Six Chocolate Cakes
Starting with a Velvet Devil’s Food Cake, the author tests each ingredient to produce the best six chocolate cake recipes, from a sour cream layer cake to a low-fat, low-guilt variation.
The challenge: Recipes for chocolate layer cake can be maddening. One promises an especially fudgy and rich cake, the next guarantees a light and tender one, the third pledges the best-ever devil's food cake -- whatever "devil's food" might be. The secret to the recipe, we are told, is Dutch-process cocoa, or dark brown sugar, or sour cream, or buttermilk, or some special mixing method -- so on and so forth. If you've made as many chocolate cakes as we have over the years, you can fill in the blanks yourself. Finally, you make the cake, and you think, well, it is a little fudgy, or tender, or a little like devil's food, or whatever. But isn't it also very much like the chocolate cake the other week, from a recipe that called for very different ingredients and promised some other kind of result? We set out to make sense of this muddle.

The solution: After baking and comparing dozens of different chocolate cakes, we have devised a master recipe and four variations that produce five truly distinctive chocolate layer cakes. In the process, we discovered a couple general principles that apply to whatever type of chocolate cake you are making. Bakers can (and do) argue endlessly over whether cocoa-based chocolate cakes are best made with standard American cocoa, such as Hershey's, or with a European-style cocoa, such as Droste, that has been alkalized, or "Dutched," to neutralize some of the natural acid. To settle this question we prepared several recipes using both types of cocoa -- and found that there was not an enormous difference. Cakes made with Hershey's were a little blacker and had a slight bitter edge; in the Droste cakes, the chocolate flavor was perhaps a bit mellower, but also fainter. Bottom line, we liked both cakes and found the distinctions to be minor.
A second cocoa experiment proved much more conclusive. In cakes made with cocoa and water, the chocolate flavor was much stronger and the color twice as dark when the cocoa was first dissolved in boiling water rather than simply being mixed into the batter dry.
As for the effect of dairy liquids on chocolate cake, we found that the chocolate flavor in a cake made with milk was somewhat muted, but to some tastes, this would be for the better. Buttermilk necessitates the addition of a great deal of sugar to bring out the pungency of chocolate. Otherwise, the buttermilk nearly kills the chocolate flavor. On the plus side, it makes for a lovely, velvety cake. Sour cream also makes for a more velvety crumb that is feathery and almost more puddinglike. It did make for a less pungent chocolate taste, but at the same time it imparted a pleasing, lingering mellowness.


Serves 12

This cake’s texture is both soft and dense, similar to chocolate pound cake, only softer and lighter. Its flavor is intensely chocolate, yet pleasantly sweet. The substantial coffee-flavored buttercream stands up to the cake’s dense texture and balances the rich chocolate flavor.

Velvet Devil’s Food Cake
1/2 cup nonalkalized cocoa, such as Hershey’s, measured by spoon-and-sweep
2 teaspoons instant espresso or instant coffee
1 cup boiling water
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, measured by dip-and-sweep
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

Coffee Buttercream Frosting
1 tablespoon instant coffee (preferably espresso)
1 tablespoon coffee liqueur
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons beaten egg or pasteurized egg, or 1 beaten egg yolk

1. For the cake, adjust oven rack to center position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 8-by-1 1/2-inch round baking pans with shortening. Line pan bottoms with waxed or parchment paper; grease paper as well. Dust pan with flour; tap out excess.

2. Mix cocoa and instant coffee in small bowl; add boiling water and mix until smooth. Cool to room temperature, then stir in vanilla.

3. Beat butter in bowl of electric mixer set at medium-high speed (number 4 on a Kitchen Aid) until smooth and shiny, about 30 seconds. Gradually sprinkle in sugar; beat until mixture is fluffy and almost white, 3 to 5 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating 1 full minute after each addition.

4. Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl. With mixer on lowest speed, add about 1/3 of dry ingredients to batter, followed immediately by about 1/3 of cocoa mixture; mix until ingredients are almost incorporated into batter. Repeat process twice more. When batter appears blended, stop mixer and scrape bowl sides with rubber spatula. Return mixer to low speed; beat until batter looks satiny, about 15 seconds longer.

5. Divide batter evenly between pans. With rubber spatula, run batter to pan sides and smooth top. Bake cakes until they feel firm in center when lightly pressed and skewer comes out clean or with just a crumb or two adhering, 23 to 30 minutes. Transfer pans to wire racks; cool for 10 minutes. Run knife around perimeter of each pan, invert cakes onto racks, and peel off paper liners. Reinvert cakes onto additional racks; cool completely before frosting.

6. For the buttercream frosting, mix instant coffee, coffee liqueur, and vanilla in small cup until coffee dissolves; set aside. Beat butter in bowl of electric mixer at medium-high speed until fluffy, about 1 minute. Add sugar and beat 3 minutes longer. Add coffee mixture and egg to frosting; beat until frosting mounds around beaters in a fluffy mass, 3 to 5 minutes longer.


Serves 12

The increased sugar quantity in this recipe results in an extremely tender cake — it almost falls apart at the touch of a fork — yet when you chew it, it turns out to be resilient and spongy. Since this batter rises higher, make sure to use 9-by-1 1/2-inch round cake pans rather than the 8-inch ones called for in the Master Recipe. Sweeter and lighter than the Velvet Devil’s Food Layer Cake, this cake is appropriately paired with lightly sweetened whipped cream.

