Chocolate Cake

May 30, 2010

It’s a month away, but we’re having a pig roast for Michael’s birthday, and i’ve been thinking about what kind of cake to bake. As if reading my mind, Twitter provided an answer. Somebody said that they’d found the perfect recipe – and it was mine. It’s a cake I developed when I was living in Berkeley, working at the Swallow, and baking wedding cakes on the side. And it’s the one I baked for Michael’s birthday the first year that I knew him, the one in Comfort Me With Apples. And so here, courtesy of Serious Eats, is what I’ll be baking again – all these years later.

Big Chocolate Cake

Serves 20-25. Adapted from Comfort Me with Apples by Ruth Reichl. This recipe makes a lot of cake and so would be perfect for a big party, but it also takes very well to freezing, even with the frosting on: after a couple of days I carved up our remaining cake and wrapped individual slices carefully in plastic wrap to freeze. Either warmed in the microwave or simply left out to come up to room temperature, the defrosted cake seemed (to us, at least) to have lost nothing in the way of taste and texture, even, amazingly, after a few months. If you are having a really big party, you can, Reichl says, double or triple the recipe as long as you adjust the baking timefor whatever size pans you are using.


For the cake:

  • 1 1/2 cups boiling water
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 6 large eggs

For the frosting:

  • 5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
  • 1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup whipped cream cheese
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter two 13x9x2inch baking pans; line bottoms with waxed or parchment paper and butterthe paper. Flour the pans (you can “flour” pans for chocolate cake withcocoa powder, if you like) and tap out excess.
  2. Whisk together boiling water and cocoa untilsmooth. Then whisk in the milk and vanilla. Sift together the flour,baking soda, and salt.
  3. If possible in a standing mixer, beat togetherthe butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add one egg at a time,beating well after each addition. On low speed, beat in the flourmixture in 3 batches and the cocoa mixture in 2, alternatingflour-cocoa-flour-cocoa-flour. The batter may look curdled.
  4. Pour half of the batter into each pan and smoothtops. Bake in the middle of the oven until a tester comes out clean andthe cake begins to pull away from the pan, 25-35 minutes. Turn thecakes onto racks to cool completely.
  5. Make frosting: melt the chopped chocolate in adouble boiler or in a bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Cool toroom temperature. Beat together the butter and cream cheese until lightand fluffy (I could not find whipped cream cheese in the store, so Ijust whipped it at home until it looked a little lighter and fluffierbefore adding the butter). Add the cooled chocolate and the remainingingredients and beat until thoroughly combined.
  6. Assemble cake only when the cake layers have cooled completely.

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  • Ruth Reichl says:

    I love chocolate cake.

  • Robin says:

    As the person who posted this recipe on Serious Eats a couple of years ago, I am so pleased you found your way back to it! This is my husband’s official birthday cake now. It’s supposed to be his compensation for “putting up with” the fruity, lemony, pure-butter-y desserts I make during the rest of the year, but not so secretly I, too, look forward to getting a fix of purely perfect chocolate cake.
    Your apricot pie is another favorite with us…as is your carbonara…as are your enchanting words. Thank you for everything.

  • Melody Chavis says:

    Thank you for this rich and wonderful cake. I made a two-layer sheet cake for a 40+ guest birthday party. I’m always leery of doubling recipes so I just patiently made it and baked it twice on one morning. My husband has such a clever way of putting the second layer on after the first layer was iced: once the second layer was completely room temp., he put a sheet of parchment paper on top of it, then laid a stiff cutting board briefly on top, took the cooling rack, cake and board in his hands and flipped it over. Now the cake is on a board, on parchment paper. He tilted the board and lined the cake up perfectly with the edge of the first layer, then making little jerky forward movements, holding the sides of the paper and the board so that they didn’t slip, he scooted the cake gradually, letting it gently slide off the board and paper until it was nicely in place. I applauded. So did the entire party when they tasted your cake! You are a national treasure.

    • admin says:

      What a great idea! Thanks, Melody. I like this cake so much I included it in my new book, My Kitchen Year. Everybody seems to be loving it.

  • Marjorie says:

    We celebrate birthdays in our small office, usually with a bakery-bought cake. For my birthday this year, I volunteered to make and bring my own cake for my celebration. It was really an excuse to make your chocolate cake and have somewhere to bring it so I wouldn’t have the entire cake tempting me every day until we finished it at home, which would have been the case. This recipe is so deliciously velvety and rich–it was a wild hit at my office birthday party. The taste and textures of the cake and frosting are so different from the usual cake fare, and the flavors are truly exotic for those of us accustomed to accepting the usual bought cakes. A couple of colleagues asked if I wouldn’t mind making a cake for them when their birthday rolls around. Sure, I said, if I can make this chocolate cake again! Thanks for such a wonderful gastronomic adventure.


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