whisk: chocolate cake two ways

(If you’ve hit the end of your willpower on those pesky new year’s resolutions to eat less sweets, I suggest you stop reading right here, because this cake just screams, resolutions be damned!)

When I first started getting into baking, I was very intimidated by making a cake from scratch and often times would shy away from them — plus funfetti cakes are so tasty.  Then one cold winter weekend in New York, I decided to go for it and came across this nine-ingredient recipe for chocolate cake.  It is a great gateway cake baking recipe because it is simple and extremely rewarding.   It was apparently developed by Wesson Oil back in the day and I’ve run across variations of it in several cookbooks as the author’s mom’s special cake.   No matter the origins, this is one helluva cake.  It’s moist, fluffy, dense and flavorful.  As an added bonus, it’s also vegan.

So I’m going to show you how to make this cake two ways: the easy and the more advanced.  For those of you intimidated by baking, give it a try, I promise you won’t be disappointed.  Honestly, anyone can make this, no matter your skill level and kitchen (mine at the time was smaller than the coat closet in my current house).

Once you’ve perfected the cake, you may want to use it to make something even more impressive so I’ll show you how to layer it and frost it with a crumb coat so that your icing is clean and beautiful!

Regardless, the ingredients don’t change.  Here they are:
+ 1.5  c. all-purpose flour
+ 1 c. sugar
+ 1/4  c. unsweetened cocoa powder
+ 1 tsp. baking soda
+ 1/2  tsp. coarse salt
+ 6 T  vegetable oil
+ 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
+ 1 T white vinegar
+ 1 c. cold water

High Altitude Adjustments (5000 ft above sea level)
If you live at high altitude like I do now, you will find the cake’s need a little finessing.  These are the adjustments for this cake:
+ Decrease sugar to 3/4c. + 2tsp.
+ Decrease the baking soda to 3/4 tsp.

To make the cakes:
+ Center the rack in your oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees.
+ Sift flour into a 8in square pan. If you don’t have a flour sifter, place the flour in the pan and stir with a whisk for a minute.  Add the sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt.  Using a fork stir together until the dry ingredients are mixed together.
+ Using a tablespoon, make three different “wells” in the dry ingredients.  One large, one medium and one small.
+ Add the liquid ingredients to the wells as follows: Large = Oil; Medium = Vinegar; Small = Vanilla
+ Then pour one cup of cold water over the entire pan.
+ Using your fork, stir the batter so that it is mixed.  You should be stirring for about 2 minutes at most.  Make sure there are no pockets of dry ingredients in the corners and make sure you get everything off the bottom.  Keep in mind you want it to be mixed but by no means do you need to go for broke here, use your judgement.
+ Put the pan in the oven and bake for 30 minutes or until when a toothpick or knife inserted in the center of the cake can be clean when removed.  Another hint is to gently push the top of the cake with your fingers.  If it springs back its ready.
+ Remove the pan from the oven and place it on a cooling rack and let it cool completely.
+ To serve, either sprinkle powdered sugar on top or frosting using the cream cheese frosting found below.

That’s it folks!

Once you have mastered making that cake, you can take it to the next level by making it into a layer cake.

To make a layer cake:

+ You’ll need two 8 or 9 inch round cake pans.  To prepare them, butter them and add a piece of parchment paper in the bottom of the pan.  Butter the parchment and coat the pan with about a tsp. of cocoa powder (you can also use flour if you’d like) This step makes it easy to remove the cakes from the pans.  Don’t skip it.
+ To make the cakes, we are going to double the recipe.  So put in twice the above listed amounts for each ingredient.  Using a mixer with a paddle attachment, place all of the dry ingredients into the bowl and stir on the lowest setting for 30 second until combined.  Then add the oil, water, vinegar and vanilla and mix until just combined.  Then take two 8 or 9 in round pans.  Divide evenly between pans and bake for 30 minutes until a toothpick is clean when entered and removed from the center of the cake.  Remove from oven let cool in pan for 30 minutes and then run knife along edge and remove from pans.  Place cakes on cooling rack and set aside until completely cool.

To make the frosting:
+ In a mixer with the whisk attachment, combine cream cheese and butter and beat for about 2-3 minutes until fluffy and combined.  Add powdered sugar and vanilla, mix on low until the sugar is combine and then beat for another minute or two.

To assemble the cake:
To start, you need to make sure your layers are level.   Then, you want to cut each of the cakes in half so that you have four even and level layers.  So if the tops of the cake layers have crowned (rounded), use a long serrated knife to level even them.  Then place one layer right-side up on a cardboard round or a cake plate protected with strips of wax or parchment paper.  Add about a cup of frosting and using an offset spatula, spread from the center towards the edges.  Try your best to make the frosting layer level.  Then place the second cake layer on the cake, add frosting and spread it.  Repeat this until all of your layers are stacked.

Next comes the crumb layer.  I had no idea that this life changing technique even existed.  The purpose of the crumb layer is to essentially seal in all the crumbs so that when you frost the cake you have clean icing.  I followed the instructions found here.  To make the crumb coat, you want to take a decent heaping tablespoon of frosting, start spreading it from the center toward the sides creating a thin layer (pushing all of the extra frosting to the edge) then take the extra frosting and bring it down the side and spread around the cake.  Now here comes the fun part.  You are going to more or less scrape all of the excess frosting away from the cake.  On the top of the cake you can use the edge of your offset spatula at a 45 degree angle to do this and on the side use a bench scraper.  Now, couple of important things to note 1). while I say scrape, I mean skim.  You just want to gently get as close as you can to the cake.  You also want to do it in as fluid a motion as you can, so for the sides of the cake it really helps to have a lazy susan/turntable.  2). don’t scrape the leftovers into your unused frosting, place them in another bowl and discard or put on a graham cracker and eat but don’t reuse when frosting the cake.

To finish the cake, scoop the remaining frosting on top of the cake and using your clean, dry offset spatula and spread from the center toward the edges.  Once the top layer is smooth, spread the remaining frosting around the edges.  Add sprinkles and serve!

There you have it!  Chocolate cake two ways.  Let me know if you make this, I’d love to hear any of your tips for frosting a cake (heavens knows I need help still!).