Baking 101: Making the Perfect Devil’s Food Cake

Okay, okay. This is where I get sort of bossy.

In order to make a really, really, really good cake, you MUST have a stand mixer. Did you get that? MUST.

It doesn’t have to be this one that I love so dearly.

But, you should really invest in one.

If I had a king size bed, I would nestle it between me and my husband, lean over and snuggle it all night long.

If it wasn’t so darn heavy, I’d carry it with me in my purse.

If my kitchen was big enough….sigh….I would have a special counter/shrine just for my lovely, KitchenAid. Let me be clear: I love this machine. I carefully polish it. I wipe it off with a soft cloth after each use. The world would be a better place if we all had KitchenAid mixers.

Just so you know I feel about that subject….

For today, that’s the first lesson. Invest in a good stand mixer. But if you don’t have one, a hand mixer will work too. (But really, get a stand mixer.)

The recipe we’re working with comes from The American Classics Cookbook from the editors of Cooks’ Illustrated magazine. And it is quite simply the very best chocolate cake recipe I’ve ever made or worked with. It’s the real deal. It’s chocolatey and dense. It’s everything you want a chocolate cake to be.

Here’s the recipe: (scroll down for how-to photos and more tips)

Perfect Devil's Food Cake
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Perfect Devil's Food Cake from Cooks' Illustrated
Author:
Recipe type: dessert
Serves: 10-12
Ingredients
  • 8 oz. (2 quarter pound sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1½ cups packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 4 oz. (4 squares) good quality unsweetened chocolate, chopped
  • 4 Tbsp. good quality cocoa powder
  • 1¼ cups boiling water
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup cake flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 3-4 cups of your favorite frosting
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour three, 8″ or 9″ round cake pans. Line the bottom of each pan with waxed or parchment paper and grease the paper. Set aside until ready to use.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter and brown sugar on medium-high speed until fluffy and light in color, about 5 minutes. (Don’t skimp on this step.)
  3. Chop the unsweetened chocolate. Measure out the cocoa. Add the boiling water, let sit for a few minutes, then whisk until smooth.
  4. Sift the dry ingredients three times over a piece of waxed paper and set aside until ready to use.
  5. After the creamed mixture is light and fluffy, scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl.
  6. Crack eggs into a small bowl. Add them one at a time, beating well after each egg. Add vanilla and sour cream. Beat to combine.
  7. Add the dry ingredients alternately with the liquid chocolate, starting and ending with the dry ingredients.
  8. Turn off the mixer after the last addition and fold the rest of the flour in with a large silicone spatula, making sure to scrape all the way to the bottom of the bowl so no streaks of creamed or dry ingredients are visible.
  9. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the center of the cake springs back a little and a toothpick comes out clean.
  10. Cool for about 10 minutes in the pan after you remove them from the oven. Loosen the sides with a thin knife so the cakes don’t crack as they cool. Place the semi-cooled cakes on a baking rack to finish cooling.
  11. Cooled layers can be wrapped tightly and frozen until ready to use. Or kept at room temperature for up to one day, wrapped tightly to prevent drying out.
  12. Fill, frost, and decorate as desired.

 

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How-To Pictures and Directions:

Step 1: Assemble and measure out ingredients.

*Butter should sit out for about 30 minutes or until it is soft, but not melted in a puddle on the counter. Please don’t try to cheat and do it in the microwave. That trick works sometimes, but not for this.

*Eggs and sour cream should also be at room temperature. You can hurry the eggs to room temperature by placing them in a bowl of warm water–not hot, warm–for a few minutes.

Ingredients:


1. 2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
2. 1 1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar
3. 2 tsp. vanilla
4. 3 eggs, room temperature


5. 4 oz. (4 squares) unsweetened chocolate
6. 1/3 cup sour cream
7. Dry ingredients:3/4 cup all-purpose flour,
3/4 cup cake flour,
1 tsp. baking soda,
1/2 tsp. salt

8. 4 Tbsp. cocoa powder

**Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.**

Step 2: Prepare the Pans

Three, 8″ round cake pans

*Cut waxed or parchment paper to fit each pan.
*Grease pan, place paper in bottom, grease the paper.
*Set aside until ready to use.

