Campfire Cake

I have my nose in Mary Karlin’s new book, “Wood-Fired Cooking,” my mouth watering at the sound of her garlicky grill-smoked clams and wood-roasted artichokes. I’m trying to decide what will be first on my wood-fired-inspired menu, and then I stumble upon a recipe for chocolate cake.

A slice of chocolate cake after being "baked" on the grill. (Kim O'Donnel)

But this is no ordinary indoor domestic goddess kind of cake; instead, it’s got all the makings of cowgirl cookery (or a very rogue Girl Scout). Instead of the Suzy Homemaker oven, this cake comes to life over a pile of smoldering coals, and yes indeed, you can call the neighbors and tell 'em all about the cake you baked on the grill.

What’s more, there are no eggs in this cake. There is no butter, either. In fact, there is nothing dairy or egg-ish about it (unless you make the frosting, which, is unnecessary). Plus – and this is a big plus for the campers in the house – no mixing bowls or special tools are required; you mix all the ingredients by hand in the very pan in which it grill-bakes.

Whatever you’re thinking, let it go and have faith, like you must have every time you pitch a tent or start a fire. This cake not only bakes; it shines. It’s moist, it’s chocolately and it is sure to make you smile when you tell the neighbors what you made on the grill over the weekend. Giddyup!

Mom’s Crazy Chocolate Cake
Adapted from “Wood-Fired Cooking” by Mary Karlin

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar (KOD: I substituted equal amounts cider vinegar)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (KOD: In hindsight, I think 1.5 or 2 teaspoons would be nice)
5 tablespoons neutral-flavored vegetable oil, such as Canola, safflower, grapeseed
1 cup water

Prepare a campfire grill for cooking over indirect heat (coals on one side, pan on unheated side) – you want a temperature of approximately 350 degrees.

Grease an 8-inch square cake pan. Add flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking soda and salt, and stir to combine. Create three wells of the mixture. Pour vinegar into one, vanilla in the second and oil in the remaining well. Pour water over the entire mixture, and with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir until smooth, making sure you incorporate flour trapped in the corners of the pan.

Cover with aluminum foil and place on unheated side of grill grate. Bake for about 35 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. It’s a good idea to rotate pan to ensure even baking. Carefully remove pan from grill and allow to cool.

Cut in pan like brownies or invert onto a plate. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and fresh berries or orange segments, or if conditions permit, make frosting (details below).


1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature (Earth Balance non-dairy spread would work here)
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon milk, or as needed

Stir sugar and cocoa powder in a mixing bowl. Beat in butter and vanilla until smooth. Stir in just enough milk to make frosting spreadable. Cover cake with a frosting layer and allow to set for about 30 minutes before cutting.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 9, 2009; 8:05 AM ET Baking , Camping Cookery , Vegetarian/Vegan
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We make this cake in my family all the time, although I must admit never on the grill. We call it 'cockeyed cake'. I have never met anyone else who has even heard of such a cake (no eggs!) but my mum always made it for all of our birthdays and now I make it for my kid's birthdays. I even made it as a friend's wedding cake once! How funny!

Posted by: CapitolHillLB | June 9, 2009 8:26 AM

I've never made this on the grill either, but this is one of my grandmother's favorites to make. She calls it Wacky Cake (similar to Cockeyed, I suppose). Her recipe came from WWII -- no eggs, butter or milk needed, so perfect during rationing.

CapitolHillLB -- is your family from the midwest?

Posted by: LaurenMcK | June 9, 2009 9:39 AM

LaurenMcK,Karlin mentions in her book that recipe is Depression era, which sounds about right, but I didn't have enough time to dig in and learn more. When I do, I'll be sure to share.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | June 9, 2009 11:12 AM

What's the science behind making three wells rather than dumping all the wet into the dry ingredients? Is there a baking purpose or is it just to minimize the mess of mixing in a square baking pan?

Posted by: esleigh | June 9, 2009 11:55 AM

The cake sounds good; we'll have to try it!
At first, I thought you were making "Dump Cake," a scouting favorite where you just dump all the ingredients in the pan. No stirring. Miraculously, it works!

I've found you can bake just about anything on a grill, using indirect heat. I like to make bread that way in the summer. It reminds me of all the "summer kitchens" you see when you tour historic houses in Maryland & Virginia. They didn't want to heat up their houses, either!

Posted by: GirlScoutMom | June 9, 2009 12:02 PM

esleigh -- I've made similar cakes and I seem to remember that there was a chemical reaction with the vinegar and the other liquids and that the throwing it into the heat had to happen reasonably quickly after this reaction started for the cake to rise instead of being a brick. (Been a while since I made it.)

I might be wrong, though.

Posted by: | June 9, 2009 1:47 PM

LaurenMcK- British Columbia Canada!

The vinegar reacts with the baking soda to cause the cake to rise. You don't have to do the three wells if you mix it pretty quick and put it in the oven. I always go around the edges with a spatula before I put it in the oven, it minimizes flour spots if it wasn't mixed quite well enough.

Posted by: CapitolHillLB | June 9, 2009 9:15 PM

We used to make a cobbler like/upside down cake thing when I was in Girl Scouts - I don't remember exactly how, but I know we dug a hole and put in coals, the pan and then covered it back up with dirt. I wonder if I get the recipe from my mom if it could be adapted for the grill though.

Posted by: mmauk | June 9, 2009 9:59 PM

mmauk, I bet you used a Dutch oven. There are lots of camping recipies like that. I'd Google "Dutch oven cake" and I bet you strike gold. Of course, nothing is as good as the one you remember! :-)
No reason it wouldn't work on the grill, I think. You might have to babysit it more the first time to get the timing right.

Posted by: GirlScoutMom | June 11, 2009 9:42 AM

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