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How to Make the Perfect Dark Chocolate Cake

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Learn how to make a perfectly moist, flavorful, dark chocolate cake.

Learn how to make a perfectly moist, flavorful, dark chocolate cake.

He showed the words "chocolate cake" to a group of Americans and recorded their word associations. "Guilt" was the top response. If that strikes you as unexceptional, consider the response of French eaters to the same prompt: "celebration."

— Michael Pollan, "In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto"

In the Beginning

There was chocolate. It was used in the religious ceremonies of the Aztecs. It was precious. It was perfect. Why must we associate guilt with something so sacred? I say, let us return chocolate to its rightful position as all that is good and holy.

I'm joking (a little), but seriously, when was the last time you treated yourself to a slice of homemade chocolate cake? The already-made cakes that come from the bakery department of your retail food giant or that result from a $2 box of dry ingredients blended with eggs and water are not the makings of the truly wonderful, flavorful, rich cocoa dessert of your dreams.

Keep reading, and you will learn how to make a perfect chocolate cake.

Equipment and Materials You'll Need

  • 2 (9-inch) round cake pans
  • Parchment paper
  • 1 small mixing bowl
  • 2 large mixing bowls
  • Flour sifter or fine wire mesh sieve
  • Electric mixer
  • Dry measuring cups and spoons
  • Liquid measuring cup
  • Instant-read thermometer (or toothpick for testing doneness of cake)
  • Cake cooling racks
Mixing, mixing, mixing

Mixing, mixing, mixing

Perfect Dark Chocolate Cake Recipe

This is an adaptation of a recipe I obtained over 50 years ago from the back of a can of Hershey's unsweetened cocoa powder.


  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not hot chocolate mix)
  • 1/2 cup strong hot coffee (espresso is best)
  • 2 1/2 cups cake flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup buttermilk


  1. Preheat oven to 350° F.
  2. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper.
  3. Combine the cocoa powder and hot coffee in a small bowl. Stir to combine and set aside to cool.
  4. Sift together the cake flour, salt, and baking soda to mix thoroughly. Set aside.
  5. In a large bowl, cream the sugar and butter until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
  6. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until well incorporated. Stir in vanilla.
  7. With mixer at low speed, beat in one-half of the flour mixture, then one-half of the buttermilk. When blended, beat in the remaining flour and then the remaining buttermilk. Mix just until all ingredients are incorporated. Don't overmix.
  8. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans.
  9. Place on the middle rack of the preheated oven and bake for 30–35 minutes or until the cake tests done.
  10. Allow the cakes to rest for 10 minutes, then remove from cake pans to cool thoroughly on the wire racks.
You'll never guess the surprise ingredient in this frosting!

You'll never guess the surprise ingredient in this frosting!

Chocolate Frosting (With a Surprise Ingredient!)

For years (decades), I have used a standard chocolate buttercream frosting (cocoa powder, confectioners sugar, butter, cream, and a dash of vanilla extract). It's really quite good—fluffy, rich, and creamy. But it isn't great.

I've been searching for great, and now, I've found it. The culinary experts at Epicurious have created a decadent, dark chocolate buttercream with a twist. If you have any experience with baking, you know that a touch of salt makes sweet flavors pop. Epicurious adds that dash of sodium in a unique and innovative way. They add soy sauce to the frosting, an absolutely genius move. Soy is not just salty, it is near the top of the chart for umami flavor, and the umami makes the chocolate shout out with a capital letter "C."

Why Use Unsweetened Cocoa Powder?

For this cake, you want a deep, dark, intense chocolate taste. Nothing but 100 percent cacao will do. You could melt unsweetened chocolate, but there is always the risk of burning. Using cacao powder gives you all of the flavor without the drama.

Why Add Coffee?

When you read through recipes for chocolate cakes, brownies, or cookies you might notice the inclusion of an unlikely ingredient—coffee. Believe it or not, a touch of coffee will not impart a mocha flavor to your baked goods. (You would need to add a lot of coffee for that to happen.)

So, why add coffee at all?

