I know how to make cake, but even I hadn’t heard of Brownstone Front Cake. After flipping through several pages of the Food Editors’ Hometown Favorites Cookbook” (1984, edited by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann and Jane Baker), the unusual title caught my eye. Fortunately, the text below revealed a bit more:
Who can name the cook who created Brownstone Front Cake? Despite its unknown provenance, this is doubtless the most “city” of all city dishes; chocolate inside and out, it looks like the slabs of brownstones that have come to characterize a romantic version of Little Old New York. With any luck, it’ll be around just as long, too.Carol Brock, Daily News in New York, New York from Food Editors Hometown Favorites (1984).
Brownstone Cake is a rich and delicious chocolate cake. I dug into the recipe, eager to learn more. Use the Table of Contents below to jump to the recipe or stick around for info on New York City brownstones and the Food Editors’ cookbook series, before we get to baking.
What Is a Brownstone Front Cake?
That’s when I noticed my mother had tucked a slip of paper inside the book:
“Check out page 40. Lutefisk. A huge favorite of our Wisconsin kin. Read “Note.” Yeah. Sooo disgusting + practically poison, for real!My mother in a random note.
Page 114 — Brownstone Front Cake. Sounds good!
How funny. I thought that cake sounded pretty darn good too. I liked what I saw. A Brownstone Front Cake is a chocolate cake, for one thing. This Brownstone Front Cake is made in a metal loaf pan, for another.
It makes sense, since this cake received its name from its resemblance to New York brownstones. When you slice into the cake, those clean, dark brown slices resembles a slab of sandstone. Look, I’m not from New York City. I’ve only visited once (for Moulin Rouge on Broadway), so my knowledge on NY brownstones is lacking.
But as a former Chicagoan turned Hoosier (Indiana) turned Charlestonian (SC) turned Seattleite (WA) turned Hoosier again—and now a Pennsylvanian, well, I thought you might want to know a little more too.
What Is a New York City Brownstone?
The term “brownstone” doesn’t apply to just any building. A townhouse or row house doesn’t necessarily equal brownstone, but a brownstone is a townhouse or row house. Confused yet? Townhomes are attached multi-level homes, while brownstones are multi-level townhomes.
What Are the Architectural Features of a Brownstone?
Brownstones typically have a front stoop and may have interesting carvings depending on the time period. There are several brownstone architectural styles.
The architectural styles of NY brownstones include:
- Federal (1785 – 1830)
- Greek Revival (1830 – 1850)
- Italianate (1850s)
- Gothic Revival (1830 – 1860)
- Neo-Grec (1860s)
- Second Empire (1860s)
- Queen Anne (1870 – 1890)
- Renaissance Revival (1880 – 1920)
- Romanesque Revival (1880 – 1890)
Front porches are a thing in small town, America. It’s where me and mine would watch the world go by, chat with the neighbors, and anyone else who happened to meander past. It was my favorite way to spend the evening.
Brownstone buildings are noted for having a front stoop. Although some brownstone owners have lopped them off (why?!?!), the many remaining stoops have an interesting backstory.
But NY brownstones have different reasons for including a stoop, and it doesn’t have to do with neighborliness. Depending on the source, there are varied ideas as to how the NY brownstone stoop came to be.
Another source, however, shared that stoops may have had another reason for being.
It’s not a farfetched idea either, not when you consider the time period.
That’s a lot of manure. It’s easy to see how different factors could have influenced the stoop of a brownstone.
Brownstones sometimes turned from mansions into rooming houses or multi-level apartments. Stoops were removed to adjust the building to its new purpose, or to roll with an owner’s stoop-less desires.
I like the mystery of the faces. We won’t ever know who they are. It makes me reconsider the meaning behind the stone faces on many an Indiana courthouse.
Brownstones in NY Now Equal $$$
Brownstones are likely out of reach for most of us. There are a few reasons why brownstones went up in price in New York.
