Want to make your event stand out with almost no effort? We have a sweet solution for you.
By Joanne Sasvari | Photos By Jeffrey Bosdet | Styling By Joanne Sasvari
Cookies are fun, pie is satisfying, puddings are comforting and pastries are delightfully frivolous. But cake, now that means a party. Nothing else so clearly announces that a group of people have gathered to celebrate something, whether it be a momentous occasion or just the simple pleasure of sharing time with friends.
But cake sometimes gets a bad rap.
It’s too complicated, you might think. Or maybe it’s too sweet, with all that buttercream frosting. Or too dry. Or too dense. Perhaps you think you have to make like a Baking Show contestant and whip up a flawless mirror glaze in rainbow hues, or top it with a diorama injected into a jelly dome, or wrap it in a collar of perfectly tempered chocolate lace. Or you don’t have a spinning cake thingy to create the trendy “naked cake” look, or dowels to balance multiple tiers, or the patience or skill for anything fussy or fancy at all.
I am here to tell you you do not need any of those things to make a great cake, one that is light and moist and pretty, one that will impress your friends and make them feel cherished at your table.
It starts with an easy recipe for the cake itself, like this chocolate one based on a recipe by Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa, who always seems to know exactly what we want to make and how to make it easy.
Then it continues with some simple but delicious decorative elements.
You can frost it and stack it in tiers, make it into cupcakes or serve it as is, simply sliced and topped with a bit of fruit and whipped cream, perfect after a heavy meal.
Honestly, you could slice it and eat it straight from the baking pan and be perfectly happy, though that’s not much of a celebration, is it?
Unlike some chocolate cakes, it isn’t dry or bland and, unlike a chocolate pâté, it isn’t heavy and chewy. It is super chocolatey, though, thanks to the addition of coffee in the batter, which magically makes chocolate taste more like chocolate.
I have made it for countless dinner parties; it’s often the recipe I reach for when I’m asked to bring dessert.
What makes it so easy is that it’s an oil-based cake, so you don’t need to cream butter, and it uses cocoa powder, so you don’t have to melt or chop chocolate. See? Easy.
(If you don’t like chocolate, you can easily do something similar with a basic yellow cake. For the gluten-free or vegans in the crowd, there are simple flourless chocolate cakes and ones made with applesauce and quinoa to try as well.)
Don’t worry if your cake isn’t perfect, if there are crumbs in the frosting or it slopes wonkily from one side to the other. Unless you are competing against a star baker, all that matters is that you made it with love, for people you care for, and who care for you in return.
And that really is something to celebrate.
(Best Ever) Chocolate Cake
Recipe adapted from The Barefoot Contessa.
• Unsalted butter, room temperature, for the pans
• 1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pans
• 2 cups sugar
• ¾ cup good cocoa powder (see note)
• 2 tsp baking soda
• 1 tsp baking powder
• 1 tsp kosher salt, preferably Diamond brand
• 1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature, shaken
• ½ cup neutral-flavoured vegetable oil
• 2 large eggs, at room temperature
• 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
• 1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 8-inch round cake pans. Line bottom with parchment paper, then butter the parchment and flour the pans.
Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed until combined.
In another bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, oil, eggs and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry. With the mixer still on low, very slowly add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a spatula. Note that the batter will be very liquidy; do not be alarmed.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a wooden skewer comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn the cakes out onto a cooling rack (glossy, rounded side up) and cool completely before frosting. Serves 8 (but see variations).
1. Fancy Layered Cake
For those times you really want to wow your guests.
Bake the (Best Ever) Chocolate Cake as directed, and allow to cool fully.
Place one layer, rounded (top) side down, on a cake plate, cake stand or cake round, then cover with a filling of frosting, jam, caramel or chocolate ganache.
Place the second layer on top with the flat side down and the rounded, glossy side up.
Using an offset spatula and a cake spinner if you have one, frost the top and sides of the cake, then garnish with sprinkles, candied nuts, candied orange peel, edible flowers or whatever you like.
(Here we’ve filled and frosted it with cream cheese frosting and garnished it with candied walnuts; recipes on page 98.)
Note: What’s the deal with Dutch process cocoa?
Also known as alkalized cocoa, it starts with cocoa beans that have been washed in an alkaline solution of potassium carbonate. This wash neutralizes the beans’ acidity, and makes the powder they produce darker in colour, mellower in flavour and easier to dissolve into liquids. However, because Dutch-process cocoa has a neutral pH, it does not react with baking soda, so it is often — but not always — paired with baking powder.
On the other hand, untreated natural cocoa from roasted cocoa beans is acidic and bitter, with a very strong and concentrated chocolate flavour. Because it contains acid, it is often used in recipes calling for baking soda as a leavener.
So which type should you use? It depends on what the recipe calls for. However, if it does not specify, or if it does not call for either baking soda or baking powder (as in sauces, ice cream, pudding etc.), or if it calls for both (as in this recipe), you can choose whichever flavour style you prefer.
2. Crowd-Pleaser Cupcakes
Perfect for casual get-togethers
Line the cups of a muffin tin with paper or parchment cups.
Make the (Best Ever) Chocolate Cake batter as directed and spoon it into the prepared cups, filling them about ¾ full.
Bake in a 350°F oven for 25 minutes or until a wooden skewer comes out clean.
Cool fully in the tin.
