This beautiful cake is our family-birthday must. After I researched this story about it and developed the recipe, with input from the Dressel family, the Chicago Tribune ran a little feature on my work, and–I’m pleased to say, liked it as much as we do : )
Here’s the original story…
There’s no clue that the breezy, grass-covered, empty lot at 66th and Ashland was once the master plant of Chicago’s most famous bakery, or, that the red brick storefront at 33rd and Wallace was its first location. Although gone without a trace, Dressel’s Bakery was for 60-plus years the maker of Chicago’s beloved Chocolate Fudge Whipped Cream Cake. Layers of chocolate fudge cake stacked around a full inch of whipped cream with light-chocolate buttercream on top and a crushed-nut garnish, Dressel’s “CFWCC” was a classic favorite. It outsold all other Dressel’s cakes at a ratio of 60% chocolate fudge, to 40% everything else.
The story of that cake is the story of three brothers and a hard-working immigrant family. First farmers in Barrington, (after coming to America from Germany in the early 1900s,) the two older brothers—Joe & Bill—were initiated into baking by their uncle Lorenz Nock who operated a bakery in Bridgeport at 33rd & Wallace. Joe & Bill bought the business in 1913 while they were still teens. Younger brother Herman pretty much grew up there, working full-time in the bakery by the time he was 14, and becoming a partner in the business in 1923.
To Joe & Bill’s sales-, production- and people-skills, Herman—who was in charge of cakes–added his friendly nature, innovator’s spark and artistic skills, proposing the idea of a whipped cream cake in the early ’20s. It was a smash hit. By 1929, it took two policemen to handle the Saturday crowds lined up down the sidewalk and Dressel’s was selling $2,000 to $3,000 worth of the cakes in a day, priced at 60-cents, 75-cents and $1.00. The volume built to 10,000 cakes a week by the ‘40s, with ten phone lines to take orders. To handle that kind of demand, the Dressel’s started experimenting with freezing the layers of the cakes before WWII.
Figuring out how to formulate the cake so that thawed, it would remain moist and light, took innovation. In-the-shell eggs all came from one farm, butter from one supplier, and the cream—the heart of the cake—was brought in from dairies and pasteurized on site. Understanding the importance of that cream layer, Herman Dressel studied breeds of cow and the grasses they were fed, in order to hone in on the cream he preferred (from Wisconsin Holsteins.) Dressel used the highest-butterfat content cream and then actually added butter to the cream in a proprietary reverse process he developed that was only used at Dressel’s.
Other early innovations included incorporating very-finely-crushed carrot pulp into the fudge cake layers for greater moisture retention. As well, cake layers were made with oil, rather than butter, so that when chilled, the layers would would melt-in-the-mouth more easily. The buttercream was whipped with a percentage of vegetable shortening which volume-ized better for a lighter mouth feel than pure-butter buttercream. And the whipped cream was stabilized (given more firmness) with the addition of agar-agar, a vegetable-based gelatin. (Most of these processes were used until sometime after American Bakeries bought the company in 1963.)
While Dressel’s cake was a production cake, which means that home-baking won’t perfectly emulate Dressel’s techniques —Lost Recipes Found worked with members of the Dressel’s family to create a home-cook version of the cake the Dressels approved. Most important? Dan Dressel stresses that each layer of cake and whipped cream must be exactly the same thickness. As well, the buttercream must not be too thick. “My dad worked very hard to ensure that when you took a bite of the cake, the flavors and textures were perfectly balanced,” says Dan.
- Fudge Cake Ingredients
- 2 cups sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 4 tsp vanilla
- 1 1/3 cups boiling water
- 1/2 cup Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder
- 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/3 cups cake flour
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1 cup toasted & ground mixed walnuts & pecans for sides of finished cake
- Light Chocolate Buttercream Ingredients
- 2 cups room temperature unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
- 4 cups powdered sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla
- 2 1/2 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 4 Tbsp Dutch-process cocoa powder
- Whipped Cream Ingredients
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 tsp agar agar (NOTE: this is a vegetable derived gelatin agent.)
