This is the cake that first made me afraid to make layer cakes. This is the cake that showed me, in my early baking days, that something can turn out ugly and still taste delicious. This is the cake that taught me the meaning and importance of a crumb coat. This is the cake where I learned you can alter directions in a recipe and not get struck by lightning.
This is also the chocolate cake that has been written about by approximately 1 million food bloggers. It is the cake that, at current count, has 1390 reviews and a four fork rating on Epicurious.
This is the cake I decided to make when our friend Tim invited us to his birthday party and requested a chocolate cake, the richer the better. It was not an easy decision. Between my cookbooks and notebooks with magazine cut-outs, I probably have a hundred chocolate cake recipes. I have my favorites. There are a few that I made long ago and want to try again (Mocha Ricotta Torte). There are some that I have never made because they scare me a bit (Chocolate Viennese Cake). But all of those cakes involved something fancy and not-chocolate component. The message I got from Tim was that he wanted pure chocolate.
Normally in that case, I would make some kind of flourless chocolate torte. If just he and his partner were coming for dinner, I would have made this amazing cake called La Bete Noire (black beast). It is about as rich as they come. But this was a larger party and called for a larger cake, something with icing and layers, and could be used as a vehicle for candles and a round of “Happy Birthday” (except I forgot the candles). I looked around a little, knowing all the while I would come back to this cake.
I did hesitate a bit. The original recipe tells you to make two 10-inch cakes. If you have successfully made this cake following those directions, can you tell me how you maneuvered said cakes into place? They are super moist and quite crumbly and I found trying to get them off cooling racks and onto cardboard rounds and stacking them one on top of the other resulted in broken cakes (hence the ugly but delicious). Somewhere along the way in my baking career, I decided to bake the cakes in three 9-inch pans rather than the 10′s and that works a lot better (hence the learning to alter directions). It also results in a taller more impressive looking cake.
Now. After all that, all the times I have made it and tried to love it (the header in the recipe says the cake made the Gourmet editors swoon for pete’s sake), I am done with this cake. There are cake people and there are frosting people and there, of course, are both. I am a cake person. I can take or leave frosting. If the cake part is nothing special, I don’t care how beautiful the finished product is or how many pounds of chocolate there are in the frosting. This cake part of this cake is not for me. It is very moist but it is also too airy for my taste – too many crumbs (hence the necessity for a crumb coat). I like something denser. This cake has no butter in it – the fat comes from oil and buttermilk and I guess that just doesn’t do it for me.
But. It’s a classic. It is an easy cake. It can be made in advance. And it looks pretty darn good too, don’t you think? The birthday boy was happy and that is the most important thing after all.
When it is time to frost the cake, I find it is best to do the crumb coat while the frosting is a bit runnier than you want. In the time that the crumb coat sets in the refrigerator, the rest of the frosting will come to the right consistency.
For Cake Layers
3 oz. fine-quality semisweet chocolate
1½ cups hot brewed coffee
3 cups sugar
2½ cups flour
1½ cups unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch process)
2 tsp. baking soda
¾ tsp. baking powder
1¼ tsp. salt
3 large eggs
¾ cup vegetable oil
1½ cups well-shaken buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla
For Ganache Frosting
1 pound fine-quality semisweet chocolate
1 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. light corn syrup
½ stick (¼ cup) unsalted butter
Make Cake Layers
Preheat oven to 300ºF. Grease three 9-inch cake pans. Line bottoms with parchment paper rounds.
Finely chop chocolate and combine in a bowl with the hot coffee. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.
Into a large bowl, sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat eggs until thickened slightly and lemon colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer and 5 minutes by hand). Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating to combine well. Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined well. Divide batter between pans and bake in middle of oven until a tester inserted in center comes out clean, about 45 minutes.
Cool layers completely in pans on a rack. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto racks. Carefully remove the parchment paper and cool layers completely. (Can be made one day ahead. Wrap well in plastic wrap and leave at room temperature.)
Finely chop chocolate. In a 2 quart saucepan, bring cream, sugar, and corn syrup to a boil over moderately low heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat and add chocolate, whisking until chocolate is melted. Cut butter into pieces and add to frosting, whisking until smooth.
Transfer frosting to a bowl and cool, stirring occasionally, until spreadable (depending on chocolate used, it may be necessary to chill frosting to spreadable consistency.) Spread about ½-cup of frosting between cake layers. Apply a very thin layer of frosting to top and sides of cake. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Spread rest of frosting over cake. (Cake keeps, covered and chilled, 3 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.)