Update: Even if you don’t fiddle with getting the whipped cream layer just perfect, the cake layers this recipe makes are foolproof. I make them again and again. –MKR
There are no clues 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 in Bridgeport was its first location. But it’s true. Although gone without a trace, Dressel’s Bakery was for more than 60 years the maker of Chicago’s most beloved special-occasion treat: the Dressel’s Chocolate Fudge Whipped Cream Cake. Moist layers of chocolate fudge cake stacked around a full inch of whipped cream with light-chocolate buttercream slathered over all and a crushed-nut garnish, Dressel’s signature cake was Chicago’s go-to for birthdays, anniversaries, christenings and graduation parties. In fact, throughout the company’s history the Chocolate Fudge Whipped Cream cake 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 a hard-working immigrant family, which brought the various talents of three brothers and generations of relatives and friends together. First farmers in Barrington, (after coming to America from Germany in the early 1900s,) the two older Dressel 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–and 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 from the start. 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 didn’t wane, building 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 well before WWII.
Figuring out how to formulate the cake so that thawed, it would remain moist and light, took innovation. First, Dressel’s cut no corners on quality. 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 Holsteins cows Wisconsin.) As well, 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 (during the very early years) 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 not be as rigid, and 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 uber-buttery 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—no home baker can perfectly emulate Dressel’s techniques —Lost Recipes Found worked with members of the Dressel’s family (Herman’s sons Dan and Allan; and Herman’s brother-in-law Marty Schell, who worked in cake production for years) to create a home-cook version of the Dressel’s Chocolate Fudge Whipped Cream cake to which the Dressel’s have given their approval. 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 Dressel.
To help you in making the cake, we’ve posted a step-by-step how-to video featuring Heidi Hedeker, a pastry chef instructor at Kendall College. Plus, a mini documentary of the Dressel’s cake story. And please, if you have your own memories or stories to share about Dressel’s, post a comment in the comment box below.