© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Wisconsin Dairy Farm Memories Sweeten This Classic Devil's Food Cake

Will Fellows grew up on a dairy farm. It was a large operation that required everyone in the family to pitch in.

“Typical chores for me were feeding the cows when they were in the barn, going up in the silo and throwing silage down, carrying pails of milk from the barn where the milking was done into the milk house and pouring them through the strainer into the milk tank,” Fellows recalls.

He says that performing these tasks gave him a sense of satisfaction, and instilled an appreciation for the effort that goes into putting food on the table. This is something that everyone in the family was conscious of — especially his mother. She came of age during the Great Depression as the oldest of nine siblings from a farm family.

Credit Bruce McCain
Will Fellows' mother, featured in an article included in their family cookbook.

“We had a household garden and it was very big. And my mom did a lot of freezing and canning … she knew what it was like to lay food by and have a sense of self-sufficiency to a great degree and not always rely on the market for everything,” says Fellows.

This mentality can be seen in her recipe for devil’s food cake, which made use of spoiled milk. Fellows said that this is something they always had enough of growing up on the farm.

“Sometimes you would deliberately put a jar of fresh milk out to let it sour if you knew that you were going to need sour milk for pancakes or waffles or something you were going to be making," he says. "But sometimes it just went bad. It just spoiled because you didn’t use it fast enough,” says Fellows.

Credit Bruce McCain
This recipe for devil's food cake is no-fuss according to Will Fellows. He simply combines all the ingredients into one bowl and says the wet and dry ingredients don't need to be separated before mixing. In the first photo, Fellows uses a mix of melted butter and vegetable oil to substitute for the shortening.

It’s this funky brew that gives his family's devil’s food cake its distinctive flavor and texture.

“In a cake recipe or any recipe where … you need leavening that’s not yeast, [sour milk is] a way to get the acid that you need to make the baking soda produce the carbon dioxide that makes the cake, or whatever you’re making, rise,” Fellows explains.

This results in a fluffiness and tang that sets it apart from your typical chocolate cake.

“When I eat a piece of chocolate cake that is not made with either, say, buttermilk or sour milk or something like that, it tastes flat to me,” says Fellows.

Fellows Family Devil's Food Cake


  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup cocoa
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup shortening*
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 cups sour milk or buttermilk*
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

*A 50/50 mixture of regular milk and plain yogurt can also be used in place of the sour milk or buttermilk
*You can also use butter, or a 50/50 mix of melted butter and vegetable oil, as the shortening.


Put all mesaured ingredients in a large bowl and mix all at once. Bake the batter in a greased 9 x 13" cake pan at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

Lucien Jung is a Milwaukee-based video and radio producer. His research in the IP-based distribution of multimedia has been presented at the Broadcast Education Association’s annual conference as well as the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. Lucien is a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications master’s program in Television-Radio-Film.