Black as Night, Bittersweet as Sin: Cocoa Layer Cake

The reason we always go to Shenandoah in November with our friends Jim and Colleen is because Jim's birthday is the day after Veteran's Day -- so we can usually take advantage of the federal holiday to make it a long birthday celebration weekend. I like to make a birthday cake, and thankfully, when it comes to cakes, Jim is pretty easy to please; he's a fan of chocolate cake. Because I don't like doing precision baking anywhere other than my own kitchen, I have always made Jim's birthday cake at home in D.C. and taken it with us to Shenandoah (although even this plan isn't foolproof, like the time Tom and I were already on the road and had to turn back when I realized we had left the cake behind). For some reason, this year I decided to try making the cake at the cabin in Shenandoah. I selected an Alice Medrich recipe for "Cocoa Layer Cake."

I did as much mise en place as possible at home; I measured out all of the dry ingredients I needed for the cake and frosting and put them in labeled plastic ziploc bags. But I still had to do most of the work at the cabin. For the cake, I creamed softened butter with sugar and brown sugar, added two lightly beaten eggs followed by a mixture of cocoa powder and warm water, and then alternately added the sifted remaining dry ingredients (cake flour, baking soda, salt) and a mixture of buttermilk and water. I divided the batter between three greased and parchment-lined pans.

It's a good thing I read the recipe reviews first, because the cakes were very short and I would have been quite concerned about flat they were if I hadn't known to expect that in advance from other bakers. Still, I was quite worried about the way the baked cakes looked; the tops had a lot of air bubble craters, and I was afraid I might not have beat the butter and sugar long enough (I brought along a hand mixer to the cabin, and I am accustomed to my Kitchenaid stand mixer at home, which is considerably more powerful). The cakes did not look good at all. But as I had not brought any extra dry ingredients to make another attempt, I had no choice other than to go on.

You make the frosting on the stove from butter, sugar, cocoa, espresso powder, salt, cream, and vanilla. It is very thin when you first make it, but it firms up over time in the fridge. The cocoa powder I always keep on hand is double-Dutch dark cocoa from King Arthur, which is a mix of Dutch process cocoa and extra-dark black cocoa. While the cocoa powder looks like normal cocoa powder, it bakes up into very dark-colored finished products. The frosting includes a cup of cocoa powder and it was black; before it thickened during chilling, it was the exact color and viscosity of motor oil. The cake (with a half a cup of cocoa powder) was also very dark, but not quite black.

Even though I had brought along a a decorating tip and disposable pastry bag, my frosting and decoration job were quite haphazard. But the frosting did firm up in the fridge to a very nice spreading consistency, and it held up well at room temperature. Because the layers of the cake were so short, the entire assembled cake was only about two inches tall.

The cake was tender and moist, but still rich and chocolatey. One taster mentioned that the cake had "a chocolate pudding finish," and after he said that, I took another bite and realized that the description was spot-on. On the front end, you get a straight, intense, bittersweet chocolate flavor, but on the back end, there is a smoother, lighter finish that tastes exactly like chocolate pudding, the kind I ate growing up that was made from a box. The chocolate pudding finish was lovely.

This cake is intense, and the color of the frosting was so dark so it was slightly unsettling. But the birthday boy gave it his stamp of approval and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who wants a profound chocolate cake experience.

Recipe: "Cocoa Layer Cake" by Alice Medrich, from


Louise said…
This looks delicious. I love using black baking cocoa as it really kicks up the flavor and presentation too. You're very brave for making it at your friend's cabin.