There’s never a wrong time for chocolate cake. It’s one of the easiest things I know how to make, which is lucky because it’s pretty much my answer for everything. A birthday? Chocolate cake. End of the weekend blues? Chocolate cake. It’s Tuesday night and I forgot that I need to bake for the teacher appreciation lunch at school tomorrow? Chocolate cake!
But I wasn’t always that person who whips up a cake from scratch without thinking twice. When I began baking, I was a recent college graduate living with my brother in a tiny Manhattan apartment. Our kitchen was almost nonexistent, and luckily I had the city to thank for every type of delivery or take out just down the street. I had no need to cook, and frankly, I didn’t know how to. I felt intimidated by the idea of creating an actual meal, and that discomfort prevented me from trying. But I have a sweet tooth, and so I found myself spending a small fortune every week on afternoon treats to go with my coffee or tea. Now if I were smart about it, I would have started cooking to avoid the expense of so many meals out, but I decided my first step to easing the financial burden would be to bake a batch of something on my own. At the time it seemed to make sense.
Who knows what I started with, but I began experimenting with different recipes, relieved that the science of baking meant I could just follow a good recipe and mostly find success. I began turning out batch after batch of scones, muffins, cookies and biscotti. I loved how the apartment would smell, and the satisfaction I felt when a tray of macaroons came out of the oven, lightly browned and chewy, with chocolate melting throughout the coconut. It was magical that such goodness could be achieved with less than ten minutes of effort and only a few dollars. And best of all was the joy I felt when I could share these creations with friends. I would take an extra orange poppyseed scone along to an interpreting assignment for a colleague, or knock on a neighbor’s door with a dish of homemade marshmallows, or show up to a friend’s apartment with a pan of brownies, and I can promise you that I never received a scowl in return. Getting something homemade makes everybody happy, even if the scone’s a little too dry, or the muffin’s a little too flat. Perfection isn’t required to make someone smile, and that takes the pressure off.
As the months rolled on, I found my confidence in the kitchen growing. I realized it isn’t a great tragedy if I burn the bottom of the cookies. I relaxed, and I started having fun. I allowed myself to tinker with ingredients and cooking methods, making things my own. I left my safety net of desserts and ventured into “real food, ” reminding myself that the worst case scenario was that I could toss a disastrous dish and call downstairs for pizza, and the only loss would be a bit of money and my time. But with every mistake I gained new knowledge, and so I never even saw that time as wasted. Who cares that the stir fry I tried ended up soggy and steamed? I learned not to crowd the pan and to use higher heat the next time. I still had plenty of food for dinner, the sauce was good enough, and it was absolutely healthier than Chinese takeout.
My life has changed a lot since those early days experimenting in a galley kitchen. While interpreting a graduate school class, I met Brian, and we got married in 2005. We moved to the suburbs the following year, had two amazing boys, and now both juggle working full time with keeping our house running and family activities organized. I make a priority of keeping home cooked food on the table and in the lunch boxes, and some days I succeed at that more than others. For me, being in the kitchen is the fun part, and because I know the output is worth the effort and appreciated, I do it with pleasure.
But let’s get back to what’s really important: chocolate cake. Celebrating a 7th and 3rd birthday within the last month, there’s been a lot of cake in our house. Really, a crazy amount of cake. To make a Lego brick cake for one and a Mickey Mouse cake for another meant three 9″ X 13″ cakes, two 8″ round cakes, four 4″ round cakes, and cupcakes on top of it all.
But having a recipe that you know always works, requires nothing fresh from the fridge, and can be prepped in the time it takes the oven to preheat makes this cake a little too easy sometimes. No melting chocolate in a double boiler, no fancy mixers needed to cream butter. Add to that it’s actually vegan, tastes even better on the second or third day but is still moist and tender on day five (making it ideal to mail to a friend with a new baby across the country), it’s pretty much perfect. Oh, and did I mention that when you add your wet ingredients to the dry, the batter actually starts to bubble and sizzle like the best fifth grade science fair project, the almighty volcano? It’s amazing.
I’ve made this cake so many times I no longer need to look at the recipe, and when it comes to baking that’s unusual because measurements need to be accurate. I originally started with a recipe I found online at benandbirdy.blogspot.com, but quickly played around to make it even better. I replaced the water it called for with strongly brewed decaf, I added almond extract to the vanilla, and I skipped the spelt flour and went entirely with good old fashioned all purpose. The coffee doesn’t turn the cake into anything you’d call mocha, it just deepens the chocolate flavor so that even the most basic Hershey’s cocoa becomes something impressive. It isn’t a requirement for this cake though, so if you don’t have any on hand or already cooled down, don’t stress yourself and just use water. But if you happen to have a little coffee left in the pot from earlier that morning, this is the perfect use for it. And without remorse, several times I’ve added in a healthy dose of dark rum, pleasing the adults, but making the kids a bit cranky because they can’t lick the spoon. (I figure straight up alcohol won’t win me mother of the year, but after the fumes cook off in the oven my little guys even enjoy the boozy version.)
This cake needs no frosting, so I rarely take the time to make any. On its own, it’s deceptively light (thanks to all the air pockets that the baking soda and vinegar create), making it hard just to have one slice. But when I do go the extra mile, I’ve got a frosting that is so much better than your average buttercream, adding a sense of occasion by turning the humblest of cakes into pure decadence. And if you check back in a couple of days, I’ll be sharing that with you next.
This cake is foolproof, so even if you’ve never baked a thing, it’s a great place to start. If you do, let me know how it goes in the comments because I’d love to hear your experience!
The easiest chocolate cake: it requires no frosting, is vegan, and is just as moist and delicious on day five as the day you bake it.
- 2 1/4 cups (295 grams) unbleached all purpose flour
- 2 cups (400 grams) white sugar
- 1 cup (75 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 cups strong decaf coffee (unless you prefer an extra caffeine kick)
- 2/3 cup canola oil
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon pure almond extract
- 2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
*If you want the adult version, trade 1/2 a cup of decaf for the rum of your choice. You may need to let the cakes cook a couple of minutes longer, so just make sure to check for doneness with a toothpick.
**This recipe makes one 9" x 13" cake, two 8" round cakes, eight 4" round cakes, or 24 cupcakes, but it can easily be doubled if you need to feed a larger crowd or want a cake all to yourself at the end of the night.