I don’t need much of an excuse to make a cake.
My friend Katie is coming over to stay at the weekend for a much belated birthday celebration, and before the night of heavy drinking and inevitable late night burgers, I thought it would be nice to add a thin veneer or respectability to proceedings with the addition of a classy cake and some thoughtfully paired cocktails (Chambord Royale, if you’re wondering – might as well put those leftover raspberries to good use).
Usually the cakes I make are very sweet and sickly, as I need to make sure that the kids will like it – this means that sharp fruits and dark chocolate are definitely off the menu. But as the cake is not for them, it’s a great opportunity to make something slightly more sophisticated than my usual fare.
I decided to go with a classic devils food cake, which I don’t think can be beaten in terms of flavour and texture. If anyone has a chocolate cake recipe that they think is better, please tell me! I use this as a base for a lot of my cakes, as chocolate pairs well with almost any buttercream flavour, and is almost universally palatable; I think I’ve met one person in my whole life who claimed to not like chocolate. Weirdo.
My recipe usually makes two 9-inch cakes, but I’m going to bake two deep 6-inch cakes instead, as I want to make a tall cake, but not a massive one; The last thing I need with summer approaching is a glut of chocolate cake and no-one around to help me eat it. I expect that baking times will need to be adjusted, so fingers crossed for a good result!
I’ve decided to pair it with a raspberry Italian meringue buttercream. This won’t be as sweet as traditional buttercream, and should complement the very rich cake, as well as the fruit. Making Italian meringue can seem very daunting at first, but as long as you have a functional thermometer and some self belief, it’s not a problem at all; I’ve not managed to mess it up yet!
Finally, I’m going to decorate the cake with some raspberries and a dark chocolate collar. I’ve been meaning to try a chocolate collar for ages, and now I’m no longer stressed out by the idea of tempering chocolate, it’s time.
So let’s do this!
You will need either a stand mixer or a hand mixer to make the devils food cake, as the batter is very wet. The recipe is another one that shamelessly uses a mixture of weight measurements and cups. The American cup measures are very useful for quickly measuring liquids, but I wouldn’t trust a cup measure with something like flour. If you don’t own both cup measures and scales, then… I honestly don’t know why you’re reading a baking blog 😉 – you can easily google conversions if required.
I start by putting all the dry ingredients into the stand mixer with a paddle attachment, and using it on a slow speed for several minutes to combine them thoroughly, usually leaving it running while I line and grease my tins. I do need to scrape around the bottom of the bowl occasionally, as my mixer has a couple of blind spots. If you’re not using a mixer, you can sift your ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Sifting is my least favourite part of baking though, so I’m always ready to avoid this at all costs!
Next, I simply add all the wet ingredients, with the exception of the boiling water, mixing together at a low speed to start, and increasing until fully incorporated. It’s important to make a thorough scrape of your bowl here, as you may get dry spots at the bottom. The batter should be wonderfully glossy and thick.
With the mixer on a slow speed, slowly pour in the boiling water. Once it is all incorporated, turn the speed up as high as you dare, and allow to beat for a good minute to help fully incorporate, and create some tiny air bubbles to help make this very rich and dense cake just a little bit lighter.
Do not be concerned about how liquid the batter is, but do make sure that you use a solid cake pan, not one with a loose bottom. Distribute the batter evenly between your pans – I like to weigh my pans, just to be sure I have an even amount.
Whilst my usual 9 inch cakes take 35 minutes to bake, the deep 6 inch tins I chose this time took about 50 minutes. Like an idiot, I was checking them every 5 minutes because I couldn’t believe they still weren’t done, checking the same cake every time. One ended up baking far quicker than the other. And I also baked them on different shelves, which was stupid given that the pans would have fit easily side by side, and also because the lower cake rose sufficiently to burn itself to the underside of the shelf above. I am not a smart man…
Regardless, you should bake the cakes until a skewer comes out clean(ish), and then allow to cool for 10 minutes in the tins before turning out onto a wire rack.
As I’ve chosen to make deep cakes, I’m going to split them in half and make a 4 layer cake. If you are going to stack your cakes, I do recommend that you level the tops at least. This also has the advantage of taking off some of the outer crust of your cake. You may like to take a thin slice off the bottom as well; I like my cake with no outer crust at all – I’ll take the sides off later.
Although you can buy tools to help you with levelling your cakes, the inexpensive ones really don’t work that well. I think it’s far better to use a large serrated knife and do it the old fashioned way. With your cake on a turntable, hold the knife relatively still as you turn the cake, checking the level periodically. Also, these cake scraps are great to stuff in your face while no-one’s looking, or have with ice cream or custard for dessert.