Experiencing chocolate is actually very similar to tasting wine. As wine grapes are influenced by soil and climate, chocolate also picks up nuanced flavors from variances in altitude, terrain, and weather. Good-quality chocolate contains hints of fruit and spice—coffee contains those same flavors as well. So the addition of a bit of coffee enhances and deepens the perceived chocolate experience.

Why Use Cake Flour?

You might be wondering, why can't I just use all-purpose flour for this recipe? Allie, the creator/genius behind the blog Baking a Moment, explains:

Cake flour is a flour that is very finely milled from soft winter wheat. It has a lower protein content than all-purpose flour, and it is finer, lighter, and softer. It’s also bleached, so the color is paler and the grain is less dense.

So, what does this mean? The protein in flour is another name for gluten. You're familiar with that term. Gluten is glue, the stuff that makes dough stretchy and springy; it makes our breads bready and our pizza crusts crusty. But "bready and crusty" are not good adjectives for cake. For cakes, we want a flour with less gluten and less protein, so cake flour is our choice.

How to Correctly Measure Flour

You might be wondering why I would take the time to write about this specific step; just scoop up the flour and dump it in the bowl, right? Wrong. If you drag your measuring cup through your bin of flour, forcing it into the measuring cup, your flour will compact. You’ll end up with more flour than you should have, which will negatively affect the outcome of your light and tender cake.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Sift the flour. You don’t need a flour sifter (although if you have one, you earn extra points)! Place flour in a wire mesh sieve. Hold the sieve over a sheet of parchment paper and tap the side of the sieve. This will cause the flour to drift out onto the waiting sheet of paper below. Why do this? It fluffs up the flour (unclumping it).
  2. Hold your measuring cup (for this cake, you’ll be using two different cups—one for "1 cup" and one for "1/2 cup"). Use a spoon to deposit the sifted flour into the cup. Fill that thing to overflowing. Then, using the side of a knife or flat spatula, level the flour in the cup (scrape off the excess).

How to Cream Sugar and Butter

Unless you are specifically working on your shoulder and arm strength (maybe you missed your morning workout at the gym today), you’ll be using an electric mixer for this. But what does "cream sugar and butter until light and fluffy" mean, and just how soft is butter that is softened to "room temperature"?

The good folks at King Arthur Baking have put together a photo montage to explain both of these steps and have produced a short video to show exactly how your sugar/butter combination should look.

Out of the oven

Out of the oven

How to Test Your Cake for Doneness

There are several ways to test your cake layer:

  • Appearance: The edges are pulling away from the sides of the baking pan. The surface of the cake appears "set," not glossy as though still wet.
  • Touch: Use your finger to lightly touch the center of the cake. It should feel firm and lightly springy to the touch. If the batter sticks to your finger or doesn’t produce a bit of resistance, it’s not done.
  • Temperature: Whip out your trusty instant-read thermometer. Don’t let it touch the bottom of the cake pan or you’ll get an inaccurate reading. Hold it slightly above the bottom. The cake should have an internal temperature of about 99° C (roughly 210° F).
  • Appearance (Part 2): If you don't have an instant-read thermometer, use a toothpick, bamboo skewer, or a strand of uncooked spaghetti. Poke into the center of your cake and then pull it out slowly. If wet batter clings to the pick, you need to continue baking for a few minutes more. If it comes out clean, or with just a few moist crumbs attached, your cake is done.


  • January 27 is National Chocolate Cake Day.
  • The German Chocolate Cake is not actually German (despite the name).
  • What makes chocolate so "dandy"?
    • 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine (caffeine): excites the central nervous system in a way that mimics the "fight or flight" response (heart rate goes up and muscles contract)
    • Cannabinoids: Closely related to THC-9, the active ingredient in marijuana. Gives a relaxed, intoxicated feeling.
    • Phenylethylamine: Often called the "love drug," since it releases the same chemicals that are introduced into the human body when love comes to call. It acts on the dopamine receptors in the brain, pushing our happy button.

© 2019 Linda Lum