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Bakers are always on the prowl for the "best" chocolate cake, but I find "best" is best defined by the occasion—a generous slab of down home Texas sheet cake is perfect for family reunions and backyard barbecues, but for that New Year's Eve soiree nothing compares to a stately devil's food layer cake. For a lazy weekend with the fam, I'm convinced this chocolate skillet cake is the best around.
Both this cake and frosting come together by hand, no mixer required, with a dead easy technique even a kid could manage. Since the cake's baked in a 10-inch skillet, it can serve as a small family's dessert one night, with enough leftover for afternoon snacks the next day. Plus, there's something undeniably homey about a giant skillet full of chocolate cake.
The recipe is based on the devil's food layer cake from my cookbook, but instead of yielding three 8-inch layers, it's scaled down to fit a 10-inch cast iron skillet. And if you've never made my devil's food cake before, here's the fun part—that skillet doubles as a mixing bowl.
The cake itself is bold and dark, with a pleasant bitterness from a combination of brown sugar, coffee, and Dutch cocoa. Meanwhile, the frosting is a simple milk chocolate ganache, a two-ingredient frosting with a gentle cocoa flavor and mellow sweetness to complement the intensity of the cake.
Good quality milk chocolate is easy to find in most any supermarket if you head down the candy aisle, and it only takes two 3-ounce bars to make the frosting (while you're there, grab a 3-ounce bar of dark chocolate for the cake itself: there are many excellent brands). Be on the lookout for a milk chocolate that boasts at least 25% cacao on the label (those that don't brag about their cacao content don't have anything to brag about). If you don't have a favorite brand already, check out our guide to the best supermarket milk chocolates for baking, or cut to the chase and order one of my favorite brands online.
Endangered Species' 48% milk chocolate is as dark as they come, but sweet enough to work in a recipe with no added sugar—a great choice for those still on the fence about the idea of milk chocolate. Meanwhile, Divine's 26% Milk Chocolate has a classic cocoa flavor, but falls on the sweeter end of the spectrum for those who believe a fingerful of frosting should be a dessert of its own. Of course there's nothing wrong with grabbing fancy-pants chocolate for this frosting (Valrhona's 36% Caramelia would be amazing), but for a low-key dessert like this there's no need to break the bank unless you're simply in the mood to splurge.
Since the ganache needs time to cool, I like to make it before getting started on the cake itself, and I'll use the same skillet so I can cut down on dirty dishes; but if you're not in a hurry, it can be made in a separate skillet while the cake's in the oven. It's as simple as this: bring some cream to a simmer, then pour it over a bowl full of chopped milk chocolate.
Scrape out every last drop of cream, then whisk the ganache until smooth, and refrigerate until needed. That's it!
Now, on to the cake! It's one I've written about many times before; there's a full history on the origin and evolution of devil's food cake in my cookbook, and I've written in depth about the ingredients and technique here on Serious Eats. So consider these the illustrated CliffsNotes.
Return the skillet to the stove to melt the butter, then add hot coffee, dark chocolate, and some Dutch cocoa powder. Dutch cocoa powder's flavor and behavior are distinct from natural cocoa, so accept no substitutions. Most supermarkets carry Dutch cocoas like Droste and Divine, but you can buy in bulk online to save a little jingle (my fave is Cacao Barry Extra Brute).
This recipe is the perfect occasion for a silicone-tipped ball whisk. Its shape can reach right into the corners of the skillet, while the silicone eliminates the noisy clatter of whisking metal on metal (plus, it's a bit kinder on cast iron). If you only have a balloon whisk, it will help to hit the corners with a spatula from time to time.
Next, whisk in the brown sugar, salt, and vanilla, followed by the eggs.
Once smooth, add the sifted flour and baking soda. Some bakers roll their eyes at sifting flour, but when it comes to creating a lump-free batter without the power of a stand mixer, it's an extremely useful technique. I find it easiest to sift the flour over a sheet of parchment or a flexible plastic container, something that can catch the flour and then direct it into the bowl...er, skillet.
In any event, the key is to whisk gently in the center of the skillet, working slowly to bring all the flour into play. Working slowly also forces a gentle approach, which helps to minimize gluten formation in the batter (on that note, you can also minimize gluten formation by avoiding high-protein hard red wheat flours). If using a balloon whisk, pause to scrape the corners of the skillet with a flexible spatula, and fold the batter a time or two until the corner bits are well incorporated.
Once the batter is smooth, toss the skillet in the oven and bake at 350°F until the cake is puffed and firm to the touch, although still soft enough that your fingertips will leave an impression in the crust. Now comes the hardest part: waiting for that sucker to cool. This would be the perfect time to set it aside and have dinner, watch a movie, or do anything to distract you from watching the clock.
If there is any trace of warmth, the cake will melt the frosting into a gooey puddle. I'm not saying a cake smothered in melted ganache is a bad thing, only that it's not this thing: a wondrously fluffy frosting you made by hand.
Simply take the chilled ganache out of the fridge, give it a few vigorous strokes with a flexible spatula, and it'll thicken right up (this happens so fast we didn't even get to grab a photo of the process). If you'd like to gild the lily, try a handful of crunchy pearls, cocoa nibs, or chocolate covered sunflower seeds—whatever strikes your fancy.
Once frosted, the cake is ready to serve! It will yield twelve modest slices if you're into that kind of thing, but with my family it's usually more like eight to ten.
If you don't mind busting out a mixer for a little change of pace, this cake is amazing with salty sweet peanut butter frosting as well as my light and tangy cream cheese frosting, or even just a dollop of fruity whipped cream.