Chocolate Birthday Cake


I stumbled on a chocolate cake recipe a couple years ago that my family went crazy for. Before long it was the most-requested recipe among family and friends for every birthday, anniversary or special occasion. Dubbed the ‘ugly cake’ because the rich fudgy chocolate cake was so crumbly it would instantly mix into the vanilla buttercream frosting leaving the cake looking like a giant mushed Oreo.  No one seemed to care what it looked like as long as it tasted good. And really, it tasted very very good.

So I watched a few cake decorating tutorials and slowly slowly, the ‘ugly cake’ is transforming into a bit of a swan cake as I figure out a few tricks and tips when it comes to baking and icing cakes. This particular recipe delivers on flavorful rich chocolate cake paired with a vanilla frosting that’s a hybrid between buttercream and cream cheese frosting. The combination just works.

So for the person you love very much, make this special birthday cake for them to celebrate and even if it turns out a little lopsided, or a few chocolate crumbs mix into the frosting; no worries. It’s going to taste great and that’s all that matters.

Triple Layer Fudge Birthday Cake:

Cake layers

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs 2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/3 cups Dutch-process cocoa (any baking cocoa is fine, Hershey’s Special Dark is a nice alternative)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 teaspoons instant espresso

Make cake layers: Heat oven to 325°F. Line the bottom of three 9 inch round cake pans with parchment paper. Grease parchment and sides of pans. Using an electric mixer, beat butter with sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at time, beating each in until just incorporated and scraping down sides of bowl. Add vanilla, then buttermilk.

Place flour, cocoa powder, instant espresso, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a sifter over the mixing bowl and sift ingredients in. Beat dry ingredients into batter until just combined; scrape down bowl again. Divide batter between three pans. Bake each layer for about 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of each layer comes out batter-free. Cool in the pan 10 minutes, then remove cakes from pans and let cool completely on racks. I often put those racks right into the freezer, to firm up this very soft and tender cake before leveling and frosting it; it makes the process much easier. The cake can also cool on the counter and then be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to frost it.

Vanilla Frosting:

I’m not sure whether to call this buttercream or cream cheese frosting. It has a hint of tang from cream cheese but it is sweet and smooth like a buttercream. This is the base for almost every frosting recipe I make. It’s lovely with caramel swirled in or a pinch of lemon zest or unsweetened coconut.

  • 1 ½ cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 8 ounces low-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
  • ¼ cup firmly brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • Tiny pinch of salt
  • Splash of milk

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter and cream cheese together until light and fluffy. It’s important that the butter and cream cheese truly are soft so that they mix easily together. Add the brown sugar and mix for 2 more minutes. Add in vanilla and mix. With the mixer on low, begin incorporating powdered sugar one cup at a time. Add a pinch of salt. If the frosting gets too thick, add a splash of milk. The frosting should be smooth and easily pliable but thick and able to hold its shape.

Frosting the Cake: Take the cakes from the freezer or refrigerator and place the bottom layer on a cake stand or tray. To help with clean up, place small scraps of parchment paper along the edges of the cake to catch wayward frosting. Using a butter knife or small spatula spread a thin layer of frosting on the top of the cake, working the frosting to the edges and sides of the cake. This is called creating a crumb layer and catches the crumbs so that you can frost the cake without getting a bunch of cake mixed into the frosting. Add the second layer of cake, repeating the process with the frosting, just creating a thin coating over the entire cake. If your cake is domed on the top, use a serrated knife to gently trim the top off so that your cakes stack neatly on top of each other. Add the final cake layer and complete the crumb layer. From there, liberally frost the cake, starting at the top and slowly working the frosting down the sides of the cake. Decorate with candles or fresh flowers or a whole lot of sprinkles, you can’t go wrong!



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