Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake

CATEGORIES: Cakes and Cupcakes, Sara

I don’t need to do a lot of explaining today since I sang my chocolate cake praises in my last post.  If you missed it, this is the cake recipe that goes with this chocolate frosting that I could eat plain from a bowl. The cake was on the cover of the “All-Time Best Recipes” Collector’s Edition from Cook’s Illustrated.  My one piece of advice is that you take the time to follow all of the steps as written.  What I’ve found with Cook’s Illustrated is that every minute step and process has a very specific purpose.  These people try a recipe 428 different ways in order to get the best result- so I try not to stray too much- especially when it comes to baking!   This is just a great, basic, perfectly chocolaty, moist, delicious old-fashioned cake.  I say we just get right to it, don’t you?  Oh, one tip first:  When I’m embarking on a big project like this (not that a cake is a huge project, but it does take time.  And lots of dishes.)  I often make the cakes one day in advance.  When completely cooled, wrap well with plastic wrap and then place in an airtight container.  Either store overnight, or pop in the freezer for a few days (or weeks).  Totally cuts down on time and dishes the day you will be making and eating your delicious cake!

Alrighty then.  Unsweetened chocolate.  If you are like me, this will instantly take you back to your childhood when you sneaked into the pantry and assumed it was semi-sweet.  Mean Mom, very mean.

Use a small glass or metal bowl to create a double boiler.  This pudding-like mixture is one of the tricks to the great texture of the cake.  We’ve got the melted chocolate in there, as well as some cocoa powder and hot water.

It will start to thicken, and if you let it- it becomes quite thick.
But then you add some sugar

And it magically becomes soft and smooth and glossy.
I love magic of the chocolate variety.

Set that aside to cool and you’ll whisk up some eggs until they’re nice and frothy.  The recipe calls for a stand mixer,
but you can certainly make this with a hand mixer as well.

In goes more sugar, because, well, we’re making a cake here people.

And then that chocolate pudding-ish stuff

And then some very soft butter.  Seriously, soft.  Not melted, just super duper soft.  Apparently I have no pictures of super soft butter, but trust me.  It’s in there.

Mix up those dry ingredients

and alternate them with the buttermilk + vanilla.  Yes, it’s important to alternate!  I have a hunch there’s people who ignore that step in baking, and it definitely affects the outcome.
If you dump everything in at once, you’re just making a big chocolate muffin 🙂

In the batter goes to the pan and then onto the oven.  Here’s a trick:  When you are inverting a warm cake to a cooling rack, place a paper towel down first.  It will still let the air circulate, but it prevents the cake from sticking to the rack.

Once those babies are cooled you can frost.  Place your first layer on your serving platter or cake plate and slather some frosting on top.

Place the other layer on top and try to pretend it’s not just a huge whoopie pie wanting to be eaten right then and there.

From there, I don’t try to be pretty, I just start slathering.  Place a large amount on top so that you always have something to spread around.
This way you don’t really need a crumb layer.

Try to get everything evenly coated- seriously, doesn’t have to be pretty yet!  It’s more important that the frosting is evenly distributed.  See?  Messy cake.

Once you are to that point, you can use an off-set spatula to gently smooth out the sides.  It helps to run the spatula under very hot water first and dry it off before spreading.

For the top, I just use a spatula, or even a spoon, and make sort of a figure eight pattern to swirl it around.  We’re going for sort of a casual elegance here.  Shabby-Chic.   Casual Friday, but with heels.  Catch my drift?

Then you can cut into that sucker…

And I will not judge you for making moaning sounds when taking your first bite.
And possibly every bite thereafter.


THE Best Chocolate Cake you'll ever eat


  1. Am I really the first comment? cRazY! This cake looks sooo good. My hubs only like chocolate cake and I’m always on the look out for a out-of-this-world chocolate cake. Can’t wait to try it out!

  2. Um. Wow. My husband is a HUGE chocolate cake fan, especially that huge chocolate cake you get at Costco? Yeah, we have those often for birthdays around here. I may have to surprise the heck out of him and make THIS one for his birthday instead this year!

  3. Looks divine! I’m super curious to learn more about the alternating dry and wet ingredients. I see that in all sorts of recipes and I’ll admit I don’t often follow the rule. It all gets mixed together anyway. Why do you really need to alternate? . . . texture, taste- I don’t have a clue what the end result difference would be. Can you explain in more detail sometime?! Thanks!

