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 with cocoa powder, if you like) and tap out excess.
  2. Whisk together boiling water and cocoa until smooth. 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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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Ana says:

    My question might seem silly, but do you serve this cake with ice cream? Thanks!

  • April Langworthy says:

    I’m very excited to try this for a big party I’m having. Two questions 1) do you think it would work to make the cake and frosting one day, and assemble the next? 2) do you think it might stand up to a layer of (homemade) fondant? (I know – probably ruin the balance of the cake, but want double and make one to decorate for my son’s birthday, but still have a delicious cake adults could enjoy).

  • Evelyn says:

    This recipe sounds amazing. Can I sub oil or margarine for butter. I really miss you on the tele!! Thank you, evelyn

  • Dauna Howerton says:

    The batter tastes like chocolate ice cream! What a lovely cake. Now to adjust the baking soda to make it a beautiful cake baked at 8,000 feet. The cake is delicious and the frosting covers up the unevenness. Baking cakes is also my specialty, so finding so many glowing reviews I had to try this recipe. Another of Ruth’s recipes added to my list of standards.

  • Ramona says:

    My brother, a huge chocolate lover, says this is the best cake he’s ever had. I find the frosting a little strong on the chocolate (I am a wimp), so I’m contemplating some variants: less bittersweet chocolate; semi-sweet chocolate; orange-cream cheese (no chocolate)? I plan to make at least two 9″ 2-layer cakes out of this recipe next week with 2 different frostings.

  • Kathleen says:

    can you halve the recipe to make a smaller cake?

  • Sarah V says:

    How to increase the recipe for an 11×15 pan?

  • amy says:

    Hi – any hope of a quick answer?! Tomorrow’s the night!
    I’m at 5280 feet, used grocery store non-stick pans (medium grey), baked only 25 minutes, and was disappointed! The cake was very crumbly. The frosting looked dull and kind of pock-marked? resembling the texture of the whipped cream cheese itself. Any suggestions, please?

  • Mike O says:

    How tall is the cake when assembled? I am bringing it for Christmas dinner an hour away and I wonder if a standard cake carrier will work.

  • admin says:

    Mike, if you make the entire cake it’s large, but not particularly tall. And if you make a half cake – and bake it in just one large sheet pan – it should fit perfectly into an ordinary cake carrier. (Unless, of course, your carrier is round.)

  • lina says:

    In which book of Ms. Reichl’s can this recipe be found? Comfort me with Apples?

  • Anna says:

    This was so delicious! Best chocolate cake I’ve ever made from scratch and I’ve tried recipes from Better Homes & Gardens, Betty Crocker, and a couple from the food network. All disappointing, dry and tasted of stale cocoa powder! I really thought it was the cocoa powder I was using. This recipe is divine! Thank you for sharing! Do you have any other lovely cake recipes to share from your wedding baking days?

  • Alyson Boote says:

    I’m excited to make this cake for my nephew’s birthday! It looks delicious and kid friendly. (most of the other chocolate cakes I love have coffee in them) One question- is the frosting sour at all? I’m worried that the cream cheese in the frosting won’t go over with my nephew. I tried cream cheese frosting on him once before and it was not a hit. Thanks!

  • Tory says:

    This weekend I’ll be making this cake for the third time this year as it’s become the family favorite birthday cake. I pour the batter into four round cake pans and double the frosting recipe to ensure enough for filling and frosting. This creates an impressively tall cake. A few hours in the fridge makes slicing easy. We’ve counted 24 slices in demolishing one cake! Cutting in one inch width wedges, we lay each slice easily on the plate for adding a small scoop of ice-cream on top or mostly enjoy it plain.

  • Kristina says:

    I made this for my husband’s 50th birthday party gathering this weekend and it was a huge hit! Thank you!!

  • winnie Jackson says:

    plesde send me your chocolate cake recipe. could not print on your site. thanks, winnie

    • admin says:

      Hi Winnie, Sorry you’re having trouble printing this out, but if you google “Reichl chocolate cake” you’ll find it’s been reprinted dozens of times. Happy baking!

  • Aimee says:

    Hello! I’m excited to make this cake for my son’s 4th birthday. On the frosting it says 1cup of cream cheese. Is that before or after whipping? On the NYTimes site, it says 225 grams cream cheese which is a brick of cream cheese. Is a brick of cream cheese the accurate amount?

  • Anne says:

    I am excited to try this cake! Would it work to use two 12-inch round pans instead of the 9×13?

  • Sophia says:

    I’ve made this cake a couple times and always is a success! So glad I finally found the recipe! Is there a yellow cake version for a crowd as well?

  • Emma says:

    I need to bake this cake for about 50. Should I double the recipe? Thank You

  • Suzanne says:

    If I don’t halve the recipe how many standard rounds will this recipe make? So look forward to making this cake!

