TBTAM and the Three Cakes – A Cautionary Tale

For almost two weeks now, I’ve been playing with the recipe for this Devil’s Food Cake with Mocha Frosting. My daughter Natalie had requested the cake for her birthday, having remembered it fondly from a family dinner earlier this year. The recipe, from my mother in law Irene‘s old Kitchen Aid Mixer booklet, looked straightforward, and included exact mixer speeds and times for beating at each step. Making it, I figured, would be a piece of cake.

Cake #1

The first time I made the cake, other than using extra-large eggs (the only ones we had in the fridge), I followed the recipe instructions exactly, including sifting the cake flour before and after measuring it. I ended up with a very large amount of fluffy batter which overflowed two 9-inch layer pans as it rose into deliciously moist but structureless layers that split when I took them from the pan. I cemented the cake together with frosting and served it at Natlie’s birthday bowling party – the kids loved it.

I, on the other hand, was not so pleased. This patched-up mess was not up to my usual standards. I needed to try it again.

Cake #2

Assuming that the problem had simply been the too-large size of the eggs, I made the cake again 3 days later for Natalie’s birthday dinner, this time using large eggs. I was surprised to once more end up with an unusually large volume of batter. Having learned the hard way just how well burned cake batter sticks to the bottom of the oven, I got smart and used 10 inch pans this time. The final product was yet another very moist but very crumbly cake that literally fell apart as the girls and I lay the top layer onto the bottom. Laughing, we patched it up as best as we could. It looked a bit sad, but tasted great.

I had two theories this time. One was that I hadn’t let the cakes cool enough before moving and frosting them. The other was that perhaps my oven was slow. I couldn’t imagine any other reason for the high batter volume and fragile final product.

Cake #3

A night at my mother-in-law Irene’s home and a promise to bring dessert to Christmas dinner provided me one more chance to get this cake right. After all, Irene had given me the recipe – surely she could help me figure out what I was doing wrong.

I explained to Irene that I had followed her recipe exacly, only varying the pan sizes. “Exactly?” she asked. Yes, I replied, including sifting the flour twice. Why wasn’t my cake as nice as hers?

Turns out Irene hadn’t actually followed the recipe she had sent me.”I never sift my flour”, she told me.”That’s how my mother taught me.” And as for the beating times, well, they were too long as far as she was concerned.

Now it all made sense. By sifting it the first time, I was likely ending up with less flour after measuring. Sifting a second time aerated the ingredients even more, as did beating for the long periods of time noted in the recipe. No wonder the batter was so fluffy. It was half air!

So Irene and I made the cake together. We did not sift the flour, and our beat times were about half that which the recipe advised. We ended up with exactly enough batter for two 9 inch pans, and this time, I let the cakes cool completely before removing them from the pan. The layers were denser than their predecessors, but still very light, and although a fair amount of crumbs graced the lower edges, the layers held together beautifully.

And finally the cake looked as wonderful as it tasted. Pretty enough to earn a crown of bittersweet chocolate shavings. And a doily.

Rich Devil’s Food Cake with Mocha Frosting

The quantities are straight from the Kichen-Aid booklet, with a single addition of expresso powder for added flavor. If you don’t use a Kitchenaid Mixer, ignore the speed numbers and use an approximate corresponding speed on your own mixer. (1 is low, 10 is high). If you make it, let me know how it turns out.

3 squares unsweetened chocolate
¾ cup hot water
¾ cup butter
1 tbsp instant expresso powder
2 cups brown sugar
3 eggs
2 ¼ cups UN-sifted cake flour
1 ½ tsps baking soda
¾ tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
¾ cup buttermilk
1 ½ tsps. vanilla
Bittersweet chocolate shavings (optional topping)

Combine chocolate, expresso powder and hot water in a small saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until chocolate melts and is smooth. Set aside until mixture cools.

Cream butter in bowl for 1 minute at speed 6. Add sugar and beat at speed 6 for 1-2 minutes. Stop and crape sides of bowl using a rubber spatula. Turn to Speed 4 and add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition till just incorporated, about 30 seconds, scraping the bowl when needed. Add cooled chocolate. Turn to Speed 4 and beat about 30 seconds. Stop and scrape bowl.

Sift together cake flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt; set aside. Combine buttermilk and vanilla. Turn to Speed 2 and add 1/3 flour mixture and bea till incorporataed, just a few seconds. Still beating, pour in 1/2 the liquid, then another thirdflour, the second half liquid, and finally the last third of the flour, beating as little as possible until just combined, stopping and scraping the sides when needed.

Pour batter into two greased and floured 9 inch round cake pans. (Before flouring, cut a nine inch round of waxed or parchment paper and place on greased bottom of pan. Then grease the paper and flour pan.) Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pans 10 minutes, then invert pans on wire rack, remove waxed paper and let cakes cool completely before icing with mocha frosting. Sprinkle the top with bittersweet chocolate shavings.

Mocha Frosting

¾ cup butter
1 tbsp instant espresso or coffee granules
1 tbsp. Hot water
1 tsp. vanilla
3 ½ cups powdered sugar
4 tbsps heavy cream

Dissolve coffee granules in hot water. Set aside until cool. Place butter in bowl. Turn to Speed 6 and cream for 1 minute. Do not overbeat or it will melt. Stop and scrape bowl. Add cooled expresso and vanilla to butter. Cream 30 seconds. Stop and scrape bowl

Add powdered sugar, ½ cup at a time, beating 30 seconds after each addition. Stop and scrape bowl. Add cream and beat on Speed 4 for 2 minutes, until fluffy. If frosting is too soft, refrigerate for a while before frosting cake.

Place 1st layer on cake plate upside down and frost. Place 2nd layer on top and frost top and sides.

5 Responses to TBTAM and the Three Cakes – A Cautionary Tale

  1. So we made the cake today for a late holiday celebration, following your modifications to the original recipe. Used my new Cuisinart stand mixer which I am still getting used to. The cake turned out fine. Make that “very fine.” I added 7 tbsp of cocoa to the icing and another tbsp of coffee (after looking at a Saveur No. 62 recipe for Fudge Icing). It was so good that it will become our House Chocolate Cake. Thanks for your research and the recipe. Rural ObGyn

  2. I was having a similar problem (cookies and cakes too light-textured) a few years ago and traced it to my switch to White Lily flour from Gold Medal or Pillsbury. White Lily is popular for biscuits in the South. However, all your cakes look scrumptious! Our favorite family birthday cake is BHG’s Best-Ever Chocolate Cake topped with Mackinac Island Fudge ice cream.

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