I love chocolate cake. I haven’t always loved it, though — for years I found it too much; too rich, too heavy, too something — and even though I liked the flavor, I couldn’t eat more than a bite or two. I realized over time that most chocolate cakes also have chocolate icing, and I am simply not an icing girl. Plus, and I know for some people this is blasphemy, it is simply too much chocolate. There are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking I like a naked chocolate cake.
I got it into my head somehow that I needed to find the perfect chocolate cake for my birthday (which is tomorrow), so I spent a good portion of May and June trying out various recipes. And since I was already treating it as a competition, I decided to make this a cookbook showdown and share the results here.
I set myself a couple of ground rules for the experiment. Regardless of the volume that each recipe is designed to make, I would scale (if necessary) to bake a single layer in my nine-inch springform pan. I would not make any icing/frosting/glaze, nor would I include any optional add-ins. And I would use as close to the same ingredients as possible for all of the cakes, so for instance I used Ghirardelli baking cocoa for the cakes that called for cocoa, because I didn’t have enough of my good Dutch process cocoa powder for all the recipes. I also followed the method in each recipe as closely as possible, even when my normal habit would be to do things slightly different (e.g. one recipe called for using a wooden spoon, where I likely would have used a whisk or my hand mixer, so I used the wooden spoon).
For judging, I used the following criteria:
Crumb: basically, what’s the texture like? For these purposes, this includes mouthfeel, but I will not be using that word again thank you.
Chocolate Factor: this is a sort of je ne c’est quoi judgment of how chocolate-y the cake is.
Children: I chose this for the alliteration, yes, but also it was convenient for me to have my kids (ages 12 and 16) rate each cake.
Chocolate Church Cake
Cheryl Day’s Treasury of Southern Baking by Cheryl Day
Cookbook Showdown creator Susie Dumond suggested that I try Cheryl Day’s recipe. I borrowed it from the library, and immediately added the cookbook to my wishlist because it is an amazing read and my husband’s southern roots mean I always have someone to cook southern food for (I’m writing this well before my birthday — cross your fingers that I get it).
Crumb: This cake is somehow both dense and light, which: ??? But it works really nicely.
Chocolate Factor: The flavor is very rich, and undeniably chocolate — and even if I hadn’t baked it, I would know there was as much coffee in here as chocolate, which in this case is melted unsweetened chocolate. I might like the balance a bit more in favor of chocolate. Just a smidge.
Children: Both rate this cake 4.5/5 and after several more bites one upped it to 5/5 and one lowered it to a 4/5
My rating: 4/5
How to Eat by Nigella Lawson
Nigella was my first cooking idol. Twenty-odd years ago I watched her show Nigella Bites almost obsessively, looking to her as a guide while I figured out what I wanted my domestic life to look like (ironically, I was at that time living in an apartment with no oven). When I got this book (by then I had an oven), I adopted her birthday cake recipe as my go-to, and when my children were little it was their favorite cake.
Crumb: This is the only of the four cakes that uses butter, which results in a denser (but not hard) crumb. It was on the dry side as well, but I can’t be sure whether that’s the recipe or if it was my fault — I think I left it in the oven for five minutes too long.
Chocolate Factor: This cake has both cocoa powder and (melted) bittersweet chocolate in the batter. Somehow it does not, however, taste particularly chocolate-y. This is a mystery to me.
Children: one 4/5, one 3/5
My rating: 3/5
Lori’s Chocolate Midnight Cake
Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat
I first found Samin Nosrat via television as well, this time the Netflix docuseries SALT FAT ACID HEAT. Although I own the book Salt Fat Acid Heat, I had not yet made any of the recipes from it, using it instead as a general guide to understanding why certain things do and do not work in cooking. And indeed, in the intro to this recipe she explains that oil makes for an airier cake crumb than butter, resulting in a gourmet flavor that is still reminiscent of the cake mix cakes that so many of us grew up with.
Crumb: I don’t know where I messed this cake up — maybe in calculating how much of the recipe to use for my pan? — but even though my toothpick came out clean as a whistle, it clearly needed at least five more minutes as the center sunk almost immediately. I considered re-baking the cake, but I didn’t because 1) the recipe could be to blame, and 2) the crumb is delightful! I can almost pretend that the fudge-y line through the center is on purpose. The rest of the slice has that dense-yet-light consistency I like.
Chocolate Factor: This one uses cocoa powder and optional hot coffee (it calls for coffee or boiling water, and I opted for a mix). It is suitably chocolate-y, with the subtle flavor boost of coffee.
Children: both 4.5/5
My Rating: 3/5 with the potential to be a 4/5 if it comes out right next time
Cocoa Yogurt Cake
Snacking Cakes by Yossi Arefi
Snacking Cakes is everywhere. I first heard of it on my friend Catherine’s Instagram, where she posts her bakes regularly. The book is such a sensation that there were no copies to be found for purchase when I decided I had to try it for myself. Luckily, I have a library card, and was able to borrow the ebook and bake this chocolate cake, which is the one on the cover.
Crumb: This is honestly the perfect cake texture. It is like if a brownie was somehow less moist without losing any of its positive properties or being dry in the slightest, dense but light as air.
Chocolate Factor: This is the right amount of chocolate flavor, and could only be improved by including the optional add-in of chocolate chips, stirred in just before baking. I might also add just a spoonful of espresso powder to mimic the flavor boost the other cakes get from coffee.
Children: one 4.5/5, one 4/5
My Rating: 4.5/5 and almost certainly a 5/5 with the extra chocolate
The cocoa yogurt cake from Yossi Arefi’s Snacking Cakes is the clear winner, with the church cake from Cheryl Day’s Treasury of Southern Baking in very close second (and my southern husband’s favorite). All four were easy to make, and although I messed up in baking one of them, everyone liked it and I would try it again without hesitation. The only one I probably won’t bake again is Nigella’s from How to Eat, which is a surprise to me!