If you’re wondering where else in New York you can find brownstones, check this out:
If you are now as obsessed with the beauty of brownstones like I am, take a look at Bricks and Brownstone: The New York Row House 1783–1929 (2019). Published in 1972 by a then 24-year-old, writer and architectural historian, Charles Lockwood, it’s considered THE book to get if you’re interested in NY brownstones. We can live vicariously through the book.
Oh, and bake this brownstone front cake. It’s almost the same thing.
Food Editors’ Hometown Favorites Cookbook Review
I’m a fan of the Food Editors’ and Food Writers’ cookbook series. I’ve included the list of these cookbooks at the bottom of this page (keep scrolling). These cookbooks are thin and shorter than you’d expect—but fun! I enjoy reading the names and (mostly) newspapers the editors or writers handled.
Carol Brock submitted the recipe and text about the brownstone front cake. After tasting this cake, I decided to see what else Carol Brock had gotten into.
As it turns out, this former newspaper editor did a whole heck of a lot for women in the food industry.
Food Editor Carol Brock
Lacking any journalistic training, she made a deal with management: She would prepare luncheons for William Randolph Hearst and his guests — which included heads of states and other publishing luminaires including the Duke of Windsor, former President Herbert Hoover, and Cosmopolitan Editor-in-Chief Helen Gurley Brown — and, in return, the editors would teach her the magazine business.QNS News Team; Carol Brock, longtime Douglaston resident, philanthropist and founder of Les Dames d’Escoffier, dies at 96; QNS; July 30, 2020.
Some sources claim Good Housekeeping created a new position for Carol Brock, that of Hostess Editor, while others call her Assistant Food Editor. I’m not sure how her roles at Good Housekeeping worked. Sources conflict.
It does appear that Carol developed recipes, worked on food photography, and had a hand editing several GH cookbooks. The only specific cookbook editorial mention I can find is the Good Housekeeping Party Book (Amazon, eBay).
I dug through my pile of GH cookbooks, but to no avail. I’d love to know the list of cookbooks she handled, wouldn’t you?
Carol stayed with Good Housekeeping for 23 years before heading over to Parents magazine. She accepted a role as food editor.
Think about it: then as now, women have been and are relegated to traditional culinary roles. Yet, male chefs dominate the professional cooking scene.
Carol was involved in several organizations and groups beyond LEI, whether as a board member, president, or member. These include:
- Round Table for Women in Food Service
- New York Home Economists in Business
- Women Restaurant and Chefs Association
- New York Women’s Culinary Alliance
- International Hospitality Committee of the National Council of Women
- New York Culinary Historians
- Roundtable for Food Professionals
- James Beard Foundation
“On alternating years, Les Dames d’Escoffier International bestows the honor of naming a woman as Grande Dame of Les Dames d’Escoffier International,” reads the LEI website.
“This honorary title is given in recognition of extraordinary and unusual contributions to the fields of food, wine, other fine beverage, nutrition, the arts of the table, or other fields that relate to these disciplines. This title may be awarded to both non-members and members of Les Dames d’Escoffier,” the site added.
Grand Dames Honored by Chapters before the formation of LDEI, according to LEI include:
- Carol Brock
- M.F.K. Fisher
- Julia Child
- Grace Chu
- Nika Hazelton
- Helen McCully
- Caroline Rose Hunt
- Helen Bullock
- Julie Dannenbaum
Women honored after the formation of LDEI include:
- Marion Cunningham (1993)
- Anne Willan (1995)
- Madeleine Kamman (1997)
- Edna Lewis (1999)
- Jerry Anne DiVecchio (2001)
- Abigail Kirsch and Rosemary Kowalski (2003)
- Marcella Hazan (2005)
- Alice Waters (2007)
- Shirley Corriher (2009)
- Nathalie Dupree (2011)
- Dolores Cakebread (2013)
- Joan Nathan (2015)
- Nora Pouillon (2019)
- Bev Shaffer and Paula Lambert (2022)
Brownstone Front Cake Recipe
Bake up a cake like you’re a Grand Dame. Carol Brock’s Brownstone Front Cake is the perfect addition to any gathering. It’s a solid cake, so you don’t have to worry about it falling to pieces during transport. When you flip the cake out of the loaf pan, you’ll have glorious clean edges. Seriously, it’s an eye-catcher.