- 3 cups Kilgus Farmstead or other non-homogenized heavy cream (closest approximation to what Dressel’s used)
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- Preheat oven to 350. Prepare two, 9-inch baking pans by greasing them and lining them with parchment paper circles. Also at this point: Set out the two cups of unsalted butter for your buttercream on your counter to bring it to room temperature (pliable, but not soft) for making your frosting later.
- In large mixing bowl, beat sugar and eggs 3 minutes until fluffy and creamy. Blend in oil and vanilla and beat two minutes more. Combine boiling water and cocoa powder, stir to dissolve, mix in soda and salt. Pour into batter and incorporate. Add flour and mix until blended and smooth. Pour into prepared pans and tap pans to release bubbles. Bake at 350 for 35 to 40 minutes until cake springs back when touched. Remove from oven; let rest in pans for five minutes. Turn onto racks. Let cakes cool completely.
- While cake is baking, make whipped cream. Place 1 cup water in saucepan with 1/2 tsp agar agar. Heat to boiling; boil 4 1/2 minutes. Let solution cool just until you can immerse your finger in it–still quite warm and liquid–this takes about 3 to 3 1/2 minutes. While you’re waiting, combine 3 cups of cream with 1/2 cup powdered sugar and 1 tsp vanilla. Turn mixer to low speed. Before cream reaches soft peak stage, add 3 Tbsp of the warm liquid agar/water solution to cream all at once (there should be at least 2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons of this solution left after boiling) and whip until consistency firms up. Note: The whipped cream will not be super firm–just firmer than typical whipped cream.
- Make your light chocolate buttercream. Whip two cups of room temperature unsalted butter with 1/2 cup of vegetable shortening and 4 cups powdered sugar at low speed for 8 to 10 minutes until the mixture is fluffy. Add two tsp vanilla. Whip again just to incorporate. Mix together 2 1/2 Tbsp oil with 4 Tbsp Dutch process cocoa powder. Whisk into buttercream until evenly distributed.
- Assemble cake: Trim the “dome” off the top of each fudge layer to ensure each cake layer is exactly level and of the same thickness. (Note: if you are allergic to nuts, crumble this trim into crumbs and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Toast crumbs in the oven at 300 degrees until crispy. Crush these crumbs fine and reserve.) Place first fudge layer on a cake liner on a footed cake stand. Carefully pipe 1-inch of buttercream around the rim of the fudge layer, so you now have a standing lip of buttercream on the cake layer. Fill this with 1-inch tall whipped cream. Add several more spoons of whipped cream onto the center. Layer the second fudge layer of cake over the whipped cream layer. Using an offset spatula, carefully seal the outside edge of the cake (sealing whipped cream in) with buttercream, using a little more buttercream if needed. Frost top of cake with buttercream. Frost sides of cake with buttercream. Apply crushed nuts (toasted walnut and pecan) to sides of the cake. (Or, if allergic to nuts, apply the toasted cake crumbs to the sides of the cake.) Freeze the cake, which will ensure that the whipped cream layer and buttercream will firm up. Set cake out 1/2 hour to 45 minutes before serving to soften.
- I've had notes from people panicked about the agar agar and stabilizing whipped cream. Folks, this was the recipe the Dressel's approved. HOWEVER you don't HAVE to stabilize the cream this way. For a very quick cheaters version? Just buy a box of instant vanilla pudding, whip the cream until just beginning to firm up, add 1/2 box of the pudding mix and no additional sugar, whip until quite firm and layer in the center of the cake. One caveat: Firming the cream this way will result in flavors at the center of the cake that are not like the original Dressel's cake. Also, this version is best if you serve the cake the day you make it. Adding the instant pudding mix will make the cream gummy if held too long.
This looks very complicated but I have to give it a try. Best cake ever made!
Ha! Yes, well, if nothing else, make the cake layers! Not difficult, REALLY good. Just top ’em with a pile of whipped cream. Good luck : )
Sunday–the cake layers are EASY. Don’t let the frosting and cream intimidate you. Really, just make the layers and you will be in love : )
Can’t wait to make this. I was blessed to have had the original Dressel’s Cake. They were so delicious. I’m not sure what agar agar is though. I assume it’s some form of sugar. Could you let me know where to get it.
