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Put Mayonnaise in Your Cake, Just Like Grandma Did

The first time I heard of mayonnaise cake, I was standing in a Michelin-starred kitchen. It was the end of my meal and my server had kindly invited me back for a kitchen tour. My server encouraged me to open any of the refrigerators in the spotless space. I threw open the doors of one and found myself face-to-face with the last ingredient I expected to see: a massive jug of Hellmann's mayonnaise. "Oh, that," he said with a wave. "The pastry team uses it for chocolate cake."

Mayonnaise? In chocolate cake? In the chocolate cake I had just eaten for dessert at the end of the tasting menu?

I was intrigued.

Mayonnaise cakes are, in fact, a thing-and one with a long history. I've seen many sources that attribute the rise of the mayonnaise cake to the Great Depression, when eggs and dairy were scarce. The history of the cake, however, is much more complex. While the first recipe for mayonnaise cake appeared in print in 1927 in the Oakland Tribune, it didn't become popular until the 1940s, when ingredients like dairy and sugar were rationed during World War II. Oakland Tribune writer Martha Lee was the first to share a recipe for the cake-with dates, walnuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cocoa powder-in her newspaper column "Home Economics Department." Lee's recipe, however, doesn't call for the readymade condiment. Instead, Lee instructs readers to whip up an impromptu mayonnaise by whisking an egg with half a cup of oil before adding it to the cake batter. (Eggs and oil are typical cake ingredients, so the idea of using mayonnaise in a cake is not as far-fetched as one might think.)

Ten years later, the mayonnaise cake was popularized by Mrs. Frank Price, who was married to a salesman for Hellmann's and Best Foods. Price pitched her recipe-which did call for readymade mayonnaise-to the company as a way to increase sales. In 1937, Best Foods included Price's recipe in its booklet Cakes and Cookies With Personality: Exciting New Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, and Frostings. After the booklet's publication, recipes for mayonnaise cakes began to appear more frequently in newspapers. Companies quickly took note: In 1939, Redwood Empire Mayonnaise published its cake recipe in The Sebastopol Times, and in the 1940s, Kraft joined the party with its own recipe for Miracle Whip Cake.

The cake became even more popular when editors and cooks started marketing it as a "$100 chocolate mayonnaise cake." In 1951, Winnifred Jardine, a columnist at the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah, shared a recipe for this cake, which she picked up at a conference in Chicago. The $100 cake recipe, which was published in several newspapers from that era, was rumored to have originated from New York City's glamorous Waldorf Astoria hotel. An article in The Huntsville Times from 1949, however, reveals that the original $100 cake from the hotel had no mayonnaise in it at all, unlike the recipe Jardine shared two years later. Rather, it relied on butter, eggs, and milk for moisture. Thanks to a long game of telephone, the chocolate cake from the hotel had somehow become conflated with the mayonnaise cake, boosting the popularity of an odd-sounding cake.

The cake was a hit among homemakers. Companies marketed it as a quicker, easier, and more affordable way to bake, with headlines like "Gain Speed With Mayonnaise Cake," and advertising text like "Mayonnaise cake is on the lips and mouth [sic] of many women these days. Easy to make, it must be good!" In 1961, Hellmann's added a cake recipe to the back of its mayonnaise jars. Soon, the company was running advertisements for mayonnaise cake in newspapers and magazines, claiming their product was the secret to a moister, richer cake.

But does the condiment actually produce a better cake?

In a 2001 piece for the Los Angeles Times, food writer Marion Cunningham noted, "The use of mayonnaise, which seems puzzling in a cake, does two things: It gives the cake a luscious richness, and it keeps it moist and fresh tasting for much longer than a conventional cake."

Although I can't find proof that mayonnaise makes a longer-lasting cake, the sentiment that the condiment makes a softer cake is echoed by Rose Levy Beranbaum in her book The Cake Bible, and in an experiment conducted by America's Test Kitchen, which found that cakes made with mayonnaise were moister than those without it. The emulsion-which happens thanks to the lecithin in egg yolk-helps the fat more evenly and efficiently coat flour particles, making for a softer, moister cake.

I made the Hellmann's cake one evening recently, with zero expectations. Would it live up to the hype? Would it taste like mayonnaise? The cake was exactly what the company had promised: It was quick, easy, and moist. It took me fewer than ten minutes to whip everything together in my mixer, and when I asked my husband to guess what the secret ingredient was, he had no idea. Will I ever reveal the secret? Probably not.


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