    1. Yes Daisha, there’s a reason to alternate and it does in fact affect the texture of the finished product. That’s why in cakes you alternate and in muffins and quick breads you don’t. Always follow the directions in a recipe for best results!

  4. This looks divine…I will definitely be making it for a group of friends that we get together with every weekend. Question, though. Do you have any tricks to getting a cake out of the pan in one piece? I usually spray my pans with Pam and then dust with flour, and I still sometimes have trouble. Does butter work better than Pam?

    1. I’m totally cheap and not fancy at all, but I’ve found that buying some parchment paper and taking the time to cut out a circle (trace the pan) and put it in the bottom (I usually put some spray down, then the paper…it helps it stick, plus it’s extra lube, which can’t hurt) is worth the effort and money. That way you can run a knife around the sides before you turn it out and have extra insurance that the top (bottom?) won’t stick. Double non-stick insurance!

      1. A trick I learned from a friend who bakes cakes professionally…and I’ve NEVER had a problem since… mix together equal parts vegetable or canola oil, flour, and regular Crisco in an airtight container. Use a pastry brush to apply to the bottom and sides of any cake pan, bread pan, or brownie pan before adding the batter or dough. With cakes, you can also add the parchment circle on the bottom, if you’d like. Store in a cool, dry place. (Pantry) No need to refrigerate. It’s like baking magic!

    2. Yes Jen- generally butter and flour work a lot better than cooking spray and flour, or cooking spray alone. I also really like the cooking spray with flour in it- I use “Bakers Joy” and it works awesome.

    3. Jen-

      I use Pam For Baking and it works great. No need to flour or anything as it’s supposed to have flour in it. I have used it several times for cake and it is awesome and sooooo much easier!

    4. well usually what i do is just take the butter wrapper, n just wipe off the extra butter on the package itself onto the cake container.works fine

  5. What is the trick to not getting a cake to fall? I have never been able to make a cake that didn’t fall- not even the box kind with the high altitude directions. Any ideas? I do live in Utah, so I’m at a high altitude. But, I think my cakes fell in Texas, too.

    1. One thing I can think of is don’t open the oven within the first 20 minutes of baking – or really, at all, if possible, until you are close to the end of the baking time. When cooler air hits the part that is not done (usually the middle), it causes it to deflate. You may also want to try turning your oven off for the last 10 minutes or so of baking and letting it cool down slowly. That is totally off the top of my head, so you may want to double check it with the great encyclopedia of google :).

    2. You must never open the oven door during the critical baking time. That will cause a cake to fall EVERY time. Only open the oven door to perform the toothpick check at the END of the baking time. Hope this helps:)

  6. I always have trouble making a from scratch cake because of altitude. Do I need to change anything for my cake to look like yours when I make it in Denver?

  7. I’m having guests for dinner tomorrow. This would be perfect! By the way, what size round pans did you use Sara?

    Thank for posting this!

    1. Guess what- I’ll be totally honest and tell you I cheated and didn’t use dutch-process 🙂 I used Hershey’s Special Dark, and the flavor was great!

      1. If you want to order some really high quality spices and baking ingredients, try penzeys.com! Or, see if they have a retail outlet near you. I order from them about 2-3 times a year and stock up on stuff like cocoa powder, cinnamon, whole nutmegs, garam masala, and a bunch of other things. Their Dutch process cocoa is amazing in baking.

    2. Hershey’s Special Dark is a mixture of natural and Dutch-processed cocoa so Sara didn’t completely cheat. I have made many CI recipes that called for Dutch-processed cocoa, and mine always turned out great just using the Dutch-processed cocoa that is available in the bulk bins at Winco.

  8. Maybe I shouldn’t even be asking this question … lol. Would it totally ruin it to make cupcakes with this recipe? Is it just better as a cake? My 3 year wants a chocolate cake for his birthday and I’d love to try this, but when it comes to kids birthdays, I’m more inclined to make cupcakes for the mess factor.