It’s vegetable derived gelatin–they sell it in health food stores and Whole Foods has it. But if you want a quick cheaters tip: just buy a box of instant vanilla pudding mix. Whip the cream until it is just starting to firm up and THEN add about 1/2 of the box of pudding mix and finish whipping. It’ll thicken up like mousse and you’ll be able to spread it thickly so the cream layer is as thick as the cake layers–the way Dressel’s used to be. Good luck! Monica
I just recently discovered that this is the cake my mother-in-law had every year for her birthday growing up. I decided to search it on a whim, and cannot tell you how excited I am to try to make this for her. Problem is, I’m in Chicago and she’s in Florida. I’m thinking since it has to be frozen anyway, I could ship it overnight packed with dry ice. What do you think? How far in advance can it be made before eating?
Glad you found this. Well, you can try that. I think it should be fine. The cake layers are very moist. Be sure she thaws it well before eating. Good luck!
After years of periodically searching Google for Dressels and finding only articles and blogs bemoaning the company’s demise,, I am so excited to see your post, Monica Rogers! My family lived on S. Justine (one block off Ashland in a house that is now an empty lot) from 1955-1960 and I remember seeing the sign on the roof of the Dressels factory while walking to my school (St. Mary’s of Mt. Carmel on Roosevelt Road–also an empty lot now) or the grocery store with my mother. A Dressels cake was always a special treat and they were available in grocery stores for many years, even in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where my grandparents lived. My July birthday often was celebrated in the UP so I also was lucky to usually have a Dressels birthday cake! My family also loved the yellow cake with whipped cream and strawberries and the banana cake which also had the whipped cream, chocolate buttercream & walnuts like the chocolate fudge. I remember that chocolate icing as being so light it was almost like chocolate whipped cream. I definitely will try this recipe for my next family gatherng!
Now, if someone could just find a good recipe for another staple of mid-century Chicago-land: Salerno “Jingles”, crispy anise-flavored, shaped cookies only available during the Christmas season! I’ve seen blogs about those as well but, alas, no good recipes.
Ha! Margaret–love your note! This cake is the best. No Jingles to offer today, but hey, I’ll look! Happy Pesach & Easter Week!
Oh my gosh. I’ve searched this for years. My dad would buy one 2x a month as a special treat. We always ate each layer separately, the center creme last. It was so good. As an adult, also had 2 per month and for anyone at work’s birthday. If you brought another cake, you were trashed. Can’t wait to try this and share a part of my childhhood in Colorado. Miss it so much. THANK YOU!!
I make this cake constantly now 🙂 It has become our family birthday must–the boys won’t have any other. Sometimes? I skip the buttercream and just serve the cake as a three layer, with chocolate whipped cream between the layers and fresh raspberries on top. Have fun : )
OHHHH YES!!! I was born a south sider – we lived at 87th & Houston and birthdays always meant a chocolate Dressels cake. If I’m remembering correctly, the nuts on the side were ground VERY fine, almost like a breadcrumb texture, and the top layer of frosting was smooth. Wow, what yummy memories this recipe brings back. Can’t wait to make this. THANK YOU!!!! 🙂
[…] tender, velvet crumb. The method used for many of these cakes—also the method I use for my beloved chocolate fudge cake—was to cream the fat, sugar and eggs, whisk the cocoa powder with hot liquid, add the baking soda […]
My husband and I are novice bakers and just made this cake. AMAZING! He is the Chicago native and said it brought him back to his childhood. Thank you for the awesome recipe!
I’m curious about the Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder. Looking online it seems to be a mix of natural and dutched cocoas. Is it possible just to use either dutched processed cocoa or natural cocoa? Or does it have to be Hershey’s Special dark? If you didn’t guess, I have both natural and dutched cocoas in my kitchen but no Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder.
