My favorite birthday cakes always came out of a Duncan Hines box. My mom, while an excellent cook, never really saw a reason to go beyond a mix, which was fine with us. I preferred “yellow cake” with chocolate frosting, and for years, that was definitely my go-to request. I do remember one year, however, we really mixed things up: we had my party at the local bowling alley and my mom made us “mud pies”, a delightful concoction of chocolate pudding and crumbled oreo cookies that were made to look like someone had shoveled bits of the garden into plastic cups and served them up to a bunch of 10 year olds. I think she even added gummy worms and candied violets, because my mom is cool like that. I loved that birthday. But we are here to discuss cakes, aren’t we?
Though I did not use a mix from a box, I wanted to share a very simple cake recipe that won’t intimidate people who, like my mom, don’t see the point in going beyond Duncan Hines. I also wanted a cake that was a bit more sophisticated than my standard yellow cake + chocolate frosting, so I decided to go with one of my all-time favorite flavor combinations, chocolate and espresso.
I was not disappointed – and neither was anyone else. I made this cake over the holiday weekend for a crowd, and we devoured it with gusto. After the initial serving, the cake disappeared throughout the next day, sliver by sliver.
The chocolate cake, rich and moist, benefited from the addition of a bit of espresso powder that deepened its flavor. The buttercream frosting, which also got the espresso powder treatment, was a delight. The chocolate covered cocoa nibs (thank you, Taza) that I decided to toss into the cake batter at the last minute brought a bit of crunch and complexity to the whole thing.
This cake was a real winner and I will be asking for it (and probably baking it for myself) for many birthdays to come. Then again, this cake is simple enough that maybe even some of the novice bakers in my life might take it on themselves. This was no Duncan Hines cake, and I think everyone (including my mom!) thought that was a pretty good thing.
Adapted from Real Simple Magazine
Serves 12 (makes two 8 or 9 inch layer cakes. Or 24 cupcakes)
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pans
- ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, spooned and leveled, plus more for the pans
- 2 cups all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon espresso powder
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 ½ cups whole milk
- 1/3 cup chocolate covered cocoa nibs or chocolate chips (optional)
Heat the oven to 350*F. Butter the pans, line the bottoms with parchment, butter again, and dust with cocoa powder, tapping out the excess. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium-high until fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in the vanilla, then the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
Reduce mixer speed to low. Add the flour mixture in 3 additions and the milk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Mix until just combined (do not overmix).
Transfer the batter to the prepared pans and bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 30-35 minutes for an 8 inch round, and 25-30 for a 9 inch round (cupcakes will be done around 20-25 minutes). Cool the cakes in the pans for 15 minutes, then turn out onto the racks to cool completely.
Espresso Buttercream Frosting
Makes more than enough to frost a two layer cake, and probably could be enough for a three layer cake too!
- 2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 pound confectioners’ sugar (about 3 ½ cups), sifted
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- pinch of kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
- 1 tablespoon hot water
In a small bowl, stir together 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder and 1 tablespoon hot water until the powder is dissolved, and set aside. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter on high until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Reduce mixer speed to low. Gradually add the sugar, then the vanilla, salt and espresso/water mixture. Beat until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
Note: this makes a LOT of frosting. Make sure you add a liberal amount of frosting in between your layers, as you will have plenty. I was stingy here and regretted it later.
- Use room temperature eggs. If you are pressed for time, warm the eggs in a bowl of warm water for 10-15 minutes.
- Cool cakes upside down, which will help to flatten the tops, making it easier to stack in layers. If the tops of the cakes are still too rounded, skim the top of with a serrated knife (and give yourself a little treat of cake scraps!).
- As noted above, use plenty of frosting in between the layers, there will be enough for the sides and the top (and to lick the spoon….).
- Lastly, this guide from Real Simple made for a great baking experience. Start with either their chocolate or yellow cake recipes, pick a frosting from their list, and then experiment with several different kinds of toppings. While I may not be an expert cake-baker, these people are! More tips and inspiration can be found in their cake baking guide.
All photos were styled and taken by Shelby.
If you don’t have the time to make a homemade birthday cake for a friend this year, send them a gift box of local, pure and comforting handmade food. Eat Boutique sells a handmade gift box filled with handmade sweet and savory treats. Send food that hugs you back today. And for Father’s Day, get free shipping by entering “DAD” at check out!
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