Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake

Last weekend we got together with my family for a joint birthday celebration. For my step-father, it was a bit belated – his birthday was at the end of September. And for Shane, it was a tad early – today is actually his special day! We often end up at a restaurant when we’re doing these birthday events, but this time we kept it more low-key and stayed in. My mom did the cooking (she made, among other things, Shawnda’s taquitos!) and I took care of dessert.

Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake

I had my heart set on making a decadent layer cake for the birthday boys, the only question was which cake to make. I have a ridiculous number of layer cakes on my to-do list, but opportunities to make them are few and far between. Birthdays and holidays are pretty much the only time it happens, so I usually spend countless hours trying to decide on just the right recipe. I had my eye on a few fall-inspired cakes, but none that Shane would have liked, and since it was his birthday, it only seemed fair to consider him too :)

This old-fashioned chocolate layer cake was the eventual winner – you can never go wrong with chocolate, right? The cake itself is moist and tender. I love that the layers bake up with barely any dome at all so there’s no need to trim them before stacking. As for the frosting, a quick glance at the ingredient list will tell you everything you need to know. There is an entire pound of chocolate! The frosting is rich and only slightly sweet, the chocolate flavor is definitely the star. Since there were only four of us, I halved the recipe to make a mini 6-inch cake and it worked perfectly.

Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake

One quick note on the frosting – resist the temptation to substitute bittersweet chocolate for the semisweet. I didn’t read the headnote to the recipe and used my Trader Joe’s Pound Plus bars with 60% cacao. It worked but the frosting was fairly stiff and not easily spreadable. Using anything over 60% cacao will result in a crumbly frosting that won’t spread; in other words, don’t do it :) If you have your heart set on using bittersweet chocolate, try this recipe instead!

Old-Fashioned Layer Cake
from The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook

{Note: You can halve this recipe and bake in 6-inch pans if you want a smaller cake.}

Cake
4 oz unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 cup (3/4 oz) Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/2 cup hot water
1 3/4 cups (12 1/4 oz) sugar
1 3/4 cups (8 3/4 oz) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large eggs plus 2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces, at room temperature

Frosting
1 lb semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 cup (2 1/3 oz) sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups cold heavy cream

To make the cake: Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray two 9-inch cake pans with nonstick cooking spray with flour (you can line the bottoms with parchment as well if you want).

Add the unsweetened chocolate, cocoa power and water to a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of barely simmering water. Stir occasionally until the chocolate is completely melted (the mixture will be thick). Whisk in 1/2 cup of the sugar until well combined and the mixture becomes glossy. Remove the bowl from the pan and set aside to cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. In a measuring cup, whisk the buttermilk and vanilla together.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the eggs and egg yolks. Beat on medium-low speed until combined, about 10 seconds. Add the remaining 1 1/4 cups of sugar and beat on high speed until the mixture is fluffy and pale in color, about 2-3 minutes. Remove the whisk attachment and replace with the paddle. Pour the cooled chocolate mixture into the mixer bowl and beat on medium speed until well combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the butter, one piece at a time, mixing for about 10 seconds after each addition. With the mixer on low, alternately add the flour mixture (in 3 additions) and the buttermilk mixture (in 2 additions), starting and ending with the flour mixture. The batter may look slightly curdled. Beat until thoroughly combined.

Divide the batter between the prepared cake pans, smoothing the top until even. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached. Remove the pans to a wire rack and let the cakes cool for 10 minutes. Turn the cakes out of the pans and allow to cool completely, at least 2 hours.

To make the frosting: (Note: wait to make the frosting until the cakes are cooled.) Add the chocolate to a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave in 30-second bursts at 50% power, stirring in between each, until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Meanwhile, add the butter to a small saucepan and set over medium-low heat. When it’s completely melted, increase the heat to medium and add the sugar, corn syrup, vanilla and salt and, stirring frequently with a rubber spatula, cook until the sugar is dissolved. Pour the butter mixture, melted chocolate and heavy cream into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Stir with a rubber spatula to combine thoroughly.

Set the mixer bowl over an ice bath and stir constantly with the rubber spatula until the frosting thickens and begins to harden against the sides of the bowl, about 1-2 minutes (the frosting should be 70 F). Put the bowl back on the mixer and beat on medium-high until the frosting is light and fluffy, about 1-2 minutes.

To assemble the cake: Place one layer of the cake on your serving platter (you can slide pieces of parchment under the edges to keep the platter clean while you frost). Top with about 1 1/2 cups of the frosting and spread in an even layer. Top with the second layer of the cake then use the remaining frosting to cover the top and sides of the cake. (Note: if the frosting gets too stiff to spread, wrap a warm towel around the sides and beat on low speed until creamy.)

Store the assembled cake in the refrigerator but bring to room temperature before serving.