Chocolate Layer Cake

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This rich, tender chocolate cake is easy enough to make for a casual dessert but can be a showstopper for any special event. It comes together with just one bowl, a whisk, and 30 minutes in the oven. This homemade chocolate layer cake is a chocolate lover’s dream.

Photography Credit: Alison Bickel

I was asked once what my last meal would be. I simply said, “Chocolate cake. The whole cake.” I meant every word of it.

I love the delicate, dark crumb and robust flavor of a chocolate cake. Everything about it feels luxurious and decadent to me. Serve it alongside a steaming cup of coffee or tall glass of milk, and I’m in heaven.

With this recipe, I wanted to make a celebration cake. Something I would give to a friend, make for a birthday party, or place at a holiday table. Layer cakes just scream “special” to me in a way that a sheet cake doesn’t. (Not that I wouldn’t take down a sheet cake bite by bite in my final moments.)

I used Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream to frost this tender chocolate cake. I like Swiss meringue buttercream because it’s stable at room temperature, pipe-able, not as sweet as American buttercream, and the texture is nothing short of silk. It’s my favorite!

HOW TO MAKE A MOIST CAKE

Cakes can be dry for many reasons, but most frequently it’s because they’re over-baked, baked at too high a temperature, or they don’t have enough moisture to begin with. No need to worry about that with this cake.

I use a combination of oil, buttermilk, and coffee:

  • The oil adds moisture and helps provide structure when mixed with flour.
  • The buttermilk reacts with the baking soda to make the cake tender and give it lift.
  • Finally, the coffee adds moisture and additional acid to help with that rise.

All of these ingredients contribute to creating a tender cake with a definitive chocolate flavor.

Whole choclate layer cake with chocolate swiss meringue buttercream swirls on top, dusted with powdered sugar against a dark background

WHAT IF YOU DON’T LIKE COFFEE?

The true purpose of the coffee in this cake is to deepen the flavor of the chocolate. You can’t really taste the coffee. If you’re worried about caffeine, feel free to use decaffeinated coffee. If you still aren’t sold, feel free to use hot water instead.

TOOLS NEEDED TO MAKE A LAYER CAKE

I used two 9-inch rounds to make this cake, but you could also bake it in a 9×13-inch pan. It obviously wouldn’t be a layer cake then, but the batter will fit and make a lovely cake.

You don’t need a stand or hand mixer to make this cake. Just a couple of bowls, a sturdy whisk, and a spatula.

I’m also a big fan of lining cake pans with parchment paper. It helps the cakes release from the pan.

Woman piping Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream on a chocolate layer cake.

Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream is used to pipe designs on this chocolate layer cake.

HOW TO FROST THIS CAKE

A few tricks can help make frosting a layer cake easier. To frost the cake, it’s helpful to have a rotating cake stand and an offset spatula. Both tools make smoothing the top and sides of the cake so much easier. If you don’t have a rotating cake stand, a lazy Susan could work as a stand-in, or you can just make do without one.

You can also make frosting this cake as decorative or as simple as you want.

For an easy frosted cake: Spread on a thick layer of frosting, then use the back of a spoon to make a large swooping texture on the tops and sides of the cake. It gives this cake a rustic, but still festive and beautiful appearance. Plus, it takes a lot less time than piping the frosting.

For a fancy frosted cake, as I did for the photos, follow these steps:

  • Make sure your cakes are completely cool before frosting them. Cool cakes are less likely to tear, and the frosting won’t melt.
  • Put frosting between the two layers, then apply a crumb coat, which is just a thin layer of frosting across the top and around the outside of the cake. The purpose of the crumb coat is to catch the cake crumbs so your final frosting coat is smooth and crumb-free.
  • Once the crumb coat is on, chill the cake in the refrigerator for an hour. This will keep the crumbs out of your second coat.
  • Apply your final coat by piling the frosting on top of the cake and pushing it out and over the edges of the cake. Then, slowly smooth the frosting down the sides of the cake.
  • Smooth the top by drawing your offset spatula back up and over the top of the cake.
  • To make the swirl on the top of the cake, hold the tip of the offset spatula at a slight angle and rotate the cake stand. (You can only do this with a rotating cake stand.)
  • To pipe the textured dots on top, I used a Wilton Large 2D Drop Flower Piping Tip.
  • To add the final special touch, I topped a few of the dots with edible silver pearls, then dusted the edges with powdered sugar.

MAKE-AHEAD TIPS FOR CHOCOLATE CAKE

You can make this whole cake, frosted and decorated, up to two days before you want to eat it, and keep it in the fridge. Just set it out two hours before serving to bring it to room temperature.

You can also make the cake rounds ahead of time. Wrap them well in plastic wrap, and store them in the fridge for up to two days, then frost your cake the day you plan to serve it.

Whole choclate layer cake with chocolate swiss meringue buttercream on a plate, dusted wtih powdered sugar. The chocolate swiss meringue buttercream is piped on top and a slice has been cut.

STORING AND FREEZING CHOCOLATE CAKE

Once baked and frosted, keep this cake in the refrigerator for up to five days for leftovers. The leftovers will dry out some, but it’s still chocolate cake just waiting for you to eat it. That’s never a bad thing.

  • Like all cakes, this one is best served at room temperature, so give it two hours to come up to room temperature before serving.
  • Once sliced, just place plastic wrap or parchment against the cut side of the cake to keep it from drying out.