The Special Dark is a mix of undutched and dutched, but it has a really beautiful black hue, which I like. I just published a new recipe for Red Velvet Cake a few weeks ago here that uses undutched natural cocoa–but be forewarned that that cocoa has a more assertive, acidic taste to it. For the flavor you want for the Dressels cake, it’s better to stay with a dutched cocoa (although it wont be as dark as the Special Dark) or, the Special Dark. I hope this helps! Very best regards from Monica
Hi I made this cake today. I’ve been wanting to make this for awhile now. This cake was one we had at our home for everyone’s birthday party. It was sooo darn good!! The cake turned out perfect.
But I have to say the chocolate buttercream didn’t taste very good and I don’t remember that flavor in this cake. The cake and the whipped cream was great. I’ll make it again with a different frosting maybe.
Hi Rosann and Monica,
I agree about the frosting. It is to sweet and rich and not smooth like the original Dressells. I recently had a Swiss meringue frosting that was close. Maybe this was a variation of the butter cream. But the rest of the cake is very close. Thanks for sharing the recipe and memories. It was a staples dessert my whole life.
Hi! Yes, I worked with the pastry chef at the culinary college here on the frosting with the Dressels liked– but you are right that Swiss meringue would have a lighter touch! Do it 🙂 And Happy Holidays!
Ah! Sorry to hear you didn’t like the buttercream! (Truth to tell? We always just slather the whole thing in chocolate whipped cream!)
Monica I practically grew up at Dressel’s Bakery. My father Jerry Losos Sr. was the plant engineer and I spent many hours there with my two brothers and my younger sister. Herman Dressel was a wonderful man who was almost like a grandfather. My father started as a delivery driver and retired from there some fifty years later as the plant engineer. My mother was a cake decorator as a young girl and she met my father at Dressel’s Bakery. The chocolate whipped cream cakes were fantastic but I think my favorites were the party puff eclairs and the chocolate cream pies with whipped cream toppings. Thank you for this trip down memory lane.
Sincerely, Jerry Losos
Wow!! Jerry, so cool 🙂 I’d love to chat with you sometime about your memories of Dressel’s. Happy you found a trip down memory lane, through Lost Recipes Found. Very best, Monica Kass Rogers
Thank you so much for the stories an recipe. I actually made the cake an, it was exactly as we remembered!! It was fantastic. Highly recommend, it’s worth the effort, an finding all the ingredients, well in AZ so had to use organic non homogenized whipping cream. It was perfect!
So pleased ! 🙂
Thank you, Thank you for this wonderful recipe!! I’m a Chicagoan, and fondly remember my mother’s addiction for these Dressler cakes!
We loved loved them!!! Gosh, this is such a great find. I will definitely try this recipe! So excited!! While I enjoyed everything about this chocolate cake, I think my favorite parts were the light and perfect whipped cream (so unique!) and moist chocolate cake. 😉 This was truly a gem! Happy baking!
Thanks so much for this receipe! Growing up we really loved Dressels cake!! Didn’t have it very often, but when we did we really loved and appreciated it!!
I’d like to add my family’s story to the site. Dressel’s cake was our favorite cake as well. Always on birthdays, it would be purchased. Dad would bring it home on the buss after work.
When he was a single young man, he and his cousin bought a cake, went to the park, and devoured it between the two of them! Thank you for providing the history.
Thank you, I enjoyed the stories told here, on lostrecipesfound. I too, enjoyed the Dressel’s cakes. Lots of memories with the yummy cakes! Will try one of the recipes!
So pleased you enjoyed! This home-cook version of the cake is truly a gem! Make it for all our birthdays 🙂
Yep, growing up in St. Sabina’s parish, we kids always had a Dressel’s chocolate cake for our birthdays. We have years of family pictures of the ‘birthday boy or girl’ sitting at the table smiling at that precious cake before blowing out the candles. I believe the origins of the colorful frosted sprayed cakes were started at Dressel’s Bakery. Looking forward to baking this recipe!
Born and raised in Chicago. My in laws always had a Dressels cake for birthdays. It was so special and we were so glad to have found the recipe 7 or so years ago. Even though my husband had never made a cake before, he did at least 50% of the first one we made. Now it is the birthday cake for my son who also had it as a child. The cake freezes well. I usually have it in the freezer for 2 years’ birthdays since we are a small family. Instead of agar agar I have used Knox gelatin and that seems to work just fine.