Monday, February 15, 2010

Big Chocolate Cake (Or Breaking a Rut)

Valentine’s Day was my “D-Day.”

See as of yesterday, (as you’ve probably surmised from all the posts about snacking and frozen yogurt and whatnot) I still hadn’t fully shaken off my cooking “rut”, otherwise known as my food funk, the stalemate with my kitchen, or my completely culinarily uninspired period of time…

So I drew a line in the proverbial sand and vowed, inspiration be damned, to cook something…anything (ideally somewhat elaborate and perhaps even a bit challenging) for Valentine’s Day. Really pulling out of the funk, dusting off the cookbooks and making something fantastic for Bryan and the girlies, seemed like the ultimate expression of love, no?

I decided first on the dessert -- it was Valentine’s Day after all. Specifically, inspired by Ruth Riechls’ ultimate expression of love through insane baking in her excellent memoir, "Comfort Me With Apples", I decided to make “Big Chocolate Cake”… with Audrey of course. And truthfully the cake killed two birds with one stone, allowing me to cross “make a chocolate cake from scratch” of my “list”, where it’s been sitting stagnate for a year and a half. A win/win all around.

From the name alone, I knew this project might be a bit of a bear, and I had a whole dinner to make too (more on that later), so we started working on the cake early in the day. Which turned out to be a good thing, as we were working slowly (+ sneaking in plenty of Olympics viewing, breaking for Bryan’s famous quesadillas + taking in a tivo’d Project Runway)… Let's just say Audrey placed the final raspberry on the cake at approximately 5:00 pm, right before I started dinner.

Friends, let me warn you, this cake isn’t for the faint of heart. There’s nothing especially “healthy” about this bad boy – case in point, it contains three sticks of butter and six eggs in the batter alone, but I view great desserts the same way I do eating meat lately -- we eat it less of it and make the best we can possibly afford. To that end, we used great chocolate and all organic ingredients.

I can honestly say it was a masterpiece.

Ruth Reichl’s Big Chocolate Cake adapted from "Comfort Me With Apples"

A couple of notes…this recipe makes a big cake and we were only feeding four, so rather than tinker with the amounts, I used ½ the batter for a single layer round cake and used the rest for cupcakes. Since my round cake pan was a little deeper than the sheet pans that the cooking times are intended for, I had to cook it closer to 45-50 minutes and I turned the heat down to 325 for the last 15 minutes.


For Cake Layers:

  • 1 ½ cups boiling water
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
  • ¾ cup whole milk
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 3 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 ½ cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 ½ cups granulated sugar
  • 6 large eggs

For Frosting:

  • 5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
  • 1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup whipped cream cheese
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 ½ cups confectioners' sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

Make Cake Layers:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pans and line bottoms of each with wax paper. Butter paper and dust pans with flour, knocking out excess.

Whisk together the boiling water and the cocoa in a bowl until smooth, then whisk in the milk and vanilla. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt.

Beat together the butter and sugars in the large bowl of a standing electric mixer until pale and fluffy, then add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. On low speed, beat in flour and cocoa mixtures alternately in batches, beginning and ending with the flour mixture (the batter may look curdled).

Divide batter between pans, smoothing tops. Bake in the middle of the oven until a tester comes out clean and layers begin to pull away from the sides of pans, 25 to 35 minutes. Invert cakes on racks, remove wax paper, and cool completely.

Make Frosting:

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or a metal bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring until melted. Cool to room temperature.

Beat together the butter and cream cheese until light and fluffy.

Add remaining ingredients and beat until well combined.

Assemble Cake:

Put one cake layer, rounded side up, on a cake plate and spread with 11/4 cups frosting. Top with another cake layer, rounded side up, and spread top and sides with remaining frosting.


  1. Sounds perfect. Great shots of your daughter baking. My son and I just left the kitchen too - he was making fudge for his class. : )

  2. I have to admit, I have made a cake from scratch one time, but I thought the boxed cake mix was better! ( I know, saying this is probably blasphemous.) This is gearing me up to try again, I have had chocolate cake on the brain and a few recipes in the wings waiting to be tested. Now I'm torn between this and a chocolate buttermilk...I have to give it a week though to recover from this past weekend's sweets.

  3. Very impressive!! I broke out my Art of Simple Food after your suggestion and made the Chocolate Cake recipe last night but chickened out and turned it into cupcakes...I decided to freeze half of them (sans frosting) after I inhaled more than a few and am curious to see if they keep...any thoughts??

  4. michelle -- i think if you seal the heck out of them...maybe in a tupperware wrapped in plastic wrap they'll keep for sure!

    love that alice waters...

  5. I say eat and enjoy :) happy people live longer....mmmm....cake. Looks yummy on that fabulous cake stand.

  6. I LOVE LOVE LOVE Ruth Reichl! She's so funny and humble and a great mix of mistakes plus genius. I've read all her books and cooked a few things from them. Never the chocolate cake, but perhaps after reading about yours, I will. I love that you bake with your daughter. Mine is only 4 and I'm trying to figure out how to allow her in my kitchen. Terrible, controlling mother that I am.
    Your hand mixer, by the way, is very cool.

  7. Margo -- Audrey is 6 so her "full" participation in the kitchen is a relatively new phenomenon ;-)

    I eased her in with making cookies...for us, baking was a great starting point.

    The hand mixer was a wedding gift 10 years ago (!) It has served us well!

  8. omg your little girl is so cute! i like the one with her chin in her cute! cake looks yummy

  9. Hi Joslyn, fellow Texan here. About your polenta, what other cheese do you think could replace the goat cheese? I am not a fan of it, but I am dying to try this recipe.
    Your cake looks so good, too!

  10. Alexis -- hmm...that's a tough one, as most other soft cheeses are a lot stronger.

    i think you could easily skip the goat cheese and double the parmesan and it would be just as good!

  11. Hey Joslyn - the cake looks divine! Chocolate and raspberry has to be one of my all-time favorite combos. I saw this post on Simple Kids and thought of this blog:
    Nothing earth-shattering of course, but good reminders!

  12. oh boy. my mouth is watering!

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