  • Bette says:

    This is a long story…
    John, the third of my six sons, was killed in Iraq in 2003 when the helicopter he was riding in was shot down and crashed into another. In all, 17 soldiers were killed and 5 were injured. I moved from Chicago to Seattle with three of John’s brothers because this is where John’s widow is from and this is where she had John buried. Their twin sons were two months old, he never got to meet them, and she thought that as they got older, it would be easier for them to talk, if they wanted, to their dad if he was here.
    Three years ago, someone knocked on my door. She was out for a walk and noticed the Gold Star flag on my door. It turns out her brother, a Navy Seal, had been killed in Afghanistan in 2011, also in a helicopter that was shot down. His birthday is Sept. 16, the day after I read the article about My Kitchen Year featuring this recipe in the NYTimes.
    I suggested we celebrate her brother’s birthday and his and John’s memories with this cake.
    She showed up the next day bearing a malbec called Unsung Hero that she found at a local discount grocery, of all places, and bought it solely based on its name. This cheapish wine turned out to be a perfect match with chocolate.
    I wish you could have seen us, eight people around the table eating the cake in silence, until someone asked for seconds. Then someone else asked for more, and the recipe, and then the memories came, an Irish wake of sorts.
    I wish I could report that we continued this “celebration” each year since, but her mom wasn’t doing well so she moved back east to help. We keep in touch now via email instead of over cake.
    I make this cake probably every other month because it’s always someone’s birthday or graduation or wedding around here. The cake stays the same but I’ve played around with it: I’ve made jumbo, regular and mini cupcakes from the batter; halved it and baked it in 8″ rounds; put homemade seedless raspberry jam in the middle; drizzled it with ganache over whipped ganache (particularly good); cheapened it with American buttercream and that works, too.
    Everyone has loved this cake no matter how I’ve played with it. I have no doubt that John would have loved a slab of this cake partnered with a frosty glass of milk. He loved anything homemade and chocolate.
    Anyway, you should know how greatly your work is appreciated. I know that testimonials like mine can’t fully inflate that sense of self that was so rudely deflated when Gourmet folded, but I hope this story comforts you as much as your cake has comforted us.
    Thank you. This hug should have happened a long time ago.

  • admin says:

    Dear Bette,
    I am in tears. Thank you so much.
    I imagine you in Seattle, with the twins and the rest of your family, sitting around the Thanksgiving table. I hope it was happy. And I wish you all the best for the coming holidays.

  • Marlene says:

    If the recipe is halved, can it be baked in round pans? If so, what size, please? Thank you!

    • admin says:

      Marlene, I haven’t done this myself, but a half recipe should fit in 2 nine inch pans, if you have the tall straight-sided professional sort. If they’re shorter old-fashioned pans, I’d count on 3 8 or 9 inch rounds.

      • Marlene says:

        Thank you! If I try it out, I will post the results. I may opt to do one 13×9 layer, cut it in half and make a tall-ish rectangular cake. Either way, I’m sure it’ll be delicious!

  • Terry Griffin says:

    Can you make this cake a day in advance? Can you store at room temp for a day or should it be stored in refrigerator?

  • Carol says:

    I confess..I halved the receipe and used two 9” pans. The layers are sooo flat they look sad. What happened?.

  • Sophia says:

    This is the fourth time I’m making this cake for my family! That’s how much we love chocolate cake! During this Corona Virus pandemic, we’re baking even more and would love to make it a yellow cake version for a crowd for variety. Please post a vanilla/yellow recipe for a crowd.

  • Rebecca says:

    Good morning! My family loves this cake and request it for birthdays, but this year my younger son is having a Captain America theme and would like a large round ‘shield’ cake. What size round pan would work for each layer? I was thinking 14″ but I’m not sure.

  • Haley says:

    I’ve made this cake with fantastic results, and am now wondering if it can be done gluten-free (e.g., with the 1:1 mix from Bob’s Red Mill). Has anyone tried?

  • Linda Werner says:

    Where can I find the recipe to make half of this delicious cake?

  • Deb says:

    Just made this to take to an Easter dinner, our first inside dinner with friends in over a year! It is indeed a wonderful special occasion cake! I made it as directed in 2 13×9″ pans, just added in 2 tsp of espresso powder, which I love in chocolate cakes for extra depth. Used a mix of cocoa powders just to use up some we had, including 2 tablespoons of black cocoa powder, making the cake nice & dark.
    I made about 1.5 times the amount of frosting per some suggestions on the NY Times site for this recipe, and wished I’d doubled it but I love frosting.
    Put some pretty pastel sugar and sprinkles on top and it even looked a little spring-y for Easter!

    Would definitely make again including in smaller sizes, but it was nice to have at our dinner yesterday and have some slices left over!

  • Sophia G says:

    This was absolutely lovely. Stuck to the exact recipe and it took 33min in a 325C convection oven to cook in 3x 8in round cake pans. I agree with the comment about using 1.5x or even 2x the frosting recipe.

    Tip for those who don’t bake often: be patient and let everything come to room temperature or slightly warmer to ensure everything blends well and that there is no curdling, as many have mentioned. Also, be sure to whip the butter/sugar blend for quite a few minutes to build up some structure as the mixture can otherwise be quite wet.

  • Kyle says:

    What do I need to do to make this cake in a 9×3 baking pan. I need to fill two 9×3 baking pans. I made it as prescribed and filled my cake pans a quarter of the way and the centers collapse. I cannot get the height I need but the cake is so delicious.

  • Charla Welcome says:

    I made this cake for my grandson’s 12th birthday this past Saturday (March 11, 2023). We were expecting around 20 people (adults and children), so I wanted a recipe that would yield a large chocolate cake (he wanted chocolate). It took a little time to make because of various additions, so allow plenty of time. We used 2 9” x 13” pans lined with parchment paper and dusted with cocoa. I baked for the minimum time and frosted the next day with chocolate buttercream. If in do this again, I will probably try the frosting listed here. Everyone genuinely loved the cake and we had plenty. As always, my grandson assisted, as he has since he was 3, so it was a big hit!