Monday, July 20, 2009

Perfection is a piece of cake.

For me, a killer chocolate cake is one of the essential pillars of a culinary repertoire. Very little makes people swoon with such minimal effort. With one under your hat, you'll be well-prepared for every birthday, celebration or office potluck that comes your way - and, trust me, you'll make many friends as a result.

Last weekend, for my brother's birthday, I had the opportunity to take my favorite chocolate cake recipe out for a spin. Rich, impossibly moist and seriously easy to make, it came to me courtesy of that goddess of low-key hostessing, the great Ina Garten (better known as the Barefoot Contessa).

Ina is my go-to source for sophisticated-but-still-easy-to-make versions of French and American classics, and this cake is no exception. The secret ingredient is a cup of hot coffee, which, along with buttermilk, gives the cake its exceptionally tender crumb and adds a hint of smokiness to the chocolate. The buttercream also has a little coffee in it - a pinch of instant espresso powder.

The cake takes a morning or afternoon to put together, but most of that is cooling time. (It is very important that the cake cool completely before you frost it, unless you like your frosting to melt and soak into the cake.) You'll spend about 15 minutes actually making the batter, and about the same amount of time on the buttercream frosting. In other words, it will take you about 15 minutes longer than using cake mix and frosting from a can.

Trust me - it's worth the 15 minutes.

Ina's Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa At Home

For the cake:
Butter, for greasing the pans
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup good cocoa powder
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk, shaken
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee

For the buttercream frosting:
6 ounces semisweet chocolate (I use Guittard!)
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 extra-large egg yolk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder

Position the racks in the top and bottom thirds of your oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter 2 round cake pans (8- or 9-inch both work.). Line the bottoms of the pans with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans.

Sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and baking powder into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the salt and mix on low speed until combined.

In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. With the mixer on low, gradually add the wet ingredients to the dry. Add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the sides & bottom of the bowl with a spatula.

Divide the batter evenly between the pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, swapping pans from top to bottom about halfway through, until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack (parchment paper side down) and cool completely.

Peel off the parchment paper and place 1 layer, flat side up, on a flat plate or cake pedestal. With a knife or offset spatula, spread the top with frosting. Place the second layer on top, rounded side up, and spread the frosting evenly on the top and sides of the cake.

For the frosting:

Chop the chocolate and place it in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir until just melted and set aside until cooled to room temperature.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and continue beating for 3 minutes.

Turn the mixer down to low, and gradually add the confectioners' sugar. Beat at medium speed, scraping down the bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy. Dissolve the coffee powder in 2 teaspoons of very hot tap water. On low speed, add the chocolate and coffee to the butter mixture and mix until blended - but don't whip! Now you're ready to frost!


TKTC said...

This is also my go-to and has been since I saw it on the back of her original cookbook six years ago. It's not without effort but it's as close to perfect as I expect to get. Nice choice and your frosting looks just beautiful- soft, shiny and impossibly rich.

Meg Blocker said...

@TKTC: It's such a great recipe, isn't it? I've said it before, and I'll say it again about my Ina: her recipes are always easy to follow, and are typically the cooking equivalent of the straight line - they represent the shortest distance between two points, without sacrificing taste or quality.

I feel like a novice baker would have no problems pulling off this cake - and that's saying something.

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