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Finding The Essence of a Devil’s Food Cake

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The craze for fancy cake names dates back to the latter part of the 19th century.  But only one of these cakes has truly survived from that period to ours – the devil’s food cake.  Its success is a testament both to its utter simplicity and its appealing moistness.

The obvious question is, “Just what is this cake?”  The short answer is that the name refers to the color of the cake, not the texture, taste, shape, or fancy decorations.  One group of food historians would argue that devil’s food is a black cake; other would point out to a reddish hue (cocoa naturally contains red pigments) as the distinguishing characteristics.

The problem with defining the devil’s food cake, beyond the obvious issue of color, is that over time the recipe has been changed and embellished to the point where different recipes have little in common.  To get a better handle on the situation, I pulled together two dozen or so recipes from cookbooks and the Internet, and I baked the most promising five.  Using my family as blind taste testers, I was able to put together a good working definition of my ideal devil’s food cake.  Although some of the recipes were similar to a regular chocolate cake (crumbly, a bit dry, and mild in flavor), I found the essence of devil’s food to be a very moist, velvety texture combined with an intense chocolate experience.  In additional, the better cakes were very dark, almost black.  Here was a chocolate cake that was rich in both color and texture.

The next question was how to construct the ideal recipe.  Despite their several differences, I first noted that all the recipes used the basic layer cake method.  Butter and sugar were creamed, and then eggs were beaten in, followed by flour, cocoa, milk or water, and other ingredients.  The next thing I noticed was that the majority of recipes for this cake called for both cocoa and baking soda (not baking powder) and that many also suggested the addition of melted chocolate.  Almost all of them used boiling water as the liquid of choice, although recipes from the early 1900s preferred milk, sour milk, or buttermilk.  So the four key ingredients – those that really stood out in my research – were chocolate, cocoa, baking soda, and water.

The first issue was whether both chocolate and cocoa were necessary for the best flavor.  The one cake out of five that used only cocoa was th driest and least flavorful.  Clearly, a bit of chocolate was a must, and I finally settled on 4 ounces after testing smaller and larger amounts.  As expected, the cake that used milk instead of water had less flavor, since milk tends to dull the flavor of chocolate (think of milk chocolate versus dark chocolate),

Baking soda was the leavener of choice in virtually every recipe I found, but I tested this anyway.  To my great surprise, baking powder produced a totally different cake.  It was much lighter in color, and, more to the point, it was fudgy, almost like a brownie.  It shared none of the delicate, velvety texture that I had come to expect of a classic devil’s food cake.  I also tested the proper amount of baking soda and settled on 1 teaspoon.  More caused the cake to fall in the center, and any less didn’t provide enough lift.

I continued my testing to refine the recipe and found that a mixture of cake flour and all-purpose was best.  The all-purpose flour provided structure, while the addition of the cake flour made the cake a bit more delicate.  On a lark, I made one cake by whipping the egg whites separately from the yolks, but the result was a much too flimsy cake that could not support the large amount of water called for in most recipes and sank.  I played with the number of eggs, trying two, three, and then four.  The middle road proved best – three eggs was just right.  Granulated sugar was tested against brown sugar, and the latter won, improving the flavor.  Many devil’s food recipes do indeed call for brown sugar, whereas those for regular chocolate cakes tend to use granulated.

Although I had tested milk and buttermilk against water - the water produced a more intense chocolate experience – I tried adding sour cream to the recipe and was impressed.  It deepened the flavor, added substance to the texture, and provided a richer taste experience, the chocolate flavor lingering in the mouth and coating the tongue.

Finally, I wondered if boiling water was really necessary.  To find out, I made a cake with room temperature water and found that it made virtually no difference.  But when I tested dissolving the cocoa in the boiling water (as opposed to simply mixing it in with the flour), I found that this significantly enhanced the cocoa’s flavor.

I had finally discovered the essence of a great devil’s food cake.  Unlike chocolate cake, which is usually made with milk and has a higher proportion of fat (butter), devil’s food provides a velvety, more intense chocolate experience.  And it is a particularly dark cake when made with Dutch-processed cocoa; natural (nonalkalized) cocoa will give it a redder hue.  It is, ulitmately, a singular cake in it devoltion to a pure chocolate experience, subordinating everything to this simple byt tasty proposition.

Click HERE for my full Devil’s Food Cake recipe.


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