Ebinger’s Blackout Cake is Gone But Not Forgotten

These days Brooklynites brag about our triple-threat of craft whiskey distillers, báhn mì sausages at the Meat Hook and the salted caramel dark chocolate brownies perfected by Baked, but such edible idols are nothing new to the borough. In fact one of King’s County’s culinary cults is about a century old—and it still spawns imitations and inspires homages from aging New Yorkers and Iowans alike.

Behold the beloved Brooklyn blackout cake—a dark chocolate layer cake bearing chocolate pudding inside and out, and crowned with chocolate cake crumbs. The confection was the invention of revered Ebinger Baking Company, a place so eternally beloved that it boasts a thousand fans on Facebook—even though it closed in 1972.

Dorothy Hamilton, who grew up in Brooklyn and went on to found the French Culinary Institute, remembers “inhaling” Ebinger’s blackout cake. “Better than any cake I’ve had since and I have never tasted any reproduction that was as good,” she laments. “I would give anything to have just one store left.”

Fittingly to this kind of tale, the original Ebinger’s blackout recipe vanished with the company, which opened its first location at 1110 Flatbush Avenue near Cortelyou Road back in 1898. But it seems nothing can expunge its crumb-cloaked memory from out collective culinary unconscious—and countless Ebinger enthusiasts have tried to recreate the famous cake. Former New York Times food critic and revered writer Molly O’Neill, while researching for her 1992 New York Cookbook, tested 15 different recipes at four different bake-offs attended by “Ebinger blackout cake savants” and remembers the fights that erupted over which was most true to form. “One of the recipes I got I’m sure was from a bakery because it was in huge commercial quantities, but none of the Ebinger maniacs liked it so well.”

After the publication of her book, O’Neill remembers, “I got a billion outraged phone calls from people asking why I had used that recipe instead of theirs because theirs was the real one. It’s one of those lightening-rod recipes.”

“Ebinger’s blackout cake was a thing unto its own,” agrees Tish Boyle, whose gateaux guide The Cake Book includes a take on the blackout cake. “There was no other cake out there like it. It was unusual, as it had a chocolate-pudding filling [which] gave the cake a limited shelf life of 24 hours, and automatically made it something really special. The cake also had a great look. It was like manna to chocolate lovers.”

“Brooklyn always had a second-city complex,” says O’Neill, “so in a way, the Ebinger blackout cake was the we-try-harder chocolate cake.”

Perhaps the cake is so deeply embedded in Brooklyn’s DNA because George Ebinger Sr. and his wife, Catherine, opened their eponymous sweets shop in 1898, the very year Brooklyn was annexed into New York City. Although born upstate, George was of German descent, like many fellow bakers who had emigrated to escape the pogroms of the 1850s and 1860s, and set up shop here baking the specialties of their homeland. Each of George’s three sons (George, Walter and Arthur) helped expand the family business and by 1970, it was the largest multi-unit exclusively retail bakery on the Eastern Seaboard with 39 locations in Brooklyn alone. Decades before marketing gurus taught businesses to create an experience through memorable visual effects, the bakery was famous for its sparkling white shelves, Ebinger “girls” (octogenarian saleswomen with thick German accents who wore hairnets and little green enameled pins), and green and brown crosshatched boxes tied in red and white string.

As a college student in the early 1960’s, Mark Russ Federmann, the third-generation of Lower East Side “appetizing” institution Russ & Daughters, worked briefly at Ebinger’s Flatbush Avenue factory reviewing the bakery’s accounting books. “I was paid very little, but got to take home whatever I wanted. It was usually the blackout cake. It was a summer of great weight gain.”

The bakeries served over 200 German-style pastries including crumb cake (available by the square), pecan coffee rings, lemon cupcakes, hard-iced chocolate layer cake, old-fashioned layer cake, buttercream cake, brownies and Othellos (egg-shaped ovals of delicate spongecake filled and iced with dark, satiny chocolate). On Saturday nights, leftover cakes were sold for a quarter.

But the beloved blackout cake became its most enduring legacy. The signature confection had appeared some time in the early 20th century as “chocolate fudge cake” but patriotic customers bestowed its eventual nomenclature in honor of the blackout drills performed by the Civilian Defense Corps during World War II. When the Navy sent its ships to sea from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, all city lights were turned off and windows were covered with black material, lest enemy planes spot the battle-bound vessels.

What made this cake blacker than its many brethren? Lyn Stallworth, whose German grandfather operated a large commercial bakery in Pittsburgh and knew the original Mr. Ebinger, met a retired baker from Ebinger’s at a radio event for her coauthored Brooklyn cookbook. “He said that the secret, so to speak, was chocolate sauce,” Stallworth says of that black batter. “I think he said Hershey’s. He didn’t give me any recipe or formula for it, but that’s what he said.”

“More often than not, when people are not willing to share their recipe, it’s because it has some sort of convenience food in it,” concurs O’Neill. “In the case of the blackout cake, a few of the recipes had Hershey’s chocolate syrup soaked on the layers. Cakes made from those recipes were loved really well by my little panel of blackout cake maniacs, and they were infuriated when they found out the product had been added to them.” (Perhaps Brooklyn-made Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup might sound less heretical.)

Despite the bakery’s devoted following, it went bankrupt in August 1972—leaving behind 800 employees, countless red and black trucks, more than 50 stores and innumerable broken hearts.

A clerk who had worked at Ebinger for 22 years compared the company’s closing to the infamous demise of another bygone Brooklyn landmark: Ebbets Field. Indeed the New York Times said the bakery was going “the way of the Navy Yard, the Dodgers and Luna Park,” and cited some of the same societal seismic shifts as cause: “Executives attributed its financial decline to consumer desire for fast foods and one-stop shopping, to the shift of its market to the suburbs.”