  9. OMG! I’m dying here. Pretty much just drowned in a puddle of my own drool. Must. Make. CAKE! There must be something to celebrate…Heck, chocolate cake does not need a special day…

  10. wow, there are already lots of questions on this post, but i’m going to add some (because good cake is THAT important).

    1. if making for cupcakes, i’m assuming you reduce the cooking time, right?

    2. i’ve turned into a cupcake making machine lately, and i like to make ahead, store, and then frost shortly before serving. but i’ve noticed with every batch (usually doctored up box mix) that the tops get condensation-y and sticky if i don’t frost them immediately upon cooling. i always make sure they are completely cooled before putting into an air-tight container. any idea why this is happening and if there is anything i can do?

    (sorry if these are rookie questions- i’m a novice baker!)

    1. 1. Yes, you’ll have to eyeball the baking time.

      2. That’s just a matter of having something moist in an airtight container. There has to be somewhere for the moisture to go. It doesn’t really affect the end product (if anything I think it’s sometimes a good thing- keeps them soft!) so just cover them with frosting 🙂 You can vent your container, but then you run the risk of drying out your cakes.

      1. When my husband is overseas I’ll send him unfrosted cupcakes (frosting sent separately) I always stick a couple paper towels in with them in a sealed container and that has helped with the condensation and keeps the tops of the cupcakes from getting gooey. Might be worth a try!

  11. YUM!!! My birthday is in (not quite) 2 weeks and I think I will be making this for myself! 🙂 I’ve always used the Hershey’s Disappearing Chocolate Cake recipe as my “go-to” chocolate cake but I will most definitely be giving this a try.

    1. That’s so funny – my birthday’s on the 24th, and I was just thinking the same thing! Normally, I like to get out of extra work for my birthday, but the thought of biting into this amazing shabby-chic whoopie pie is making me seriously reconsider this year . . . I’ll just have to make it ahead of time so it’s not extra stress that day.

      1. No way!! MY birthday is on the 24th!! 🙂 I was thinking of buying one of the lemon cakes that are at Costco right now (from Cheesecake Factory – in the freezer section) for my birthday so I didn’t have to make anything, but this is winning out for sure.

    1. You can cut the “peak” off. Then you have a nice flat cake. Besides, you need the chance to “taste test” before serving, right?? 🙂

  12. It was so great to meet you at Women’s Conference.
    I am serious when you are in Colorado, let me know if you need anything.
    I could make you an amazing dinner, I have the best cookbook… oh ya you wrote it.

    just love you girls!!!

  13. Do you refrigerate the cake because of the cream in the frosting? I’m in Georgia and I have a feeling it would melt at room temperature.

  14. Hey! this is MY best chocolate cake ever recipe!! Great…now I’ve got nuthin’ on the OBB girls….except maybe a few pounds….

  15. I love in the directions “casual elegance here. Shabby-Chic. Casual Friday, but with heels.” I couldn’t stop laughing that was funny. Cake looks AMAZING and will give it a try tonight. Can’t wait!

  16. oh, my. This looks amazing. I really want to set aside all I should be doing and make this. But then who would eat the whole thing? Better wait for an event.

    1. If you just need a substitute, you can use 1 Tbs lemon juice or vinegar mixed with milk to make one cup. If you for some reason can’t use buttermilk, or the substitution, definitely use whole milk. I can’t tell you what will result because I’ve never tried it, but I think it would be fine.

  17. I have buttermilk in my refrigerator! Looks like I know what to do with it now. My sister will love me forever if I make this for her. Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting is her favorite! It was really hard to wait for the cake recipe after you teased us with the frosting.

    1. I made this yesterday- and it was killer good. My kitchen was a little warm (I think it was the first warm day in Utah this year!) and even when cooling the frosting to 70°, it was still pretty runny, but very tasty. Is it okay to eat chocolate cake for breakfast? After all, there ARE a lot of eggs in it!

  18. You know, even though I already have 2 chocolate cake recipes that I love and make often- this one looks to good to pass by… and who doesn’t need more chocolate in her life? Right?
    I am going to feature a picture of this cake and a link back to this post (as well as the post for the chocolate frosting) in my Links to Love post tomorrow (5/15) at http://www.momof6.com.
    I really enjoy your blog- it’s one of my favorites, and I am glad to be a subscriber!

