So, for my dad’s birthday last year my mom and I changed up the frosting to incorporate real butter and LOTS of powdered sugar instead. While we didn’t make the frosting at all lower in calories, fat, or sugar, I at least feel better that I’m eating real foods, regardless of how rich it still is.

 Slice of cake

So here’s a toast to my dad, happy birthday!

Swensen Family Chocolate Wacky Cake

A family tradition, wacky cake actually gets it origins from the great depression when eggs, butter, and milk were too expensive for many families. Instead, flour, sugar, and cocoa powder were mixed together with oil and vinegar to create this incredibly moist, chocolate cake.
Prep Time10 mins
Cook Time30 mins
Total Time40 mins
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Keyword: Cake, Chocolate, Vegetarian
Servings: 12
Author: The Healthy Toast



  • 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened coco powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 Tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup cold water


  • 6 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup unseated coco powder
  • 1/3 cup milk I use unsweetened almond milk, but traditionally my mom used 1% milk
  • 3 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract


For the cake

  • Preheat oven to 350
  • In a 9 x 13 baking pan, combine flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda.
  • Using a spoon, make three holes in the dry ingredients. In one hole, pour in vanilla. In a second hole pour in vinegar, and add oil to the third hole. Pour 1 cup of cold water over the whole cake and mix well.
  • Bake 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
  • Let the cake cool before spreading with frosting (my mom used to make the cake at night then frost in the morning).

To make the frosting

  • Add everything except the sugar and vanilla extract to a small saucepan and heat on high until boiling. Remove from heat.
  • Stir in confectioners’ sugar and vanilla until silky smooth.
  • Pour over cooled cake.


Optional, if you don't want to add frosting, this cake would also be delicious with just a sprinkle of powdered sugar on top (plus if you are concerned about nutrition it would cut out almost 200 calories per slice of cake).
Adapted from Grandma Swensen

Add a comment


  • Karly AvatarKarly6 years ago

    This wacky cake is making all of my wacky chocolate dreams come true. I cannot get over how amazing this looks!

    • The Healthy Toast AvatarThe Healthy Toast6 years ago

      Thanks Karly 🙂 It is so moist and fudgy – definitely a great family recipe! Hope you give it a shot.

  • Rachel @ Delicious Balance AvatarRachel @ Delicious Balance6 years ago

    This cake looks so good! I love that it’s naturally vegan. And I’m totally with you, life is all about balance 🙂

  • Brynn at The Domestic Dietitian AvatarBrynn at The Domestic Dietitian6 years ago

    What a fun (and delicious) tradition. I also agree…who doesn’t want fudge icing on their cake???

  • Deanna Segrave-Daly AvatarDeanna Segrave-Daly6 years ago

    This wacky cake sounds like a delish tradition to me!

  • About Kelli McGrane Headshot

    I’m Kelli MS, RD, and my mission is to prove that eating healthier doesn’t have to be complicated or restrictive. Follow along to learn more about food and cooking, with an emphasis on breakfast and sweet treats!

    About Kelli McGrane Headshot

    Welcome to The Healthy Toast!

    Here you’ll find realistic healthy recipes designed by a registered dietitian with your busy lifestyle in mind.

    Whether you’re a busy professional or new mom, the goal of The Healthy Toast is to provide you with the recipes and nutrition info you need to live your healthiest life, even when life gets crazy. As I’m a firm believer in a whole-foods, non-diet approach, I hope my website shows that good nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated or restrictive. 

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