After graduating from college one of my first jobs was as the baker at Leaf n’ Bean Cafe in Brooklyn Heights. I brought with me a rather slim batch of recipes. Prior cooking jobs had always handed me house recipes to use. No muss, no fuss just bake and serve. This was the first time I had been asked to supply my own recipes. The cafe was open for breakfast and lunch plus weekend brunches so the baked goods were pretty straight forward–muffins, cakes, pies, the occasional mousse, and bar cookies fit the bill. The glitch came around chocolate. The owners John and Allan wanted something chocolate on the menu every day, which makes sense since chocolate sells. The problem was that while I ate a lot of chocolate I didn’t have many chocolate recipes in my repertoire back then (my, how things have changed). My rescue came in the form of Allison Miller.
Allison was one of the cafe’s waitresses who had grown up catering with her mom Rita in New Jersey. Five foot nothing, she barely came up to my shoulder. She talked a mile a minute, could out-walk people whose legs were twice as long as hers, and had the most infectious laugh I have ever heard before or since. Most importantly though was she told me the secret to being a great cook. “You know a great cook isn’t just someone who knows how to cook, a great cook is someone who knows where to find a great recipe.” I have cooked by her advice ever since. Allison’s gift to me of a fantastic chocolate cake recipe I now give to you–it’s the recipe from the back of the Hershey’s cocoa box.
The thing that I have come to appreciate about this cake is its indestructibility. With most baking you need to pay attention and follow a recipe. Baking after all is not the same as cooking where you can be loosey-goosey. Baking has rules. Baking has boundaries. Now I’m not saying that this cake recipe is so impervious that you can add coffee grounds to it and it will be delicious (though some espresso mixed into the milk provides a lovely mocha zing). I’ve just noticed after making this around five hundred times or so that the folks at Hershey’s made a pretty goof-proof recipe. Feeling too lazy to use dry and wet measuring cups? Doesn’t seem to matter. Don’t have any butter softened? No biggie–this recipe calls for vegetable oil. What if you find yourself with only medium, large or extra-large eggs in your fridge–hurrah! they all seem to work. Typically I make this cake with large eggs because that is what I have on hand, but once I used a duck egg because that’s what I had and it turned out fine. It truely is the most forgiving cake recipe.
I’ve made this chocolate cake in all shapes and sizes–8″, 9″, 10″, 13″ x 9″, mini cupcakes, regular cupcakes, I once baked it in two half sphere pans to make a global cake. It’s moist, holds its shape fairly well (though be warned it may tear if your icing isn’t soft enough), and tastes great with just about anything you might want to top it with. My family usually eats it with cream cheese frosting though we’ve also tried French buttercream, a scoop of vanilla or peppermint stick ice cream, or even–gasp!–naked. This is the recipe I used to make bite sized cupcakes for my 50th birthday bonfire celebration as well as Isabelle’s 16th birthday.
Best Chocolate Cake Ever!
2 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Hershey’s cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup boiling H2O
Preheat the oven to 350º F. Grease whatever pan/s you will be baking the cake/cupcakes in. If you are using a large cake pan I would suggest lining the bottom with parchment paper for easier removal from the pan and greasing on top of the parchment. Pop a kettle of water on the stove to boil. Combine first six dry ingredients and whisk to combine. If I know I have a lot of baking to do over the next few weeks (community suppers, parties, potlucks) I will measure out the dry ingredients for additional cakes into zip-lock bags, almost like making your own cake mix. It’s so easy to make this recipe that you don’t really have to pre-bag, but you can.
Then dump in the milk, oil, eggs, and vanilla and whisk. The mixture will be quite thick at this point.
Pour in the boiling water and mix. Your batter should now resemble chocolate soup. When I’m feeling a little peckish I eat a spoonful of batter. No one knows it’s missing from the finished cake.
Next pour the chocolate soup into your pans and bake according to the times listed below. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. I also listen to the cake. If it’s still making popping and crackling sounds it isn’t quite done. When you bake one of the larger sizes of cakes the top can sometimes end up looking bubbly. I’m pretty sure that it comes from starting with such a thin batter–the cake is fine and you’re probably going to cover it with frosting so don’t even worry about it. If you are baking cupcakes you will most likely have to do this in stages since very few people can fit seven mini cupcake pans into their oven at one time. Lightly re-whisk the batter before pouring it into the cupcake pans.
◊Two 8- or 9-inch rounds or squares; bake for 30-35 minutes
◊ One 13- by 9- by 2-inch pan; bake for 35-40 minutes
◊ Two regular size 12 cupcake tins; bake for 14-18 minutes
◊ Seven dozen mini cupcakes; bake for 13-15 minutes
How long do they last? I’ve no idea as they never make it longer than 24 hours in our house.
Footnote: after a few months as baker at Leaf N’ Bean the chef quit. John and Allan asked me if I’d like to take over as chef which I happily did. One of my first jobs as chef was to hire a new baker to replace myself. Know who I picked? Allison.