  19. It looks like a cake that needs a glass of milk to go with it! Do I need to take milk to the church activitiy that I am taking it to? 🙂 I have little self control when it comes to chocolate, so I figured I needed to take it to a church activitiy.

  20. I made this the day after it was posted for my husbands birthday. I have never made a cake from scratch before but it turned out SOOO good. I will definitely be making this again… soon..:)

  21. I love Cook’s Illustrated and I love this cake. They can be pretty particular, but it is totally worth it!! I should also say that I learned about your blog a couple of weeks ago when my mom bought me your cook book. I love your stuff!! Simple and yummy!! I’m actually a bit obsessed with America’s Test Kitchen and rank you guys right up there with them!

    1. I am a bit obsessed with america’s test kitchen too….which is why I Love,Love, LOVE “Cooks’ Country” Saturdays on PBS It is the team for America’s Test Kitchen. 🙂

  22. I am such a big fan of Cook’s Illustrated, America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country. You’re so right, that their ingredients and methods shouldn’t require any improv. If I follow their recipe, as written, I’ve always had great result. Beautiful job on frosting the cake!

  23. My birthday is not until next week but I am making my HUSBAND make this for me today….a pre-birthday cake! YUMMY.

  24. I made this cake with the frosting over the weekend for my Father-in-Law’s birthday and it was a HUGE hit!! The cake was good, but the frosting was amazing!!! It was so light and fluffy, yet had a good deep chocolate taste. I could have just eaten the frosting on it’s own (and I might have…a little). What really impressed me was that I was worried there wouldn’t be enough frosting (my husband’s family has a high ratio of frosting to cake requirement) and I actually had some extra, so it worked out perfectly!! I will definitely be keeping this recipe and be reusing it again!!

  25. I made this for my husband’s b-day and it was sooooo good! The only change I made was to put chopped roasted salted almonds on the outside of the frosting like the blackout cake from cheesecake factory. Yum, Thank you

  26. This is cake is so wonderful!!!! I have NEVER been good at making chocolate frosting and I was able to do this and make it look good!! Perfect cake recipe and perfect frosting recipe. I followed each step exactly and it turned out perfect!! Thanks for the great recipe! 🙂

  27. I just made this cake and it is delicious! It took me 3 hours and 15 minutes total. It looks gorgeous though, and my husband really liked it. It was fun making with my 5 year old daughter. Very delicious!!

  28. Wow. This just might be the onus I need to get out and make a much needed grocery shopping trip today. . .

    1. I’m in the middle of making cupcakes with this recipe right now. From the looks of it, it’s going to make about 3 dozen. I have my 2nd dozen in the oven now.

  29. *Seriously* one of the best chocolate cakes I have ever tasted. Unfortunately, I made it as cupcakes using foil wrappers and the cake stuck to the wrappers. Not very pretty. :-/ (I still ate 3, but don’t tell anyone…)

    I *will* make it again as a cake next time (in some heavily greased pans) because it is just plain awesome. Yum! Next time I’ll even add the frosting!

  30. THANK YOU for this recommendation! What a delicious recipe! I made it for my husband’s birthday cake tonight, and I loved it!! It was a lot more effort than the usual box mixes I make, but it certainly was special!

  31. So this may be the dumbest question, but here goes. When you say 4 eggs plus 2 yolks, are you talking 4 egg whites with 2 yolks or 4 whole eggs PLUS 2 yolks? Can’t wait to try this out!

  32. So, I’m sure this cake is divine, as long as one manages NOT to fill one pan a little more than the other, which isn’t that bad, except that one should also not put the baking rack in crooked and then not realize it, causing one of the cake pans to spill all over the oven whilst baking, which then causes the oven to smoke because there is cake batter dripping all over the heating element, which then causes the cake to smell burnt because, let’s face it, the oven was filled with smoke while it was cooking. The frosting, however, WAS divine. 😀

  33. If I want to make this cake in advance and freeze it, do I frost it and then freeze it? Or should I just freeze the actual cake and then frost it later? How long does it take to thaw?

    1. Definitely freeze BEFORE frosting. You can even frost it while still frozen; cake doesn’t take long to defrost; let it sit at room temp for an hour or so and you should be good!

