Of all the great benefits of marriage, I think one of my favorites is creating a brand new set of traditions based on a newly formed family. Even though the husband and I have yet to produce offspring, it’s nice to know we’ve already created a few of our own little family traditions that are just waiting to include little ones when they come. The husband’s Big, Messy Chocolate Birthday Cake is a much-anticipated event that we look forward to all year.
The first year I made this cake in Los Angeles more than four years ago, it was HOT. The summer heat had extended into a healthy portion of what should have easily been sweater weather (or long-sleeved t-shirt weather by L.A. standards). In fact, it was so hot in our non-air conditioned apartment that the stacked cake layers split into fourths soon after the buttercream was applied. I tried in vain to pin the cake together with toothpicks and solder the droopy layers in the freezer, but to no avail. The birthday “cake” was really more of a birthday “pile” that year, with candles lamely and haphazardly stuck in it. We laughed. After I cried. But it was still insanely delicious. And that is a testament to how extraordinary this cake really is.
With half a pound of chocolate between the cake and frosting, you might worry that it would all just be too much. But the genius of this recipe is the amazing balance that is struck between the tender, delicate crumb of the cake and the smooth, rich buttercream. With every bite, you will alternate marveling at the flavors and mouthfeel of both, and both components win in the end. The cake is extraordinarily moist (it keeps for days in perfect condition in a cake dome), and the frosting champions the chocolate, not the butter. The added touch of chipped chocolate folded into the buttercream lends a great, unexpected crunch.
Making this cake is so much fun when you’re a mise en place kind of person like me, carefully pre-measuring and setting out all of the ingredients before you begin. With this recipe, it really helps the process along. Take the time to sift your cake flour well, even more than once if you’ve got the patience–it’s worth it in the end. And the butter seriously needs to be at room temperature (since I always know the date I’ll be making this cake, I even set out the butter the night before). You really will never find a more beautiful batter than with this recipe, like luscious chocolate clouds being scooped into the cake pans. Drool.
Since I only make this cake for one occasion, I really like to go for it and use fantastic chocolate, such as Valrhona 56% Dark. For both the cake and the frosting, be sure your chocolate is cool to the touch before adding it to the mixtures. I rarely mess with double boilers–I find that quickly microwaving it until it’s about half melted (about 30 seconds) and then stirring, letting the residual gentle heat of the bowl melt the rest is a good way to get the job done without heating the chocolate so hot that it takes forever to cool down. And take special care when greasing the cake pans and lining them with parchment to make them truly non-stick; this is a delicate cake that can tear easily if you have to struggle too much getting it out of the pan.
Even though it’s so fabulous it deserves to be paraded out for every dinner party, picnic, bake sale and other random people’s birthdays, I save the creation of this chocolate behemoth for just once a year, in honor of my favorite husband. It’s tradition, after all.
A Big, Messy Chocolate Birthday Cake
Adapted from Tyler Florence
Makes one awesome, 9-inch, two-layer cake
For the Cake:
2 1/2 cups cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups cold water
For the Chocolate Chip Buttercream:
3 cups powdered sugar
7 tablespoons hot water
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup semisweet or dark chocolate, finely chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and set a rack in the middle position. Coat two 9-inch cake pans with cooking spray, line the bottoms of the pans with circles of parchment paper, and then spray again for extra non-stick insurance.
Sift the flour, baking soda and salt and together and aside.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the cooled chocolate and beat for three minutes to incorporate. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and beat for three more minutes.
Gradually mix in the dry ingredients in three batches, alternating with the cold water. Beat for one minute after each addition to incorporate. When all of the flour mixture and water has been added, scrape the bowl once more and then mix until the batter is smooth.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans until about 2/3 full, and smooth the surfaces with a spatula. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until the cakes spring back when touched and a cake tester comes out clean. Let the cakes cool on a rack in the pans for at least 40 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the buttercream.
In the bowl of an electric mixer with the whip attachment, dissolve the sugar and water at low speed. Beat in the chocolate and the vanilla. Add the butter in small bits, mixing until everything is incorporated. Fold in the chocolate chips with a spatula, giving the frosting a nice final mix.
Turn out one of the cooled cake layers upside down onto a cake stand or serving platter, remove the parchment circle and then place strips of clean parchment just under the cake’s edges to protect the serving dish from frosting smudges. Spread about half the frosting on this layer, starting in the center and working your way out. Place the second layer on top, remove the parchment, and frost top and sides of the cake with the remaining buttercream. Sprinkle with additional chocolate shavings if desired.
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