To freeze the unfrosted cake: Wrap each cooled cake round individually in plastic wrap, then foil and freeze the cakes for up to three months.

To freeze a frosted cake: Yes, you can freeze cakes frosted with Swiss meringue buttercream or ganache. I’ve done it with both. To freeze a frosted cake, let the cake rounds cool. Place one round on a cake board; top with the swiss meringue buttercream; spread it out, and place the next round on top. Frost the whole cake with a thin layer of frosting. This is your crumb coat.

Put the frosted cake in the refrigerator to harden, then wrap the whole cake in multiple layers of plastic wrap and foil. Freeze it for up to one month frosted. When you need the cake, simply remove it from the freezer, unwrap it, and let it thaw at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Then decorate it as you wish.

NEED MORE CAKE IN YOUR LIFE? TRY THESE!

Chocolate Layer Cake Recipe

  • Prep time: 40 minutes
  • Cook time: 30 minutes
  • Crumb Coat Chilling time: 1 hour
  • Yield: 2, 9-inch round cake layers

Ingredients

  • 2 cups (260 g) all purpose flour
  • 1 3/4 cups (270g) granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cups (75g) dark cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 3/4 cup organic canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup piping hot coffee or hot water

For the frosting:

Special equipment:

Method

1 Preheat the oven and prepare the pans: Preheat oven to 300°F degrees. Cut parchment rounds to fit two 9-inch round cake pans. Butter and flour the pans. Set aside.

Two round cake pans lined with parchment.

2 Whisk the dry ingredients: In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.

Whisking together dry ingrdients like cocoa powder, flour and sugar to make chocoalte layer cake

3 Whisk wet ingredients: In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, buttermilk, oil, and vanilla.

4 Combine the wet and the dry: Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir together with a stiff spatula. The batter will be thick.

Pour in the piping hot coffee. Stir until combined (the batter will look like a muddy, clumpy lake) then thin out to a cohesive pourable consistency. Just keep stirring. No worries.

Pouring milk into a glass bowl with chocolate and flour to make the best ever homemade chocoalte cake Mixing chocolate layer cake batter in a glass bowl with a spatula Pouring hot coffee into a glass bowl Chocolate cake batter in a glass bowl

5 Pour into pans and bake: Divide the batter equally between the 2 pans (about 1 lb 7 oz or 652 g per pan). Place in oven for about 30 minutes or until a toothpick poked into the center comes out clean. I like to rotate the pans back to front halfway through the cooking time, because it helps with even baking.

Pouring chocolate cake batter into cake pan

6 Cool the cakes: Remove the cakes from the oven and onto a cooling rack for 20 minutes. Then remove the cakes from the pans, peel back the parchment paper, and let the cakes cool completely, about 1 hour.

Two chocolate cake rounds cooling on a baker's rack.

7 Frost the cake: Put one cake round onto a platter or cake board, then place the cake on a rotating cake stand (if using). Spread a generous amount of chocolate frosting on top of the cake round. Using an offset spatula, smooth the frosting into a thick, even layer. Then place the next cake round top down on top of the frosted round.

Place a generous amount of frosting on top and spread it evenly across the top until it hangs over the sides. Gently spread the frosting onto the sides in a thin, even layer. This is your crumb coat. Transfer it to the refrigerator for at least an hour, and up to overnight.

Once the crumb coat has set, use 2/3 of the remaining frosting to frost the cake as you did before. Once the sides and top are smooth, you can start to decorate.

woman in blue apron frosting the bottom layer of a chocolate cake with perfect chocolate swiss meringue buttercream Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream sandwiched between two layers of homemade chocolate cake Woman using an offset spatulat to smooth creamy chocolate swiss meringue buttercream frosting on top of a tender chocolate buttermilk layer cake Woman using an offset spatulat to smooth creamy chocolate swiss meringue buttercream frosting on top of the best chocolate buttermilk layer cake Woman using an offset spatulat to smooth creamy chocolate swiss meringue buttercream frosting on the sides of a chocolate buttermilk layer cake Woman using an offset spatulat to smooth creamy chocolate swiss meringue buttercream frosting on top of a chocolate layer cake

8 Decorate the cake: To make the spiral swirl on top, take the tip of your offset spatula and tilt it at a slight angle on the outside edge of the top of the cake. Hold it there and start to spin the rotating cake stand. Move the spatula slightly inward toward the center as you spin the stand, until you’ve made the spiral swirl.

Fit a pastry bag with a large coupler and secure a Wilton Large 2D Drop Flour Tip to the end. Add the remaining frosting to the piping bag. Pipe large and small blobs of frosting around the top edge of the cake. Dot some of the tip with the silver pearls. Then dust with powdered sugar.

Woman using an offset spatulat to make a swirl in the chocolate swiss meringue buttercream frosting on top of a chocolate layer cake Woman piping Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream on a moist chocolate layer cake.

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Summer Miller

Summer Miller is the Senior Editor for Simply Recipes based in Nebraska. Her work has appeared in Bon Appetit, Eating Well, Grit, SAVEUR, and Every Day with Rachael Ray, among others. Her first book is New Prairie Kitchen (Agate Publishing, 2015).

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2 Comments / Reviews

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Did you make it? Rate it!

  1. Marta

    It’s the most delicious chocolate cake I’ve ever seen. Thank you

    xxxxxyyyyy

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Whole choclate layer cake with chocolate swiss meringue buttercream swirls on top, dusted with powdered sugar against a dark backgroundChocolate Layer Cake