Why It Works
- Acidic ingredients like coffee and brown sugar activate the baking soda, giving the cake its rise.
- Dutch cocoa powder is dark and higher in fat than natural styles, for a rich and flavorful cake.
Whether it's a birthday blowout or a cozy Valentine's Day dinner party, nothing caps off a celebration quite like a layer cake. There's something undeniably exciting about unveiling a mountain of cake, especially when it's a mountain made from chocolate. That excitement, and the expectations that go along with it, is what I wanted to channel into this cake, a recipe I spent more than five years perfecting for my cookbook. In the end, I'm proud to say it's a chocolate cake like no other, and worthy of the most special occasions. Not only that, it's the fastest cake recipe I know.
My book goes into more detail as to how and why this cake was named in honor of the Prince of Darkness, but here I’d like to focus on technique.
Instead of creaming the butter and sugar together, as with a classic butter cake, all the ingredients are simply stirred together in a big bowl (well, a big pot). No stand mixer, no whipping, no foamed eggs, no meringue, nothing. It sounds crazy, but trust me—it works.
The key is to start off with the right sort of cocoa powder, something deep, dark, and rich. For that, I turn to Dutch-process cocoas, like those pictured in the top row. Natural cocoas, like those pictured in the bottom row, are slightly acidic, with a pale color and a flavor that's a bit fruitier and lighter. But Dutch-process cocoa is processed with an alkali to neutralize its acidity, creating a flavor as dark and earthy as its appearance. More importantly, however, Dutch-process cocoas tend to be high-fat (around 20% cocoa butter or more), while natural cocoa powder tends to be low-fat (10% cocoa butter or less). That means Dutch-process cocoas taste as rich as they look.*
My go-to choice for Dutch is Cacao Barry Extra Brute, but supermarket options, like Divine and Droste, work well, too.
*Black cocoa, while also alkalinized, is a nonstandard, fat-free cocoa product that should never be used interchangeably with Dutch-process.
I also incorporate dark chocolate into the batter. If you've got some high-end dark chocolate on hand, this is a great opportunity to use it, but my favorite supermarket options include brands like Endangered Species 72% and Chocolove 77% (both are less than $1 per ounce when purchased in bulk online).
Since cocoa powder and dark chocolate are the backbone of this cake, there's no room to cut corners with low-fat cocoa powder or sweet chocolate, so take the time to source the right ingredients. It will make all the difference in the world.
Making the cake couldn't be easier. Combine some butter and hot coffee in a large pot, and warm over low heat until melted. Add the cocoa and chocolate, followed by brown sugar and vanilla, then season with salt and whisk until smooth.
Next, whisk in a few egg yolks and whole eggs straight from the fridge—they'll warm right up in the batter. When the mixture is smooth, sift in some all-purpose flour and baking soda.
Sifting aerates the flour and removes any lumps, ensuring that the batter is lump-free in turn. Sifting also helps distribute the baking soda, for a more even rise. In this recipe, which is high in both liquids and acidic ingredients, it's important to add the baking soda last, or else it will be prematurely activated. On that same note, once the baking soda has been mixed into the batter, it's crucial to portion and bake the cakes as swiftly as possible.
As always, I recommend parchment-lined eight-inch anodized aluminum pans that are at least two inches deep, and preferably three inches. Cakes tend to dome up like muffins when baked in shallow pans; a bit of added height helps them rise taller and flatter. A little doming is natural, but with tall-sided pans, it shouldn't be more than a gentle bump. Besides, I'm all about having a little something to trim away, because cake scraps are the best snack in the world.
Do let the cakes cool to room temperature before leveling. Not only will they be more inclined to tear and shed crumbs while warm, all that escaping steam will only encourage the cakes to dry out. Better to leave them whole and level the tops later on, a step that can help cakes better absorb moisture from the filling; the comparatively thick crust can often act as a barrier, but when that's trimmed away, the cake can soak the moisture right up.
