A Cake with a Gimmick

The Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, circa 1940. The building was destroyed by fire in 1984, and the site reportedly is now occupied by a Wendy's burger joint.

I’m an enthusiastic cook but my skills as a baker are only so-so. Cakes don’t rise properly for me; as for bread, I leave that to my husband—the man crafts superlative baguettes. Though the oven and I sometimes don’t see eye to culinary eye, I continue to try, try, and try again.

On Saturday I dove into Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Tried and True Recipes by Ruth Graves Wakefield (M. Barrows & Company, 1940). The author and her husband, Kenneth, once ran The Toll House Inn, a hugely popular New England watering hole housed in a rambling 1709 Cape Cod in Whitman, Massachusetts. And if the name of the establishment sounds familiar, it should. The restaurant, which opened in 1930, when Mrs Wakefield was 27, and was sold in 1966, when the couple retired, was where Toll House chocolate-chip cookies were born, the very first of the genre. In fact the recipe printed on the back of Nestlé’s chocolate-chip packages today is Mrs Wakefield’s own, thanks to an agreement that resulted in her recipe getting nationwide publicity and her restaurant receiving free chocolate for decades.

The celebrated Ruth Wakefield (1903-1977), co-owner of The Toll House Inn and inventor of the Toll House cookie, first baked in 1933.

Ruth Whitman’s expertise as a dietician and nutritionist drove the menu, whose culinary manta was simple: “there are no substitutes for butter, cream, eggs, fresh fruits, and vegetables in preparing a fine meal.” Encouraged by this appreciation of fine ingredients—butter and cream, who couldn’t love butter and cream?—I began flipping the yellowed pages. I was briefly tempted to make her celebrated Toll House Chocolate Crunch cookies (page 216) or the fruity, no-bake Toll House Ting a Lings (page 217), but I ultimately settled on Cross Word Puzzle Cake. Since our dinner guests would include two third-grade classmates—my daughter, Catherine, and her friend Alex—a cake revealing a dark-and-light checkerboard with each slice seemed like a fun way to end the meal.

Wakefield's Cross Word Puzzle Cake, as baked by The Aesthete.

A cross-section of the Cross Word Puzzle Cake; overlook the central slump, if you can.

My inaugural attempt at this Wakefield specialty resulted in one perfect layer and a swaybacked twin. Strategically deployed chocolate frosting—the recipe also came from the book—concealed most of the structural damage. So did a last-minute dusting of slivered almonds. Served with a scoop of Breyer’s natural vanilla ice cream, the cake was delightful. Perhaps my next attempt will look as good as it tastes.


SOURCE: Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Tried and True Recipes by Ruth Graves Wakefield (M. Barrows & Company, 1940)


2 nine-inch-round cake pans

1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), room temperature

1-1/2 cups granulated sugar

Grated rind of 1 orange

2 egg yolks, beaten

2-1/2 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup milk

1 egg white, beaten very light

1-1/2 ounce semisweet chocolate, melted


Grease and lightly flour the cake pans. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cream together butter and sugar. Add orange rind. Add yolks.

Mix the flour, salt, and baking powder and then thoroughly sift. Add a bit of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, then a bit of the milk, then a bit of the flour mixture, et cetera, until thoroughly combined. Fold in egg white.

Place one half of the batter in a separate mixing bowl. To it add the melted chocolate and mix thoroughly.

This photograph shows how the batter for the two layers is to be poured or, more accurately, spooned into the pans.

In one cake pan place a circle of light batter in the center and then a ring of dark batter around it and so on, until the pan is filled. [SEE PHOTOGRAPH ABOVE.] In the other pan start with a circle of dark batter in the center and a ring of light batter around it and so on until the pan is filled.

Place the pans in the oven and bake until done, approximately 25 to 30 minutes or when a toothpick pushed through the center of cakes comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool. Spread with chocolate frosting (see recipe below) between the layers and over the top and sides.



Melt slowly 2 squares chocolate with 1 tablespoon butter in 1/2 cup rich milk. When chocolate is melted and mixture is thickened, remove from fire and let stand until lukewarm. Add confectioner’s sugar until of the consistency to spread. Flavour with vanilla. If frosting is too bitter, thin with a little warm milk and add more confectioner’s sugar. Keeps very soft and smooth.


8 comments on “A Cake with a Gimmick

  1. Janet Clarke says:

    Simple – when you know how! Children must adore the surprise when the cake is cut. Must try it soon.

  2. french girl cooking says:

    Why did you hope a perfect dark-and-light checkerboard? Cake is made for being eaten, not for playing chess! But you know what touched me the more on your kitchen’s table, it’s a small wood plate where I saw three or four thin carrots, one onion, some green and a mysterious little piece of bone with teeth (coming of a fish’s jaw)?
    A memento mori for kitchen?

  3. Tracy F. says:

    Sounds yummy! How can I get the recipes for the 2 cookies you mentioned in this post? Thanks…

  4. teresa says:

    wow, I had no idea that’s how you got the checkerboard pattern to come out, I always thought it was fussy and hard to do. Cake looks great.

  5. littleaugury says:

    Taste is always priority over looks-but this looks pretty good to me. You can not mention Ting a Lings on page 217 without making them up soon. Did she get more than free chocolate, hope so-the price (millions) paid for being immortalized in chocolate. pgt

  6. Sally Chamberlain says:

    Fabulous! My sister and I still call Chocolate Chips cookies Toll House cookies as our mother’s cook made them constantly. Nothing more satisfying than coming home from school and munching handfuls of those beautiful cookies just out of the oven. We also used to have the Cross Word Puzzle cake and loved that too. Thanks for the delicious memories!

  7. Kerry says:

    I made that very cake with my grandmother when I was about 8 years-old (now 41) and it was special enough that I remember it well. She used wax paper strips to construct the “mold” for the circles for the batter and then carefully wiggled them out before baking. They also sell special cake pans for this, but what fun is that? Charming cake– I wish I had a piece.

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