Grease well. The instructions given for my pans said to use solid shortening, but butter is great. I don’t love the non-stick sprays with flour. I’ve never had much luck with them, but that would be fine, too.


Step 3: Prepare batter

Cream (room temperature) butter and brown sugar until fluffy and light in color.


This is what it looks like about half way there….

And when it’s done creaming, it will look like this:

This creaming part is the essential part. Don’t skimp on the creaming time. It may take longer than 5 minutes–especially if you are using a hand mixer. The hard edges of the sugar molecules cut through the butter and create little, tiny pockets of air, hence the fluffy texture or properly creamed butter and sugar.

And while we are talking about mixing and all that, please don’t use a food processor for a butter cake like this. I did a little experiment….it did not end well. A food processor is fitted with a special blade that is not good for creaming butter and sugar together. It will cut ice cold butter into flour to make a flaky pastry crust, but if you try to cream butter and sugar, you will end up with a melted mess. Trust me. I’m your friend, I tell you this because I care.

Anyway, where were we?

While the butter and sugar are beating….

Sift the dry ingredients.

Sift them well. Sift them THREE times.

Friends, meet my sifter. Sifter, my friends. Now that we are acquainted. let me show you the inner working of my sifter.


The handle is spring-loaded. Some sifters have a crank that you turn.


The is what it looks like inside.

The two hexagon things rotate in opposite directions when I squeeze the handle. The flour falls to the paper. Then I hit it a few times on the side to make sure I got it all out. And then we do it again. Did I already say THREE times?

The dry ingredients need to be measured carefully and sifter THREE times. This aerates the flour, removes lumps from the flour or baking soda, and really helps to incorporate the baking soda and salt into the flour. Getting clumps of baking soda is not so tasty….Why is three better than two, or why not four? I have no idea. Martha says it, Cooks’ Illustrated says it, The Joy of Cooking says it. I’m going to believe them and keep doing it.

You can also use a fine mesh sieve, like this:

(And if you use a big one, it won’t take forever to sift like this little one does.)

Prepare the liquid ingredients:

Chop the unsweetened chocolate.

Measure out the cocoa.


Add both the cocoa and unsweetened chocolate to a bowl.


Add 1 cup boiling water.


Whisk until smooth.

Make sure there are no lumps of cocoa or unmelted chocolate.


Back to the creamed mixture:

Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl.

Crack eggs into a small bowl. Add them one at a time, beating well after each egg.

Egg #1


Scrape down bowl before adding next egg. This is what it looks like after egg number one.


After Egg #2

Add Egg #3:
Mix well.

It’s light and fluffy and all the eggs were incorporated into the butter/sugar mixture. It did not curdle because all the ingredients were at room temperature. This is important. You really want to maintain those air pockets created from all that creaming.

Add 1 tsp. vanilla.


Add the sour cream.


Mix well.


The dry ingredients and wet ingredients are added alternately. Always, always, always begin and end with the flour. The flour is added in three additions, the liquid in two.

Add 1/3 of the flour:

Start mixing on the lowest speed unless you like wiping flour off your ceiling, light fixtures, or your helpful toddler.


Add 1/2 the chocolate mixture:


Add the second 1/3 of the flour:

Add the remaining chocolate mixture:

It’s mixing nicely…..


Last addition of flour:


Don’t over beat. This will affect the texture of the final cake. It could become tough and rubbery. You don’t want gluten to form. As you may know, gluten is what gives bread its chewy texture and provides support to the dough. That is why you want to mix the cake batter only as much as is necessary. I turn my mixer off before it’s totally done and do the rest by hand.


Remove the bowl from the mixer and scrape sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber scraper. Mix in any bits of flour or chocolate that didn’t mix in.


This is what it should look like:


Divide batter evenly between the cake pans.



