Today was my birthday. By the time I got home from a many-balls-in-the-air kind of day at work, I knew I needed a real birthday cake. Not ice cream sandwiches at the office, not leftover apple cake in my fridge, but the genuine article, with layers and frosting and candles. And I needed it before I went to meet friends for drinks at the Lyons bar at 7:00.
As it happens, I have a recipe up my sleeve for occasions such as these. It’s my favorite recipe (and I don’t make such a claim lightly). This is why:
- Though I have never once made exactly it as written in its original source, this recipe has served me unswervingly, adapting easily to become layer cake, sheet cake, mini cupcakes, cake truffles, and probably half a dozen other incarnations over the years
- The recipe can easily be halved, doubled, or even octupled for my parents’ 29th anniversary party, as long as it is baked in an appropriate dimension and/or quantity of pan(s)
- Not a single ingredient in the recipe is one that expires on any reasonable time scale; thus, my kitchen is almost always stocked to turn out this cake
- That said, when I haven’t had everything in stock, I’ve substituted almost every ingredient in the recipe for something else (and sometimes made more than one substitution at a time), and the cake has never failed to work out deliciously
- Along similar lines, the recipe can also be easily adapted for many dietary restrictions – it’s already eggless, and the butter can easily be subbed for oil to make a dairy-less cake (or a vegan one, if you use vegan ingredients and find a vegan frosting)
- The whole thing comes together in less than an hour (well, not if you bake as originally directed in a loaf pan… but I never have)
Does this recipe bake my favorite cake? No, it doesn’t. But it will turn out a versatile, crowd-pleasing, delicious, not-so-heavy-you-can’t-have-seconds-and-thirds chocolate cake every time. And that makes it the best recipe I know.
Today’s not-as-directed take on the recipe included powdered cayenne and ancho chiles in with the dry ingredients for a little kick and Kahlua in place of vanilla for the sake of saving expensive vanilla for use in places where it really shines. Because I really wanted a layer cake but had no round pans, I baked the whole business in a parchment-lined 7×11” pan, lifted it out, cut it in half, and stacked the two pieces with mascarpone whipped cream to make a layer cake of unconventional dimensions. With a Chanukah candle in it, it was just what I needed.
Adapted from Baking Bites’ Chocolate Loaf Layer Cake
This recipe is near impossible to screw up. There is only one notable way to do so, and that is by underbaking. So bake it until a toothpick in the center comes out clean, and then bake it 2-3 minutes longer (unless you’re baking it as mini-cupcakes – then it’s just one minute longer).
- 1 ½ cups flour
- 1/3 cup cocoa powder, plus extra for dusting if using
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup (½ stick) butter
- 2 ounces semisweet chocolate
- 1 cup strong coffee, cooled
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Preheat oven to 350º. Line a 9×5” loaf pan with parchment paper, or butter the pan well and dust with cocoa.
Melt together butter and chocolate, either in the microwave, in a double boiler, or in a saucepan over a low flame (carefully, but it doesn’t really matter if it seizes). Let cool slightly.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, sugar, baking soda, and salt.
To the cooled chocolate and butter, add cooled coffee, vanilla, and vinegar. Add liquid mixture to the dry ingredients and stir just until all the flour is incorporated.
Pour batter into pan and bake for 45-50 minutes, 3 minutes after a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool in pan about 5 minutes, then turn out onto wire rack to cool completely.
- Bake in different pans – cupcake, mini cupcake, 2 8-inch rounds, one 7×11-inch pan, or anything else you want. All of these will bake much more quickly than the loaf – monitor accordingly.
- Multiply or divide the recipe to make as much or as little cake as you’d like (here is an excellent resource for pan size conversions).
- Instead of brewed coffee, add a teaspoon of instant espresso (or 2 teaspoons instant coffee) to the dry ingredients, and substitute water with the wet ingredients. You could also just use water instead of coffee and it will still be tasty.
- Substitute another fat for the butter – oil can be substituted in a 1:1 ratio (this recipe is forgiving), or use another fat of your choosing
- Instead of vanilla, use another flavoring (such as kahlua, mint extract, orange extract, etc). Flavoring can also be omitted if you don’t have anything suitable.
- Substitute any acid for the cider vinegar, including white vinegar, basically any other vinegar, or lemon juice.
- Add ½ teaspoon cayenne and 1 teaspoon ancho chile powder with the dry ingredients for a slightly spicy, fruity kick.
- Stuck with only baking powder, no baking soda? Use 1 tablespoon baking powder in place of the soda and reduce vinegar to 1 teaspoon.
I had leftover mascarpone and cream around, so I made a quick-and-delicious frosting. This is also good anywhere you’d use regular whipped cream. The mascarpone adds flavor-brightening tartness and structural stability to the cream.
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 2 oz mascarpone cheese
- 2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
- optional: 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, liqueur, or other flavoring
Combine all ingredients. Using a stand or handheld mixer (or a whisk and elbow grease), beat until the mixture holds firm peaks. Use as frosting or topping for desserts.