Monday, April 17, 2006

The International Traditional Chocolate Cake Battle

Nothing is more reminiscent of days past than an old-fashioned chocolate cake. Of course (as is often the case with nostalgia) that cake-baking bygone era may never have existed. When I was growing up, "homemade chocolate cake" was a box of cake mix stirred together with the required amount of vegetable oil, egg, and water then baked and covered with a tub of gluey icing from the supermarket. I always relished the experience of baking a cake at home, but those processed foods leave a lot to be desired in retrospect. To achieve the simplicity, the smoothness, and the rich, moist, indulgent sweetness of a real homemade chocolate cake, I recently had to turn to a recipe rather than a page from my family history.

Luckily, traditional chocolate cakes are a common theme these days. Both the food-savvy local Melbourne newspaper The Age and the methodical US culinary magazine Cook's Illustrated have done features on old-school chocolate layer cakes in the recent months. I took one recipe from each publication, prepared, served, and ate them side-by-side.

The Aussie Contender: "Aunty Pam's Chocolate Cake"1
1 tbsp vinegar
1 cup milk
1 1/2 cups plain flour
pinch salt
1/2 cup cocoa
1 1/2 tsp bicarb soda
1 1/4 cups castor sugar
185g butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs, lightly beaten

  • Grease and line the base of two tins. Heat oven to 180C.
  • Sour the milk by adding vinegar. Stir and put aside.
  • Sift flour, salt, cocoa, bicarb soda and sugar into a bowl.
  • Pour in melted butter and half of the soured milk and beat for 3 minutes with a hand-held mixer.
  • Add vanilla, the rest of the milk and eggs and beat for 2 minutes.
  • Pour into two tins and bake for 35 minutes. Rest for 5 minutes and turn out to cool.
The Yankee Contender: "Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake"2
Serves 10 to 12

For best results, don't make the frosting until the cakes are cooled, and use the frosting as soon as it is ready. If the frosting gets too cold and stiff to spread easily, wrap the mixer bowl with a towel soaked in hot water and mix on low speed until the frosting appears creamy and smooth. Refrigerated leftover cake should sit at room temperature before serving until the frosting softens.

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, very soft, plus extra for greasing pans
1 3/4 cups (8 3/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting pans
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup (
3/4 ounce) Dutch-processed cocoa powder
cup hot water
1 3/4 cups (12 1/4 ounces) sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon table salt
1 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large eggs, plus 2 large egg yolks

16 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 1/4 cups cold heavy cream

1. FOR THE CAKE: Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees [F]. Grease two 9-inch-round by 2-inch-high cake pans with softened butter; dust pans with flour and knock out excess. Combine chocolate, cocoa powder, and hot water in medium heatproof bowl; set bowl over saucepan containing 1 inch of simmering water and stir with rubber spatula until chocolate is melted, about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup sugar to chocolate mixture and stir until thick and glossy, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove bowl from heat and set aside to cool.

2. Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl. Combine buttermilk and vanilla in small bowl. In bowl of standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment, whisk eggs and yolks on medium-low speed until combined, about 10 seconds. Add remaining 1 1/4 cups sugar, increase speed to high, and whisk until fluffy and lightened in color, 2 to 3 minutes. Replace whisk with paddle attachment. Add cooled chocolate mixture to egg/sugar mixture and mix on medium speed until thoroughly incorporated, 30 to 45 seconds, pausing to scrape down sides of bowl with rubber spatula as needed. Add softened butter one tablespoon at a time, mixing about ten seconds after each addition. Add about one-third of flour mixture followed by half of buttermilk mixture, mixing until incorporated after each addition (about 15 seconds). Repeat using half of remaining flour mixture and all of remaining buttermilk mixture (batter may appear separated). Scrape down sides of bowl and add remaining flour mixture; mix at medium-low speed until batter is thoroughly combined, about 15 seconds. Remove bowl from mixer and fold batter once or twice with rubber spatula to incorporate any remaining flour. Divide batter evenly between prepared cake pans; smooth batter to edges of pan with spatula.

3. Bake cakes until toothpick inserted into center comes out with a few crumbs attached, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool cakes in pans 15 minutes, then invert onto wire rack. Cool cakes to room temperature before frosting, 45 to 60 minutes.

