On Cake, and Love


I am probably going to lose my vegan cred here, but this weekend I made a cake that was so buttery, so sour-creamy and full of melted milk chocolate that it made me rethink my whole approach to cakes. Specifically: in the future, they must be light and moist at the same time, with an inexpressibly tender crumb and a lingering aftertaste of sweet dairy — and loaded with deep, dark, rich chocolate.

Yes, indeed.

The past few weeks have been full of writing — some articles, working on another project, and, most significant, a toast I’m giving at the wedding I will attend this weekend. While typing out the first draft of the thing I nearly made myself cry, so I’m thinking I should inject a bit more humor into it, because the last thing I want is to get up before a room full of people and sniffle and sob my way through an extremely important — though brief — ode to my friends’ marriage. (I’m also thinking a shot of scotch, neat, right before standing up there might be a good idea, but I’ll wait ’til I see the whisky selection before I make any rash decisions). I feel incredibly grateful for these opportunities which, while they may take up the little bit of free time I have, are infinitely satisfying. But sometimes I get to feeling a little burned out, and the only remedy is to get into the kitchen. A girl’s got to have cake after all, and on Sunday afternoon I put aside thoughts of cauliflower in to scour epicurious.com for the perfect recipe.

[Frosting for the cake, March 2008.]

I made this for a coworker’s birthday, but if I ever get married — take note! — I might serve this at my wedding. It’s a show-stopper. It’s also quite easy to put together and you should not be daunted by the length of the recipe (I recommend slicing each layer in half, so as to create a four-layer cake). The frosting alone is a thing of beauty, all light, fluffy incandescence. You know in the event of my own matrimony I’ll have to make the cake — hell, I’d like to make the cakes for all the weddings I’ll be going to in the next six months (starting this weekend; the count currently stands at four and no, none of them are in San Francisco) — so I’m definitely keeping this one on file.

When I was a kid, my mom made most of our birthday cakes. Each family member had his or her especial favorite, though time and memory loss has made me forget all but one of what those were: a Boston cream pie. Now, the funny thing about Boston cream pie is that it’s not a ‘pie;’ rather, it’s two layers of rich vanilla cake sandwiching a cool layer of custard, and then topped with a dark chocolate glaze. We young ones usually had things like cupcakes (all the better to fit into little mouths) or strawberry-laden white cakes, and I remember how the grown-ups always requested Boson cream pie. I thought it fascinating and mysterious, that light touch of chocolate elevating what could have been pedestrian to something more mature, more adult.

I finally made a Boston ceam pie from scratch, for a birthday party quite a few years ago, and there was silence as plates were scraped clean and one — I think, to relate this story back to the one at hand, the bride — exclaimed that I should have had more. I feel the same about my chocolate cake.

Perhaps the reason I usually only make chocolate cakes for birthdays is because it’s a mark of our advancing age, though not necessarily maturity! As we greet yet another year, we should have something appropriately decadent and delicious to celebrate the wild, imperfect delirium of life. And, of course, chocolate’s very nature signifies something important, and special — truly out-of-the-ordinary. Chocolate, to me, seems to be the very essence of love, distilled.


I have to wonder when Mr. Shakespeare wrote,

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.

if he perhaps had had a slice of my cake? For, oh, how I identify with these lines! After a mouthful of this chocolate heaven, I was fashioning love poems in my mind and ready to pledge my troth for just one more bite. I wanted to buy my cake roses. I wanted to dress it up and take it dancing. I wanted to treat it to champagne and strawberries — which, come to think of it, I just might do the next time round — and give it a cool, whipped cream cape. I wanted to … well, you get the idea. I was fairly well smitten.

In lieu of these holier pursuits, I merely devoured my token (slim!) slice, and then mooched around the kitchen wishing for more.

[Weekend flowers, March 2008.]

On that note, my bags are packed with gifts, cookies, and applesauce; I have a tupperware of lunch — adapted from 101cookbooks.com — for the plane; the latest New Yorker and Vogues as in-flight reading; and, of course, my computer battery fully charged to continue chipping away at certain projects which remain deadline-less but still very important.

Ah, love! Your celebration is worth the price of plane tickets, hotel bookings, bridesmaid dresses, and jetlag.

I sadly don’t have a slice of cake to take with me (my office mates made short work of it on Monday) but I have my swoony, cake-riddled dreams and a few heartfelt sentiments about friendship, and love, and cheese to tide me through.

See you next week.


Chocolate cake with milk and bittersweet chocolate frosting
, adapted from epicurious.com

2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-process)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs at room temperature for 30 minutes
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups sour cream

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter 2 (9- by 2-inch) round cake pans and line bottom of each with a round of parchment or wax paper. Butter paper and dust pans with flour, knocking out excess.

Sift together flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt into a small bowl. Beat together butter and sugars in a large bowl using an electric mixer at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes in a standing mixer or 4 to 5 minutes with a handheld. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add chocolate and vanilla and beat until just combined. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture and sour cream alternately in 3 batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture and mixing until just combined.

Divide batter between cake pans, spreading evenly, and bake until a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center of each cake layer comes out clean, 25 to 35 minutes.

Cool cake layers in pans on racks 10 minutes. Run a thin knife around edge of each layer, then invert onto racks. Peel off paper and cool layers completely.

1 1/4 cups whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
8 oz. milk chocolate, chopped
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped or as chips

Combine cream, sugar and butter in heavy large saucepan. Whisk over medium heat until mixture begins to simmer. Add chopped chocolate. Reduce heat to low and whisk until frosting is smooth, about 1 minute. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool for a few minutes.

Whip the frosting for about 4 minutes on high with an electric mixer. Put into freezer for about 15-20 minutes. Remove, and continue whipping on high speed until frosting begins to thicken. You’ll want it fairly thick, but not hard. The frosting should be light in color and very fluffy before spreading it on the cake.

Cut each layer in half and spread each with about 1/4 (or a little less) of the frosting while stacking. When cake is frosted and stacked, use the remaining frosting to spread over the top and sides of the cake. May be refrigerated until ready to serve, but let come to room temperature before eating.

Fill another large bowl with ice. Set bottom of bowl with frosting atop ice. Whisk until frosting is cool and begins to thicken, about 8 minutes. Place bowl of frosting on work surface. Using electric mixer, beat until color lightens and just until frosting becomes thick enough to hold peaks when beaters are lifted, about 2 minutes (frosting will continue to thicken as it stands).

Join the Conversation

  1. maria terese says:

    I love to put beets in my chocolate cake – makes the cake moist and gives it an earthy flavor.

  2. i just keep rereading this entry. someday i will make this cake, maybe, but what brings me back is the seamless way you make food–and food preparation, and the love of food–tell a story about life. it’s food for the sake of food, but it’s so much more. i adore that about your writing, and i’m envious of your talent for it. xoxo, d

  3. i love me some homemade chocolate cake! I prefer to use sour cream in my chocolate cakes as opposed to whole milk because it produces a better crumb and the texture is just so much smoother and lighter. plus, the frosting on this bad boy looks divine! hope you have fun on your mini vacation, and drink a glass of champagne for me :)

  4. I’m confused. The recipe list makes no mention of buttermilk; however, it’s mentioned in the instructions:

    “Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture and BUTTERMILK alternately in 3 batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture and mixing until just combined.”

    Did you forget to write buttermilk in the ingredients list? If so, how much? I’m about to make this cake.

  5. I make the cakes for everyone’s birthdays in my family, so I’m bookmarking this recipe right now. The way you describe this cake is making me drool! :)

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