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Fear Conquered: Homemade Chocolate Cake
"I hate this so much," I snarl, letting the cracked cake drop three inches to the waiting wire rack. The crack widens and an unsightly chunk breaks away. "This is SUCH a pain!"
Boyfriend Javelin makes sympathetic noises from the safety of couch in the living room. "What happened?" he asks tentatively.
I grab the crumbled chunk of cake and shove it back into the now gaping cavity. It clings for a minute, then falls away, crumbling further. I hiss and snatch the piece up, flinging it back into place. And howl viciously as new chunk of cake breaks away. "I HATE this!" I nearly shout, my face burning and my fingers shaking.
Boyfriend Javelin approaches cautiously, staring at the cracked and crumbling cake. "Did it crack?" he asks.
"Um, yes?" I grab up the remains of the cake and drop it onto a plate. The cake is now split in two and I tear the pieces apart wider. "THIS is why I hate frosting!" I say accusingly. "Now I'm going to have to patch the whole thing with frosting and hope it holds."
"Maybe you don't have to frost it then," Boyfriend Javelin says gently. "Maybe we could just eat it as is."
I snatch up the bowl of soupy buttercream frosting and tilt it under his nose. "And what about this?" I snap. "There's like seven eggs in here and a pound of butter. What am I going to do? Just pitch it?"
That was two years ago. And I've since made every kind of cake-making mistake possible. And I've probably even invented a few. I've made concave, convex and flat. I've made dry, chewy, rubbery and moist. I've used every combination of baking powder and baking soda imaginable. I've added yogurt, applesauce, oats, nuts, buttermilk, whole milk and sour cream. I've used butter, lard, shortening and oil.
And through all this, I've learned shockingly little about cake! But there is one constant to cake-making no matter what the ingredient list: cakes are fussy. There's a reason grocers successfully sell 700 varieties of pre-boxed cocktail magic guaranteed to bake-up a perfectly stabilized cake. Because cakes ARE fussy and no one wants to risk a sunken, dry, rubbery cake.
Fortunately, there is a cure for the fear of fussy cakes - a precise and well-tested recipe. That's what I set out to develop two years ago. I was sick of sunken cakes. I was sick of dry cakes. And I was sick of tasteless cakes. I wanted a foolproof recipe for really chocolatey chocolate cake - something I could duplicate over and over with perfect results every time. Every. Single. Time.
It took a lot of failures, but this is it. Uncracked flat-top, sizable enough to split, moist crumb, consistent texture and rich chocolate flavor. The chocolate flavor is bold - because if I'm going to bother baking a chocolate cake, I want my chocolate fix! This cake delivers on chocolate without any help from frosting. In fact, when I'm not snapping photos, I typically skip the unnecessary frosting and go for a drizzle of caramel sauce or a handful of raspberries. So much easier than frosting.
This recipe is also easy enough considering it's fussy cake. You can find all of the ingredients at your local grocer and there's no weighing out ingredients, no cutting out parchment rounds for cake pans and no fancy equipment required. If all you've got is a spoon, mixing bowl and measures, you can make this cake.
After two years of chocolate cake disasters, tantrums and triumphs, I hope this recipe equips you to skip right to the front of the line. To that moment where you bake a perfect chocolate cake - without a box, without fear, without tantrums. Just perfect chocolate cake. (Frosting not included.)
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|Grease the sides and bottoms of two 10x2-inch cake pans with organic shortening and dust the sides and bottoms of the pans with flour. Tap out the excess flour.|
|Chop 3.5 ounces of dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa).|
|Mix the chocolate with 2 Tablespoons of milk.|
|In a microwave-safe bowl, heat the chocolate on HIGH for 5-10-second intervals until the chocolate has just melted, stirring vigorously between each interval.|
|You will need 1/2 cup of hot coffee. I use 1 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee granules dissolved in 1/2 cup hot water.|
|Whisk the hot coffee into the melted chocolate until smooth.|
|Whisk 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract into the chocolate. Set the sauce aside to cool.|
|Add 1 cup (16 Tablespoons) of unsalted butter at cool room temperature to the bowl of a stand mixer.|
|Add 2 cups of granulated sugar to the butter.|
|Cream the butter and sugar on medium speed for 5 minutes.|
|The butter should be lightened and fluffy after beating.|
|You will need four large eggs at room temperature.|
|Add the eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly for 20 seconds between each egg.|
|Scrape down the sides and bottom of the mixing bowl after the eggs have been added.|
|Measure 1 cup of full-fat sour cream. I prefer organic sour cream.|
|Add the sour cream to the eggs and butter and beat for 1 minute to combine.|
|You will need 1/2 cup of natural unsweetened cocoa powder. I use Hershey's.|
|Sift together 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 cup cake flour, 1/2 cup natural cocoa powder, 1/4 cup sweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda and 1 teaspoon baking powder.|
|Thoroughly whisk together all of the sifted dry ingredients to ensure everything is uniformly mixed.|
|Alternately add wet and dry ingredients to the batter, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Start by gradually adding 1/4 of the dry mixture, mixing on the lowest speed.|
|Next add 1/2 of the chocolate sauce followed by another 1/4 of the dry ingredients. Repeat with the second half of the chocolate sauce and another 1/4 of the dry.|
|You will need 3/4 cup shaken buttermilk at room temperature.|
|Add the shaken buttermilk to the batter.|
|After adding the remaining 1/4 of the dry ingredients, scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and fold the batter together by hand with a spatula for 1 minute.|
|The batter should be smooth and without lumps after folding.|
|Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans and smooth out the batter with a spatula.|
|Bake the cakes for 45 minutes at 350F. Remove the cakes from the oven and let cool in the pans for 5 minutes.|
|Turn out the cakes onto wire racks and let cool to room temperature before wrapping or frosting.|
|If chilled in the refrigerator, allow the cake to warm to room temperature before serving.|
STORY | PHOTO TUTORIAL | HUNGRY FOR TIPS?
