Devil’s Food Cake

I’m tempted to just give you the recipe and say Happy Wednesday because, sweet baby Buddha, it is hard updating this blog when people are expecting me to do actual work and for some reason telling stories about food doesn’t count.  But since Procrastination and I have started up again, here you go.

This is how it started: I recently met a charming man, Q, who loves cake, frosting and chocolate.  As I’ve come to learn, charming men who like baked goods abound, but I’ve also learned that that does not necessarily mean I should whip out my cookbooks and mixing bowls at the mere mention of red velvet.  Q, however, did tell me about his favorite bakery—and I’d like to pause here to say that he has many admirable attributes, but having a favorite bakery is rather swoon worthy, don’t you think?—and I thought that the vow to hold off on baking for potential suitors would not be broken if I actually purchased a cake.  So I called said bakery in anticipation of Q’s birthday to find out if they could deliver this yellow layer cake with butter cream frosting in the middle and fudge frosting on top that he had described to me.  And they said that for a fee of $40 they thought they could deliver a $13 cake, but they needed to check.  Check on what exactly? Extortion laws in Illinois? I will say that a lovely woman called me back and said that they couldn’t do it but that they’d be happy to do a sheet cake for me, but Q had made it clear in one of our many cake confabs that sheet cakes were not on the list of his favorite things.

So now I had the dilemma of either finding another bakery—a surprisingly hard thing to do in Chicago (another reason I need to win the lottery)—and hoping for the best, or making a cake myself.  And you all know I couldn’t pass this up, right? I mean, come now, who am I kidding?  I tried to rationalize the fact that I was yet again baking for someone well before my granny would approve by saying it was for the sake of the blog. And that I’d never actually made a chocolate cake from scratch, so it would be a fun challenge.  And that I’d post it in February in time for Valentine’s Day.  And…and…and…what it boils down to is that I am a baking slut, as I was called by my friends (?) last week. 

I thought that I would whip up a devil’s food cake and some chocolate frosting and be done with it.  How hard could it be?  And that—that cocky baking attitude—is what had me standing in my kitchen three nights before the actual birthday celebration cursing Mark Bittman (I seriously thought of doing one of those public record searches for his home phone number so I could call and ask him what the *%^(&# he was thinking when he included this terrible sour cream substituting/folding in egg whites/who has time for this crazy? recipe in his “How to Cook Everything [except a chocolate cake]” cookbook) and checking my moral compass on how bad it would be to make a Duncan Hines cake and pass it off as my own (verdict: bad, but not totally unforgiveable). 

I brought my sad little test cake to work and people were kind enough to say it was good, but deep down I knew that it had no chocolate flavor, it was dry and dense and the frosting tasted like spoonfuls of butter followed by a powdered sugar chaser and nothing like actual fudge frosting.  This was the moment where I was met with a fork in the road:  I could give up completely and buy a cake somewhere, because really, the whole point was to give Q a cake on his birthday, not to have me sitting on my kitchen floor rocking back and forth surrounded by cookbooks and melted chocolate.  Or, I could pick a random recipe off the internet, recognize that it may not work, and hope that he fell into the category of people who believe it truly is the thought that counts.  One fork would spell defeat; the other would cause me to have to be adult and rational… Neither particularly appealed to me, but this wouldn’t be much of a story if I went with the store bought.

I decided to play it safe with, because they give Bon Appétit recipes, which haven’t let me down yet.  By this time I’d run out of time to do a test version; I had to just go for it. This was the perfect time for my procrastination to kick in, because I was paralyzed by nerves about starting the cake.  So I organized all of my ingredients on the counter; I rinsed out all of my bowls; I lined up all of my utensils; I read the recipe 20 times so I knew everything step by step; I put on happy, positive music and visualized a perfect cake. 

And guess what?  It worked! No, I really didn’t see that one coming, either.  I mean, by this point I was pretty sure that Failure was going to come stand in my kitchen and laugh at me, but I knew as soon as I took the cakes out of the oven that I had success, because they looked exactly like cakes made from mixes. 

And the frosting! The frosting was the kind of thing that you could just eat a bowl of while watching The Real Housewives of Orange County, because it tasted like a melted dark chocolate bar (my one suggestion here is to not taste too much of it before you finish your cake, because you may not have enough to actually frost the cake. Not that that happened to me.).

So lessons learned: Mark Bittman should not be trusted unless you have time to experiment. can save you from any disaster. A homemade cake is much better and says a lot more than a bakery one, even if said bakery is a favorite and the homemade cake is slightly lopsided.  And potential suitors who are still talking about delicious birthday cakes days later are almost as hard to find—and just as essential—as the perfect recipe…

Devil’s Food Cake (courtesy of Bon Appétit/


  • 1 ¼ cups sugar
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 ½ cups all purpose flour (I used 7 ounces of cake flour)
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (2.5 ounces)
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt


  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (1.5 ounces)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 2/3 cup (about) sour cream

For Cake

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 8-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides. Whisk first 5 ingredients in large bowl to blend. Sift in flour, cocoa and baking soda. Stir to combine. Divide batter between prepared pans (I am anal enough that I actually weighed the batter first (30 ounces) and divided it equally between the two pans so they would bake evenly). Bake until toothpick inserted into centers comes out clean, about 25 minutes (on convection bake, mine were done in 20 minutes). Cool in pans on racks 10 minutes. Turn cakes out onto racks and cool completely. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Wrap cakes separately in plastic wrap and store at room temperature.)

Place 1 cake layer on plate. Spread with 1/2 cup frosting. Top with second cake layer. Spread top and sides of cake with remaining frosting. (Can be prepared up to 8 hours ahead. Cover with cake dome and let stand at room temperature.)

For Frosting:

Melt unsalted butter and chocolate in heavy small saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly until smooth. Transfer to large bowl. Whisk in cocoa powder and vanilla. Whisk in 1 cup sugar and 1/3 cup sour cream. Whisk in remaining 1 cup sugar. Gradually whisk in enough of remaining sour cream to form spreadable frosting.


5 Responses to Devil’s Food Cake

  1. A. Van Fleet says:

    Hello Heather:

    Nicely done!…both the cake and the blog. Sounds like in spite of the challenges along the way you enjoyed baking the cake. Your generous spirit won’t allow you to not make a fuss over a birthday cake that would make someone happy. How lucky that person is to share that spirit.

    The pictures of the cake are mouth watering.

    A.Van Fleet

  2. Pingback: Red Velvet Cupcakes « Pestle Mortar

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  4. Maggies mom says:

    I am going to try this recipe for our county fair, I have been baking 48 years.

  5. pestlemortar says:

    What fun! Please let me know what you think!

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