  34. Can’t wait to try this! Had to laugh about the bittersweet chocolate. When I was little my dad would always come and take a big scoop of cookie dough, brownie batter, whatever I was baking. So one day I left out a spatula covered with melted bittersweet chocolate…he he.

  35. Hello from up in Artic Canada! Beautiful Cake recipe. I stumbled onto your site yesturday and tomorrow when i put out a giant version of your recipe the crew i cook for will be as well. I look forward to try more of the recipes on your site. Always looking to try new and old recipes and never have felt the urge to leave a comment till now.
    Thank you.

  36. Attention High Altitude readers! I made this yesterday for my DH’s birthday. I was a bit worried because I have terrible luck with scratch cakes, because I live at high altitude (5400 ft in Denver area). It fell a little, but not too badly. I reduced the amount of baking soda to 1 tsp and if I made it again, I’d try adding about 1/4 c. flour as well and I think that might take care of it. The cake & frosting were gorgeous and everyone at the party loved it!

    1. You can also reduce the amount of sugar slightly. I have had the worst trouble with falling cakes but when I reduce the sugar and cook at a lower temp, it does not tend to fall. Also make sure your sugar is combined well, should not be very grainy.

  37. Ok – I might be doing something “illegal” here with this cake, but I am making a cake for my son’s birthday Sunday. I found your Perfect Cupcake Frosting recipe (which does sound perfect — not too sweet!), so I thought I’d try your site out for a chocolate cake recipe, too. This sounds divine. Three questions:

    1) How do you think this recipe would pair with that frosting recipe? (I know — can’t beat chocolate on chocolate, but I need to use colors. :o) )

    2) Has anyone tried this in a 7 x 11 pan? (I did the math and the volume of two 7×11 layers is 1.2 times the volume of the two round layers.) Any suggestions?

    3) The cake looks like it almost has a brownie-type texture. Does it?

    1. 1. That frosting is delicious with this cake, you’ll definitely want to double the frosting recipe

      2. Never tried that cake pan size, but I’m sure it’s fine. You’ll trim the excess anyway.

      3. No, not a brownie texture- fluffy cake texture 🙂

  38. Hi Sara!
    I am amazed by your website and your recipes! I think I’ve tried making almost (or at least 85%) everything oyu have here. Can’t ever find anything wrong. The pictures make it always so easy!
    My question on this cake is: Isn’t so many eggs going to make the cake a little dense? I am planning to bake it for my husband’s b-day tomorrow but I am putting his favorite frosting in the middle (brazilian brigadeiro) and am affraid it wont work if the cake is too dense.
    What would you suggest?

    Thanks a lot!

    1. Natalia, it’s not overly dense. I mean, it’s more dense than a boxed cake mix, but it’s nice and soft still. I can’t think of ANY frosting that it wouldn’t be good with!

      1. Thanks Sara!
        I’ll be baking them tomorrow. I can’t wait to try it with brigadeiro frosting! My husband will be very happy!
        Thanks again! U’re always so prompt and courteous with all people that post here.

    2. Hi i was just wondering if you could give me the recipe for your brazilian brigadeiro? I’ve tried to make this before but can’t find the recipe again online. Thanks

  39. Just wanted to come back and say that I made this cake yesterday after a craving for chocolate cake (and of course kiddo & hubby were totally fine with that!) and WOW. This was exactly what I wanted. Especially the frosting – it is absolute perfection. Thanks for the recipes. 🙂

  40. I made this cake for one of the layers for my brothers wedding cake and filled the center with the chocolate cream from another chocolate cake you have on this site, and I got RAVE reviews. Thank you so much for posting this. The cake was moist and turned out ( I have problems adjusting for the high altitude here in Utah) The Chocolate layer was gone in a matter of minutes. Going to make it again tonight only for cupcakes for my twins birthday treat to take to preschool. This is so yummy!!!!

  41. Hi! 🙂 Would this recipe work if I will use it to make chocolate cupcakes? 🙂 If ever, how long will it take to cook them? Thank you!

  42. Ok, so I did this recipe like last year and it turned out moist and delicious but I mad it today and now its all crumbly and dry? I followed the recipe exactly as you said and all but…it kinda failed… I don’t know what happened? The only new thing from last year is my oven. I baked the cake in a convection oven. Was it that?

