Chocolate Cake, R.I.P.?

This classic dessert has something to say

Wedges of flourless chocolate cake and mounds of the molten lava variety are fixtures on dessert menus. But the classic chocolate layer cake seems to have taken a hike. 

Maybe grocery store cake mixes are to blame, making the staple appear pedestrian and unworthy of the plate.

But it shouldn’t be that way, says Amanda Cook, the pastry chef at Cookshop and Hundred Acres in Manhattan. When chocolate layer cake is treated right, it’s a show-off. 

“We looked at the menu and realized that something chocolate was missing,” Cook says, “but we wanted it to be over the top.” Her solution: Chocolate Deliciousness—layers of classic cake, brownie and malted milk chocolate mousse covered with gianduja ganache. When plated, it’s accompanied with a quenelle of whipped cream and little crunchy chocolate-covered balls.

Light and airy or dense and fudgy, the ideal all-American chocolate layer cake finds perfection somwhere in the middle. Here are some ways to strike that balance.

I CAN'T BELIEVE IT'S NOT BUTTER

While butter has its unquestionable place in pastry, other fats work better for moist chocolate cake.

Mayonnaise, for example. It’s the primary fat for the ultimate chocolate cake, a tidbit Thomas Keller reveals in his recently published Bouchon Bakery cookbook written with Executive Pastry Chef Sebastien Rouxel. 

“Sebastien wanted the cake to be moist and rich but not oily from too much butter,” Keller writes. “He decided to try mayonnaise. It was a brilliant revelation. Little did he know that chocolate mayonnaise cake was trendy in America, oh, some 80 years ago. It worked great then and it works great now.”

At Lee & Marie’s Cakery Company on Miami’s South Beach, Chef Yannis Janssen prefers oil as the fat in his chocolate cake. “We have been reformulating our recipes for the past few years, replacing butter partially or completely with a nice oil with a low acidity,” he says. “This creates a softer, lighter cake that lets the chocolate flavor shine more.”

TENDER IS THE LIGHT

Many pastry chefs include milk or buttermilk. Both act as an acid and leavening, along with baking powder or baking soda.

“They work to give the cake a nice rise and to make the cake more tender,” says Cook, who earned a degree in food science and technology before heading to culinary school. Other types of acid, such as vinegar, work equally well, says Melissa Chou, pastry chef at Aziza in San Francisco.

DEEP, DARK SECRETS

More often than not, cocoa powder—not solid chocolate—is preferred. “I like to use a Dutch-processed cocoa because the flavor is deeper and the color is more intense,” Chou says. She and other chocolate cake loyalists use water, coffee or other liquid to add dimension and a deeper, richer flavor.

BUILDING BLOCKS

After creating a flavorful, moist cake, pastry chefs start building components with complementary and contrasting flavors and textures.

“Depending on the season, it can be a nice chocolate ganache, caramel or sometimes a touch of fruits or roasted nuts,” Janssen says. 

At Aziza, Chou’s latest version begins as chocolate cake accented with rum and warm spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger. A layer of pu-erh (post fermented black tea) cream offers a subtle smoky, earthy profile while dark chocolate mousse provides contrast. A touch of black currant gel adds brightness and offsets the richness. 

Finished with a chocolate streusel crumble for some texture, it’s different enough to offer a new take on that childhood classic. 

THE MANY SHADES OF CHOCOLATE

Not all chocolate is created equal. Each varietal’s origin and quality create a distinct flavor profile that ranges from notes of caramel and floral to even a desirable bitterness. Choosing a type all depends on the desired application. Some considerations:

Cocoa Powder

The top choice for baking, available in natural or Dutch processed. Some pastry chefs prefer the latter, saying it provides a more complex flavor, while others appreciate the natural form for its fruitier tone and lighter color.

Milk Chocolate

The most familiar type of chocolate. Because it has more sugar than dark chocolate, keep a look out for artificial ingredients to ensure a clean flavor.

Dark Chocolate

Preferred for coating, ganache, mousse and frostings. Be sure to check the origin and percentage of cocoa to sugar to determine its best application. Look for a complex range of fruit, coffee, molasses, nut and floral notes, and a nice finish. Base your choice on the degree of desired bitterness to balance or contrast sweeter flavors.

Is White Chocolate an Oxymoron?

Since it’s stripped of all chocolate solids, using white chocolate might garner serious slander from purists. But if you must, make sure it contains at least 20 percent cocoa butter and no more than 55 percent sugar or other sweeteners. Beware of imitations made with hydrogenated vegetable oil and animal fats.