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Favorite Chocolate Cake, plus tiered cake tips

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I’ve made several tiered cakes over the last few years (you can see them all here), but a friend’s surprise 40th birthday party last November was my first opportunity to do a really decadent chocolate one.  Needless to say, I was extremely excited to try something new!

With my husband, left, and the birthday boy at his party

If I had to pick a single type of cake to eat for the rest of my life, it would be white with cream cheese wedding frosting, but if you are a chocolate lover, this is the cake for you.  I know I tend to be quite effusive over most of my cake recipes (I’m effusive by nature, and I can’t help it–my cakes are the bomb!  I kid, but really.  They are.  :) ), but I can tell you that this is the cake that I have gotten the most positive feedback for.  That may be in part due to the number of people I served it to, since most of my cakes are only made for groups of about 10 people, but I do think this is probably the best chocolate cake I have in my repertoire, and I have made it several times since the birthday party to great reviews as well.  It is my husband’s all-time favorite cake, and although it isn’t my favorite cake, it is my favorite chocolate cake.

If you are thinking about making a tiered cake in the future, but are intimidated, I highly recommend the method I used for this particular cake.  If you frost each cake on top of a thick, foil covered cake board that is at least 2″ larger in diameter than the cake itself, then insert four hidden pillars into the bottom two tiers, all you have to do is transport the cake in three tiers to the location where the cake will be set up, and plop each cake on top of the pillars.  And you’re done!  With the usual way I do it (you can read about that process here), the stress level is considerably higher and there is more chance of messing up the cake.  It is almost impossible to mess it up using hidden pillars.

*Hidden pillars aren’t actually invisible, as you can see, but since they are tall you can insert them down into the cake so that each tier is supported from the base of the cake below it.  It is the part of the pillar inserted to the cake that is hidden.

Another tip is that once the cakes have been removed from the refrigerator to come to room temperature, make sure they have a way to breathe.  After inserting the pillars in the bottom two, you don’t have to worry about them.  But you should insert a hole with a skewer through the top of the top tier as well, or choose a place on the least attractive side of the cake (the one you’ll face to the back of the room) to poke a hole into each layer of the cake.  This is to prevent air pockets from forming underneath the icing.  This is a problem that cake decorators face across the world, and according to the professionals I have consulted, no one knows why it happens.  When I make real buttercream with eggs and no powdered sugar, this never happens.  So I suspect it has something to do with a reaction between the cake and the powdered sugar frosting on the surface.  So if you are using a powdered sugar frosting (aka American buttercream), please make sure there is a place for air to escape so that your frosting job will not be ruined. (I used to be concerned this would make the cake dry out, but an entire day with a hole poked in the cake does not seem to affect it at all.  If I’m making the cake 2 or more days in advance, I keep  it in the refrigerator to keep it fresh and to keep air bubbles from forming beneath the frosting, and then poke it before I take it out to come to room temperature.)

UPDATE: It has now been explained to me that when you frost a cake cold and refrigerate it, once you bring it to room temperature the air inside the cake expands, causing the icing bulge, aka “icing budge.”  While this is the most likely explanation, I have actually had the bulge happen when frosting room temperature cakes and never refrigerating them. So weird!

Here are some pictures of icing eruptions that have happened to my cakes before I figured out I needed to poke them so they could breathe:

You can see the bump on the left side where air or gas is trying to escape.

And this is the view straight on. The bottom two tiers of this cake never gave me any trouble, but the top tier didn’t have dowel rods in it so there was no way for it to breathe and I had to fix probably 10 of these eruptions!

This has been such a pain for me, that I even caught one of the incidents on video! This was before I figured out I needed to poke the cake to prevent the air pockets.

A tip for getting your frosting perfectly smooth is to spray the cake with water after smoothing it out as much as you can with an offset spatula, then going over it again with a clean spatula.  The water helps your spatula to glide over the surface and make it very smooth.  You can also dip your spatula in water, but I find using a squirt bottle to apply it makes the job much faster.

OK, let’s get to my favorite chocolate cake recipe!  I took a bunch of photos of my latest one so I included a few extra for you at the end of the post.  You’re welcome. :)

Favorite Chocolate Cake

This recipe makes one 9″ two-layer cake. To make a tiered cake the size pictured above, you’ll need to make about 7 batches of the cake recipe (2 batches for each 14″ layer, 1 batch for each 10″ layer and less than 1 recipe for both 6″ layers combined), 5 batches of the frosting, and 5 batches of the glaze.
Printable recipe
Printable recipe with picture
Printable recipe for cake only

Favorite Chocolate Cake
1 ¼ cups unsweetened cocoa powder
2 ½ cups all purpose flour
2 ½ cups sugar
2 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
1 ¼ teaspoons salt

2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
1 ¼ cups warm water
1 ¼ cups buttermilk
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Favorite Chocolate Frosting
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup vegetable shortening
2 oz semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ cup dutch-process cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 lbs (8 cups) powdered sugar
¾ cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla

Favorite Chocolate Glaze
½ cup heavy cream
4 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 teaspoons corn syrup
½  teaspoon vanilla

Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, making sure the baking rack is in the middle of the oven. Prepare two 9” round cake pans by cutting out a piece of parchment or wax paper to line the bottom of them. Grease the pans, place the parchment or wax paper in the bottoms and lightly grease again. Dust the pans with flour (or cocoa powder if you don’t want the white dusting on the finished cakes). Set the pans aside.

