Serious Eats: Recipes

Essentials: Big Chocolate Cake

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.

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