Were you ever kind of jealous of the boy in Matilda who had to eat an entire chocolate cake with his hands in front of the whole school as a punishment? I know I was.
I used to take every chocolate option at the sundae bar – ice cream, sauce, M&Ms, even chocolate sprinkles. Chocolate sprinkles: what sadist thought those up? You’re just gonna make these things brown and pretend it’s chocolate? Are you kidding me?
Making Stuff Brown and Pretending it’s Chocolate: The Story of All Chocolate Cake Everywhere. You can’t stop me now, I’m already up on my soapbox.
The dominant cultural narrative is that chocolate cake is the best, the richest, the most decadent. Restaurants are selling huge slabs of Seven-Layer Death By Chocolate Devil’s Food Indulgence cake, with ganache filling the approximate taste and texture of brown shoe polish. I have seen grown adults take dry little square nubs of brownie from the spread in the breakroom, just to feel something during an all-day meeting, even if that “something” is disappointment. (It was me, I took the Sadness Brownie.) Red velvet cake was a trend: that only happens in a culture deeply divorced from what actual chocolate should taste like.*
Think about the chocolate cakes that you like best. Answers on the board, please, Family Feud style:
- Flourless chocolate cake
- Chocolate lava cake
- Some kind of cream cheese brownie situation?
Flourless chocolate cake is just a mousse on steroids, and I’m not mad at that, but it doesn’t count. My grandad makes a chocolate whiskey gateau that’s essentially a large creamy slab of alcoholic truffle filling, with ladies’ fingers stuck on the outside for modesty’s sake. Is it perfect? Yes. Is it cake? Uhhhh…
Chocolate lava cakes – or fondant cakes as they’re called here – only work because you get the tender comfort of cake wrapped around the gooey richness of a chocolate fudge sauce. They’re hot, they’re tasty, and they’re disqualified: you can’t defend chocolate cake when your favorite kind is 70% sauce.
Cream cheese brownies are amazing, but 1. Brownies aren’t cake and 2. They’re good because of the contrast (we’ll be coming back to that).
It makes sense! The essence of chocolate, which is rich, luxurious intensity, is diluted by the essence of cake, which is light, tender delicacy. This relationship is just doomed to fail. These two love each other too hard and their child… sucks. There’s a reason the best brownie recipe in the world only calls for ¼ cup of flour.
But why were we promised a perfect chocolate cake that just doesn’t exist? Where does that leave us? Where is the rich, dark, soil-damp chocolate cake of our Augustus Gloop dreams?
What people get wrong about chocolate cake is the part where you keep doubling down. When you add chocolate to chocolate, at a certain point your palate just maxes out. Your choco-dials might go to eleven, but the taste will only get so loud. What you need for a true, deep chocolate flavor is complexity. Chocolate is a boyband, not a solo act. This is its secret weapon.
Pure chocolate, like each of The Beatles, only really shines when it has bandmates supporting it in close harmony. You all already know how I feel about bourbon and chocolate, Ina Garten always says that vanilla makes chocolate taste chocolatier, and Nigella’s Sour Cream Chocolate Cake used to be my very favorite: the lactic tang of sour cream really opens up the chocolate, making it bright and fruity. But the cake? So dry.
If part one of the perfect chocolate cake is adding in a harmonizing flavor or three, part two is the dense, rich, almost bouncy texture of the cake itself. If the coffee walnut cake was light, tender and buttery, the perfect chocolate cake is heady, moist, and robust enough to hold a whole thundercloud of frosting. A good chocolate cake should give you the same kind of damp, earthy comfort that I assume moles and worms get hyped about in their spare time.
The third part of this three-part harmony of cake is the frosting. Things that are good about chocolate frosting: everything. Ways to get chocolate frosting wrong: innumerable.
Let’s get this out of the way: Using cocoa powder is a fool’s errand. Desserts that actually taste like chocolate, like mousses, puddings, ice creams, etc., are all the product of melting bars of chocolate into cream or butter and then whipping the hell out of them. Don’t throw away this gift. Make a ganache.
Ganache is just equal parts dark chocolate and heavy cream melted together, but when you whip it into buttercream, you get both a beautiful, deep, well-rounded chocolate flavor AND the cream in the ganache whips up into lovely, smooth clouds. When the time comes to frost your cake (which will be delicate, because it’s so moist), you can just floof this frosting onto the top and gently slide it down the sides until it enrobes the whole cake. It is the fluffy bunny slippers of frosting. The luxury spa robe of the dessert topping world.