4. TO MAKE FROSTING: Melt chocolate in heatproof bowl set over saucepan containing 1 inch of barely simmering water, stirring occasionally until smooth. Remove from heat and set aside. Meanwhile, heat butter in small saucepan over medium-low heat until melted. Increase heat to medium; add sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, and salt and stir with heatproof rubber spatula until sugar is dissolved, 4 to 5 minutes. Add melted chocolate, butter mixture, and cream to clean bowl of standing mixer and stir thoroughly to combine.

5. Place mixer bowl over ice bath and stir mixture constantly with rubber spatula until frosting is thick and just beginning to harden against sides of bowl, 1 to 2 minutes (frosting should be 70 degrees). Place bowl on standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment and beat on medium-high speed until frosting is light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir with rubber spatula until completely smooth.

6. TO FROST CAKE: Place one cake layer on serving platter or cardboard round. Spread 1 1/2 cups frosting evenly across top of cake with spatula. Place second cake layer on top, then spread remaining frosting evenly over top and sides of cake. Cut into slices and serve.


We had an avid taste tester in Chris's nephew Nick, but the North American contender was the obvious winner. I must admit that the contest was fixed, since the two recipes were sourced not only from two different countries but also from two different publications with very different goals. The Age provides weekly readers with stylish, easy to digest stories accompanied by appealing photographs. Cook's Illustrated takes a more esoteric approach, meticulously testing and adjusting a recipe over a long period of time until the desired result is achieved. These two recipes couldn't be more opposite, starting with the writing of the instructions. The benefit of Australia's Aunty Pam's cake is that the directions are incredibly simple to follow, but I found that the more carefully written recipe for the American old-fashioned layer cake also led to a more carefully prepared cake. Another glaring difference is that the American version is a true chocolate cake, while the Australian one contains only cocoa powder. That could have been enough reason for me to throw the Aussie recipe out before even starting but I have been surprised by what bakers can do with just cocoa powder and sugar and the right amount of real butter. In this case, however, the lack of actual chocolate in the Aunty Pam's cake rendered the cake rather tasteless. Frosting the Australian cake also proved to be a problem. The notes that follow the recipe in The Age explain that the original recipe (which has been passed down from one home-baker to the next over the years) does not include instructions for an icing, but the paper does include a proposed simple solution; unfortunately, I found the mixture of cocoa, confectioners' sugar, melted butter, and water that The Age suggested to be almost unpalatable, and while the pretty photo included a thick dose of whipped cream in-between the two layers (about one liter of cream, whipped, I would guess), the instructions do not mention this step. The Cook's Illustrated Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake outlines the process of preparing and applying a frosting. The preparation of this frosting (which I would call a "buttercream ganache") is involved but well worth the effort--it is certainly the best-looking cake topping I've ever prepared.

The baked outcomes were the result of several variables, some of them not in the recipes themselves but in my kitchen. Not one for tradition of any kind, I was a newcomer to these recipes, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that careful measuring and timing led to very attractive and tasty cakes. No doubt a bit more experience--together with a flour sifter, a rubber spatula, and a standing mixer (for which I used the most readily-available substitutes)--would have yielded even lighter, fluffier layer cakes. When I was a kid, my parents and I were only ever able to bake and frost cakes in one layer; multi-tiered layer cakes, we believed, required the more advanced skills of a professional bakery. I was amazed to find that the assembly of such layer cakes is, in fact, incredibly simple. The secret: use smaller pans! Finally, when it came down to the chocolate, I failed to follow even my own advice. Instead of an artisanal chocolate brand, I used the stuff from the supermarket in the Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake recipe. The cake itself had a simple, sweet, chocolatey flavor, but the icing (which could have been a showcase for a full-bodied chocolate) had a canned taste. Since I'd already invested so much time in the preparation of my layer cake, I would have done better to invest a bit of money in the ingredients.

1. Tolra, Leanne. "My friend the chocolate cake." The Age 14 Feb. 2006: Epicure, 10.

2. Pazmino, David. "Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake." Cook's Illustrated Apr. 2006: 21.


Blogger Kelly said...

Great research! I love the photo of your blindfolded taste tester :)

7:35 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what a lovely in depth recipe! I bet the taste tester went home full.

11:11 AM GMT-5  

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