Sift together the cocoa, flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Add the eggs, yolk, warm water, buttermilk, oil and vanilla. Mix on low speed until smooth, about 3 minutes.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Bake the cakes for about 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean or with moist crumbs. Do not overbake! Remove the pans from the oven and set the pans on a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes. Gently run a thin knife around the edges of the pans and unmold the cakes, removing the parchment paper liners from the bottom of the cakes. Let them cool completely, top sides ups, on a wire rack. Trim the tops of the cake layers with a long serrated knife to make them level.

*Veronica’s notes: Although I have never had a problem with this cake recipe overflowing in my pans, many people have left comments on Melanie’s blog (and once on mine when I used it before for THE Mocha Crunch Cake) that they did, so I recommend either making sure the batter is no more than 2/3 full in your pans or placing a baking sheet below the pans to catch any overflow, just in case. If you have extra batter, make a few cupcakes!  Also, please do not skip lining the pans with parchment or waxed paper.  This cake is sticky and I learned the hard way that it will stick to the pan even if you grease and flour it.

Make the frosting: Cream butter and shortening together until smooth. Beat in melted chocolate until smooth. Add the cocoa powders, salt, sugar and milk to the bowl and turn the mixer to a very low setting until it’s combined enough to increase the speed. Continue increasing the speed and scraping the sides of the bowl until everything is incorporated, then add the vanilla and continue beating until fluffy. Frost cooled cake and freeze leftovers. This makes a large batch so unless you lay the frosting on super thick, you should have enough leftover to frost a dozen cupcakes, but the batch isn’t quite large enough to cut in half. I know, I make things difficult, but you won’t regret having some extra on hand.

Make the glaze: Gently heat the cream and chocolate together in the microwave or in a double boiler, stirring often until smooth and shiny.  Stir in the corn syrup and vanilla.  Allow to come to room temperature before pouring over the top of the cake and spreading to the edge with a spatula so that it drips over the sides. If the glaze gets too thick, heat it again for a few seconds (it won’t take long) and stir before pouring over the cake. Serve the cake at room temperature.

Recipe source: cake recipe from My Kitchen Cafe, frosting and glaze by Veronica Miller.


Cake Decorating Competition

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I work for the US Postal Service Remote Encoding Center, and this month we’ve officially been open for 15 years. They had no budget to throw a celebration, so they came up with some cute and, in this case, genius ideas to throw one on the cheap.

Today was their birthday cake decorating competition, which totally eliminated the need to buy a celebration cake (there were 5 cakes just for our shift & mine serves 150)! Isn’t that smart? All they had to do was round up some items they got for Christmas and didn’t want and put them in a basket for a prize! Genius.

I started working on my cake last Thursday, going with the idea that immediately came to mind of a three tier cake with a red, white and blue theme since those are the colors in the USPS logo. I started with the topper since it wouldn’t be perishable. I made 30 red, white and blue stars by outlining them with royal frosting on waxed paper & filling them in with color-flow icing. After they dried hard, I hot-glued them to cloth-covered floral wire and bent them into shape to make it look sort of like an explosion or fireworks.

I used 9 boxes of cake mix, 36 eggs, 3 cups oil, 8 lbs powdered sugar and 1 1/2 tubs of shortening to make this cake. It makes me shudder just to think about all that shortening.

Once all 6 cakes were baked (two per tier), I sandwiched each tier together with some of that artery-clogging white frosting and spent almost an entire day trying to get the frosting on the outside as smooth as possible. For me, the frosting is the hardest part. I choose simple decorations and they don’t take long, but it’s really hard for me to get perfectly smooth frosting. I eventually have to beat down my perfectionist tendencies into submission b/c I’ve discovered that the frosting will NEVER be perfectly smooth and even if it is, I will inevitably stick a finger (twenty times) into the frosting after it has been perfected. This time was no exception.

Bottom tier after first icing:

And after the last–as good as it gets:

Once the tiers were as smooth as they were going to get, I let them dry a little in the refrigerator and then brushed edible glitter over the surface. This proved useless b/c after adding the swirlies, you couldn’t even see the glitter. Oh well.

Next was the logo, which I was loathe to do. I am NOT an artist and I always cringe at the part of decorating when it’s time to put a picture on the cake. My usual trick (I trace the picture with clear piping gel onto waxed paper and press that onto the cake, leaving a clear impression which I can trace) didn’t work b/c the glitter created a non-stick surface, so I had to use a toothpick to draw the logo & writing onto the cake. I was NOT going to just go for it with that navy blue frosting bag–that would have been a disaster with nothing to trace! Well, even with my toothpick drawing I didn’t do much better and ended up with this:

After much lamenting and trying to convince myself you really could tell it was an eagle if you looked hard enough, I finally decided to use white to cover up the blue in the places it shouldn’t be–essentially “erasing” my mistakes with white frosting. And to my relief, it came out perfect:

I decided to insert the dowel rods before going any further. Large tier cakes need support, so you insert dowel rods that are even with the surface of the cake to support the cake above, so not all the weight is on the bottom cake. Oh, and I should mention that each tier of cake should be resting on a cardboard circle or the dowel rods won’t do any good–the cake will just sink into them and leaving you with a sort of cake-implosion. The cardboard rests on the dowel rods beneath and supports the cake above.

