Old-fashioned chocolate layer cakes—tall, toothsome tantalizers—are truly American. A piece of chocolate cake and a glass of milk is the ultimate treat. And it’s a darn good antidote to the winter blues, come to think of it.
Even with this classic, there’s variation in how to get delicious results. Cakes can get their chocolatey flavor from unsweetened cocoa powder or unsweetened baking chocolate. Some are made with water, some with milk, and some with sour cream or buttermilk. My version uses unsweetened cocoa because I like the combination of intense chocolate flavor and light, melt-in-the-mouth texture that only cocoa can provide. I also use yogurt instead of buttermilk, since it makes a delicious old-fashioned tasting chocolate layer cake, and you’re probably more likely to have yogurt in your refrigerator than you are buttermilk. I like the notion that anyone with a reasonably stocked pantry can make a chocolate cake on the spur of the moment without a trip to the grocery store.
My chocolate layer cake is made like a classic butter cake, where fat and sugar are creamed together until fluffy and then eggs are added, followed by the dry ingredients with the leavening, alternating with the wet ingredients. The cake rises in the oven because of the carbon dioxide produced by the leaven—in this case, baking soda—as it reacts with the other ingredients in the cake. But some of the rise and much of the sought-after velvety texture are also a function of how the ingredients are prepared and how the batter is mixed.
Perfect cake needs careful mixing
A perfectly blended cake batter depends on the temperature of the ingredients and on the uninterrupted sequence and timing of the mixing steps. A perfect butter cake batter is really an emulsion, with all the ingredients and lots of little air bubbles in suspension. The challenge is to add and mix in each ingredient without breaking the emulsion or collapsing the batter.
When I’m getting set up to bake, I always allow time to let all the ingredients come to room temperature, to measure everything, to grease and line the baking pans, and to give the oven time to heat to the right temperature. That way, I can make the cake without stopping between steps.
Bring all ingredients to room temperature. If you’ve ever made mayonnaise or any other type of emulsion, you know that adding a cold ingredient can cause the emulsion to break and the mixture to separate. It’s the same with classic cake making; all the ingredients should be 65° to 70°F.
Make sure the butter is pliable but firm, not soft and squishy. Firm but pliable butter beaten with sugar traps air and increases volume. If the butter is too soft, it will fail to trap air as it’s creamed with the sugar. You can bring refrigerated or frozen butter to room temperature quickly in a microwave: use the low or defrost setting for a few seconds at a time, being very careful not to melt the butter or make it too squishy.
Whisk the eggs together briefly with a fork. Whisking will blend the yolks and whites so that you’ll be able to dribble the egg into the batter in a slow stream as you beat. Adding unbeaten eggs one at a time to a cake batter sometimes causes the batter to collapse because you have to beat the batter too much in order to mix in the eggs thoroughly.
Sift the flour for consistent results and a tender cake. Sifting before measuring ensures that each cup of cake flour will weigh consistently about 3 1/2 ounces (all-purpose flour is slightly heavier), assuming that the sifted flour is spooned gently into the cup until heaping and then leveled off without packing or tapping. Sifting flour two or three times after you measure serves another function: it aerates, fluffs up, and separates the grains so that the flour is easily mixed into a cake batter without clumping, thereby avoiding the excessive mixing that toughens a cake.
Use a kitchen scale, or measuring cups designed for dry ingredients (where capacity is measured at the very rim of the cup). Glass measuring cups with markings all the way up the sides are designed for liquid ingredients and will not give you an accurate flour measurement.
Divide dry ingredients into thirds and add them alternately with half of the wet ingredients. Adding dry and wet ingredients to the batter in small, alternating batches avoids collapsing the batter by adding too much of any one ingredient at a time. Use low speed to mix in the dry ingredients; low to medium speed to mix in liquids. Scrape the sides of the bowl as necessary to be sure the ingredients are blended smoothly. Mix in each ingredient only until it’s fully incorporated, no longer. I stop the mixer before I add the next ingredient to the bowl to avoid overmixing. Once the flour comes into contact with liquid in the batter, the gluten in the flour begins to develop during mixing; too much mixing produces a tough cake.
If you like to prepare ahead of time, know that baked, cooled cake layers will stay fresh for one or two days before you frost them; just be sure to wrap them well and keep them at room temperature. Cake layers will keep in the freezer for up to three months.
Alice’s cake frosting tips
• Cool the cake layers completely before frosting them so the frosting doesn’t melt and make the cake slip and slide.
• Brush stray crumbs from all cake layers.
• Set the first layer, flat side down, on a serving plate or a piece of cardboard; cover the top evenly with 2/3 cup of the frosting.
• Set the second cake layer on top, flat side up; cover the top evenly with another 2/3 cup frosting.
• Set the third layer on top, flat side down.
• If the frosting is very soft and the cake layers start to slide, refrigerate the cake for about 20 minutes.
• Before frosting the sides, slide four wide strips of waxed paper under the sides to keep the serving platter clean.
• Spread a very thin layer of frosting all over the top and sides of the cake just to cover and smooth the cracks and secure loose cake crumbs. As you work, be sure to keep cake crumbs from getting into the