Foolproof Triple Chocolate Cake
Prep Time: 1 hr
Cook Time: 45 min
- 1 cup (16 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature
- 2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 cup sour cream, at room temperature
- Chocolate Sauce, cooled (recipe follows)
- 3/4 cup buttermilk, at room temperature, shaken
- 1 cup (135 grams) unbleached all purpose flour, plus additional for dusting pans
- 1 cup (120 grams) unbleached cake flour
- 1/2 cup (50 grams) natural unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/4 cup (50 grams) Dutch-process sweetened cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- Organic shortening for greasing pans
- 3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate (70% cocoa), chopped
- 2 Tablespoons milk
- 1/2 cup hot coffee (or 1 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee dissolved in 1/2 cup hot water)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
- Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350℉; grease the sides and bottoms of two 10x2-inch round cake pans with organic shortening and dust sides and bottoms with flour; tap out excess flour
- In a microwave-safe bowl, combine the chopped dark chocolate with the milk and heat on HIGH for 5-10-second intervals until chocolate has just melted, stirring vigorously between each interval
- Whisk the hot coffee, kosher salt and vanilla extract into the melted chocolate and set aside
- Sift together the flours, cocoa powders, baking powder and baking soda into a large bowl; whisk together to evenly mix, then set aside
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed for 5 minutes until lightened and fluffy
- Add the eggs, one at a time, beating on medium speed for 20 seconds between each egg
- Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, then add the sour cream and beat for another 1 minute until combined
- On the lowest mixer speed, alternately add the sifted dry ingredients, chocolate sauce and shaken buttermilk, starting and ending with dry the ingredients (1/4 of dry, 1/2 of chocolate sauce, 1/4 of dry, 1/2 of chocolate sauce, 1/4 of dry, buttermilk and remaining 1/4 of dry)
- Once the last of the dry ingredients have been incorporated, shut off the mixer and scrape down the sides and bottom of the mixing bowl. Gently fold the batter by hand (using a spatula) for 1 minute to thoroughly combine
- Evenly distribute the batter between the prepared cake pans; smooth the surface of the batter with the spatula, then bake on the middle oven rack (both pans side-by-side, 2 inches apart) for 45 minutes
- Remove the cake pans from the oven and let the cakes cool in the pans for 5 minutes; turn out the cakes onto wire grid racks and let cool to room temperature before frosting or wrapping
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Hungry for Tips?
- Electric Hand Mixer: You don't need a stand mixer to bake up a perfect cake. In fact, I've recently started to prefer using an electric hand mixer. When used appropriately (i.e. avoiding over-working the batter), the hand mixer does a better job of thoroughly mixing wet and dry ingredients together. You could even use a spoon or fork with a bowl - it just takes a little arm-endurance to thoroughly cream the butter and sugar.
- Greasing Cake Pans: Some people swear by Bakers Joy non-stick spray. I avoid aerosol sprays, so I prefer organic shortening for greasing the cake pans. Just don't use butter. Butter has a higher water content and I find the cakes stick to the pans every time I use butter.
- Baking Soda: Natural cocoa powder contains acid. Buttermilk contains acid. Sour cream contains acid. So for chocolate cake, you need to balance the acid with baking soda. There's undoubtedly a fascinating chemical explanation, but that's beyond the scope of this recipe or blog. But given the critical nature of baking soda to this recipe, make sure you're using fresh baking soda. Otherwise your cake may be dense or even wind up having a rubbery layer along the bottom...
- Creaming Butter: Some cakes use oil, some shortening. I use butter. Not because it's inherently better, but because butter creamed with sugar produces a very specific type of crumb which I prefer. In order to achieve this lovely crumb, you must thoroughly cream the butter and sugar together. This is not a time to rush things - if the butter isn't lightened and fluffy after 5 minutes of beating, keep going.
- Triple Chocolate: The proportions of each of the three chocolates used in this recipe are precise. Natural cocoa powder has the most chocolate flavor and critical acid for the baking soda reaction, but it's also extremely drying. Sweetened Dutch-process chocolate lacks the acid but contributes additional chocolate flavor. And the melted dark chocolate helps to lend depth and boldness while helping to keep the cake moist.
- Frosting: Where's the recipe for a frosting? I'm still working on a true buttercream recipe and it's not nearly ready to share. And I encourage you to sample the cake without frosting - it's delicious. But if you insist on slathering on an additional coat of sugar, do a quick Google search and you'll find plenty of frosting recipes to choose from.
- Microwave: If you're not a fan of the microwave (or if you don't own one), you can instead melt the chocolate in a heat-safe bowl over barely simmering water. Once the bowl warms, the chocolate will take about 5 minutes to melt. You will need to frequently stir the chocolate to avoid hotspots. I prefer the microwave method because it's faster with less mess.
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