Somewhere in the midst of traveling back to Kentucky, taking on a new job, and performing in my best friend’s wedding, I also turned 27. My wife and I had agreed that, though we would certainly celebrate, she was not allowed to shower me with presents. She broke her promise, and when I came downstairs in the late morning, bleary-eyed and a little woozy from a night of shenanigans on the town, the counter was covered in brightly colored packages, the table festooned with fresh flowers, warm biscuits, strawberry scones, coffee, and orange juice, and the room strewn with a hand-made sign declaring “CELEBRATE!” And indeed we did.
Before we dressed up fancy and made our way to City House for their beloved Sunday Supper, we had work to do: it was time to make a birthday cake. But not just any birthday cake. If you’re familiar with my and my wife’s culinary habits, you know that we’re always evaluating what we eat. Please don’t misunderstand us for a few militant, soulless critics. Instead, while we relish the food in front of us, we still consider what could be done to make the delicious the ethereal. Which is why, after three years of toying with more chocolate cake recipes than I can remember, we’ve come to a place of dessert bliss.
A good chocolate cake should be moist, rich, and not overly sweet. It should have the deep, earthiness of good cocoa, rounded out by subtle sweetness, and fortified with rich, orange-yolked eggs and high-fat butter. It should be dense. You should be able to pick it up by piercing it with a fork and not scooping it up with a spoon. It should be kissed judiciously with a thin layer of mildly sweet frosting, spiked with dark-roasted espresso and oaky, spicy bourbon whiskey. It should get better with age, maturing to its best self on the third day. If you’ve done it right, in a house of two, it should be eaten in less than a week.
Chocolate Cake with Bourbon-Coffee Buttercream Frosting
For the frosting:
3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 cup butter, room temp.
1/4 cup bourbon–you can use whatever bourbon you have around.
1 tablespoon milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon espresso powder
pinch of salt
For the cake (from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible) :
1/2 cup plus 3 tbsps unsweetened cocoa powder
1 liquid cup boiling water
3 large eggs, room temperature
2 1/4 tsps vanilla
2 1/4 cup plus 2 tbsps sifted cake flour (we used AP flour)
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350. Additionally, prepare two 8 or 9-inch cake pans by greasing them with oil and lining them with parchment paper. Grease them once again and lightly flour each pan.
To begin, whisk together the cocoa and the boiling water until smooth and let it cool to room temperature. Then, in a separate bowl, combine the eggs, a quarter cup of the cocoa mixture, and vanilla. In a larger bowl, combine the remaining dry ingredients and mix it on low speed for 30 seconds to blend. Add the butter and the remaining cocoa mixture. Using a hand mixer or a kitchen-aid, mix it on low speed until moistened. Then, increase to medium speed and beat for 1 1/2 minutes to aerate the batter. Scrape down the sides and begin to add the egg mixture, beating for about 20 seconds after each addition.
Scrape down the sides once again and pour the mixture into the two prepared pans. Place them in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes. A toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake should come out clean. Once baked, let each cake cool for 10 minutes on wire racks. Loosen the sides with a small metal spatula and invert them. Let them cool another 20 minutes before frosting them.
To prepare the frosting, add the sifted cocoa to a large bowl. Cream together butter and cocoa powder until well-combined. Add the sifted powdered sugar, a pinch of salt, and milk to the cocoa mixture. Turn the mixer onto high speed for about a minute. Add the vanilla, espresso powder, and bourbon, and mix to combine.
When the cakes have cooled completely, place one onto a large serving dish and frost it lightly. Then, place the other cake on top and frosted the remainder of the cake.