I measured the length needed by inserting a rod into the middle of the bottom two tiers and marking it with a pencil. Dennis cut them to size and after inserting them around the hole in the middle, I placed rounds of parchment paper over them, slightly smaller than the cake that would be placed on top. This keeps the cardboard from sticking to the cake below it–so the frosting isn’t ruined during serving.

Next I swirled & dotted red onto the bottom, white on the middle and blue on top. (Yes, we did have to empty our shelves to keep the cakes in the fridge–everything went into a cooler or thrown away. I’m so happy the cake’s gone so we can buy groceries!)

Phew! Time to stack them. I put hot glue onto the disposable base and quickly centered the bottom tier over it and let it fall into place. Then I repeated with the other two tiers, minus the hot glue part.

I sharpened a long dowel rod and forced it down through the middle of the entire cake to stabilize it during transport. I left it a little higher than I usually would b/c I intended to cover it so it really didn’t matter. I also covered the cardboard edges beneath the tiers by piping a star border in the corresponding colors.

Then I pushed a hollow plastic dowel rod over the wooden towel rod and let it go all the way down to the bottom of the first cake. This provided a place to stick the “stem” of my star topper.

Next came the tricky part. Transport! My wonderful husband agreed to wake up super early to drive so I could sit in the back seat with the cake. Since the car seat slants toward the back, I rolled up old (clean) towels to provide a flat surface for the cake.

I was barely able to carry it out, it was so heavy. But I did it b/c there’s no way I was going to let anyone else touch my cake.

As you can see, the surface wasn’t QUITE flat, so I had to shove my hand under the back and hold it in an awkward position during the drive.

All highways and roads that I usually take to work are under heavy construction and the thought of using them was enough to give me colonic spasms. Too many curves, too many potholes–and all one lane so that if Dennis went as slow as I wanted him to, our lives would actually be in jeopardy each time we came to a stop b/c surely at least one of those angry people trailing behind us would be willing to put a cap in him just to get him out of the way.

So we took a very convoluted route that was blessedly smooth and only left me screaming “SLOW DOWN!” about five times. Every little bump had my heart jumping into my throat as I watched the cake shudder and wobble and bob up and down–even with me holding it in place and my arm aching with the strain (my left was shoved under the cake and slightly lifting the whole time, while I held the topper in a vase in my right hand to keep it from jostling too much b/c the stars were fairly fragile).

What usually was a 15 minute drive was doubled by the longer route and my insistence that he go 5 mph at every turn. And even then, I was screaming, “DENNIS!” The poor man. I had him just as tense as I was. We were both ecstatic when we finally pulled into the REC parking lot.

Although we brought a flat dolly to bring it inside, once it was in my arms, I was unwilling to set it down–too afraid of what might happen after we’d got it this far–so I carried it all the way into the building and to the break room. My arms & hands were trembling with the effort and with relief once it was safely on the table. I messed up the frosting swirlies a little when I put in the birthday candles b/c I couldn’t stop shaking, but it wasn’t noticeable.

Still shaking, I admired and took pictures of the other cakes.

USPS Jeep Cake

Flip-Flop Cake

Candyland Cake (2nd place)

Computer Cake (3rd Place)–we work on computers all day so this one was really clever and appropriate.

Cake table

For all this effort and stress, I was awarded first place and got to choose from three gift baskets. Two were stuffed with candy and I went with the third labeled “Pamper Yourself” b/c it didn’t look quite as fattening as the others.

I got the book, What About The Big Stuff?, Dove Caramel Chocolates (with Christmas ornaments on the box–yeah, remember what I said about the leftover Christmas junk?), Avon foot lotion, chamomile tea, Warm Sugar Vanilla body lotion (which I believe is one of BBW’s holiday lotions) hot cocoa mixes (yeah, more Christmas leftovers–who drinks/buys cocoa in the summer?) some yummy votive candles, Burt’s Bees cuticle oil, Nifty Nuthouse (it’s a local place) mixed nuts, a luxury eye mask that I just might use b/c it’s sooooo soft, Garnier face-cleansing towelettes and (get this) a bar of soap from a hotel (the Hyatt). I’m not complaining–I love everything and am very grateful–but I just think it’s pretty hilarious how they didn’t try to hide the fact that they were regifting old Christmas rejects (and hotel soap!). I would have at least removed the chocolates from their box and put them in a nifty new container.

Anyway, the real prize–and the only reason I entered the competition–was to win…and I did! So I’m happy. I don’t think I’ll be putting myself through that again, though–I really feel like I’m done with cake decorating. I’m way too anal to bear it. But I like to contradict myself so be watching out for my State Fair cake come fall. ;)

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