Battle of the Cakes: the Brooklyn Blackout Cake
Dessert-lovers across the world recognize the Brooklyn Blackout Cake, its decadent chocolate layers symbolic of a specific moment in history. But how many people know the story of that moment, or of Catherine and George Ebinger’s family business?
The Ebingers opened the famous Ebinger’s Bakery, between 4th and 5th Avenues on 86th Street in Bay Ridge, in 1898. In the second half of the 19th century, the German population was skyrocketing in New York. As German infrastructure and German-owned businesses appeared around the city, a German bakery like Ebinger’s would not have been an anomaly. In fact, brands like Entenmann’s, Holtermann’s, and Drake’s that you may recognize today got their starts as German family-owned bakeries in New York City.
Ebinger’s sold over 200 varieties of German desserts, but during World War II, one specific menu item became an unexpected legend. Ebinger’s went bankrupt in 1972, but their Brooklyn Blackout Cake is the reason we still tell the story of their business today. The cake: layers of chocolate and devil’s food cake, separated by chocolate pudding and chocolate icing. During World War II, The Brooklyn Navy Yard was a critical outpost. Though ships tried to remain discreet under the cover of nightfall in New York Harbor, the lights of the city illuminated them from behind, revealing them to enemy ships. In January 1942, city lights called attention to a moving ship and it was sunk immediately upon departure from Brooklyn.
To prevent this from happening again, Blackout Drills were regularly performed in Brooklyn and ultimately the borough was permanently darkened, through the end of the war. Automobiles drove without their headlights, residents covered their windows with heavy fabric, all to prevent illuminating the outside. Even Coney Island dimmed their lights in World War II. Brooklyn was darker than it had been in decades.
Ebinger’s original location was the sweets-supplier closet to Brooklyn Navy Yard. When the lights-out policy was instituted, Ebinger’s decided to call their signature three-tiered chocolate masterpiece the Brooklyn Blackout Cake. People were tired of the dark and in need of chocolate; the cake was an instant success.
Throughout its long history, Ebinger’s pastries, cakes, and pies were known for being homemade, maintaining a German, family-owned feeling. As they grew in size (opening more than 54 locations throughout Queens and Brooklyn!), it became hard to keep up with competing bakeries, who were switching to factory kitchen to make products with longer shelf lives. When they closed in 1972, they’d celebrated 73 years of serving signature German pastries to New Yorkers.
Bakeries everywhere try to replicate the Brooklyn Blackout Cake. Which recipes symbolize your home? How does food unite a community in trying times? What do we miss when we don’t seek out the stories of what we’re eating?