Stretching from the Great Lakes of Wisconsin to the Pacific Ocean off of Washington, the Northern Pacific (NP) was chartered by the United States Congress and constructed from 1870 to 1883. Loosely following the route of Lewis and Clark, it traversed the states of Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and even had branches into northern Oregon and Manitoba, Canada. Former President Ulysses S. Grant actually drove the final spike, completing the railroad, in western Montana in September 1883.

Figure 1 Northern Pacific map, 1900.

The NP received land grants from the U.S. government, and the company in turn heavily marketed in Scandinavia and Germany, since the climate of the northwestern U.S. region was similar to northwestern Europe. Brochures advertised fertile lands for sale and abundant space. As a result of this European connection, it’s no wonder, then, that many of the ancestral settlers in this region hail from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany.

Figure 2 Brochure advertising the Red River Colony, a settlement on the border of Manitoba, Minnesota, and North Dakota.

With breathtaking views of the northwestern United States, the Cascades, and northern Rockies, the NP was later known for its famed North Coast Limited, which was the NP’s premier passenger train with limited stops from Chicago to Seattle. The Mainstreeter, another NP passenger train, covered the local stops.

Figure 3 A post card of the North Coast Limited, circa 1900-1920.

Inaugurated in 1900, the North Coast Limited became famous for its top-notch dining car service, and later, in 1954, its vista dome cars. For this February and Valentine’s blogpost, we thought we would share an indulgent dessert you can split with your Valentine. The NP actually had two recipes for decadent Devil’s Food Cakes.

This begs the question, where did Devil’s Food Cake come from? Allegedly the favorite cake at the turn of the 20th century, the name “Devil’s Food” refers to the dark, rich, chocolatey color of the cake itself. It first appeared in the 1902 cookbook, Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book, by Sarah Tyson Rorer.

Figure 4 Sarah Tyson Rorer, author of Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book, 1902.

Devil’s Food cake supposedly originated in the southern United States, and used to have a reddish color, which may also contribute to the name. There are a couple of theories for the red color: one claims that it came from a reaction of cocoa powder and baking soda, while the other attributes a slight red color from using beets or beet juice in the batter. We know that Mrs. Rorer had her recipe in the cookbook from 1902, but there is another claim that true Devil’s Food Cake originated at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. However, the Waldorf Astoria version could actually be for a Red Velvet Cake, which has a similar appearance but with a dark red batter.

Figure 5 Recipe for Devil’s Food Cake from Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book, 1902.

Research for this blogpost suggested that Devil’s Food Cake originated around 1900, which is perhaps why it was featured aboard the North Coast Limited’s dining cars. However, we have not found anything to corroborate that.
No matter how the cake came to be, we hope you enjoy trying one of the following recipes from the Northern Pacific. Please share how it comes out in the Comments, or via our Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook pages. Happy Valentine’s Day!

NP Devil’s Food Cake #1
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Stir soda, salt, and vanilla into milk; add to first mixture.
Add sifted dry ingredients, mixing completely. Pour into 9-by-13-inch greased cake pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

NP Devil’s Food Cake #2
1/2 cup butter, softened
1-1/2 cups brown sugar
4 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup cocoa
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup semisweet chocolate, grated

In large mixing bowl, cream butter and brown sugar. Add egg yolks and vanilla; beat well.
Sift together flour, cornstarch, salt, soda, and cocoa. Add to creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk, beating after each addition. Stir in chocolate.
In small bowl, whip egg whites until stiff. Fold into cake mixture.
Pour into 2 round 9-inch greased cake pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Fill and frost with your favorite icing.

Both recipes copied from Dining Car Line to the Pacific: An Illustrated History of the NP Railway’s Famously Good Food by William A. McKenzie, 1990.

Past Dining on the Rails Posts:
Dining on the Rails: January 2022 – Western Pacific Pork Tenderloin
Dining on the Rails: December 2021 – Cranberry Sauce
Dining on the Rails: November 2021 – Oyster Stuffing!
Dining on the Rails: October 2021 – Chicken Pot Pie
Dining on the Rails: September 2021 – Chili
Dining on the Rails: August 2021 – Pullman “Tom Collins” Cocktail
Dining on the Rails: June – How about a salad?
Dining on the Rails – Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ham!
Dining on the Rails: CRI&P’s New England Boiled Dinner
Dining on the Rails: A Sweet Treat for your Valentine!
Dining on the Rails: Black Eyed Peas!
Dining on the Rails: Eggnog
Dining on the Rails: Happy Thanksgiving!
Dining on the Rails: Union Pacific Apple Pie
Dining on the Rails, August 2020
Dining on the Rails, July 2020
Dining on the Rails, June 14, 2020
Dining on the Rails, June 7, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 31, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 24, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 17, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 10, 2020
Dining on the Rails, May 3, 2020
Dining on the Rails, April 26, 2020
Dining on the Rails, April 19, 2020
Dining on the Rails, April 12, 2020


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