I often finish my devil's food with a whipped chocolate ganache—the exact pairing you'll find in my cookbook—but when time is of the essence, a chocolate Swiss buttercream is faster by far, and a bit easier to handle for beginners.
If you're into contrast, this devil's food is mighty fine with a tangy cream cheese buttercream, too. Not that I can really argue with layers of chocolate on chocolate.
Whatever finish you choose, generously frost the cake to seal it up and prevent moisture loss. Frosting is the original plastic wrap.
Once the cake is coated in a thick, even layer of buttercream, I pop it in the fridge for about 30 minutes, then coat the whole dang thing in homemade Oreo wafer crumbs. (I tend to stockpile my scraps in the freezer, but you can use store-bought chocolate wafers instead.)
Though admittedly an optional touch, the cookie crumbs add another layer of dark-chocolate flavor, along with a subtle but complementary crunch and a groovy finish that looks like crushed velvet.
It's an absolutely show-stopping cake, easy enough to pull off on a weeknight (especially if you whip up a chocolate buttercream in advance), and as incredible as anything from a fancy bakery. Whatever the occasion, a cake like this will make any celebration all the more special.
Adapted from BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts with permission from W. W. Norton.
For the Cake:
12 ounces unsalted butter (about 3 sticks; 340g)
12 ounces brewed black coffee, or black tea such as Assam (about 1 1/2 cups; 340g)
3 ounces Dutch-process cocoa powder, such as Cacao Barry Extra Brute (about 1 cup, spooned; 85g)
6 ounces finely chopped dark chocolate, roughly 72% (about 1 1/4 cups; 170g)
16 ounces light brown sugar (about 2 cups, packed; 455g)
1/2 ounce vanilla extract (about 1 tablespoon; 15g)
1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
6 large eggs, straight from the fridge (about 10 1/2 ounces; 295g)
3 large egg yolks, straight from the fridge (about 1 1/2 ounces; 45g)
9 ounces all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal (about 2 cups, spooned; 255g)
1 tablespoon (about 13g) baking soda
Getting Ready: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Line three 8- by 3-inch anodized aluminum pans with parchment and grease with pan spray. (The cakes can be baked in 2-inch-deep pans, but they will dome more and rise less.)
For the Cake: Combine butter and coffee or tea in a 5-quart stainless steel pot or saucier over low heat. Once melted, remove from heat, then mix in cocoa and chocolate, followed by brown sugar, vanilla, and salt. Mix in eggs and yolks, then sift in flour and baking soda. Whisk thoroughly to combine.
Divide batter between prepared cake pans, using about 23 ounces each. (If you don't have three pans, the remaining batter can be held at room temperature up to 90 minutes, though the rise will not be quite as high.) Bake until cakes are firm but your finger can still leave an impression in the puffy crust, about 30 minutes (a toothpick inserted into the center should come away with a few crumbs still attached).
Cool cakes directly in their pans for 1 hour, then run a butter knife around the edges to loosen. Invert onto a wire rack, peel off parchment, and return cakes right side up. Meanwhile, prepare the buttercream.
For the Crumb Coat: Level cakes with a serrated knife (full directions here) and set scraps aside for snacking. Place 1 layer on a heavy cast iron turntable. If you like, a waxed cardboard cake round can first be placed underneath, secured to the turntable with a scrap of damp paper towel. Top with exactly 1 cup buttercream, using an offset spatula to spread it evenly from edge to edge. Repeat with second and third layers, then cover sides of cake with another cup of buttercream, spreading it as smoothly as you can (tutorial here). If you like, a second layer can be applied for a thicker coat of frosting.
Refrigerate cake until buttercream hardens, about 30 minutes. Coat exterior of chilled cake in a layer of chocolate cookie crumbs, if desired.
Let cake return to cool room temperature before serving. Under a cake dome or an inverted pot, the frosted cake will keep 24 hours at cool room temperature. After cutting, wrap leftover slices individually and store at cool room temperature up to 3 days more.