Late spring in Colorado, that time of year when the sunshine lingers over lawns and gangly poppies sprout high above their garden beds, papery petals fluttering in the warm breeze. That’s the image I clung to as the rainy weather that had sidled up from lower elevations walloped the area with a winter storm Saturday night, blanketing every flower and seedling I planted with wet, slushy snow and leaving recently leafed trees with drooping branches.
It’s May, and this just feels wrong. Image by author.
So, while my Gulf Coast friends shared photos on Facebook of their days on the beach yesterday, their sun-kissed skin slathered with sunblock as they frolicked in the waves, I glowered into my coffee cup and worked on a chapter revision for my novel. Fortunately, Cameron’s parents were coming for an early dinner to celebrate Mother’s Day, so after I went cross-eyed from deleting more lines and paragraphs of what seemed incapable of being further condensed, I set to work on food preparation with an eye to what Cameron’s mother might like best. She’s one of my biggest cooking fans, so I decided that the best way to thank her for all her support since Cameron and I moved to Colorado would be with a cake that’s chocolate through and through.
Sarah Copeland’s Better-than-boxed Chocolate Cake recipe came to the rescue. I’ve owned a copy of The Newlywed Cookbook for a few years and have praised it (and her excellent follow-up on all recipes vegetarian in Feast), but I’ve been hesitant to try this particular recipe because I’m sensitive to caffeine. (This recipe calls for a lot of cocoa powder.) I’m glad I set aside my reservations and set to assembling this cake, though. Paired with a big glass of milk or a cup of mint or black tea, this cake gets down to serious dessert business.
I’ve made minor adjustments to work with my kitchen supplies and oven and have noted those in the directions, but otherwise, I’ve maintained the integrity of the recipe. The next time you have a party or family gathering that needs a classic dessert, grab this recipe and get busy. Based on the satisfied faces around the table yesterday, I predict your cake baking will be much appreciated.
Image by author.
Better-than-boxed Chocolate Cake
(a Sarah Copeland’s Newlywed Cookbook Masterpiece)
Makes 1 two-layer 9-inch cake
– 3 cups all-purpose flour
– 2 2/3 cups granulated sugar
– 1 cup cocoa powder, plus more for dusting
– 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
– 3/4 tsp baking powder
– 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
– 1 3/4 cups warm water
– 1 cup vegetable oil (be sure to choose one that isn’t flavorful. this isn’t the time to break out the olive oil.)
– 4 TBS melted butter, plus more for the pans
– 5 large eggs
– 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
– 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
– 3 TBS agave nectar or honey (I used honey since this recipe is about as not vegan as it gets.)
– 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
– 1 1/4 cup cocoa powder
– 1/4 cup warm water
– 1/4 cup cold heavy cream
To make the cake:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter two 9-inch round cake pans.
(A word of advice. Cake pans aren’t standard in depth, and my 9-inch pans are shallower than I’d thought. I wound up having enough batter for 3 cake layers. Since there was only enough frosting for a 2-layer cake, I wrapped up the extra cake layer and froze it, so that next week when this cake is but a decadent memory, I can break out that frozen one and make a one-layer cake for old time’s sake. If you’re not sure if your cake pans are on the shallow or deep end, a good rule of thumb is to fill each pan about 2/3 full to give room for rising.)
Line with parchment/baking paper. Butter the parchment. Dust the inside of both pans with cocoa powder and knock against the side of the counter to settle a thin dusting of cocoa inside the pans; discard any extra cocoa.
2 Whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda/bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, and salt together in the bowl of a stand mixer.
3 Add 1 cup of the warm water, the oil, and melted butter, and mix on medium speed until combined. Stop the mixer to scrape down the sides of the bowl and make sure all the ingredients are fully incorporated. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well between additions to incorporate and aerate the batter, which gives the cake a more even crumb. Add the remaining 3/4 cup warm water and vanilla and beat until smooth and aerated, about 2 minutes. The batter will look loose and watery, about the consistency of heavy cream or hot fudge.
4 Divide evenly between the prepared pans and tap lightly on the counter to smooth the top. Bake until the cakes are evenly domed and spring back lightly when touched, about 40 minutes. (Because I’d split the batter among 3 pans, my cakes were done within 35 minutes. To be on the safe side, by the 30 minute mark, start testing the cakes at 5-minute intervals to prevent over-baking.) Test the cakes with a toothpick inserted into the centers; if it comes out clean your cakes are done.
5 Remove the cakes from the oven, and cool on a wire rack until just warm to the touch, about 15 minutes. The cakes will pull away from the sides of the pans slightly as they cool. (If this doesn’t happen, use a very thin knife to gently separate cake from pan.) Flip the pans to unmold the cakes onto a rack to cool completely, about 1 hour.
To make the frosting:
6. Before you begin, check to make sure the butter is room temperature, just soft enough to press easily with your finger. Beat together the butter, agave, confectioners’/icing sugar, cocoa powder, and warm water with a stand mixer until light and creamy and evenly combined, about 2 minutes. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl and make sure all the butter is fully combined. Add the cool cream and beat on medium-high until fluffy and creamy.
7. When the cakes are completely cooled, slice off the dome from one of the layers with a serrated knife so that you can stack the layers easily. Lay the trimmed cake layer on a cake stand or serving platter, trimmed-side up. Tear 4 sheets of parchment or wax paper into long strips and tuck under the edges of the cake around all the sides. (Think of this step as the drop cloth before painting process. You’ll be glad you did it once the work is done.)
Image by author.
8. Scoop about 1/3 of the frosting onto the top of the cake. Using an offset spatula or the back of a spoon, spread the frosting evenly over the top of the cake and around the sides. Cover with the second cake layer, domed-side up, and press down slightly to flatten. Look down at the cake and slide the top cake layer until it lines up perfectly with the bottom layer. Add another 1/3 of the frosting to the top and spread evenly over the top. Spread the remaining 1/3 of the icing around the sides of the cake to create a smooth, even layer.
Image by author.
9. Make swirls of icing all over the top of the cake using the back of a large spoon. Serve immediately, or store in a cool place until ready to serve.
I placed my finished cake in the fridge for an hour to firm up the frosting before serving it after an early Sunday dinner. While I didn’t have a problem with water beading on its surface, this could happen depending on the humidity where you leave. Apparently if you set the cake back on the counter for a while, the water will go away. Magic!
Image by author.