I am basically a lover of layer cakes, with chocolate being my number one favorite (although vanilla enveloped in chocolate buttercream is a very close number two). I like dark chocolate layers that taste uber-chocolate-y, are super moist, with a fluffy, loose-ish crumb (as opposed to a tight one) and — I’ll just come right out and say it — I like it if my layer cake reminds me of one that might be made from a boxed cake mix. Sacrilege, I know, but it’s the truth. I can’t say my love of cakes made from mixes stems from memories of my own childhood chocolate birthday cake, as my cakes were always Baskin Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream cakes. Nor can I say that I actually ever make cakes from mixes myself, although I did ask my boys to make me a cake from a box, Betty Crocker I think, for my last birthday, so I definitely have some kind of birthday/cake mix thing going on. But I have to admit that when making homemade cakes, replicating the flavor and texture of a boxed cake mix has always felt right.
And so, my go-to chocolate birthday cake for the longest while was Martha Stewart’s one bowl chocolate cake. no surprise here, as the cake is super dark, pretty chocolate-y, and totally moist (it’s an oil based cake so the moistness is a given), with an awesome cake-mix-ish crumb (and the fact that it’s “one bowl,” doesn’t hurt either). And then my go-to was the cake recipe on the back of the Hershey’s cocoa tin, another amazingly moist, easy-to-make, chocolate-y cake-mix-ish cake, that very well may be the grandmother of the one bowl cake, as the recipes are practically interchangeable (despite Martha’s calling for buttermilk, and Hershey’s for milk). Eventually, I graduated from one-bowl and Hershey’s to this recipe from Food & Wine, in which melted butter and hot coffee take the place of oil and hot water, two modifications that I loved and filed away for the day I would develop my own chocolate cake.
And when that day came, I started leafing through my books for overlooked or forgotten chocolate birthday cake recipes and Googling. I already knew my cake would have melted butter and a bit of oil, rather than room temp butter (for flavor and for ease of use), hot water plus espresso powder, as opposed to actual coffee (for pumped up chocolate-flavor and for simplicity’s sake), lots of yolks for extra moistness, dark brown sugar (and lots of it) instead of white (again for moistness and also for its divine caramel-y flavor), and sour cream and a bit of heavy cream cause I love them both. What I wasn’t sure about was how to get the super chocolate-y flavor and dark color I was after (I felt I had moistness and a loose crumb covered).
I knew my color and some of my flavor would come from Dutch-processed cocoa powder for sure (and I intended to use about 60% as much cocoa powder as flour — a little more than half as much), but the question of adding melted chocolate — and, if so, how much and what kind? — flummoxed me. I tried it, though, adding 4 ounces of bittersweet the first and second time I worked on the recipe and a whopping 6 ounces the third time. Long story short, I created a hybrid cake/brownie with the wrong crumb and — shockingly — not that much chocolate flavor (particularly the one with 6 ounces added to it). And then I remembered reading on Food52 and Smitten Kitchen about the cocoa powder-only theory of Alice Medrich’s best cocoa brownies (essentially cocoa powder has no added fat or sugar like semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, and so on its own in a baked-good, it not only produces a richer, deeper un-meddled with chocolate flavor, but allows you much more control over how sweet and rich (from butter/oil) your treat will be).
With this theory in mind, I returned to the kitchen, omitted the copious amounts of bittersweet melted chocolate from my recipe, added a mere ounce of unsweetened chocolate (on the theory that unsweetened chocolate, like cocoa powder, has no sugar and little fat and would thus impart the chocolate flavor I was craving) and a bit more dark brown sugar and voila: the extra moist chocolate birthday cake was born. I iced this particular one with peppermint buttercream frosting as a certain 8 year old is turning nine on Saturday and requested as much, but frost with whatever flavor icing your birthday boy/girl desires.
Extra Moist Chocolate Birthday Cake
- 2 cups cake flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 3/4 cups dark brown sugar packed
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 3 yolks
- 2 large eggs
- 1 Tbsp vanilla paste or extract
- 1 oz unsweetened chocolate
- 1 scant Tbsp espresso powder
- 1 1/4 cups Dutch-process cocoa powder plus 1 tbsp black cocoa powder, if you have it, regular cocoa powder, if you do not
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1/4 cup oil
- 1 stick/ 8Tbsp unsalted butter melted and warm
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spray or butter 3 8-inch round cake pans or two 9x5-inch loaf pans, line the bottoms with parchment paper and spray or butter the paper. Set aside.
- Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together into the bowl of a stand mixer and then briefly whisk the mixture to ensure the leavening is incorporated. Add the sugar and place the bowl on the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix on low speed while preparing the rest of the batter.*
- In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the sour cream, heavy cream, yolks, eggs, and paste and set aside.
- In another medium-sized bowl, add the chocolate, espresso powder, cocoa powder, boiling water, and oil to the melted butter. Whisk vigorously until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. The butter may separate from the chocolate a bit once the water is added. Do not worry: after the chocolate mixture is added to the rest of the batter it will all come together.
- Keeping the mixer on low speed, slowly add the sour cream mixture to the dry mixture in the bowl. Once added, stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. Now slowly add the chocolate mixture. Once added, stop the mixer and scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula again, making sure to scrape up from the bottom of the bowl to ensure the chocolate is thoroughly integrated with the rest of the batter. mix on low speed for an additional 15 seconds and remove the bowl from the mixer. Mix once by hand with a rubber spatula to ensure complete incorporation.
- Pour the batter into the three prepared pans or two loaf pans. Place the pans in the middle rack of the oven and bake for about 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the pans and shifting their positions after 12 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at about 23 minutes. The cakes are done when a cake tester comes out with a few moist crumbs. Loaf cakes will take longer to bake - up to 50 minutes total. Check the loaves after 25 minutes and then again at 45 minutes.
- Let the cakes cool in their pans for about 10 minutes then invert them out of their pans on to a cooling rack (if making loaf cakes, let cool for 20 minutes before releasing them by running a paring knife around the edges). Let them cool to room temperature. At this point you may ice them (if making loaf cakes, frosting is not necessary - I suggest serving slices with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream), or wrap them in plastic wrap and then tin foil and freeze them for up to a month. The layers do not need to be defrosted prior to decorating, but should be prior to eating.