Now the cake is ready for assembly, it’s on to the buttercream.
The Italian buttercream is far more nerve-wracking than it is difficult. All you have to do is whip up egg whites in your stand mixer, and then pour in a hot syrup to make the meringue, and then beat in the butter. Heating the syrup can be stressful because you don’t want to let the sugar crystallise, and you also need to heat the syrup to a specific temperature. As long as you have the right equipment though, it really is simple.
The key points are: Do not stir the syrup, brush the sides of the pan regularly with water (to wash any crystallised sugar back into the syrup), and remove from the heat once the temperature reaches 118°c. It’s really that simple.
An infrared thermometer should work perfectly well for this, but I always like to double check with my Thermapen, as sometimes the infrared thermometer can give an erratic reading.
With your egg whites already at sift peak, and the beater running at a medium speed, slowly pour the hot syrup down the side of the pan, then simply leave on a high speed until the bowl has cooled down completely – about 5 minutes.
Once the meringue is cool, or at least not hot, you can start to add your butter. I like to use a french butter like President for this buttercream, as it has a slightly higher melting point than english butter, and will stay firmer at room temperature. Your buttercream will start to deflate as you add the butter, and then look like it’s splitting. It will be fine, I promise. Just keep adding all the butter, and then beat for a few minutes more. Eventually it will become smoother and luscious looking.
Once the buttercream has all come together, I’m adding some freeze dried raspberry powder. It has a good sharp flavour and will also colour the buttercream a lovely pink colour. I find it packs a lot more punch than fresh raspberries, and also has the advantage that it doesn’t loosen the buttercream.
Italian meringue buttercream might seem like a bit of a faff, but it’s well worth trying. It’s very smooth and creamy, and doesn’t have the kind of biting sweetness that a simple buttercream can sometimes give you.
As I was rummaging through my cupboards to find the raspberry powder, I also came across some raspberry jam that I didn’t know was lurking in the pantry. I decided to use that in between the layers of my cake instead of making it a completely buttercream affair. When adding a loose filling, it is useful to create a dam of buttercream around the edge of the layer, otherwise the filling can leak out into the outer layer of buttercream and spoil the overall effect.
That being said, I made my dams far too large here. The cake ended up a little sunken in the middle, and because the buttercream was a very different colour to the jam, it looked a bit funny when cut. If you’re only using a small amount of jam, you might not even need to bother with the dam, especially if you chill your crumb coat thoroughly. I don’t know – make your own choice!
However you layer your cakes, once they are all stacked as neatly as possible, I like to put them in the fridge for about 30 minutes, and then once everything has firmed up a little, trim off the outer edge of all the cakes. This also allows you to improve the shape of the cake if you have bulges or misalignment.
Now that you have exposed the delicate crumb inside, it’s more important than ever to crumb coat. A complete, but thin, coat of buttercream needs to encase the cake, which can then be set in the fridge briefly before the final coat is added. It’s especially important to crumb coat chocolate cakes, as the brown crumb is very distracting if it gets into a pale coloured buttercream.
It’s easiest to cover and level the top of the cake first, before coating the sides, and then finishing neatly with a cake smoother. After much practice at doing this, I find you get the best and quickest result from giving an even pressure on the cake, rather than trying to hold the smoother still – sometimes the more you try to control things, the fussier everything becomes. There is no need to be excessively neat and tidy at this stage anyway, as everything will be covered again later. Once the sides are smoothed down, buttercream protruding over the top of the cake should be gently pulled inwards, just using the weight of the scraper.
You’ll need to return the cake to the fridge for about 30 minutes, and then you can begin the final coat. I like to place the cake on a slightly larger board to help me manoeuvre it in and out of the fridge without scraping my fingers all through the buttercream.
I like to use a large cake icing tip to help get an even coverage on the final coat. I always used to think this was a bit unnecessary and a substitute for skill – but after having endless struggles with the final finish, I think this is a wonderful time-saving device. The 2 minutes it takes you to fill a piping bag will probably be a lot less than the time to spend trying to get the buttercream evenly spread by hand.
When you do the final coat of buttercream, a useful tip is place your smoother along the bottom of the cake board, as this will help you achieve a finished cake that is the exact size of your board, and perfectly round. If you have a cake stand that is exactly sized to your cake board too, the effect is rather wonderful.
I like to use this hamburger flipper to transfer small cakes, but if you have good coordination you should be able to do this with a pallet knife or two.
