Chocolate Cake 101
What makes a great chocolate cake recipe? Start with good ingredients (yes, that means a lot of chocolate), add the right equipment, and understand core techniques.
Here are four ways that a good cake can turn bad—and how to prevent them.
It might be tempting to start frosting soon after the cake has come out of the oven. But even a slightly warm cake can cause the frosting to melt and slide off. It pays to wait until the cake is completely cooled.
Most frostings can be made ahead and refrigerated until they are ready to use. But if they're not left to soften at room temperature, the frosting will be stiff and difficult to spread, and their application may gouge a chunk out of a tender cake.
Cake layers can dome in the oven, making them hard to stack. If you don't trim the dome, you'll need extra frosting to fill the space between the layers- meaning you won't have enough for the top and sides. Even if you make extra frosting, the finished cake will be overly rich.
Even a beautifully frosted cake can turn ugly after the first slice. That's because the slicing knife drags frosting and crumbs as it cuts. For a prettier presentation, clean the knife after each cut by dipping it into hot water, then drying it off between slices.
Here's an easy way to determine if your chocolate cake has reached the desired doneness.
It's an old kitchen maxim: Don't remove a cake from the oven until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with no crumbs attached. Many of us in the test kitchen have followed this directive for years, but recently we've discovered that finding a few crumbs sticking to the toothpick (not raw batter, mind you) isn't such a bad thing. In fact, a few crumbs can be the sign of a moist and tender cake. That's because residual heat continues to bake the cake once it is removed from the oven. If you wait until a toothpick comes out perfectly clean, the cake may be dry and crumbly by the time it cools.
Our "few crumbs attached" maxim is especially apt when baking low-fat cakes such as our Reduced-Fat Chocolate Sheet Cake. Without a healthy dose of fat to keep it moist, this cake will become chokingly dry if overbaked. In general, we think it's best to check all cakes a few minutes before the earliest baking time recommended in the recipe. You can always test the cake again if it's not done, but once a cake is overbaked there's no going back.
To determine whether a cake is done, insert a toothpick into the center and look for just a few moist crumbs to adhere. Raw batter means the cake needs more time. If the toothpick is completely clean, the cake may have overbaked.
To determine whether a cake is done, insert a toothpick into the center and look for just a few moist crumbs to adhere.
Raw batter means the cake needs more time.
Keys to the Perfect Layer Cake
Here are a few rules to thumbs to keep in mind when baking a layer cake.
How to Frost a Layer Cake on a Serving Platter
Follow these guidelines for a perfectly frosted cake, everytime.
1. REMOVE THE DOME
Cake layers with a domed top are difficult to stack and frost. If your cake layers crack and dome, you can simply slice the domed section off using a serrated knife. Gently slice back and forth using a sawing motion.
2. LINE THE PLATTER
Frosting the cake right on the serving platter can be a messy enterprise. To keep the platter tidy, use strips of parchment paper to cover its edges; remove the parchment before serving the cake.
3. HOLD IT DOWN
No one wants to frost a moving target. To keep the cake from sliding around, spoon a dollop of frosting in the center of the platter as “glue” and place one cake layer on top.
4. FROST THE BOTTOM
Spoon some of the frosting onto the center of the first layer and, using an icing spatula, push the frosting up to, but not over, the edge of the cake. Then stack the top layer carefully to make sure that the sides are aligned.
5. TOP, THEN SIDES
Spread more frosting over the surface of the top layer, up to the sides of the cake. Then, using a small amount of frosting on the tip of an icing spatula, gently smear and press the frosting onto the sides of the cake.
6. MAKE IT SMOOTH
Holding the icing spatula at a slight angle, run the spatula around the cake to smooth the frosting. Where the sides and top of the frosting meet, pull the excess frosting toward the center of the cake.
Twelve Steps to Perfect Chocolate Layer Cake
Most chocolate cake recipes follow this basic sequence of steps.
1. ADJUST OVEN RACK
Place the oven rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees.
WHY? If baked on a rack that's too high, the cake will overbrown. Too low? No browning at all.
2. CUT PARCHMENT
Trace the outline of the cake pan on parchment paper. Then cut out parchment circles to line the pans.
WHY? To ensure the baked cakes release easily from the pans.
3. GREASE AND FLOUR
Grease the pans. Line with parchment circles. Grease the parchment and flour the pans, shaking out extra flour.
WHY? To doubly ensure that the cakes will not stick.
4. COMBINE LIQUIDS
Combine the eggs, milk, and vanilla in a measuring cup.
WHY? Combined, the wet ingredients are easier to incorporate. Plus, it's easy to see how much liquid you’ve added in step 7.
5. WHISK DRY INGREDIENTS
Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together.
WHY? For layer cakes, whisking aerates as effectively as sifting.
6. BEAT IN BUTTER
With the mixer on low speed, add the softened butter, one piece at a time, until only pea-size pieces remain.
WHY? This "reverse creaming" ensures a cake with a tender but tight crumb.
7. ADD LIQUID IN 2 PARTS
Pour in half of the milk-egg mixture and beat until fluffy. Then add the remaining milk mixture.
WHY? The liquid will be absorbed more efficiently, for a lighter cake with no streaks of flour.
8. SCRAPE INTO PANS
Divide the batter evenly between the greased, lined, and floured pans.
WHY? The layers will bake evenly and be of equal height.
9. TAP ON COUNTER
Gently tap the pans on the counter to settle the batter.
WHY? Tapping releases air bubbles that may have formed during mixing; they could cause tunnels in the cake.
10. BAKE AND ROTATE
Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Rotate the pans halfway through baking.
WHY? Switching the pans ensures that the layers bake evenly despite any hot spots in the oven.
11. COOL IN PANS
Leave the hot cakes in the pans for 10 minutes.
WHY? The cakes need a few minutes to cool and firm slightly, sot they won't break apart when you remove them from the pans.
12. TURN CAKE OUT
Flip the cakes out of their pans onto a wire rack. Flip onto a second wire rack so that the cake layers are right side up.
WHY? The rack lets air circulate underneath, so the cakes won't steam and get soggy as they cool.