My sweet tooth seeks out vanilla, caramel, and fruit before chocolate, but somewhere along the line I either ate or dreamed of the perfect chocolate layer cake, and lo, it was good: enticingly tall and dark, with a firm but yielding crumb and a pure chocolate-butter taste, so moist you could eat it without icing (but why would you?).
I sampled many slices in pursuit of this ideal. Plenty of cakes had the looks, but none of them had the heart and soul: usually they were dry, and if they weren’t dry, they had a chemical aftertaste, or a squishy texture, or some kind of booze-flavored filling. When the outside world failed me, I got out my baking pans. Cook’s Illustrated and Rose Levy Beranbaum offered recipes for perfect cake, but their buttercreams were too buttery for me. I am not one to shy away from butter, but this tasted like delicious cake spread with pure, softened, faintly chocolate flavored butter, and that was kind of gross.
After too many disappointments, I decided that my memory was probably based on a box-mix cake with partially hydrogenated frosting that I had eaten at some long ago birthday party and then canonized while wearing rosy retrospective goggles: maybe cakes couldn’t be that wonderful, after all, at least not for those of us over the age of ten. For a few years I contented myself with making individual molten chocolate cakes or dense, fudgy ones coated with glossy ganache, which are delightful in their own way but did not satisfy my deep, childish craving for layer cake.
So when my husband read Comfort Me with Apples last summer and demanded Ruth Reichl’s Big Chocolate Cake for his 30th birthday, I didn’t get my hopes up. I even warned him not to get too excited, wearily explaining that I had been down this path before. But I was wrong. This is the perfect chocolate layer cake: the cake itself is soft but substantial and delicious, and the cream cheese in the frosting really tones down the buttery sweetness for a more balanced flavor. It’s easy to make and lovely to behold—a piece of childhood on a plate, with a big glass of milk on the side.
For the cake:
- 1 1/2 cups boiling water
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
- 3/4 cup whole milk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
- 3 cups all purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 1/2 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 6 large eggs
For the frosting:
- 5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
- 1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup whipped cream cheese
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter two 13x9x2 inch baking pans; line bottoms with waxed or parchment paper and butter the paper. Flour the pans (you can “flour” pans for chocolate cake with cocoa powder, if you like) and tap out excess.
Whisk together boiling water and cocoa until smooth. Then whisk in the milk and vanilla. Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt.
If possible in a standing mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add one egg at a time, beating well after each addition. On low speed, beat in the flour mixture in 3 batches and the cocoa mixture in 2, alternating flour-cocoa-flour-cocoa-flour. The batter may look curdled.
Pour half of the batter into each pan and smooth tops. Bake in the middle of the oven until a tester comes out clean and the cake begins to pull away from the pan, 25-35 minutes. Turn the cakes onto racks to cool completely.
Make frosting: melt the chopped chocolate in a double boiler or in a bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Cool to room temperature. Beat together the butter and cream cheese until light and fluffy (I could not find whipped cream cheese in the store, so I just whipped it at home until it looked a little lighter and fluffier before adding the butter). Add the cooled chocolate and the remaining ingredients and beat until thoroughly combined.
Assemble cake only when the cake layers have cooled completely.