project wedding dessert bar: part 13 (jay’s secret chocolate cake)
It’s taken me awhile, but this is the second-to-last post in my Project Wedding Dessert Bar Series. Did I mention this recipe is for a surprise cake? For THE cake-to-end-all-cakes (at least in Jay’s book)?
Jay loves chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, as it was present at all his childhood birthdays and celebrations. Somehow I baked, chilled, frosted, hid, and transported it without Jay finding out, even though he tried to ruin the surprise – TWICE.
First, after driving back from a morning client meeting, he came up to our apartment to check in on me and my dessert bar baking shenanigans instead of dropping the car in the garage and going straight to work like he usually does.
Photo by Dana Hargitay of enLuce Photography
Then, when my mom and sister Cassie helped me transport the desserts to the venue a day before the wedding, he took an early lunch break – without giving me advance notice – and walked over the venue to help us unload everything. Thank goodness the cake was on a covered stand and Cassie had a jacket to throw over the top of it. While we unloaded everything else, we hid the cake on the passenger side floor of the car. When we dropped everything off in the venue director’s office, I awkwardly hesitated to leave, even though she had another bride and groom in her office. The look on my face must have indicated I was on the verge of a meltdown (I wasn’t; worst case, the surprise would be ruined, which would not be the end of the world but hopefully would be avoided); she immediately came up and gave me a concerned look and a hug. I whispered that there was one more load coming up, then ran down the hall to catch up before Jay noticed. But how would my mom and Cassie get the cake upstairs without Jay noticing??
As we exited the Merchants Exchange Building, I told Jay I’d walk and grab lunch with him before he headed back to work, and pretended to send my Mom and Cassie on their way, thanking them for helping me schlep all the desserts over. When Jay turned back a block later and questioned why my Mom was still standing outside her car with her phone in hand, I told him, “Text messaging. Probably with my aunt.” Luckily he bought it. Phew. Now, on to the cake …
These chocolate sour cream cakes weren’t too tough to make, but they will stick if you don’t line the pans with a parchment circle and grease the sides. If your dry ingredients are looking pretty smooth, mix the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, and other dry ingredients together. Otherwise, you should sift things in to break up the chunks if your flour or cocoa powder are looking a bit clumpy!
Then come the wet ingredients. Mix in sour cream and oil – they’ll both keep this cake very moist – and the rest of the wet ingredients except the egg. Once those look well combined, it’s the egg’s turn to get mixed in.
That’s it for the batter!
Pour it straight into the lined and greased pans and cupcake liners, being careful only to fill halfway … maybe up to 3/4 of the way if you’re getting greedy or have excess batter. But no more than that, or you will have an overflow on your hands.
Bake ‘em up, and take a fantastically out of focus, badly lit photo of the turned out cakes on a cooling rack. What can I say? I was busy making frosting!
Speaking of which, while the cakes bake, prep your frosting. I zapped butter and chocolate in the microwave until they just started to melt, although you can certainly do this on the stove in a double boiler if you want to get fancy … or if you don’t have space for a microwave.
The key is not to melt the chocolate all the way, lest you scorch the chocolate (that means it gets gross and clumpy). Just get it starting to melt, then remove it from the heat. The residual heat should bring it the rest of the way to Smoothland, so let it sit a minute. Then stir to help smooth it along. Once smooth, add sour cream, and stir some more until smooth.
Keeping with the silky smooth theme, sift in powdered sugar (no clumps!), and mix until light and fluffy.
It’s important to taste as you add the sugar to ensure you sweeten the frosting to your liking. I prefer mine less sweet than most people; Jay prefers about half a cup more sugar. Because this cake was a surprise for him, the measurements in the recipe below reflect his desired level of frosting sweetness.
The trick to frosting a dark cake is to accept the fact that you need to frost it twice. The first layer catches the crumbs. Then, after chilling it to set the frosting, the second layer goes on smoothly and crumb-free.
I am terrible at frosting cakes, but luckily Jay’s childhood cake featured a decorative walnut topping. I mostly used the walnuts as a way to cover up my mistakes around the edges. Sshhhhh … don’t tell!!
Cake-eating photo by Dana Hargitay of enLuce Photography
Jay’s Secret Chocolate Cake (adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake)
I halved Smitten Kitchen’s recipe, as I used 6-inch pans instead of 8- or 9-inch ones, and upped the cocoa powder ratio. If you want a single layer 8- or 9-inch, use the recipe below, as it’s half the volume (you may still end up with enough batter left for a cupcake or two). I did a double layer 6-inch cake and turned the extra batter into cupcakes, one of which I carved into a cheesy heart for the third, top layer.
1 c. all purpose flour
1 1/4 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch process)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. canola oil (or other neutral oil)
1/2 c. sour cream
3/4 c. water
1 Tbsp. white vinegar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting (recipe below)
Preheat oven to 350F. Grease the bottoms and sides of all cake pans with butter or oil. Line the bottom of each pan with parchment or wax paper, cut into a circle to fit, and grease the paper too.
Into a large bowl, sift flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt, and whisk until well combined. Add the oil and sour cream, and whisk to blend. Gradually, beat in the water, then beat in the vinegar, vanilla, and egg. Scrape down sides of the bowl, and beat until batter is well mixed. Divide evenly among prepared cake pans.
Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out almost clean, about 15 minutes for cupcakes, 25 minutes for 6-inch cakes or 30-35 minutes for 8- or 9-inch cakes. Cool in pans for 20 minutes. Invert onto wire racks, and carefully peel off and discard the paper liners. Cool completely.
Before assembling cake or covering it with frosting, freeze them for about 30 minutes (they’ll defrost quickly once assembled). Otherwise, they are incredibly soft, which makes them difficult to work with.
Assemble cake, spreading a thin layer of Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting between each cake layer. Cover entire cake with initial layer of Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting (don’t worry if dark cake crumbs get stuck in this; that’s the point of this initial crumb-catching layer). Allow to chill in fridge about 20 minutes to set. Then use remaining frosting to spread a final, clean coat over the cake. Chill again to set. Do ahead: baked and frosted cake may be stored in airtight refrigerated container for up to 3 days.
Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting
1 c. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 c. butter
1/2 c. sour cream
1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 1/4 c. powdered sugar
Heat chocolate and butter until just barely melted, either by microwaving and stirring 30 seconds at a time or by bringing a pot with 2 inches of water to boil, reducing the heat, and placing the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over the pot, stirring periodically while they melt. Remove from heat and stir until completely smooth. Let cool for 5 minutes.
Stir in sour cream and vanilla until well blended. Add powdered sugar, and beat until light and fluffy.