Adjust the oven racks–according to your oven. Mine is a 3/4 sized oven, so I have to make adjustments according to how the pans will all fit. But, if you have a regular oven (lucky!) then you may be able to fit all three pans on one shelf placed in the middle of the oven. If not, place two pans on the top rack and one pan on the bottom. This will help them bake evenly.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the center of the cake springs back a little and a toothpick comes out clean.

Let them cool for about 10 minutes in the pan after you remove them from the oven. Loosen the sides with a thin knife so the cakes don’t crack as they cool.

I like to let the cakes cool completely on a rack. Cakes left to cool in the cake pan tend to shrink more and morph from beautiful, even layers to misshapen domes. You don’t want that to happen.

I wrap the cake layers in several layers of plastic wrap, place them on a flat cutting board or piece of cardboard, and freeze them until I’m ready to assemble my cake.

This cake was destined to be a lovely, dark, rich Black Forest Cake. Click here for the recipe and assembly instructions.

12 Responses to “Baking 101: Making the Perfect Devil’s Food Cake”

  1. Azúcar July 14, 2007 at 4:31 am #

    Amen and hallelujah to food processors and creaming. I tried while making a tart to cream the butter and sugar. It just about ruined everything. Why didn’t I use my stand mixer which is right next to the processor? I dunno. Stupid?

    And those who just got scared at all the instructions, don’t be! They are detailed but the same for just about every cake. It’s not hard to master, and the you’ve got it for life!

  2. liz July 14, 2007 at 5:57 am #

    wow. you are amazing lindsey. I wish I was there to cheer you on (and to lick the beater).

    now hit print on this post and bind it up for a publisher to get you lots of money for these awesome photos and instruction.

  3. Jessica July 17, 2007 at 2:16 pm #

    We’re sifter twinkies ;)

  4. Angela July 18, 2007 at 1:43 am #

    Wow, this just looks amazing. Love all the step by step instructions with photos. I’m not much for cherries, but the cake all on it’s own looks to die for! May I have a slice? :)

  5. Lizzy July 19, 2007 at 1:19 am #

    kitchen aids rock. i don’t know how people bake without one. thanks for the baking therapy. i can’t wait to get mi KA out of storage an dbake cupcakes this weekend. i’m dreaming baout which ones to make first…

  6. Jessica July 19, 2007 at 2:46 pm #

    I love my KitchenAid! I think I’ve had mine about 14 years. I use it all the time and it just keeps on tickin’.

    Thanks for the detailed instructions…this cake looks so good!

  7. milly March 18, 2008 at 11:17 am #

    hey that cake looks so good, I’m going to try it out for my party this Monday! thanks so much for taking the time to make this beautiful tutorial for us, just looking at all the those artful photographs is enjoyable. I’ll let you know how my attempt turns out :)

  8. Cafe Johnsonia March 18, 2008 at 7:38 pm #

    Thanks, Milly! Hope your party is wonderful. Please do tell me how it turns out!

  9. Anonymous March 13, 2009 at 10:18 am #

    Hi Linsday, I love your cake! Could you please tell me the ideal temperature of the oven for the cake? I am planning to make this cake for my daughters birthday this weekend. Thank You so much!
    Becky

  10. Cafe Johnsonia March 13, 2009 at 1:53 pm #

    Becky, you are the first person that has even drawn my attention to that mistake! Thank you!

    The oven temp is 350 degrees.

    Let me know how your cake turns out. I love this recipe so much.

  11. Anonymous March 16, 2009 at 8:24 pm #

    Linsdey,
    Thank You for the quick response! The cake was very rich, chocolaty, and amazing! It was hard to wait until the next day to eat it!
    I made it into a black forest cake as you suggested… mmmmhh everyone loved it!
    Your page is very useful and inspirational before(but not only:) birthdays, we love your pictures!
    Becky

  12. Cafe Johnsonia March 16, 2009 at 8:37 pm #

    I’m so happy, Becky! Thanks for letting me know.

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