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Old Fashion Chocolate Cake Like Grandma Used to Make

Chocolate cake was one of the things we always made from scratch when I was growing up. My mom’s chocolate cake recipe was famous among my friends – it was a true old fashion chocolate cake recipe.

image of a slice of chocolate cake on white china with blue flowers

Several years ago I got a package from one of my dad’s sisters and inside was a copy of some of my Granny’s recipe’s cards. Along with the bread and butter pickle recipe was a recipe that my Mom gave my Granny for chocolate cake. It’s amazing how meaningful those few photocopies are to me.

The great thing about these handwritten recipes is that they are written just like my granny spoke. There’s no list of ingredients. It just starts off with “Bring to a boil…” So you have to read the whole recipe just to get the ingredient list. hmmm, maybe that was intentional?

We did change one thing, we don’t use oleo (margarine), I use butter or sometimes coconut oil.

image of handwritten old fashion chocolate cake recipe

The Oil or Butter Debate…

This recipe uses both oil and butter (oleo) in it. I’ve actually forgotten the oil before and the cake was still delicious – just not quite as moist.

The oil stays liquid at room temperature and is lighter than butter a cake made with oil will be fluffier and have a more even crumb.

However, butter has more flavor than oil which is why it’s often thought that butter makes better cakes than oil – they are usually more flavorful, but drier.

What should you use? Whatever you have on hand. If you’re eating the whole cake that night for dessert, and want to use all butter, that will work just fine.

If you want the cake to stay moist longer, then limit the butter and use oil. I’ve made this cake with only coconut oil – no butter or vegetable oil – and it’s fantastic.

image of mixing baking soda into buttermilk to make old fashion chocolate cake

Buttermilk and Water?

Yes, both buttermilk and water are in this recipe. I’m sure my Granny used real buttermilk in her cake, after all she had a milk cow.

I know my Mom did not use real buttermilk. In fact, she often used regular milk and just put a little lemon juice in it to sour it. The ratio to make a buttermilk substitute is 1 cup milk or cream and 1 tablespoon lemon juice or white vinegar. If you need to make your own “buttermilk” then do it at the very beginning and set it aside while you start the cake batter.

The acid in the buttermilk (real or substitute) reacts with the baking soda to create a fluffy cake. If you use plain milk, the cake will still taste good, I promise, but it will be more dense – which some people like so if that’s you then try it with just plain milk.

How to prepare a cake pan

Before spray oil and Baker’s Joy, bakers prepared their cake pans with butter or oil and flour or cocoa.

The easiest way is to partially unwrap a stick of butter and then rub it all over the pan – holding onto the wrapped part. If you’re using oil, use a pastry brush (I actually use a chip paintbrush) and spread a thin layer of oil all over the pan. They key is a THIN layer, this a a time when more is NOT better.

After the pan is oiled, sprinkle some flour in the pan and then turn and shake the pan until it covers all the oil. If you’re making a chocolate cake use cocoa powder instead of oil so you don’t have a white layer all over the finished cake.

What about the frosting?

This frosting is fantastic and you don’t need a mixer to make it. But know that it’s not going to spread like store bought frosting. It’s different, in my opinion much better.

Usually frosting is too sweet and takes away from the flavor of the cake. Whenever we go to a party that has cake, people scrape off the majority of the frosting and don’t eat it. Such a waste.

This frosting recipe makes just enough to cover a 9×13″ pan of cake. If you decide to make this into a layer cake you might need to make a double batch.

image of a slice of old fashion chocolate cake with a pan of chocolate in the background

Old Fashion Chocolate Cake Recipe

1 stick oleo (margarine or butter)
4 Tbsp cocoa
1/2 cup oil (I use coconut oil)
1 cup water
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup buttermilk

Bring “oleo”,cocoa, oil and water to a boil. Remove from heat. Mix flour and sugar.

image of pouring chocolate mixture into flour and sugar to make chocolate cake

Pour mixture over flour and sugar.

image of eggs and milk being added to old fashioned chocolate cake batter in blue and white bowl

Mix the baking soda into the buttermilk. Add the buttermilk mixture and eggs to the flour mixture. 

image of pouring old fashion chocolate cake batter into a prepared 9x13 pan

Pour into 9X13 pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 40 minutes.

Old Fashion Chocolate Frosting Recipe

1 stick oleo – I usually just use coconut oil for this
4 Tbsp. cocoa
3 Tbsp. buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 box (1 pound) powdered sugar

image of making chocolate frosting without a mixer

Bring oleo, coco and buttermilk to a boil. Remove from heat. Add vanilla and using a mixer add 1 box powdered sugar.

Yield: 9x13 pan

Old Fashion Chocolate Cake

A piece of old fashioned homemade chocolate cake on a plate

This old fashion chocolate cake recipe is a tried and true moist chocolate cake. It's very versatile and is easy to substitute things you might not have for things you do - like butter for coconut oil.

Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Total Time 50 minutes


Chocolate Cake

  • 1 stick oleo ( butter or coconut oil)
  • 4 Tbsp cocoa
  • 1/2 cup oil (I use coconut oil)
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 cups sugar 
  • 2 eggs 
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk*

Chocolate Frosting

  • 1 stick oleo (butter or coconut oil)
  • 4 Tbsp cocoa
  • 3 Tbsp buttermilk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 box (1 pound) powdered sugar


    For the cake:

    1. Preheat oven to 325°F
    2. Prepare 9x13 baking pan by oiling it and sprinkling coco powder over the oil.
    3. Bring butter ,cocoa, oil and water to a boil.
    4. Remove from heat.
    5. Mix flour and sugar in a medium bowl.
    6. Pour butter mixture over flour and sugar.
    7. Mix the baking soda and buttermilk together.
    8. Add the buttermilk mixture and eggs to the flour mixture.
    9. Pour into 9X13 pan.
    10. Bake at 325 degrees for 40-45 minutes or until done. Test for done-ness by inserting a toothpick into the center of the cake. When it comes out clean, it's done.

    For the frosting:

    1. Bring butter, coco and buttermilk to a boil.
    2. Remove from the heat and let cool a bit.
    3. Add vanilla
    4. Add 1 box powdered sugar - you can use a mixer or just a wooden spoon


*to make a buttermilk substitute mix 1 tbsp lemon juice or white vinegar with 1 cup milk

Did you make this recipe?

Please leave a comment on the blog or share a photo on Pinterest

image of a slice of old fashion chocolate cake on white china with blue flowers and a 9x13 pan of chocolate cake in the background

Other From Scratch Cake Recipes

While making cakes from scratch might seem intimidating, it’s really not. They are all basically made the same as this old fashion chocolate cake recipe but with different ratios of ingredients or different add ins like carrots or nuts. Here is a list of super easy homemade cake recipes to get you started.

Thanks for sharing with your friends!

The Schneiders

Tuesday 21st of June 2011

Thanks, Rachel. I hope you guys like it. I caught Gabriel - who is one of my non cake eaters - sneaking some this afternoon.

Rachel E.

Monday 20th of June 2011

This sounds really good. My husband even commented when he saw the picture. I'll have to try the recipe. Thanks for sharing.

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