Remove cupcakes from the tin and frost them; make it easier and prettier by transferring the frosting to a piping bag fitted with a round or star-shaped tip and piping the frosting on each cupcake.
If you like, garnish with sprinkles, candied citrus peel, edible flowers or whatever you like. This recipe will make 18 cupcakes.
3. Simple but Elegant Cake
For those times you want something a little sweet and a lot impressive, but not too much of either.
Bake the (Best Ever) Chocolate Cake as directed, and allow to cool fully.
Set out as many dessert plates as you will need to serve your friends.
Spoon some raspberry coulis on each plate; position it to one side so the cake doesn’t fully cover it. If you want to get fancy, you can try a cheffy smear or swirl. Here’s how.
• To create a smear, transfer the coulis to a squeeze bottle and squeeze a generous portion into a circle. Dip the tip of a spoon into the middle of the coulis and, working boldly, make a flourish across the plate.
• To create a swirl, you will need a Lazy Susan or cake spinner. Put your plate on the spinner. Transfer the coulis to a squeeze bottle and point it downwards toward the centre of the plate. Start slowly spinning the stand and gently squeeze the bottle until you get your desired design.
Once you’ve put the coulis on the plate, whip some heavy cream until soft peaks form. (You can add a little vanilla and/or sugar to the cream, if you like.)
Cut your cake into slices and arrange one slice attractively on each plate. Spoon a little whipped cream on each piece of cake and add a small handful of raspberries. If you like, garnish it with a mint sprig or a piece of candied orange peel.
This recipe will easily serve 16, even more if you slice the cake quite thin.
Cream Cheese Frosting
• 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
• 1 pkg (250 g) cream cheese (original Philadelphia-style), at room temperature
• 1 lb icing sugar (about 4 ½cups), sifted
• ½ tsp fine sea salt
• 1 tsp vanilla extract
Place the butter in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until light and smooth, about 1 minute.
Add the cream cheese and beat on medium speed until light, fluffy and well mixed together, about 3 minutes.
Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Add about 1 cup of icing sugar, return to medium speed and beat until mixed in. Repeat, one cup at a time, until all the sugar is mixed in.
Mix in the salt, and then the vanilla, continuing to beat until the frosting is smooth and has increased a little in volume, about 3 minutes more.
Frost your cake or cupcakes; if you are not using it right away, the cream cheese frosting can be refrigerated for up to two to three days in an air-tight container. Bring to room temperature and then beat until smooth again before using.
Makes 4 cups.
• 1 cup granulated sugar
• 2 cups raw walnut halves
Line a baking sheet with parchment.
Spread granulated sugar in a thin layer in the centre of a large, dry skillet.
Cook over medium heat, mostly undisturbed (it’s OK to swirl pan gently to get sugar to melt evenly), until sugar is melted, about 10 minutes.
Quickly add walnuts and cook, stirring, until coated and melted sugar is chestnut brown, about 1 minute more.
Scrape onto the parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet and spread out to cool, separating walnut halves into individual pieces. (Be careful, though — they will be very hot.)
Once they are cool, you can chop the candied walnuts in a food processor for a terrific crumb layer or use them whole.
Makes about 2 cups.
This intensely flavoured sauce is ideal over ice cream, alongside cakes or even in a cocktail.
• 1 (10 oz/300 g) package frozen raspberries, thawed
• 2 Tbsp sugar
• 1 tsp fresh lemon juice, or to taste
Place thawed raspberries and their juices, along with sugar and lemon juice, in a blender or food processor, and purée. Pour mixture through a fine sieve into a non-reactive bowl, pressing on solids to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Makes about 1 cup.
Note: The coulis keeps for three days, covered and chilled, or you can freeze it for up to six months. If you like, you can replace the lemon juice with kirsch, framboise or other liqueur, such as Grand Marnier.
Candied Citrus Peel
Elegant, easy and impressive, these make great garnishes for cakes as well as delightful candies on their own or dipped in chocolate. Orange is classic, but try clementines, lemon, even lime — think candied lemon peel dipped in white chocolate, or candied lime peel as a garnish for key lime pie.
The most important step is probably the one you don’t want to take — placing it in cold water and bringing it to a boil four times — but it’s essential for reducing any bitter flavours, making it soft and malleable and, most importantly, removing any impurities.
• 1 ½ cups granulated sugar, divided
• 2 oranges (or 1 grapefruit, 3 lemons or 4 limes)
• ½ cup water plus an additional 1 L or so for the boiling-and-draining process
• 2 Tbsp corn syrup
Place a wire rack over a baking sheet (and make cleanup easy by lining the pan with parchment). Place ½ cup sugar in a small, shallow bowl and set aside.
With a sharp knife or vegetable peeler, remove the rind of the fruit, making sure to only include the zest, not the bitter pith. Cut the peel into thin strips — if you want to be fancy, trim the edges and ends so they are nice and tidy.
Place the strips in a smallish, heavy saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then drain. Repeat this process three more times, and don’t be tempted to skip it.
Using the same pan, add the ½ cup water, 1 cup of sugar and corn syrup and place over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then add the blanched citrus peel. Simmer for 15 to 25 minutes, until the syrup thickens. Remove the peel from the syrup and place on a wire rack to drain for a couple of minutes.
Roll the drained peel in the remaining sugar. Let rest on the counter for 4 hours to dry out. Store in an airtight container.
Makes about 2 cups.