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Perfect Dark Chocolate Cake

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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 result from a $2 box of dry ingredients blended with eggs and water are not the makings of a truly wonderful, flavorful, rich cocoa dessert of your dreams.

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

Equipment and Supplies

  • 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

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.

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  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 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, 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 Flour 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℃ (roughly 210℉).
  • 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.

Trivia

  • 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

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 24, 2019:

Oh snap! Wrong article. It's on any of the "Ask Carb Diva: Questions and Answers." Sorry.

Donna Rayne from Greenwood, In on December 24, 2019:

I can't seem to find what you are talking about but I thank you for getting back to me so quickly, I appreciate it :)

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 24, 2019:

Thank you Donna. I did a segment on gluten free a few weeks ago. Go to the paragraph in this article "We're Organized." There you'll find a link to my index

Donna Rayne from Greenwood, In on December 24, 2019:

HI, Linda, This chocolate cake looks so yummy! How would I turn it into a gluten-free cake? Also, I use a splash of coffee for cakes and cookies, brings out wonderful flavors and makes them soft and moist to eat.

I look forward to reading more of your recipes! Love your hub!

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on December 19, 2019:

I have seen those, Linda. :D

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 18, 2019:

Audrey, your friends didn't know that I would be at your side to help you.

Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on December 18, 2019:

"In the beginning there was chocolate"...I love this! I'm such a chocolate hound. Your top photo made me want to crawl right through the screen and start digging in.

The details you've added (the whys) are super helpful...and I need all the help I can get. My friends tell me to forget cooking and stick to music. :)

Have a blessed Christmas, my friend.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 17, 2019:

Good morning, Kari. You get 2 bonus points. Spend them wisely. My sifter is the one that my mother had in her kitchen. You've probably seen them in antique stores--metal with a red wooden knob.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on December 17, 2019:

This recipe looks delicious. I do have a favorite chocolate cake recipe from a church cook book, but I need to try your version. I must try the frosting with the soy sauce. I agree this is ingenious. Oh, by the way, I own a flour sifter. I most commonly use it to sift powdered sugar onto cookies.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 16, 2019:

Shauna, you caught me. No, I've not personally tried that frosting recipe because I don't bake as much as I used to (although my little girl wearing size 4 jeans could probably get away with eating an entire cake. Sheesh!). Perhaps I'll give it a try over the holidays.

My love to you.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on December 16, 2019:

Linda, anyone who follows this recipe and heeds your hints should become an expert cake baker in no time!

I'm not much of a chocolate person, but I occasionally do crave homemade devil's food or German chocolate. I usually only make German chocolate when my son requests it for his birthday, as it's pretty labor intensive.

Have you tried the chocolate icing with soy sauce? I bet that really makes it tasty and creamy.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 16, 2019:

Ms. Dora, that's funny. I think I do too. Perhaps we're related.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 16, 2019:

Thanks for the recipe. I appreciate all the extra instructions. The Michael Pollan quote convinced me that I have some French in me.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 14, 2019:

Genna, 'tis the season!

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on December 14, 2019:

Looks and sounds delicious, and just in time for the holidays! :-)

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 13, 2019:

Pamela, I wish you joy and happiness and peace as you spend precious time with your family.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 13, 2019:

This cake sounds fantastic! I love all your baking tps. I haven't made a cake from scratch for quite a while but I do make homemade frosting. I like this recipe and will be copying it. Thank you Linda.

Have a great weekend. We are visiting in TX with our granddaughter, and of course, our daughter and son-in-law.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 13, 2019:

Thank you Rachel. I wish you a blessed Christmas as well.

Rachel Alba on December 13, 2019:

Hi Linda, Oh my gosh! I can't tell you how delicious and decadent that chocolate cake looks. I do add coffee to some of my chocolate desserts but would never have thought of soy sauce in the frosting. Thanks for the tip. I'll be pinning this for sure and trying it. Thanks for sharing your recipe.

Have a Blessed Christmas.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 13, 2019:

Flourish, when you think about all of the umami flavors chocolate and soy fit together quite nicely (trust me on this and read my article on "Exploring Umami Bombs: The 5th Taste Sensation).

I am certain that somewhere in the vault of CD (Carb Diva) recipes there is one for chocolate cake made with tomato soup. I've used the chocolate/mayo one and it's wonderful. Honestly, mayo is nothing more than oil and eggs.

And (are you ready for this?) my mom used to make a chocolate sauerkraut cake. No, it didn't taste sour. The kraut/cabbage is just a veggie (like shredded zucchini) and the briny part is like adding vinegar to a recipe with baking soda.

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 13, 2019:

Now you’re talking! You made me very hungry! I can see how the soy sauce would add to the chocolate frosting but oh, what we know about soy sauce! I wonder how people jump to those ideas? I once had a chocolate cake with tomato sauce in it and it was actually good. I’ve also had a chocolate cake with mayo. That and the frosting with a dash of soy sauce would be a strange combination. As long as there’s chocolate!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 12, 2019:

Manatita and Paula, it sounds like I'd better get ready for company LOL.

Suzie from Carson City on December 12, 2019:

I am the older sibling....but alas, not the smarter....:(....Poor Bill canNOT cook.) He is banned from even entering the kitchen, except for clean-up.

Look, Diva.....I'm certainly older than you because that "moment on the lips" is all I need to be happy.....(in more ways than one!) As for the hips? Wise up, honey. Take down any & all full-length mirrors & leave only those for head shots. Do your make-up & smile pretty......Remind yourself you're beautiful. ALL this, for the sake of chocolate! So worth it! I will graciously accept the whole cake!

manatita44 from london on December 12, 2019:

All right. See you soon. Lol.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 12, 2019:

Paula, you are the sis (I can't remember, are you the older or younger sibling?) of my dear friend Bill. That gives you a front-row seat at the Carb Diva table.

If you were here I would give you a slice (heck I'd offer the whole darned cake because it's a moment on the lips and 20 years on the hips when you reach my age).

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 12, 2019:

Manatita, if I thought a slice could survive the journey I would certainly send one to you. Perhaps you need to pay a visit?

Suzie from Carson City on December 12, 2019:

Did someone say, "Chocolate?" I'm paying attention. Just ignore the drool. Added all ingredients to my grocery list. THIS is one cake, for which I don't mind at all, resuming my former domesticated ways. It's been a while since I've baked any sort of dessert. Living alone means the entire cake is mine....all mine. I don't mind that either now, thanks to you Diva!! What's a few extra calories?? Thanks for this YUMMY share!!

manatita44 from london on December 12, 2019:

Well, I don't like commercial chocolate cakes but I will eat yours. Looks totally different and I'm sure it tastes different too. Send me a piece.

We had a chocolate factory in Grenada. In fact, I think it is still there. We are known, apparently, for producing good cocoa. But the guy died not so long ago.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 12, 2019:

Eric, if you were to eat two pieces of chocolate cake, one made with the coffee and one without you would notice the difference. Trust me.

I just bought a huge sack of brown rice today. It takes more than twice as long to cook as white but worth every extra minute.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on December 12, 2019:

fantastic. I am exploring dark chocolate. We are derogatory about white sugar, milk chocolate and white rice.

I like this, I can work with it. I really like the coffee concept.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 12, 2019:

Bill, dark chocolate is full of antioxidants, sugar comes from a root vegetable, eggs are a superfood of protein and butter is a dairy product. Sounds like health food to me.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 12, 2019:

Now you're talking about a major food group I can get excited about. It seems like a lot of work when there is a bakery a mile away, but I applaud the spirit of your article, Linda. :) You know I love you, don't you? lol