The cake was popular in the late 19th century and probably began in New York City, which was then building many "brownstone" houses. A modern "Brownstone front cake" revival would be nice!
American Century Cook-Book
by Jean Anderson
New York, NY: Clarkson Potter Publishers
Pg. 460, col. 1:
BROWNSTONE FRONT CAKE
THERE'S PLENTY of controversy about this cake. When and where it originated. What goes into the batter. Whether or not it's frosted.
Much to my surprise, I could find no references to Brownstone Front Cake before 1964, the year the recipe appeared in The American Heritage Cookbook and Illustrated History of American Eating and Drinking -- alas, without a shred of documentation.
Then I called food historian Meryle Evans, who's spent much of her adult life digging into the origins of recipes.
(...)(Col. 2 -- ed.)
A week or so after this discussion, Meryle called to say she'd located three earlier versions of Brownstone Front Cake, two in community cookbooks dated 1910 (with caramel icing) and 1903 (with a vanilla cream). The third -- and earliest--appeared in the Atlanta Exposition Cook Book of 1895. That recipe, submitted by Mrs. Samuel Martin Inman of Atlanta, called for seven squares of Baker's chocolate (Pg. 461 -- ed.) and was baked in jelly-roll pans.
The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink
by John Mariani
New York, NY: Lebhar-Friedman Books
brownstone front cake. A rich chocolate cake, with a vanilla or caramel icing. According to culinary historian Meryl Evans, recipes for the cake date back at least to 1903, but the origin of the name is unknown, but would seem to refer to the reddish-brown color of brownstone buildings' facades.
Brownstone Front Chocolate Cake
Submitted by: Judalee
"This is an old family recipe. The cake has a delicate chocolate flavor and the icing is hard to the touch, yet creamy when bitten into."
Original recipe yield: 1 - 9 inch layer cake.
Jane Deveme of Vienna, Missouri requested a recipe for a Brownstone Front Cake which I finally located in an old cookbook, Pioneer Cookbook, by Eula Mae Stratton, written in 1969.
Jane said she remembered her great-grandmother making this in rural Massac County back in the forties, but no one in the family could locate the original recipe.
BROWNSTONE FRONT CAKE
Mix 6 tbsp. cocoa with 2 cups white sugar, adding 2 1/2 cups flour, sifted with 2 level tsps. baking soda and 1/8 tsp. salt. Then stir in 2 cups sour cream into which 4 eggs have been beaten. Mix and beat until very smooth and pour into a well buttered and floured cake pan (at least 8 x 15 inches) and bake in a moderate oven for about one hour, or until a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clean. And with this Victorian-era cake, the following frosting is a must.
"Our Home Favorite"
The Young Women's Home Mission Circle
First Baptist Church
Saratoga Springs, N. Y.
The Daily Saratogian Steam Job Print.
BROWN STONE FRONT.
1 1-2 cups sugar, 1-2 cup butter, 2 eggs, 1 cup sweet milk, 3 cups flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder; flavor with vanilla. For the dark part use 1 1-2 squares grated chocolate, 1-2 cup brown sugar and 3 tablespoons milk. Add 7 spoonfuls of the white part and stir well. Bake the dark in 2 layers and the white in 3.
Filling. -- Melt 1-4 cake of chocolate in a very little water; boil, then thicken with powdered sugar.
E. LENA CURTIS.
7 May 1905, Los Angeles (CA) Times, pg. VI9:
Bertha S. Morris, No. 1016 Georgia street, Los Angeles, first prize, $5, for recipe No. 66, "Brownstone Front Cake."
8 June 1907, Boston (MA) Daily Globe, pg. 12:
BROWNSTONE FRONT CAKE.
Dear Daisy Diamond -- Here is a cake recipe you asked for: One-half cup butter, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 2/3 cup sweet milk, 2 cups flour, 2 eggs, 2 teaspoons baking powder. Divide the batter into two parts. Take two squares of chocolate, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 3 tablespoons milk; heat the milk, sugar and chocolate together until melted, and when cold put with one of the two parts you divided the batter into, adding a little more flour; flavor with vanilla. These are to be baked in two separate tins and put together with frosting or jelly.
Fancy Work Crank.
7 August 1915, Mountain Democrat (Placerville, CA), pg. 7:
Brownstone Front Cake.
Two squares of chocolate grated, one-half cupful of milk, yolk of one egg. Stir and cook until the consistency of custard, stirring constantly. Add one tablespoonful of butter. When cool add one cupful of sugar, one-half cupful milk, with one teaspoonful of soda dissolved in it, one and one-half cupful of sifted pastry flour, one teaspoonful of vanilla and a pinch of salt. Forst with egg white and enough powdered sugar to spread flavor.
I just wanted to comment on your recipes for Brownstone Front Cake. I have pretty hard evidence that the recipe did not originate in New York City. I have a picture of my great great grandmother and a note that said she came to the United States from Germany at the age of 14,in the year 1842, bringing nothing with her other than a few clothes and her recipe for Brownstone Front Cake. Her name was Caroline and she married Charles Vanderplas 10 years later in 1852.
My maternal grandmother always made The Brownstone Front Cake at Christmas and it was speacial time. No one has been able to have the recpie as she had until now. Yours with the vanilla cream. I would like to have a copy of the cookbook you found it in. Our roots go into the Jewish lineage: my dad’s Scottish.
"Brownstone Cake” has been our family favorite all my life. in thought my grandmother had gotten it out of a Presbyterian ladies cookbook in Sealy, Texas. My mother now says she is the one who found it. Regardless, it is made for every birthday in our extended family. I have even been known to hide my cake from my children! My daughter wanted this cake for her wedding. Unmade the layers ahead and froze it. We had brownstone cake for 100. It was wonderful. This is the number one comfort food for us! I have never met anyone outside of our family who has ever heard of it.