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Saga of a Chocolate Cake

When you’ve got a sweet tooth and adore chocolate like I do, you will have very strong opinions about what makes the perfect chocolate cake. Rich and moist, with lush frosting and good chocolate flavor but not too sweet. A cake that’s good with coffee for dessert at home, or as a midnight snack with a cold glass of milk to enjoy in your jammies. Or with a glass of champagne for fancier times? I think I’ve found that cake!

But first the backstory. I had this Home Economics class in high school where you had to bake something at the end of the term. I chose a triple layer chocolate cake from an old cookbook and let me tell you…it was a Triple. Layer. Disaster. My first time. Too ambitious. It was dry and the frosting melted all over it. Horrors. That cake haunted me for years and I was determined to exorcise it.

Enter the second attempt. After years of home baking I finally had some experience under my belt and knew enough to understand why my cake had failed (epically) the first time. At this time too, I was associate editor of Appetite, a local food magazine, so I had access to many great cookbooks which was a bonus. I ended up combining two recipes for the cake and the frosting. I bought the ingredients, I prepped, and I prayed to the God of baking. It was just me and Gabby at the time, and he loved it so much he announced to no one in particular, “Best chocolate cake ever.” And it was.

I made it for the second time last Valentine’s Day. You might ask why it took so long. Well, it’s because I really haven’t had the time to get back into baking since the kids were born and also, my only two round baking pans decided to get married and refused to separate. Tip: Never store your same size baking pans by stacking them because this is exactly what will happen (and yes, I tried everything). So I finally got new baking pans and this time with the kids around I had more of the same opinion. Still, the best chocolate cake ever. Finally, I had made the chocolate cake of my dreams. Twice.

Clockwise from top left: Use a wire whisk to mix all the dry ingredients. Following the Jiggle Rule (see below), you’ll know the cakes are done when they still look wet in the center but when you shake the pan a bit, they no longer…you guessed it! I line the pans with parchment paper that comes off easily when the cakes are inverted. Finally, the frosting is ready when it’s airy and forms soft peaks.

Chocolate Cake

The recipe for the cake is adapted from That Chocolate Cake, a recipe from Essence of Chocolate: Recipes for Baking and Cooking with Fine Chocolate by Robert Steinberg and John Scharffenberger. The recipe for the frosting is adapted from Beatty’s Chocolate Cake, a recipe from Barefoot Contessa at Home by the one and only Ina Garten.

*TOTAL TIME INCLUDING PREPPING, BAKING, COOLING, FROSTING, TAKING PICTURES AND EATING: 3 HOURS

For the cake:
Unsalted butter and flour for the pans
2 cups granulated sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup whole milk (not low fat or non-fat)
1 cup boiling water
Parchment or wax paper
2 round 9 1/2 inch baking pans

For the frosting:
6 ounces good semisweet chocolate
1/2 pound unsalted butter
1 extra large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon instant coffee powder (secret ingredient!)

To make the cake:

1. Bring all the ingredients to room temp. Especially the butter (should be soft but not melted), the milk, and the eggs. Grease and line your pans. Trace circles on the parchment paper using the bottoms of the baking pans and cut them, so each circle fits inside each baking pan. Grease the pans by rubbing on some butter before fitting in the circles. Rub more butter on the circles and all over the inside of the pans, and then dust with flour. Set aside.

2. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

3. Measure and prep the rest of your ingredients.

4. Now you can start boiling the water stove top, or wait til later if you’re using the microwave.

5. In a large bowl, mix all dry ingredients until well combined (just use a whisk to gently but thoroughly mix).

6. Gently mix in the eggs, oil, and milk for about 2 minutes. Then carefully add the boiling water while mixing slowly. The batter will be soupy. Don’t overmix.

7. Pour equal amounts of the batter into your greased pans and bake for 25-30 minutes.

8. Start checking the cakes at 15-20 minutes, and rotate them or alternate their positions, especially if you’re baking them on two different racks in a small oven.

9. When done, cool the cakes on a rack, run a knife around the sides, gently invert (read more below), and peel of the parchment circles from the bottoms. Cool completely.