On Ebinger’s last day, crowds gathered to buy the last of the bakery’s famous cakes, pies and bread. Many Ebingerists kept cakes in their freezers, later bringing them out to thaw and eat with as much precision as, in the words of a bereft customer, “if we were drinking our last bottle of 1929 Lafite.”

Naturally this nostalgia inspired latter-day entrepreneurs to lay claim to the throne. In 1982, a Brooklyn baker named Lou Guerra acquired the name (which was in the public domain), many of the old signs and even a saleswoman who had worked for the original Ebinger’s for 24 years, and opened a storefront bakery at Fort Hamilton Parkway and 63rd Street in Bay Ridge. Guerra, who grew up eating Ebinger cakes and trained with a German baker, claimed that Arthur Ebinger, the last chairman and son of the founding Ebinger, tasted his cakes and found them so similar to those that his own bakery used to bake that he gave Guerra the secret recipes. Despite initial crowds suffering from Ebinger withdrawal, his efforts sputtered financially until 1989, when a businessman named John Edwards, who grew up near the Snyder Avenue outpost of Ebinger’s, bought the businesses and began manufacturing commercial-scale versions of Ebinger’s pastries, packed in the iconic boxes and sold in supermarkets. But the proof was not in the pudding, and before long those too vanished.

Today, the only thing left is a faded sign at the original factory on Snyder and Bedford and that “Ebinger’s Bakery Brooklyn” Facebook group. Tom DeAngelo, a Brooklyn refugee now living in Staten Island who grew up down the block from Ebinger’s founder and wants to write a book about the family’s rise and fall, started the group and fellow mourners flocked to fan it.

A thread on Chowhound also elicited emotion, sparked by Cook’s Illustrated’s publication of a recipe and baking guru Flo Braker’s claim “that it wasn’t the cake itself, but the memories of a forever lost time and place. I believed this for a while,” penned the first post, “but I’ve come to realize that it damn well WAS the cake! It seems inconceivable that Ebingers could disappear almost 35 years ago, yet so many people share the same memory of what must have been the best commercial bakery EVER.”

The thread sent 70-year-old sweet tooths to swooning: “My knees get weak whenever I remember the fabulous cakes from Ebingers!” posted a typical devotee. Another declares: “I am 69 years old and have never found a bakery anywhere that could compare to Ebinger’s. Those cakes were the highlight of my childhood.”

For those of us who were born too late, several Brooklyn bakeries offer the second coming.

The overachieving dessert predated the childhood of Melissa Murphy, owner of Sweet Melissa Patisserie in Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, but her parents and grandparents enjoyed it often and she always heard about the infamous confection. “I’ve always wanted the recipe to know what everyone’s talking about,” she says. “I tried to create something as moist and as dark as what I’ve heard.” Thus, 10 years ago, she added a culinary cousin: rich devil’s food cake layered and topped with ganache, chopped brownie chunks, pecans and homemade marshmallows and iced with chocolate ganache. Its name? Chocolate brownout, of course.

Another Park Slope riff received the “O” of approval when O, The Oprah Magazine featured the Chocolate Room’s recipe for its hugely popular three layer chocolate cake with blackout filling. Co-owner Naomi Josepher, who didn’t intend the cake as an homage, says “blackout” was added to its moniker by the press and chefs. Only recently did she learn that her mother ate Ebinger’s every week while growing up.

Some say Brooklyn’s best blackout cake can be found at Ladybird Bakery in Park Slope (formerly Two Little Red Hens), but owner Mary Louise Clemens seems to think the secret ingredient is wistfulness. “I really think it is the idea of [Ebinger’s] cake and the fond memories of a family bakery,” says Clemens, echoing Flo Braker’s notion of nostaliga. “Sometimes the memory is better than the actual thing. We once did one for [Brooklyn-born] Barbra Streisand where the person who ordered it for her said as much.”

It’s for all those reasons that the number-one best-seller at the Little Cupcake Bakeshop, which opened in Bay Ridge in 2005 and recently added a Manhattan branch, is a three-layer milk and dark chocolate blackout cake with chocolate ganache frosting and blackout cake crust.

“The original Ebinger blackout cake was before my time,” says co-owner Luigi LoBuglio, who opened the bakery with his brothers Sal and Massimo, “but before we had even opened, people were knocking on the door of our construction site asking if we were going to serve blackout cake. We tried to recreate it, and a lot of our older customers who remember Ebinger’s say we come pretty close.”

Blackout cakes can be ordered from the Long Island company Batters and Doughs, which also sells them to Costco. Or if you’re open to a riff rather than a replica, Mark Israel’s Lower East Side Doughnut Plant offers a blackout in ring form.

But if you’re in pursuit of the past, forswear the frosting: Arthur Schwartz notes that the main difference between the original and today’s avatars is that Ebinger’s was both filled and iced with pudding, while today’s are typically cloaked in buttercream. And you might have to travel. According to Tom DeAngelo, who hosts the Ebinger Brooklyn Bakery Facebook page, the best of the modern incarnations is by Rockland County bakery Carousel Cakes who custom bake the cakes at Zabar’s, on the Upper West Side.

Your oven can also pinch-hit as a time machine. While many a mourner says no recipe comes close, one version sent a Chowhound poster into Proustian reverie: “It was like I had just gotten home from Ebinger’s on Church Ave near McDonald Ave, opened the green box and dug in! They say you can’t go home again, but with this blackout cake, it’ll taste like you did! Now, if I could only recreate Ebbets Field on a summer evening I’d really be in heaven.”

Louise McCready still craves the iced sugar cookies she grew up on in Lexington, KY. While she’s thrilled Magee’s Bakery hasn’t met the same fate as Ebinger’s, she wishes they would give out their recipe . . . hint, hint.