Whether it’s a birthday blowout or a cozy Valentine’s Day dinner party, nothing caps off a celebration quite like a layer cake. There’s something undeniably exciting about unveiling a mountain of cake, especially when it’s a mountain made from chocolate. That excitement, and the expectations that go along with it, is what I wanted to channel into this cake, a recipe I spent more than five years perfecting for my cookbook. In the end, I’m proud to say it’s a chocolate cake like no other, and worthy of the most special occasions. Not only that, it’s the fastest recipe I know.
My book goes into more detail as to how and why this cake was named in honor of the Prince of Darkness, but here I’d like to focus on technique.
Instead of creaming the butter and sugar together, as with a classic butter cake, all the ingredients are simply stirred together in a big bowl (well, a big pot). No stand mixer, no whisking, no foamed eggs, no meringue, nothing. It sounds crazy, but trust me—it works.
The key is to start off with the right sort of cocoa powder, something deep, dark, and rich. For that, I turn to Dutch-style cocoas, like those pictured in the top row. Natural cocoas, like those pictured in the bottom row, are slightly acidic, with a pale color and a flavor that’s a bit fruitier and lighter. But Dutch cocoa is processed with an alkali to neutralize its acidity, creating a flavor as dark and earthy as its appearance. More importantly, however, Dutch cocoas tend to be high-fat (around 20% cocoa butter or more), while natural cocoa powder tends to be low-fat (10% cocoa butter or less). That means Dutch cocoas taste as rich as they look.*
* Black cocoa, while also alkalinized, is a nonstandard, fat-free cocoa product that should never be used interchangeably with Dutch.
I also incorporate dark chocolate into the batter. If you’ve got some high-end dark chocolate on hand, this is a great opportunity to use it, but my favorite supermarket options include brands like Endangered Species 72% and Chocolove 77% (though both are less than $1 per ounce when purchased in bulk online).
Since cocoa powder and dark chocolate are the backbone of this cake, there’s no room to cut corners with low-fat cocoa powder or sweet chocolate, so take the time to source the right ingredients. It will make all the difference in the world.
Making the cake couldn’t be easier. Combine some butter and hot coffee in a large pot, and warm over low heat until melted. Add the cocoa and chocolate, followed by brown sugar and vanilla, then season with salt and whisk until smooth.
Next, whisk in a few egg yolks and whole eggs straight from the fridge—they’ll warm right up in the batter. When the mixture is smooth, sift in some all-purpose flour and baking soda.
Sifting aerates the flour and removes any lumps, ensuring that the batter is lump-free in turn. Sifting also helps distribute the baking soda, for a more even rise. In this recipe, which is high in both liquids and acidic ingredients, it’s important to add the baking soda last, or else it will be prematurely activated. On that same note, once the baking soda has been mixed into the batter, it’s crucial to portion and bake the cakes as swiftly as possible.
As always, I recommend parchment-lined eight-inch anodized aluminum pans that are at least two inches deep, and preferably three inches. Cakes tend to dome up like muffins when baked in shallow pans; a bit of added height helps them rise taller and flatter. A little doming is natural, but with tall-sided pans, it shouldn’t be more than a gentle bump. Besides, I’m all about having a little something to trim away, because cake scraps are the best snack in the world.
Do let the cakes cool to room temperature before leveling. Not only will they be more inclined to tear and shed crumbs while warm, all that escaping steam will only encourage the cakes to dry out. Better to leave them whole and level the tops later on, a step that can help cakes better absorb moisture from the filling; the comparatively thick crust can often act as a barrier, but when that’s trimmed away, the cake can soak the moisture right up.
See what I mean?
I often finish my devil’s food with a whipped chocolate ganache—the exact pairing you’ll find in my cookbook—but when time is of the essence, a chocolate Swiss buttercream is faster by far, and a bit easier to handle for beginners.
If you’re into contrast, this devil’s food is mighty fine with a tangy cream cheese buttercream, too. Not that I can really argue with layers of chocolate on chocolate.
Whatever finish you choose, generously frost the cake to seal it up and prevent moisture loss. Frosting is the original plastic wrap.
Once the cake is coated in a thick, even layer of buttercream, I pop it in the fridge for about 30 minutes, then coat the whole dang thing in homemade Oreo wafer crumbs. (I tend to stockpile my scraps in the freezer, but you can use store-bought chocolate wafers instead.)
Though admittedly an optional touch, the cookie crumbs add another layer of dark-chocolate flavor, along with a subtle but complementary crunch and a groovy finish that looks like crushed velvet.
It’s an absolutely showstopping cake, easy enough to pull off on a weeknight (especially if you whip up a chocolate buttercream in advance), and as incredible as anything from a fancy bakery. Whatever the occasion, a cake like this will make any celebration all the more special.