I love making birthday cakes for other people, and this was for one of the sweetest people I know. I knew I wanted a classic cake that would look simple and beautiful, and taste incredible. So I turned to Mark Bittman; this seemed like a job for the minimalist. I'm not sure that I'll ever need to try another chocolate birthday cake recipe - this one, to me, is perfect. It's fluffy and moist, tastes richly of chocolate, but is still reminiscent (in all the best ways) of packet mix chocolate cake, and isn't much harder to make. There's just a few tweaks that make this cake really special: using good quality unsweetened chocolate, and whisking the egg whites to snowy peaks before carefully folding them in to the cake batter.
I choose to ice it with a simple vanilla buttercream frosting, also from Bittman, because I like the sneaky element of this cake: on the outside it looks all snowy and pure, but really it's just being coy; inside, it's absolutely chocolate. Of course, you could make the frosting chocolate too, by adding melted and cooled unsweetened chocolate, or beating unsweetened cocoa in with the sugar, but I like the simplicity of the vanilla cream.
I only had time for a few quick photos of the cake at home, before taking it along to the birthday party it was made for. I couldn't resist posting this one of my cat checking out the photo set-up...
chocolate layer cake with vanilla cream frosting
from Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything
8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened, plus some for greasing the pans and the paper
2 cups (9 oz) cake or all-purpose (plain) flour, plus some for dusting the pans
3 oz unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, separated
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups milk
Preheat the oven to 350ºF/180ºC. Butter the bottom and sides of two 9 inch layer cake pans; cover the bottom with a circle of waxed/parchment/baking paper, butter the paper, and sift flour over the pans; invert to remove excess flour.
Melt the chocolate in a small saucepan or double boiler. If in a saucepan, cook over very low heat, stirring occasionally. If in a double boiler, cook over hot (not boiling) water, stirring occasionally. When the chocolate is just about melted, remove from the heat and continue to stir until mixture is smooth.
Use an electric mixer to cream the butter until smooth, then gradually add the sugar. Beat until light and fluffy, 3 or 4 minutes. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, then the vanilla, and finally the chocolate. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and add them to the chocolate mixture by hand, a little at a time, alternating with the milk. Stir until smooth, no longer.
Beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Use your hand or a rubber spatula to fold them gently but thoroughly into the batter. Turn it into the cake pans and bake for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cakes comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then invert onto a rack and complete cooling. Don't frost the cakes until they are completely cool. The un-frosted cakes may be stored, covered with plastic wrap, at room temperature for no longer than a day.
vanilla butter cream frosting
adapted from Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything
Makes enough frosting and filling for 1 (9-inch) layer cake, or 24 cupcakes.
8 tbsp (1 stick) salted butter, softened*
4 cups confectioner's/icing sugar
6 tbsp cream or milk (preferably cream), plus a little more if needed
2 tsp vanilla extract
Use a fork or electric mixer to cream the butter. Gradually work in the sugar, alternating with the cream and beating well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. If the frosting is too thick to spread, add a little more cream. If it is too thin, refrigerate: it will thicken as the butter hardens.
* The only difference between Mark Bittman's recipe and what I did with this frosting is that I used salted butter. I always use salted butter for frosting, and I think it improves the flavour about 100%.