For the cake, follow Master Recipe, making the following changes: After dissolving the cocoa and instant coffee in boiling water, stir in 3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar and 1/2 cup low-fat yogurt or buttermilk; let cool and add vanilla. Decrease butter from 12 to 8 tablespoons (1 stick) and increase the baking soda from 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon.

For the whipped cream, beat 2 1/2 cups cold heavy cream at medium speed in an electric mixer until thickened. Add 3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla; beat until stiff. Decorate with chocolate shavings, if you like.


Serves 12

Unlike the previous two devil’s food cakes, which are almost like chocolate in the form of cake, this one resembles a traditional yellow cake with a great deal of chocolate added. The milk slightly mutes the chocolate flavor while giving the cake a sturdy, pleasantly crumbly texture. Cream enriches the frosting, making it compatible with this less assertive chocolate cake.

For the cake, follow Master Recipe, making the following changes: Omit boiling water. Whisk cocoa and instant coffee into dry ingredients until no lumps of cocoa remain. Add vanilla and 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons room-temperature milk alternately with dry ingredients.

For the frosting, break up 12 ounces semisweet chocolate and pulverize in a food processor fitted with metal blade until it is the texture of coarse sand. Bring 1 2/3 cups heavy cream to boil. With machine running, pour hot cream over the chocolate. Add 1/4 cup corn syrup; process until just combined. Turn mixture into a bowl and refrigerate until spreadable, stirring with a wooden spoon every 15 minutes, about 1 hour.


Serves 12

Buttermilk gives this cake a pleasantly mild chocolate flavor with a very light, soft texture. The pecan and coconut filling provides textural contrast. Be sure to divide batter evenly between pans (see link, below), as cakes will rise high.

For the cake, follow Master Recipe, making the following changes: Decrease cocoa from 1/2 to 1/4 cup and water from 1 cup to 1/3 cup. Stir 1/3 cup nonfat yogurt or buttermilk into cocoa mixture. Increase eggs from 2 to 3.

For the filling, mix 4 egg yolks, 1 cup sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a medium bowl; beat in 8 tablespoons softened unsalted butter, then gradually beat 1 cup heavy cream and 1 teaspoon vanilla into mixture. Pour into medium, nonreactive saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly until mixture is puffy and just begins to thicken, 15 to 20 minutes. Pour mixture into a medium bowl and cool to room temperature. Stir in 1 1/2 cups toasted pecans and 7 ounces (about 2 cups lightly packed) sweetened flaked coconut. Halve each cake round, crosswise. Place one of the cake bottoms on a serving plate. Spread about 1 cup filling over cake half. Place another halved cake round over filling. Repeat this stacking and spresding process with remaining filling and cake, ending with a final layer of filling.


Serves 12

Sour cream gives this cake its smooth, rich chocolate taste with a dense yet melting texture, almost like fudge. An equally intense chocolate icing stands up to the rich cake. Since this batter rises higher, make sure to use 9-by-1 1/2-inch round cake pans rather than the 8-inch ones called for in the Master Recipe. It is best not to refrigerate this cake, but if you do, cut it while cold, then let slices come to room temperature before serving.

For the cake, follow Master Recipe, making the following changes: Increase cocoa from 1/2 to 1 cup. Whisk 1/2 cup sour cream into the cocoa mixture. Increase butter from 12 tablespoons to 16 tablespoons (2 sticks) and sugar from 1 1/4 cups to 1 3/4 cups. Increase baking soda from 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon.

For the icing, melt 9 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate and 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter in a medium bowl set over pan of almost-simmering water. Stir in 1/3 cup light corn syrup. Set bowl of chocolate mixture over a larger bowl of ice water, stirring occasionally, until the frosting is just thick enough to spread.


For the cake, follow Master Recipe, making the following changes: mix 1/2 cup oil into cocoa mixture. Add 1 cup of sugar called for in Master Recipe to dry ingredients. Mix cooled cocoa mixture into dry ingredients. Omit butter and whole eggs. At slow speed in electric mixer, beat 4 large egg whites until foamy. Add 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar, increase mixer speed to medium, and beat to soft peaks. Increase mixer speed to high; beat whites until stiff and glossy. Slowly sprinkle in remaining 1/4 cup sugar called for in Master Recipe and beat 15 seconds more. Fold egg whites gently but thoroughly into cocoa batter. Follow baking directions in Master Recipe, but bake only 20 to 25 minutes.

For the frosting, beat 3 large egg whites at slow speed in electric mixer until frothy. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar, and pinch salt and beat at medium speed to soft peaks. Raise mixer to high speed and beat whites to stiff, glossy peaks. Turn off mixer. Combine 1 1/4 cups sugar and 1/3 cup water in a small saucepan and bring to boil over high heat, all the while gently swirling pan by handle. Cover and boil 2 minutes, then uncover and boil until a candy thermometer registers 238 degrees (syrup will form soft, gumlike ball when dropped in ice water). With mixer at high speed, pour syrup in thin, steady stream into egg whites. Continue to beat until frosting is cool, 7 to 10 minutes.

July, 1994
Original article and recipes by Stephen Schmidt


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