There seem to be as many chocolate cake recipes in existence as there are people who enjoy chocolate cake. There also seem to be as many names for chocolate cake (devil’s food cake, dark chocolate cake, chocolate layer cake) as there are people who are willing to taste all those chocolate cakes in order to officially prove whether or not those differently named cakes actually taste any different from one another. You’ve never heard of these official cake-tasters, you say? You think I just made all that up, you say? Or did I just create a new job for myself—Official Chocolate Cake Taster—all in the name of finally getting to the bottom of this great chocolate cake mystery, thusly making my new job a selfless and totally essential function aimed at bettering the chocolate cake eating habits of all of humanity? Think about that for a minute.
Though it seems unlikely, it’s not difficult to make a bad chocolate cake. Cakes lacking moisture will never be able to taste good enough to allow anyone to forget their sawdust-like texture, but, conversely, cakes suffering from a shortage of true chocolate flavor will never be able to shine to their utmost greatness, no matter how moist and toothsome a morsel may be. The other side of that coin, however, is the realization that it’s not all that hard to make a really, really good chocolate cake either. In fact, the most difficult step in making a great chocolate cake starts not with one’s prowess in the kitchen, but rather in finding a standout recipe. Which is where my new job comes in.
Some recipes stress a particular mixing technique, while others insist on using only oil, not butter, in their chocolate cake, arguing that the neutral flavor of vegetable oil allows the true taste of the chocolate in a chocolate cake to really take center stage. Some recipes favor buttermilk for achieving an optimal texture, but others prefer that you amend the batter with a simple chocolate pudding made from milk and chocolate heated together on the stove. Though there are endless tricks and techniques by which people will swear, in my new capacity as Official Chocolate Cake Tester, I feel as though I would be remiss in my newfound duties if I did not reveal to you a bit of a secret: Sometimes the secret to making a flawless chocolate cake comes from the most unlikely source, and that source just so happens to grow underground.
While also welcoming in a not insubstantial amount of both butter and buttermilk, this particular cake recipe utilizes a little-known helper in the world of baked goods. In an effort to turn out a cake with maximum moistness, the recipe calls for the inclusion of a simple handful of shredded raw beets, an ingredient that is undetectable in taste, but very much evident when it comes to texture. The shredded beets melt into the cake during baking, resulting in a cake with incomparable moistness and richness. While I won’t pretend that adding beets to a cake magically transforms it into a healthy and wholesome snack (see: butter, chocolate, and sugar), I will wholeheartedly admit that this cake can be deemed magical in an entirely different, indulgent, deliciously chocolaty way.
I’ve mentioned before my propensity to punch up chocolate baked goods with a bit of coffee. Rather than adding a dose of coffee directly into the cake batter, I took my love of the chocolate/coffee combination a bit further by covering this cake with a completely immodest amount of coffee frosting. Even if you happen to be a lukewarm fan of coffee on its own, I cannot recommend enough that you go ahead and put these two elements together.
The two flavors go together like a dream, and they were a perfect pairing for celebrating the birthday of a 33 year-old brother who loves both coffee and chocolate with equal affection. Just add in some friendly dinosaurs and your consummate chocolate cake is complete. (Note: Dinosaurs are for decoration only and are not meant to enhance the flavor of the cake in any way.)
Chocolate Cake with Coffee Frosting (and a Secret)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2/3 cup packed finely shredded raw beets
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Position a rack in the lower middle position.
Butter and flour the sides and bottom of 2 8-inch round cake pans with 2-inch sides. Line the bottoms with parchment paper.
Sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Stir to combine, then make a well in the center and set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs to combine. Whisk in the buttermilk. Add to the dry ingredients all at once, and stir to combine completely. Slowly whisk in the butter. Add the vanilla and stir to combine. Stir in the beets. Transfer to the prepared cake pans and spread evenly, using a rubber spatula to pull the batter away from the center of the pans and out along the sides. (The recipe claimed that this act would ensure flat, rather than domed, tops, and, I’ll admit, I was dubious, but still did it. To my complete surprise, it totally worked. I didn’t have to slice off the tops of either of the cakes whilst in the pursuit of non-crooked layers! Who knew?)
Bake until the center of each cake springs back when lightly touched and the sides of each cake just begin to pull away from the pan, 30 to 35 minutes.
Allow cakes to cool on a wire rack, still in their pans, for 10 minutes. Invert each cake onto another rack and remove pans. Carefully peel off the parchment paper and cool the cake completely, upside down. Make sure your cake layers are completely and totally cooled before frosting, lest your frosted cake end up a dripping, melted mess.
3 sticks unsalted butter, cut into chunks and softened
2 tablespoons instant espresso
3 tablespoons milk or heavy cream
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
Beat the butter, espresso powder, milk or cream, vanilla, and salt together in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium high speed until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.
Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low, slowly add the confectioners’ sugar, and beat until incorporated and smooth, 4 to 6 minutes. Increase the mixer speed to medium high and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy, 5 to 10 minutes.