When I sat down on the bus this morning with this cake in my lap, two young girls behind me (around 9 or 10 years old) whispered to each other, “That’s a yummy-looking cake!” I smiled, turned around, and said, “I made it for my friend’s birthday! It’s a yellow cake with chocolate frosting!” They grinned at me and started chattering away. One of the girls, a cutie with chin-length brown hair and a smattering of freckles, told me about the desserts she’s made with her mom: a yellow cake, a chocolate cake, and chocolate chip cookies with strawberries (um, what?!). I told her I had never added strawberries to my cookies before, but that I would give it a try, and she lit up at that idea. She then offered, “You wanna know the secret to the best cakes and cookies no matter what?” She leaned closer to me conspiratorially and announced, “Lemon and vanilla! You just add lemon and vanilla to everything, even if it doesn’t call for it. That’s the way you get the best cakes!” I asked her a few more questions about this surprising secret, then turned to her friend who had been mostly silent up until now. This adorable girl, with curly blonde hair and petite glasses framing her big eyes, excitedly shared that her mom was “a CHEF!!” and could make “everything – cakes, pastries, cookies, pies, and lots of other things!” We chatted about her mom’s talents for a bit, and then another girl of about 16 or 17 years (I believe she was working the summer camp that these two were part of) chimed in that she had “made a chocolate cake with beets, and you couldn’t even taste the beets, it was just really moist and dense and awesome!” And just like that, the four of us were having a conversation – on a bus – about everything. The summer camp they were a part of, the languages they spoke, how I’m an engineer for work and baker by hobby, the best desserts we’ve ever had… My favorite part of all of this was how obvious it was that the preparation and eating of food had formed bonds, inspired admiration, and caused excitement in these girls’ lives. How happy they were, and how comfortable it was, to have a conversation with a stranger on the bus, all because of a cake!
And the thing is, this isn’t even the first time I’ve had people comment on my desserts. It’s nearly impossible to make the trek from apartment to work without having at least one random person comment on or joke about whatever I’m carrying. “Is that for me?” “How thoughtful – you knew it was my birthday!” “What kind of cake is that?” “Oh wow, that looks delicious!” “You’re going to share with me, right?” “What’s that for?” “Did you make that?” “I should probably taste test that for you…” “I’m so jealous of whoever gets that!” Clearly, there’s something about desserts that allows people to let down their guard and interact. Something that tips them off that it’s okay to talk, that no one’s going to look at them strangely or brush them off or turn away if they strike up a conversation. This is the power of cake. It makes strangers into friends, if only for the duration of a morning commute. And I love it.
This cake is a very simple, traditional yellow cake with chocolate frosting per request for Anthony’s birthday. Well, actually, he originally requested a “life-size castle cake” that he “could walk into,” but alas, that was not to be. Maybe when he graduates… Can you even imagine how much flour, sugar, butter, eggs, etc. you’d go through to make that?! Not to mention all the structural issues inherent in making walls and roofing out of cake. There would have to be lots of reinforcement (boards? wood? poles??) and “glue” (some super strong frosting?). I’m not quite up for that challenge, yet! Simple and classic it had to be.
I found recipes on both Smitten Kitchen and Annie’s Eats that looked promising, and ended up going with Annie’s mostly because I had all the ingredients on hand. Just a few slight adjustments to try and make it extra moist, and I ended up with a nice medium-density: not too fluffy but definitely not heavy. The frosting was chocolatey, airy, and practically melting off the sides – I decorated this morning, so I never refrigerated it. Luckily, this “rustic” style of decorating (large swirly swoops of frosting) lent itself well for touching up melting sides. If you make this, keep it out of the sun and/or refrigerate it (although in the comments on Annie’s page, people mentioned issues where the frosting hardened too much in the refrigerator and wouldn’t soften even after it had been out for a while). As for the taste, it’s good but not great: it’s a classic yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Hard to mess up, hard to fall in love with. At least in my, make-it-as-rich-as-possible mindset. Still, for what it is, it’s pretty delicious.
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing pans
1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting pans
2 cups cake flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 cups granulated white sugar
4 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup plain Greek yogurt or sour cream
1 cup milk
1 lb. semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
6 tbsp. Dutch-process cocoa powder
6 tbsp. boiling water
3 sticks (1½ cups) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
Pinch of salt
Make the cake:
1. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Line the bottoms of two 9-inch round cake pans with parchment paper. Butter and flour the edges of the pans, tapping out the excess; set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, cake flour, baking powder, and salt; whisk together and set aside.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar. Beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down the bowl as needed. Mix in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Blend in the vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, add in the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the milk. Beat each addition just until incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl frequently.
4. Divide the batter between the prepared baking pans. Bake, rotating the pans halfway through baking, until the cakes are golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean, 35-40 minutes. Transfer the pans to a wire rack and let cool ~20 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pans to help remove the cakes. Invert the cakes onto the rack and peel off the parchment. Let the cakes cool completely before frosting.
Make the frosting:
1. Place the chocolate in a plastic, microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 1 1/2 minutes. Stir well until the chocolate has melted and is smooth; you may need to microwave for additional 10-15 second bursts, stirring each time. Set aside and let cool to room temperature, about 25-30 minutes. In a small bowl, combine the cocoa powder and boiling water; stir until the cocoa is dissolved and then set aside.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter, powdered sugar and salt on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Add the room-temperature melted chocolate; beat on low speed until combined, 1-2 minutes. Beat in the cocoa mixture until well blended. You may need to let it cool longer before using it to frost if it’s too runny at this point.
Assemble the cake:
1. Place one of the cake layers on a serving platter. Top with 1 cup of the chocolate frosting and smooth over the top of the cake.
2. Top with the second cake layer. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting as desired (I had some left over). And of course, decorate with sprinkles if you like happiness!
This is best if served the same day, but you can also keep it refrigerated, covered, for up to 3 days. Let the cake come to room temperature at least 30 minutes before serving.