If you enjoy Texas Sheet Cake, you’ll find the flavor similar.
I was surprised when I noticed the recipe only uses brown sugar in the cake and powdered sugar (or confectioner’s sugar) in the frosting. There is no granulated sugar in this cake recipe. Apparently, there are different types of brownstone front cake if you browse enough cookbooks.
Some could include whipped egg whites, baking cocoa, sour cream, or buttermilk. They all seem to use all-purpose flour and skip the cake flour. They may include a white vanilla frosting, caramel frosting, or, as you’ll see below, chocolate frosting. It is sometimes made with layer cake pans, but chocolate frosting over the chocolate loaf cake is the traditional version.
My chocolate frosting turned out a little too wet. I recommend using less milk. Measure the full amount, then use less, and adjust for how it feels. Mine poured well — and mostly right down off the sides.
Brownstone Front Cake Recipe: A Chocolate Cake in a Loaf Pan
- 1 Electric Stand Mixer You can mix this recipe by hand too, but it will take longer.
- 1 9 x 5 x 3 Loaf Pan
Brownstone Front Chocolate Cake
- 2 Cups All-Purpose Flour
- 1 teaspoon Baking Soda
- 1/8 teaspoon Salt
- 2 1-Ounce Squares Baking Chocolate Unsweetened
- 1 Cup Boiling Water
- 1/2 Cup Unsalted Butter Softened (note, I typically use salted butter)
- 1 3/4 Cups Light Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
- 2 Large Eggs
- 1/2 Cup Sour Cream
- 1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
Brownstone Front Cake Chocolate Frosting
- 2 1-Ounce Squares Chocolate Unsweetened
- 2 Tablespoons Butter Softened
- 1/2 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
- Pinch Salt (pinch = less than 1/8 teaspoon)
- 1 to 1 1/2 Cups Powdered Sugar
- 1 Large Egg Or pasteurized egg equivalent
- 1/4 Cup Milk start with less than 1/4 cup. Add up to 1/4 cup Milk if necessary.
For Brownstone Front Cake
- 325* oven
- Grease 9 x 5 x 3 loaf pan and set aside.
- Combine Flour, Baking Soda, and Salt in a bowl. Whisk together. Set aside.
- Set Chocolate in a small bowl. Pour the boiling water over the Chocolate. Set aside.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream Butter and Sugar until soft, fluffy, and lightened in color.
- Slowly add Brown Sugar in increments and beat until creamy after each addition.
- Add the Eggs and Vanilla Extract and beat until combined.
- Add the Flour mixture alternately with the Sour Cream. Begin and end with the Flour.
- Stir in the chocolate mixture until blended.
- Pour the batter (it will be thin) into the prepared pan.
- Bake 325* for 50 to 60 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out with a few not dry crumbs. Jess Note: My cake took much longer to bake.
- Cool 10 minutes in the pan. Then, turn out onto a cooling rack to cool to room temperature.
- Frost with the chocolate frosting.
Chocolate Frosting Recipe
- Melt the chocolate over hot, not boiling, water.
- Beat together the Butter, Vanilla Extract, and Salt in a separate bowl.
- Beat in the Powdered Sugar, in small amounts at a time.
- Then, beat in an Egg, a smaller amount of the Milk (under the 1/4 cup), and the Melted Chocolate.
- Beat until smooth and creamy. Add more Milk or a little more Powdered Sugar if the consistency is too soft.
- Spoon the frosting over the cooled cake. Serve.
List of Cookbooks in the Food Editors’ and Food Writers’ Series
These cookbooks are available in paperback and hardback versions. I’ve included both.