It's no secret that hot coffee and chocolate cake go together like a dream—not just when you're serving up a slice, but within the batter itself. Coffee has been a fairly standard ingredient in America's chocolate cake for almost a century, boosting the chocolate's richness and depth while providing a dose of acidity that activates the baking soda and helps the cake to rise.
Coffee may be a familiar favorite, but for Valentine's Day this year, I'm pulling a switcheroo, swapping the hot coffee in classic chocolate cake for tart cherry juice. Cherry Garcia enthusiasts already know how well those flavors work together: The tart cherries coax out the fruitier notes of chocolate, while the earthy chocolate brings out the almond aromas inherent to cherries. Plus, tart cherry juice is easy to find in most supermarkets, from brands like R. W. Knudsen or Santa Cruz Organics; my local Kroger even carries its own house brand.
Cherry juice is a simple way to change the overall profile of a simple chocolate cake. But just as you can't really taste the coffee in a traditional chocolate cake, I wouldn't say this cake is cherry-flavored. Rather, the cherry juice emphasizes the fresher side of chocolate, instead of the darker, roasted flavors that coffee typically enhances. The combination gives the cake a brighter vibe, which I play up with a batch of freeze-dried-cherry whipped cream (more on that in a bit).
The cake batter itself is as straightforward as they come, and, while I used a stand mixer here, there's nothing to stop you from grabbing a hand mixer instead. The process is the same either way—whip the eggs and sugar (plus salt, baking soda, and a touch of cinnamon), then drizzle in the oil, followed by the tart cherry juice.
Meanwhile, add the cocoa powder to the flour. This is one of the few recipes out there in which natural and Dutch cocoa powders can be used interchangeably, as the cake's rise is fueled solely by the cherry juice/baking soda interaction.
Natural cocoa powder is slightly acidic and fruity, while Dutch cocoa powder is alkaline and earthy. The style you use in this recipe is largely a matter of personal taste. I've been quite happy making this cake with dutched cocoas, both Valrhona cocoa and Cacao Barry Extra Brute, but you may have to whip up a few chocolate cakes to decide for yourself. You know, for science.
Whichever cocoa you choose, whisk the cocoa/flour mixture into the foamed eggs. Using a scale, or your own intuition, divide the thin batter between two straight-sided, 8- by 3-inch anodized aluminum pans.
I know, I know. That's a lot of adjectives, but I've spent half my career in high-end bakeries and wedding cake boutiques, so I've had more time than most to witness how important a good pan can be. If you've ever baked a cake that turned out with a thick or tough bottom crust, an overly pronounced dome, a crusty brown top, crumbly sides, and/or a wonky flavor around the edges, chances are crappy cake pans are to blame.
Here's the deal: Straight-sided pans are important because nesting pans' sloped sides produce cake layers that are inclined to crumble and don't stack neatly. Reflective aluminum is crucial because cakes bake too fast in dark pans, developing heavy crusts around the bottom and sides. As the exterior cooks faster, raw batter is pushed toward the middle of the pan, creating a dome. Finally, anodization prevents acidic ingredients from reacting with the aluminum pan, which would result in tinny, metallic flavor. That's a concern with or without tart cherry juice, as so many of our favorite ingredients are acidic—like buttermilk, sour cream, coffee, and brown sugar, to name a few.
As for the three-inch depth, it's not that the batter will overflow a one-and-a-half-inch or two-inch pan, but taller pans promote an even, level rise while shielding the top crust, giving it a delicate rather than crusty texture. Deeper pans help cake batters rise more and dome less, so there's less to trim away when leveling the cake. My favorite cake pan comes from Fat Daddio's, but if you go with another brand, do read the fine print! Many look similar, but lack anodization.
Once the cake is baked, cooled, and trimmed—that last step helps the cake absorb moisture from the frosting—it's time to put on the chantilly.
For Valentine's Day, I wanted a pretty pink frosting that could be whipped up without any fuss, one stable enough to sit out for a few hours while I'm out on the town or busy making dinner, and light enough to follow a big meal. To that end, there's no better option than my Super-Thick and Fruity Whipped Cream, flavored and stabilized with freeze-dried cherries. This increasingly common ingredient can be found in many supermarkets from brands like Karen's Naturals, or from house brands in stores such as Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. Or you can buy bulk quantities of freeze-dried fruit on the cheap from online vendors like Mother Earth.
Unlike dried fruit, freeze-dried fruit has been dehydrated in a vacuum to such an extreme that it can be ground into a fine powder, which will bind the excess moisture in the cream. That makes this style of whipped cream particularly stable, not to mention colorful and flavorful, too. It's also lighter than a Swiss or American buttercream, and easier to spread and swirl over the cake, even if you don't have a cast iron turntable.
How to Assemble a Chocolate Cherry Layer Cake
Freeze-dried fruit is so dry that it's crisp, making it a fun garnish to give the cake a pop of flavor, color, and crunch. Just don't sprinkle on the freeze-dried cherries until you're ready to serve the cake, or else they'll turn mushy and soft as they absorb moisture from the cream.
While tart cherry juice and freeze-dried cherries are my go-to combo for this fruity chocolate cake, there are a ton of tart-juice-and-freeze-dried-fruit pairings to explore, whether you use blueberry, cranberry, or even black currant. Whatever you choose, the stunning combination of fruit and chocolate is always a winner on Valentine's Day, or whenever you need a slice of chocolate cake with fresh fruit flavor to brighten a cold winter's night.