    1. I have no clue Alicia, sorry 🙂 If the only thing that has changed is your oven, then I’d say it’s your oven!

  43. Just made this decadent cake & frosting today and my husband and I both think it is the absolute BEST chocolate cake ever! If you knew the degree of our chocoholism, you’d know what a compliment this is! LOL Love your blog and am looking forward to trying many more of your recipes. Thanks for sharing!

    1. That’s really not uncommon Mary- that’s why we level cake’s in the first place. I love that part because you get to eat it! 🙂

  44. Oh heavens. I have to bring a cake to a friend’s birthday celebration tomorrow so I made this cake tonight. If the batter is any indication of how yummy the cake itself is, then I don’t think my friend will be getting any of it because I might just finish it off! Great instructions and perfect cake! Thanks!!

  45. Made this cake last night for a work event. Excellent choice. Huge his with my chocolate-loving co-workers! Will definitely use this recipe again!

  46. I made this last night. The cake came out dense and soft and the frosting very soft and creamy. I first i thought that the old “hershey cake” had it beat. But this cake, the chocolate taste sorta expands in your mouth while eating. And the icing is light smooth and chocolatey. My hubby gave it 2 thumbs up. It’s a different chocolate taste in a good way.

  47. So I’ve made this cake about 5 times, and I think only once it hasn’t collapsed too badly. All the other times it has collapse some, and most of the times it has collapsed too much to be salvageable. What is the deal? I don’t open the oven in the middle of it baking, I have used fresh baking soda, and I try to be super careful when taking them out of the oven. It’s ALWAYS when I take them out and place them on the counter that they slowly deflate. Any ideas? I love this cake so much with the frosting, but it’s depressing when it doesn’t turn out!

    1. No, sugar isn’t just for flavor, it’s for a complex baking process and adjusting those amounts will change the result of the cake. I’d just grab the right chocolate, or use semisweet instead (knowing it will be a bit sweeter.)

  48. I just tried this recipe and it was delicious and mouthwatering. My only issue with it was while cutting out slices it was way toooo crumbly and kept falling apart. What did i do wrong???

  49. I can’t wait to try this recipe! Could I substitute boiling coffee for the boiling water? I heard coffee really brings out the chocolate flavor. I love chocolate.

  50. This was the best chocolate cake I’ve made in terms of flavor. My cake turned out a little crumbly though. Any suggestions for next time? Also, the frosting was hard this morning. How do I soften it up to the consistency it was when I frosted the cake?

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  52. This cake made me cry…it stuck to the pan and was terrible flipping out. I’ve sorta pieced it back together and froze them so I’m praying they hold up for the frosting.
    However, the chunks of cake that were too sad to piece together, I ate and I’m happy to report the we’re delicious.

  53. Do you know where I could find dutch processed cocoa in Meridian, ID? 🙂 Would the Hershey’s Special Dark that is a blend of dutch and natural work? Thanks!

    1. Yep, I have totally used the blend before. And I’m pretty sure I always find dutch processed at Fred Meyer. It’s the one in the Orange and brown container! COULD be Winco I’m thinking of, but I think I get it at FM 99% of the time. Hope that helps!

  54. I need a chocolate cake for my 2 year old grandson’s birthday. I have researched recipes and do not want one with coffee/expressso. This recipe looks perfect. Can it be made in a 9″x13″ pan? How long should it cook in that size? Will it be fluffy and moist?

    1. I’ve never made it in a 9×13 pan, but you can certainly do that. I can’t give you any direction because I’ve never done it that way, you’d just have to play it by ear. Good luck!

  55. I made this cake once last year for a missions fundraising “pie” auction at church. It looked yummy and the crumbs tasted good so I assume the real thing did too 🙂 I’d like to do it again this year but don’t have time to do it the day of the event. Can I make ahead and freeze before frosting as with other cakes or does the texture change? If so, should I defrost on the counter the day of frosting or a day ahead? I’ve read suggestions (for other cakes) to put the crumb layer on and then pop back in the freezer for a few minutes – should I do the same for this one? Thank you!

    1. Yes, this will freeze great! I usually just defrost on the counter the morning I’m going to frost. It’s okay if it’s still chilled or semi-frozen in the center even when you start to frost, it will defrost just fine. And yes, the crumb layer trick works great. Enjoy!

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