I’ll admit, it’s not exactly a showstopper, but then again I’m not exactly one of Britain’s best amateur bakers. This is the cake you want when you want to relive childhood homemade birthday cake memories, not something that could pass for a gourmet wedding cake. (This cake actually triggered a memory for me of a similar cake decorated with Mike n Ikes and M&Ms – possibly one I “helped” decorate as a kid?)
I think there’s too much fear about baking. On the one hand we have shows like the Great British Baking Show where amateur bakers build towering confectioneries week after week. On the other hand we have ominous warnings that baking is an exact science and you need a pocket scale capable of measuring micrograms and a stand mixer or you are doomed to culinary disaster.
And then on the third hand (you weird mutants, I love you) the fact of the matter is that frankly, boxed cake mix is better than a lot of homemade cake recipes. And nothing is more disappointing than a bad cake (at least nothing you should be putting in your mouth). It’s just hard to beat the texture of all that lab work and billions of dollars of research.
But, my three-handed lovelies, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And it really isn’t that scary. People have been making bread and cakes and lovely deserts since before wire whisks were invented. We can make do (although I’m not gonna lie, stand mixers and electric beaters make life so much easier).
Part of the problem with cakes especially is that we have some sentimental memories attached to them. And “taste memories” that can be hard to match (especially if you don’t have Duncan Hines’ multi-million dollar R&D department). But I think I found the right recipe. If I asked you to imagine the chocolate birthday cake from your childhood (at least if you’re in my age bracket), you would probably imagine something a lot like this cake.
This is not my final version of this recipe. It’s about 80% of where I want it to be. But 80% of perfection is pretty darn good, so I’m sharing this recipe anyway.
Before moving on to the recipe, let’s talk about the number one thing that makes the difference between really good home baking and really bad home baking.
Butter. You need to use real butter, good butter, and butter at the right temperature. The number one mistake that most home bakers make is not using good butter and not using it at the right temperature.
Butter goes into baking recipes for more than just its buttery deliciousness (although that is not an insignificant thing). Butter’s combination of fat and water gives it moistening and tenderizing effect in baked goods.
But when it comes to cakes and cookies, we’re mostly interested in butter’s mechanical action. I’m talking about the creaming method.
This cake gets its loft from air bubbles. The air bubbles get put in the cake as the butter and sugar is creamed together.The shearing action of the sugar shreds the butter and puts little bubbles in it. When the batter heats up in the oven the bubbles expand (and then the gluten proteins in the flour set up in that expanded form for a fluffy cake).
When a recipe calls for softened butter for creaming, professional bakers know that this means butter in about the 60 degree range. When you press a finger into it, it should sink partway, but it should still meet with resistance. This is about 30 minutes outside of the fridge.
But cookbooks don’t tell home cooks this. So when you see that a recipe calls for softened butter and you want to make cookies now – who has the inclination to wait 30 minutes for refrigerated butter to warm up a bit? Pop that merde in the bowl and start mixing away.
Stop right there. Creaming too-cold butter won’t incorporate enough air. That makes a flat and dense cake (or cookie). If the creamed sugar and butter is clumpy and feels like a sugar scrub for your skin, the butter was too cold. (But if you mix in a bit of cinnamon you have an amazing toast spread.)
Easy fix. I’ll just walk the butter over to the microwave and . . . . yeah, that’s wrong too. Liquefied butter is going to hold zero air bubbles. The cakes will be dense as rocks and the cookies will spread and burn. This is the same reason that liquid fats can’t be swapped in for solid fats in recipes that use the creaming method. If the creamed butter and sugar sort of spread out and there’s an oily film on top – then the butter was too hot.
There’s one other danger zone. It is possible to over cream the butter if you’re using a stand mixer (it’s nearly impossible if you’re mixing this by hand). Keep it at a reasonable speed (about 4 out of 10) and for just a few minutes (2-3). When butter is properly creamed it will be fluffy, white, and feel smooth between the fingers.
A quick word on good butters:
You don’t need fancy-pants European butter from with milk from kobe cattle and churned by virgin Ecuadorian men. A good-tasting butter that you like on is fine for baked goods which will have loads of other flavors. (If you are making something like shortbread where butter is the main flavor, it might be worth it to bump it up a grade).
Good butter in this situation is fresh. It hasn’t sat unwrapped in the refrigerator. It doesn’t have that ring on the outside from melting and re-solidifying. It’s fresh and has no off smells. Buy new butter if you have to. It’s worth it.
Whew, that’s a lot of information. But hopefully it will help turn a good cake into a great cake. Let’s move this over to the kitchen.