Finally, and most importantly, I genuinely believe that booze is the caramelized onions of desserts. Everything that’s already good is better still when they’re around. I’m just saying. If your chocolate feels flat, harsh, or otherwise uninspired, the secret is simple: amaretto. If your chocolate is honestly pretty good: still amaretto. Where bourbon makes chocolate deeper and toastier, amaretto brings out a fruity warmth that’s a little more sophisticated. I own a bottle solely for chocolate purposes, and let me tell you, it is almost empty.
I don’t know what kind of magic spell chocolate cake has cast over us as a society, but when I’m in the grip of a deep urge for CHOCOLATE CAKE RIGHT NOW, this is what I make. It’s one-bowl, it’s got coffee, vanilla, and booze, and it makes a soft, moist cake that is reliably tasty. But when it’s been crowned with a towering, tipsy pompadour of billowy chocolate frosting? That’s something truly heavenly.
EASY ONE-BOWL CHOCOLATE CAKE WITH BOOZY CHOCOLATE FROSTING
This makes one layer, because I think for most occasions a one-layer cake with frosting on top is just fine. Double it up to make two if you’re feeding a crowd. A million thank-yous to Maddie Conway, my baking life partner, for bringing this recipe to my attention.
For the cake:
- 1 cup all-purpose flour (cake flour is great if you have it)
- 1 cup sugar
- Generous 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup strong hot coffee
For the Frosting:
- 130g heavy cream (1/2 cup)
- 130g dark chocolate (60-70%)
- 100g butter at room temperature (1 stick)
- 200g icing sugar (2 cups)
- 1 tablespoon amaretto, or to taste (more is better)
The amounts for the icing are basically just ratios: equal parts cream to chocolate, and then twice the weight of butter in icing sugar. I usually start with the weight of whatever chocolate bar I have, and then match the cream up to that.
The ratio of ganache to buttercream I basically… made up. You could make more buttercream and have a lighter chocolate taste, or vice versa. The buttercream helps it keep its shape, the more ganachey it is the sloppier it will be (not necessarily a bad thing).
You could also theoretically add your amaretto and some brown sugar right into the ganache and skip the buttercream part entirely, but for me the real satisfaction of this cake comes from the contrast between the light, melting frosting and the cake itself. Try it out and tell me how it goes.
- Preheat oven to 350º F/175 º C.
- Butter and line a cake pan with parchment paper
- Boil the kettle and make your strong cup of coffee
For the cake:
- Add flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt to a large bowl. Whisk to combine.
- Add milk, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla to flour mixture and whisk until well mixed. It should be a little thick, but not clumpy.
- Add half a cup of hot coffee to the cake batter and mix until smooth. It’ll basically be a liquid, which is fine, because moist is our watchword here.
- Pour batter into your prepared cake pan.
- Bake for 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.
- Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. When it’s coming away from the sides of the pan, remove and cool completely.
For the frosting:
- Make your ganache: heat cream and chocolate in a saucepan on medium-low heat, whisking. Watch it as the chocolate starts to melt, and take it off the heat when it’s halfway melted. The residual heat from the pan should take care of the rest – whisk it off the heat until it’s all glossy and together. Leave aside to cool.
- Get your soft butter in a bowl and whip it with a hand mixer until it’s creamy
- Add half of your icing sugar and beat the heck out of it until it’s smooth and together.
- Add in the cooled ganache – it doesn’t have to be cold, but you don’t want it melting the butter – and whip until smooth. If it does melt stuff, it’s fine, just put it in the fridge for half an hour until everything firms back up.
- Beat amaretto into your frosting mixture and taste – it will probably be a bit sloppy at this point, so add in the rest of your icing sugar little by little until you reach the stiffness and sweetness you’re looking for.
- Enrobe that cake!
*A note about red velvet cake: Yes, it’s pointless. No, I don’t think you’re wrong to like it. Here’s my thing: red velvet cake comes out of rationing, when chocolate was less available and there wasn’t enough cocoa powder to make chocolate cake brown. It was just kind of a gross grey, hence the red food coloring, hence red velvet. My thing is this: definitely have a red velvet cake with cream cheese icing, just make it TASTE like something. Get some raspberry jam in there, use beets to color the cake. Don’t try to prove a negative by making a cake whose flavor is Not-Chocolate. Make a cake that tastes like something.