We celebrated my husband's birthday last weekend and, as you can plainly see, I made a very tall buttercream-frosted cake for the occasion. I wanted to make it just as he'd requested--a devil's food cake that would satisfy his childhood memories of what a birthday cake is supposed to be. Three layers high, with the classic, simple, American-style buttercream . . . rich, sweet, and completely chocolatey. No extraneous frills allowed. No foil-covered cake board or lacy doily. No fancy frosting decorations all over the place. Not even any lettering, and thus no "Happy Birthday Andy!!" written in icing on the top. I had to kind of twist his birthday-boy arm, in fact, for clearance to put even a few hastily piped dots around the messy bottom edge; they were legitimately needed to cover up the inevitable smudges.
Because of the clear requirement for a certain level of simplicity, I figured I should also forego the fussy niceties that frequently accompany the assembly of a layer cake like this. Niceties like what, you ask? Well, like piping on an icing "dam" around the outer edge of each layer before spreading the rest of the icing on each one; this is a very useful tactic, even if the whole cake is being frosted inside and out with a single type of icing, and I usually utilize it. But not for this cake, no sir. And, I opted out of the nicety of putting a "crumb coat" (a thin, initial icing layer intended primarily to seal in crumbs) on the cake before laying on the final icing layer. I never go without the crumb coat. Never. But this time I forced myself to just not do it.
"It's all one big frosting layer, baby, and you'd better like it!" That's what I was thinking as I plopped on glob after glob of buttercream icing, helter skelter, as if I had a plane to catch. My youngest son, Nathan, helped with the frosting too (perhaps he needed to catch the same plane?). Those are his hands in the photo below, holding that little offset spatula. (He's still a bit reticent at the prospect of appearing on camera. I guess his hands aren't shy, though, luckily.)
Once the cake was safely sealed within its hefty buttercream carapace, I rebelled just a smidgen by putting it on a cake pedestal with a ruffly edge. Looking at the cake from a few feet back, Nathan remarked that it resembled a bizarre top-hat of sorts. True, I responded, but a really good smelling top-hat.
As far as the recipe goes, I was pleased to finally have an opportunity to try out a book I've been reading lately called Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes, by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne. This is the first cookbook I've ever encountered that focuses exclusively on cakes that are three layers. On the surface it may seem like an overly specific concept for a cookbook, and it is unique in the vast field of baking books that I've encountered. But I must say it's convenient, if not downright comforting, to have the exact proportions for a cake of that size already figured out for you. And, it's nice to know that the cake you're constructing was designed from the get-go to be sturdy enough to hold up without problems. Afterall, the last person you want to have to call in the middle of a baking crisis is a structural engineer. (Sadly, unlike our dear friends the plumbers and furnace repair guys, they're not on call to the general public 24 hours a day.)
Because I'd never used this recipe before, I changed nothing at all in terms of the ingredients, nor did I mess with the process for putting it together. Yeah, I know, it's shocking. ( "How the heck did she restrain herself?" you may be wondering . . . "maybe she had to take a tranquilizer first . . . ?") But seriously folks, I'm glad I didn't fiddle with it, since the finished cake's texture and depth of flavor were all I could have hoped for and more. Truly an exceptional devil's food that's highly likely to end up on my permanent list of reliable favorites. And not only that, there must be at least a dozen more recipes in this book that I already know I'd like to try. They all sound so interesting and look so good--lots of luscious photos, too, to back up the author's claims. It's worth shelling out a few bucks for this book, bakers. (And you know I don't make a purchase recommendation lightly.)
The recipe for the chocolate buttercream is, as I noted earlier, very American and traditional. That said, it's not one that I'd describe as stupefyingly sweet and it has no trace of the grittiness that sometimes afflicts this type of frosting. It's a soft, deeply chocolatey, easily spreadable buttercream, and the recipe is rock-solid reliable. It's from an older book that I think I've mentioned before, quaintly titled The Magical Art of Cake Decorating. I've made this icing several times in the past, and never had the slightest problem with it.
Alrighty then . . . now that I've talked your ear off . . .
Devil's Food Cake
(from the book Sky High, by Alicia Huntsman & Peter Wynne; I've reworded the instructions only very slightly, with no significant changes from the original)
For a printable version of this recipe, click here!
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter the bottoms and sides of three 8"round cake pans. Line the bottoms of each pan with a parchment paper or wax paper circle, then butter the paper.
1 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder (Do not use Dutch processed cocoa. Apparently, it's the action of the regular cocoa powder with the baking soda that gives the cake its trademark reddish-brown tint!)
1 and 1/4 cups hot water
3 cups light brown sugar, packed
2 and 2/3 cups cake flour
1 and 1/2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 eggs (I used large)
1 and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup cold water
Place the cocoa powder in a medium bowl. Pour in the hot water and whisk until smooth. Set aside to let the mixture cool to room temperature.
In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment, combine the brown sugar, flour, baking soda, and salt on low speed. Add in the butter and the dissolved cocoa, beating briefly to blend. Raise speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, cold water, and vanilla until blended. Add this liquid to the batter in three additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl well and mixing only to incorporate between additions. Divide the batter equally among the three prepared cake pans.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean. Cool the cakes in their pans, on racks, for 15 minutes. Invert the cakes from the pans onto the racks, and carefully remove the paper circles. Let the cakes finish cooling completely before frosting or storing.
Classic Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
(from the book The Magical Art of Cake Decorating, by Carole Collier)
Readers, please note: You will probably want to double this recipe, in order to have enough to generously frost a three-layer cake. The proportions listed here, though, are adequate for a two-layer cake. And if you have extra leftover icing, you can always refrigerate or freeze it. It keeps very well in the freezer, for months, in my experience.
Prepare classic vanilla buttercream first, before adding in chocolate components, as follows:
3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup white vegetable shortening
1/2 cup milk (I used 2 percent)
1/4 tsp. salt
1 and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 pounds confectioner's sugar, sifted (If you use Domino brand "10x" and you don't plan to use the frosting in a piping bag, you can probably easily get away with no sifting! Yay! Seems like every baker I know hates sifting powdered sugar.)
Place the butter, shortening, milk, salt, and vanilla, along with one pound of the sugar, in a large mixer bowl. Beat at low speed until combined, then gradually add in the other pound of sugar. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Continue beating, now on high speed, for 8 to 10 minutes, until the frosting is very light and fluffy.
To make it into chocolate buttercream:
For each pound of confectioner's sugar you used in preparing the plain buttercream, allow 2/3 cup of sifted, unsweetened cocoa (I used a mixture of natural cocoa and Dutch process for depth of color and richness of flavor, but either works fine; be sure to sift whatever cocoa you use), 3 Tbsp. softened unsalted butter, and 1/8 tsp. salt. Add these ingredients right into the plain buttercream and beat until thoroughly distributed. To achieve the consistency you prefer, you can mix in milk, just one teaspoon at a time.
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