Childhood Chocolate Cake with Frosting
This recipe is based off of Ruth Reichl’s, editor in chief of the erstwhile Gourmet magazine. I got it from the website Serious Eats and they got it from her book Comfort Me with Apples. I can’t speak to this cookbook specifically, but I do love her writing in general. And it is evident that the lady knows her cakes.
This is not one of those Duncan Hines/ grocery store cakes that so moist you could practically wring it out. Nor is it a mega-dense fudgy-death-by-chocolate thing like you’d get a restaurant. It’s just a good, basic chocolate cake.
And as Paul and Mary would remind the bakers of the Great British Baking Show, something that is simple has to be done superbly well.
I halved the recipe, because the two of us don’t really need that much cake (I did not halve the frosting though, because frosting). Here is the halved measurements.
Procs: 8 normal dessert sized servings or 4 “I should be ashamed but it’s too good” servings
Difficulty: Pretty easy, but do read the directions before starting out.
- Parchment paper
- Stand mixer or electric mixer
- 2 bowls plus a mixing bowl
- 13×9 Pan
- If you have an automatic kettle, it’s handy for boiling water
- Chocolate Mix
- 3/4 cups of boiling water
- 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon of natural cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of whole milk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla (I did not halve the vanilla)
- Dry Ingredients
- 1 1/2 cups cake flour (AP flour will also work)
- 1 teaspoon of baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon of salt (I did not halve the salt)
- Wet Ingredients
- 1 1/2 sticks of butter softened (see the essay above)
- 3/4 cup of sugar
- 3/4 cup of dark brown sugar, packed
- 3 large eggs
Walkthrough: Cake (Cakewalk?)
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- Prepare the pan. Cut out a piece of parchment paper that fits in the bottom of the pan. (A dab of butter in each of the corners will “paste” it down and keep it from rolling back up). Grease the entire pan – parchment paper included – with butter and then powder with cocoa powder. (This butter and cocoa powder is not included in the actual recipe measurements.)
- Whisk together the water and cocoa powder in a bowl. Then whisk in the milk. Set aside.
- Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt together in bowl 2. Set aside.
- Cream together the butter and sugars. See essay above.
- Still beating the butter and sugar, add the eggs one at a time. Make sure each egg is blended in before you add the next one.
- Add the flour mixture in three parts. Add the cocoa mixture in two parts. Alternate flour-cocoa-flour-cocoa-flour, until well blended.
- Spread the batter evenly in the pan and put it in the oven for 25 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
- Clean out the mixing bowl (I won’t judge you on how you get the extra batter out of the bowl, just make sure it’s sanitary before you start the icing).
- When the cake is done baking, invert it onto a cooling rack. Let it cool completely before frosting it. (I cut the sheet cake in half then stacked the halves to make a square-ish double layer cake).
DLC: Sour Cream and Cream Cheese Chocolate Frosting
Admittedly the frosting is what I was craving when I started looking for cake recipes. I wanted a fluffy, tangy, sour cream chocolate frosting. I went free-form with this and I think it turned out pretty darn close to what I was craving. While the cake is baking, prep the frosting.
Procs: About 2.5 cups? I should have measured this. Enough to generously cover this cake.
Difficulty: Easy, just don’t burn the chocolate
- Handheld electric mixer or stand mixer (will make your life easier)
- Frosting spatula – but really anything that transfers frosting to cake will work
- 5 oz of unsweetened chocolate
- 8 oz of cream cheese
- 1/2 stick of butter, softened
- 4 oz of sour cream
- 1/8 salt
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 1/2 cups of powdered sugar
Walkthrough: Sour Cream Chocolate Frosting
- Melt the chocolate. Either over a double boiler or in the microwave. (Zap 20 seconds then stir. Repeat until its melted. Careful not to scorch it.) Allow it to cool to room-ish temperature.
- Beat the cream cheese until it is whipped and fluffy. Incorporate the butter until incorporated, light and fluffy.
- Add the cooled chocolate.
- Add the rest of the ingredients. Add the sugar in stages. Turn the beaters off before you put the sugar in (unless you are a ninja in need of a cloud to disappear in).
Frost your cooled cake. Decorate your cooled cake. Pour a big glass of milk and eat your cake.
ProTip: C’mon guys. I just wrote more words on butter than I did on my Literature paper comparing Gilgamesh to Wrath of Khan.
Do you remember chocolate cakes like this? Any questions about butter or creaming? In mourning over the loss of Mel and Sue as the Great British Baking Show moves to Channel 4? Leave comments and questions below!