Who doesn't love cake? When my daughter, Iris Uber Alles, was just a toddler, she seized upon an issue of "Food & Wine" with a cover of an extravagant cake. She carried that magazine about for days, plaintively demanding, "Wan' cake! Wan' cake!" Various grown-up friends of mine adopted that as a motto: "Wan' cake!"
Cake is a pleasure usually indulged in seldomly, typically on birthdays, and the tragedy of it is that usually birthday cakes are sad, dry, and flavorless, made from mixes. It's even sadder that the recipients usually are grateful and don't know any better, possibly never being exposed to a decent cake made from scratch.
I don't understand why people think making a cake other than from a mix is so hard. A lot of very good cooks say, "I just can't bake. I can cook, but I can't bake." This distinction between "cooking" and "baking" doesn't really make that much sense to me. When I'm "cooking", I often bake things in the oven, which seems a lot like, oh, let's say, "baking."
If you're one of those people who uses cake mixes or who says, "I just can't bake", please let me take you (in a virtual sense) by the hand and gently lead you into the kitchen. You CAN bake a cake. You CAN make the very best birthday cake anyone has ever tasted, which will leave them begging for seconds and thanking you extravagantly. Just trust yer old Drunken Housewife and come along on this ride.
Chocolate Cake Over the years I've made a lot of birthday cakes for family and friends, and I've settled on this one recipe as my all-time favorite. I originally found this recipe in the 80's on a box of baking chocolate. It always comes out well and never fails to please.
3 oz semisweet baking chocolate (it's lovely to get a premium chocolate, like Guittard's or Ghirardelli, but you can also use the cheapest supermarket baking chocolate with good results)
1/2 C water
3/4 C butter (leave the butter out ahead of time so it reaches room temperature. If you forget to do that, you can still make the cake, but you'll have to spend a lot more time mixing. NEVER, NEVER soften butter up in the microwave. That will make a flat, greasy cake)
2 1/4 C brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 1/4 C unsifted cake flour OR 2 C regular flour (use whatever you have; it comes out fine with or without cake flour)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 C water
OPTIONAL: 1 pint fresh raspberries and some slivered almonds
Jar of prefab frosting (preferably dark chocolate)
Preheat over to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two layer pans, either 8" or 9."
Break the chocolate into little pieces. Melt in a small pan with 1/2 C water. Stir over low heat just until melted. (This will make you feel like you're a REAL PASTRY CHEF. You melted the chocolate to make your cake! It's unbelievably easy, but somehow so emotionally fulfilling). Remove from heat and cool.
Cream the butter and sugar in a large mixer bowl until light and fluffy. This is the make or break part of baking: people get lazy here and don't mix long enough. You want your butter and sugar to be pale in color and very, very fluffy, and it doesn't take work. It only takes patience to stand there while the mixer does the work for you. You really can't overmix this, you can only undermix it. Spend at least 5 minutes beating this, an honest five minutes, and if your butter wasn't at room temperature, you'll need to spend a lot longer. You can do it. I once made this cake beating this by hand as I had no mixer available to me, AND my butter was cold, and I did it. I stood there for about 30 minutes with a spoon, practically spraining my poor wrist. If I can do that, you can stand there for five minutes with your electric mixer.
Add the eggs and vanilla. Beat well. Add the liquid chocolate and blend in.
In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, and salt. Mix it up good, so the baking soda is fully integrated; it's good to use a whisk, but a fork is fine.
Add the dry ingredients, alternating with one cup of water at a low speed. Beat just until blended. At this point, you do NOT want to overmix, as opposed to earlier. You don't want your batter to start rising while it's still in the bowl; you want it to start rising once it's in the safety of the oven. So just mix it until it's all mixed up together and then stop. Pour into the pans.
Bake until done (check by putting a toothpick in the center to make sure the middle is done). For an 8" pan, cook about 35-40 minutes. For a 9" pan, it's about 25-30 minutes.
Cool in the pan for a while, and then invert the pans onto plates. Frost the cake. I recommend getting a pint of fresh raspberries and some store-bought frosting (yes, in my opinion, it's fine to use the store-bought canned frosting. You went to all that trouble to make a lovely cake, so put yer feet up and use the canned frosting. It's just as good, really, as homemade frosting). I like to frost the lower layer, then densely lay raspberries all over the frosting, then put on the top layer and frost all the sides and top. On the top, I love to put some slivered almonds and fresh raspberries, but you can omit that. The beauty of the middle layer of raspberries is that the top layer compresses the raspberries a bit, and the taste of those raspberries and the rich chocolate flavor is orgasmic.
Once you've tasted this, you won't want to go back to using mixes. The lucky recipient of this cake will be extremely happy indeed. Bon appetit!