Thursday, June 27, 2019

A Definitive Chocolate Cake

At the beginning of the month I posted a photo of R's birthday cake with the caption - "His requests: Bánh mì and a chocolate the woods." This was the cake.

What followed was an illuminating exchange of amicable banter about what makes a chocolate cake a chocolate cake. I had - wrongly, as it turned out - assumed that if I put chocolate frosting on the cake, regardless of the cake-part, it was a 'chocolate cake.'

Kathey posted: My friend Camilla is an amazing food blogger and experimenter. She posted a photo of a cake she deemed chocolate, and a friendly back and forth ensued as to what really constitutes a “chocolate cake.” Now I’m curious: how chocolatey does a cake have to be for you to consider it a chocolate cake? For me, the cake and frosting both have to have chocolate involved. I think Alla feels the same way. What do the rest of you think? Monday morning musings as I eat my breakfast.

Responses included...

"Its [sic] what's on the inside that counts with me. If you put strawberry cream frosting on a cake and I cut into it and it's chocolate, I'm like Ugh..... it's chocolate. But, if you put chocolate frosting on a pound cake, it's a pound cake with chocolate frosting."

"True chocolate cake is one where the cake, frosting and other edible decorations are chocolate."

"I like specifity [sic] in language: chocolate cake means the cake is chocolate. Then you name the icing. Examples: chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, chocolate cake with buttercream frosting, pound cake with lemon frosting, etc."

"I’m leaning with the long as the cake is chocolate, it’ll pass. But chocolate frosting on its own does not a chocolate cake make."

There were more. But, perhaps my favorite response was from my own husband who was shocked that I even had to ask. "It's in the definition: chocolate CAKE. Clearly it's the cake layers that have to be chocolate."

Fine. So, I set out to redeem myself and make a chocolate cake that fit the definition. I made chocolate cake layers and chocolate buttercream; I did fill the cake with nutella, because it was easy, but you can make chocolate ganache if you like or just use more of the buttercream!


Chocolate Cake Layers makes two 9" rounds 
  • 3/4 C + 1 T unsweetened cocoa powder, divided
  • 1-1/2 C strong brewed coffee
  • 1/2 C whiskey (you can use rum, too)
  • 1-1/2 sticks butter, cubed + more for greasing the pans
  • 1 C organic granulated sugar
  • 1 C organic brown sugar
  • 1 C semisweet chocolate, chipped
  • 2 C all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 t baking soda
  • 3/4 t kosher salt
  • 1/4 t ground black pepper
  • 1/8 t ground cloves
  • 1/2 t ground cinnamon
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 t pure vanilla extract
  • 1 t coffee extract (use more vanilla if you don't have this)

Chocolate Buttercream
  • 5 large egg yolks
  • 1/3 C water
  • 1 C organic granulated sugar
  • 1 T organic corn syrup
  • 2 C butter, softened
  • 1/3 C unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 t coffee extract (use vanilla if you don't have this)


  • nutella, optional


Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Butter pans and set aside.

In a medium saucepan add 3/4 C cocoa powder, coffee, whiskey, and butter. Whisk the ingredients over low heat until the butter is melted and everything is well-combined. Add in the granulated sugar and brown sugar. Stirring until combined. Remove the pan from the heat.

In a small mixing bowl toss together the chocolate chips and 1 T cocoa powder. This helps the chips stay suspended in the batter and not sink to the bottom!

In another large mixing bowl combine the flour, baking soda, salt, pepper, cloves, and cinnamon. Whisk the eggs into the cooled chocolate mixture and stir in the extracts. Fold the dark chocolate chips into the batter.

Divide the batter between the two pans and place in the oven. Bake for about 1 hour. The top should spring back when pressed gently. Remove from oven and let the cakes cool completely before assembling the cake. You can use the layers as is or slice them in half for a four-layer cake! 

Chocolate Buttercream
Place egg yolks in a mixing bowl and beat on high until they are thick, pale, and ribbon off the whisks.

Combine water, sugar, and corn syrup in a small saucepan. You can attach a candy thermometer to the side; I just kept testing until it reached soft-ball stage. If you're using a thermometer, heat until it reaches 238 degrees F. For testing otherwise, dip a spoon into the syrup, then into ice cold water. The syrup should immediately set up into a soft ball. Mine took about 8 minutes to reach the correct consistency.

Once the syrup is ready, remove it from the heat. While one hand hold the mixer, use the other hand to pour the syrup into the yolks. When all of the syrup is added, turn the mixer up to high and beat until the yolks have doubled in size and have reached medium peak stage. The bowl should be cooled and just lukewarm to the touch. Mine took about 9 minutes.

Begin adding butter, one tablespoon at a time, mixing well after each addition. The more butter you add, the more firm the buttercream will be. Once your buttercream resembles what you think of as buttercream, add in the cocoa powder and extract. Beat until just combined.

Once the cake layers have cooled completely, use a serrated knife to cut the layers flat.

Spread a generous amount of nutella between each layer and place them on your serving platter. Smooth the buttercream over the top and along the sides. Refrigerate until the buttercream sets, but let it sit at room temperature for at least 10 minutes before serving.

I brought this to a Buen Viaje! picnic with our friends before they headed home to Spain for the summer.

There you have it - my definitive chocolate cake. It fits the definition! Chocolate cake layers plus chocolate frosting. Yum.

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