Whenever I make “the cake” I am invariably met with something along the lines of what Angela uttered on first tasting a piece of it: That’s the best cake I have ever had.
Well, I will say it is among the five best cakes I have ever had, and it very well could, on any given day, indeed be the best.
I made one last night, my mother assisting (she had never made this one, and wanted to learn the recipe). I call it “the cake” for two reason. One, because it is my favorite cake to make. It is delicious. And because the recipe comes to us from one of my favorite cooks and chefs of all time: Edna Lewis.
Ms. Lewis was born in Virginia and left this life in Georgia, in 2006, at 89, after spending years in New York (where in 1949 she helped found Café Nicholson, which for a time was “the” place to eat, according to frequent diners Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Marlene Dietrich, and Richard Avedon, among many others, famous and not so famous).
After New York, Ms. Lewis headed back home, to the South, making stops to cook in, to name but two locales, Charleston and Chapel Hill.
She was quoted in a 1989 interview with The New York Times thusly: “As a child in Virginia I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn’t think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past.”
Here is her recipe for a cake with so much more than merely good flavors. It is found in The Gift of Southern Cooking (Knopf, 2003), which Ms. Lewis co-authored with Chef Scott Peacock. You should make this cake, and you should learn as much about Edna Lewis as you can.
Very Good Chocolate Cake
2 cups granulated sugar; 1 1/2 cups cake flour; 1/2 teaspoon salt ; 3/4 teaspoon baking soda ; 1 cup double-strength brewed coffee ; 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped; 2 eggs, at room temperature; 1/2 cup vegetable oil; 1/2 cup sour cream, at room temperature; 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup heavy cream ; 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter cut into 1/2-inch pieces; 1/3 cup granulated sugar; 1/4 teaspoon salt; 1 pound semisweet chocolate, finely chopped; 1/4 cup hot double-strength brewed coffee; 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
To make the cake: Sift together sugar, flour, salt, and baking soda in a bowl. Pour the hot coffee over the finely chopped chocolate, and allow chocolate to melt completely.
In a separate bowl, whisk together until well blended eggs and vegetable oil, followed by the sour cream, vanilla, and coffee-chocolate mixture. Stir this liquid mixture into the dry ingredients by thirds, stirring well after each addition until completely blended. Divide the batter evenly between two buttered and floured parchment-lined 9-inch cake pans. Drop each cake pan once onto the counter from a height of 3 inches, to remove any large air pockets, which could cause holes or tunnels in the baked cake layers. Bake in the preheated oven for 30-40 minutes, until the cake springs back slightly when gently tapped in the center or a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove immediately to cooling racks, and allow to rest for 5 minutes before turning out of the pans.
To make the frosting: Heat the cream, butter, sugar, and salt in a heavy saucepan until the butter is melted. Add the chocolate and cook over very low heat, stirring constantly, just until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and blend in coffee and vanilla. Transfer frosting to a bowl to cool, stirring occasionally, until it is of a spreading consistency – about 1 hour, depending on the temperature of the kitchen. (If your kitchen is very warm, move the frosting to a cooler area to cool and thicken, but do not refrigerate or chill over ice water. Chocolate and butter solidify at different temperatures, and harsh chilling could cause the frosting to separate and turn grainy.)
To assemble the cake: When the frosting is of a spreading consistency and the cake layers are completely cooled, put one cake layer on a serving platter, bottom side up, and frost the surface thickly. Top with the other layer, bottom side down, and frost the top and sides. For best results, allow the cake to sit for 2 or more hours before slicing. Store, covered, at room temperature.
NOTE: For the richest, darkest frosting possible, resist the urge to whisk or beat to cool faster. Excessive stirring incorporates air, which will cool and set the frosting more quickly, but will also dilute its dark color and flavor. And because it takes a little while to cool to the proper consistency, have all of the ingredients ready and make the frosting as soon as the cake layers are in the oven to bake.