The Jiggle Rule, Inverting and Assembling
*The cakes are done when you can see their centers set. The centers will still look wet but if they don’t jiggle anymore (like they’re still liquid in the middle) when you gently shake the pans, they are DONE. Don’t worry if you stick a toothpick in the middle and it comes out wet. The cakes will set further as they cool. When the cakes are cool, go ahead and layer them on your cake stand (I need a cake stand like this one or this one. In the meantime, I just used a large plate). They will be moist, you won’t need frosting in between the layers. Invert the first layer directly unto the cake stand or plate. Before I did this, I roughly cut out some parchment paper and put that on my serving plate. That way, if I didn’t invert the cake perfectly unto the center of the plate, I can just adjust this by centering the parchment paper underneath with the cake on top of it. Again, the cakes will be moist, and very hard to move around in one piece once on a plate. Once inverted and centered, gently peel off the parchment circle on the cake. Take the second layer, and quickly invert it on top of the first layer, as perfectly as it is humanly possible. Then peel off the parchment circle on that one. If the position of the second layer is a bit off, don’t worry. Just cut off some small chunks on the top or sides of the layers so the whole thing looks as round as possible. I found this inverting business to be the trickiest part. The cake was too moist and fudgy to handle with my hands and I basically just had to wing it. But if you know a smarter way to do this, let me know!

To make the frosting:

1. Make sure all ingredients are at room temp. Especially the butter, which should be soft, or else you won’t be able to whisk it (again, SOFT not melted). Make sure the confectioners’ sugar has been sifted, which I find is always a messy task. But this step is important if you want smooth frosting. Also make sure the cakes are completely cooled, assembled, and ready to be frosted at this point. Touch the cakes, there should be no hint of warmth or the frosting will promptly melt.

2. Melt 6 ounces of chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave. I did this in the microwave because the double boiler and I are not friends. I put the setting on low and checked on the chocolate after 15 seconds. Then again after 10 seconds. I did this until the chocolate discs in the bottom (sometimes they’ll come in squares which you will have to break apart before melting) started to melt and the bowl I melted them in was warm. At this point, everything is just about to melt. So take the whole thing out of the microwave and just mix the melted parts with the unmelted parts and everything should melt smoothly. Set aside the melted chocolate so it cools to room temp. Do not put in the fridge. WARNING: If you overheat the chocolate and it starts to look grainy, it’s the end of the world. Seriously, that’s why I don’t do this in the double boiler. I find it easier to melt chocolate using the microwave. And once you’ve burnt the chocolate, I can’t tell you how to salvage it for frosting (I’m not sure you can). So if this is your first time doing this, maybe buy double the amount of melting chocolate (sometimes called baking chocolate) for this cake, just in case.

3. Beat the soft butter until light and fluffy. Just until it gets slightly paler in color and lighter to whisk. Add the egg and vanilla and continue beating for about 3 minutes. NOTE: I did this by hand and it was fine.

4. Gradually add the confectioners’ sugar and beat at medium speed until smooth and creamy. NOTE: I did this by hand as well and…I needed a mixer. Got a little tired. But the frosting was fine!

5. Lastly, and this is my favorite part, dissolve the coffee in 2 teaspoons of very hot water. Beating slowly, add the melted chocolate and the coffee into the frosting until blended. Don’t whip.

6. Your frosting should form soft peaks, and will be a rich, but not dark, brown. The cake itself is much darker. That’s how it’s supposed to look. Carry on.

7. Start frosting the cake right away. At this point, I really just take my spatula, and start spreading the frosting on the sides of the cake and the top. I just try to keep it as neat as possible, while at the same time, making those little peaks. This is where you can camouflage every crater and bump in your cake. My cake looked amateur and messy, but also whimsical and homemade, which I loved. I used a rubber spatula and not an offset one, which I’m sure would make your cake look more polished. Just remember for this cake, no need to frost in between layers or put frosting on the cake stand.

Last things:

1. Buy the best cocoa powder, melting chocolate and butter you can afford.
2. Don’t over-bake your cakes. Remember the Jiggle Rule.
3. Read and understand this recipe thoroughly before baking, properly measure all your ingredients using the correct measuring tools, and have them at room temperature before beginning.
4. For the frosting, 1/2 pound of butter is 1 (liquid measuring) cup of butter. Just cut it up into pieces and then measure. And 6 ounces of chocolate is approximately 170 grams.
5. If you’re concerned about the raw egg yolk in the frosting, make sure you use pasteurized.
6. I realize this cake has a lot of fat and sugar, but have a slice and just live a little, won’t you?

Thank you for reading this saga of a post. Good luck. And I hope this cake puts a secret smile on your face.

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  1. Jad

    Love it! And that cake looks too good to eat, but I can probably get over that pretty fast when faced with the real thing, lol!

    March 5, 2014

  2. Thanks Jaddie! Next time! 🙂

    March 28, 2014

  3. OMG, I love the pictures on this post!! That chocolate cake looks so moist and deadly I want to sing it love songs!

    April 21, 2014

  4. […] been using this beloved recipe for both the cake and the frosting for a while now. It yields a beautiful and delicious chocolate […]

    December 10, 2018

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