When I moved to the United States as a young adult I couldn’t believe that to most of my new friends, baking a cake meant buying a mix and stirring in some water and an egg. My parents had moved to Switzerland in the early 1970s when those mixes were not yet widespread. They did exist, but they were too easy to make: they only required stirring in water. The mixes only caught on when marketers figured out that by adding one extra step, a single fresh ingredient like milk or an egg, consumers felt much more comfortable buying their ready-made products. It had to be easy, but if the process was TOO easy it made former bakers feel lame. It’s true. Baking a cake from scratch is oddly satisfying. It requires the precision of a chemist, a little patience, and, if you do not own a mixer, a good deal of strength and endurance (recipes from the turn of the century call for a “manservant” to beat the eggs, butter and sugar for 30 minutes). Mixes strip away any pride and joy from the process.

Here’s a recipe for my all-time hands-down favorite chocolate cake. It is dark and chocolaty with a light, moist texture:

Black Devils Food Cake

  • 2/3 cup soft butter
  • 1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup cocoa
  • 1 1/3 cups cold water
  • 2 1/4 cups sifted cake flower (or 2 cups all purpose flour)
  • 1/3 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Preheat oven to 350° F and grease and flour one spring form nine inch pan
  2. Cream the butter, add the sugar and cream until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition until well blended.
  3. Blend together cocoa and water. Set aside.
  4. Sift the flour with the baking powder, soda and salt. Add the sifted dry ingredients alternately with the cocoa water to the butter mixture, stirring after each addition until the ingredients are combined. Do not over beat.
  5. Bake about 55 minutes, till thin knife or toothpick comes out dry. Let it cool for 5 minutes then remove it from the pan.
  6. When cake is 100% cool, cut it in two with a large (preferably serrated) knife for a layer of frosting in the middle.

Butter frosting:

I love this frosting because it’s not too sweet and very buttery; it will melt in your mouth — but it will also melt on the cake unless it is perfectly cool when you frost it. Blow the candles quickly, especially if you’re old! If you don’t want a cake filling, a smaller version is in parenthesis.

Beat at moderate speed for at least 5 minutes, to obtain a smooth cream:

  • 3 egg yolk (2)
  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar (2/3 cup)
  • 4 1/2 teaspoons vanilla (1 tbsp)
  • Alternate: 3 ounces melted semisweet baking chocolate (2 oz.)
  • 2 1/4 sticks soft unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks)

Chill. If necessary, beat before frosting.


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