The only thing left to do is my chocolate collar, and I’m going to need to take a few measurements for this. Firstly, you need to know the length of your collar (πd for those who can’t remember from school), and I calculated that 19 inches should be enough. I also marked a couple of other lines on my parchment, the height of the cake, and the height over which I don’t want to go. A little chocolate protruding above the cake looks awesome, but I don’t want it to sit higher than the raspberries, on this cake at least.
I’m going to use a dark chocolate because I think it pairs best with the rich chocolate cake. I’m going to melt about 2/3 of my chocolate completely over a bain-marie, and then stir in the remaining 1/3 gradually, cooling the chocolate to about 32°c. If your last few bits of chocolate are refusing to melt, you can return your bowl to the saucepan momentarily, but beware of taking the temperature too high and destroying your type V crystals! For a far more complete explanation of the tempering process, you can read my post of making my own Easter egg.
When you want to test for temper, coat the back of a spoon and place into the fridge for 4 minutes. You should be able to tell if the chocolate is tempered if it firms up quickly and looks shiny and streak-free. The most foolproof way to test though is just to scrape your teeth through the chocolate. If it feels how you expect it to, like a chocolate bar, it’s tempered. So as long as you don’t introduce moisture to the chocolate now, it’s sorted!
So all that remains is to pipe my chocolate collar. As I want the buttercream to show through, I’m just going to do a random line pattern on my paper. Or at least, that was the plan. I put my chocolate into a disposable piping bag, but cut the hole a little too wide. In the panic of the fast flowing chocolate, I just ended up as a series of circles. I quite like the look though.
I left the chocolate to start setting up for a couple of minutes, and then carefully moved the paper upwards to give myself a nice flat bottom. It is really important not to step away from the chocolate at this point – tempered chocolate can set up incredibly quickly, so you’ll want to watch it like a hawk. I found it useful to test the chocolate that was left behind on the table. Once I was sure it was holding its shape pretty well, I knew it was safe to move the collar onto the cake.
Despite my panic about everything going wrong as I attached the collar, this was an absolute cinch. Maybe it would have been more difficult on a larger cake. I pressed down the neatest edge to the cake, and then used a knife to help me trim the overhanging end. As the chocolate hadn’t completely set up, this was pretty easy to do. Then you can simply east off the paper, and voila!
I did have a couple of obviously sparse places at the seam of the cake, so I trimmed down a couple of splinters and stuck them on the cake as attractively as I could manage. You’re always going to have a back seam with any design, so just do your best to make it inconspicuous!
And for the finishing flourish – a crown of raspberries!
I was pretty happy with the way everything turned out, with the exception of the chocolate collar. I’d tempered it so well (I’m amazing, I know), that it splintered and cracked completely as I was cutting the cake. Whilst other recipes I’ve seen suggested the use of melted chocolate only, I didn’t like the idea of this as I thought it wouldn’t look as good. Perhaps another time I’d either use milk chocolate and try for a thinner lined design, or maybe use a ‘cheater’s chocolate’ and melt the chocolate with some oil to help it shine despite being untempered… Always a learning experience!
Anyway, everybody loved it, including the kids! The flavours worked really well.
9/10 – would definitely eat again.
Devil’s Food Cake
255g plain flour
450g castor sugar
90g cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon espresso powder
1 cup milk
½ cup vegetable or canola oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water
Preheat oven to 180°c (160°c fan). Line two 9-inch cake pans with baking parchment, and then spray with oil.
Add flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt and espresso powder to a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk thoroughly to combine and ‘sift’, using your paddle attachment.Add milk, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla to flour mixture and mix together on medium speed until well combined. Reduce speed and carefully add boiling water to the cake batter. Beat on high speed for 1 minute to add air to the batter.
Distribute cake batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes, remove from the pan and cool completely.
Italian Meringue Buttercream
5 egg whites
1/4 cup / 50g caster sugar
1 cup / 200g caster sugar
1/4 cup water
450g unsalted butter, room temperature
Separate 5 eggs whites into the bowl of a stand mixer, and whisk slowly until they become foamy. Add the 1/4 cup of sugar gradually, continuing to whisk until stiff peaks.
Boil 200g of sugar and 1/4 cup water over medium-high heat, without stirring, brushing down the sides of the pan occasionally, until it reaches 118°c.
Beat the meringue on high, as you pour the hot syrup down the side of the bowl in a steady stream. Continue to beat for about 10 minutes, until the outside of the bowl is at room temperature.
Gradually add the butter in small pieces. Once smooth and creamy, add your desired flavourings and beat through.