The best chocolate cake for birthdays

A chocolate cake should be intensely chocolate. It should be moist and aromatic. This is a cake I’ve made hundreds of times, for nearly all the family birthdays since I can remember. We always use Baker’s chocolate because other chocolates give different flavors. I don’t know the provenance of that chocolate, and should find out and switch to something sustainable, I suppose. The only other cake I make is a lemon cake, and I’ll tell about that one another time. I got this recipe from Liz Evans in grad school at UT Austin. She made it with peppermint in the icing, and made it in a lasagna pan. We make it in 9 inch round pans. The icing is also from Liz. I’ve totally lost touch with her, and don’t know where she got the recipe. It is similar to the one on the Hershey’s Cocoa can in that it uses boiling water. Using buttermilk, or milk soured with lemon or vinegar is crucial to rising with baking soda. I never use cake flour, and so use less than Liz. I use more chocolate. I use butter, not margarine. I guess the mention of margarine dates this recipe to the 1970s when I got it. I do beat cakes, and usually follow proportions carefully, unusual for me in cooking. But I don’t bother with adding a bit of this, then a bit of that entirely. I just cream the sugar and butter, add the chocolate and eggs, beat again, then add everything else and beat away. It’s all one bowl, if you were wondering.

I grew up with fruit tarts, and pies, not cakes, so it still sometimes surprises me what a cake family we’ve become, but only for birthdays.

Chocolate Cake

0.5 cups butter (1 stick)

1 lb light brown sugar

3 eggs

4 squares melted unsweetened chocolate

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

0.5 teaspoons salt

0.5 cups buttermilk or milk with 1 teaspoon lemon juice or vinegar

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup boiling water (or coffee)

Chocolate Icing

4 squares unsweetened chocolate, melted

0.5 cups butter

1 lb. confectioners (powdered) sugar

4-6 Tablespoons buttermilk or milk or water or coffee

(1 teaspoon peppermint extract)


Cream together with beaters the butter and light brown sugar.

Beat in the eggs and melted chocolate (I use the microwave to melt)

Add all the milk, the flour, soda, and salt, and beat for 3 to 5 minutes.

Stir in, or briefly beat in, one cup boiling water.

Pour batter into two 9 inch round pans that have been greased and floured, or use a 13 x 9 inch pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for30 – 35 minutes. Knife should come out clean, or nearly clean. Slight undercooking keeps it moist.

Turn out cakes onto cooling racks.

Wait until cool for the icing. I use this recipe – I tried ganache and we didn’t like it as well.

For the icing just beat everything together. Be careful not to add too much liquid.

Put a dab of frosting on the plate so the cake won’t slip off. Frost the middle and the top, and then do the sides.



Most of the ingredients. I mixed dark sugar and white today.


This is the original recipe in Liz Evan’s handwriting.


Mix her up!


Ready to bake, oiled, floured pan, hot water added to this improbably liquid batter.


A dab of frosting glues the cake to the plate.


Frost the sides last.


Lighting the candles!


Celebrating Danny’s birthday!


A yummy slice, served with ice cream that didn’t make it into the photo.


All the family!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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