The Ultimate Devil's Food Cake

I dreamt about chocolate cake the other night.

Photo by Posie Harwood

Chocolate cake plagues me unlike any other baking project. There are so many versions, from buttermilk to cocoa to flourless. Until now I’ve been sticking with my go-to recipe (from the back of the Hershey’s box), but can one person ever be satisfied with just a single back-pocket chocolate cake recipe?

If that person is me, the answer is no.

Photo by Posie Harwood

In my dream, I was sitting on a rooftop with a crowd of people. We were all eating huge slabs of a three-tiered cake with a rich chocolate flavor and a nearly black color that belied its light texture. A sugary drift of white frosting capped it off.

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They say dreams can come true, and I’m here to testify to that effect. That cake exists, and it is the devil’s food cake recipe from the back of a very old Swans Down cake flour box.

This cake straddles the line between moist and light. The crumb isn’t particularly dense (it makes for messy slicing unless you freeze the layers before frosting), but it’s softer and more luscious than a classic yellow layer cake would be.

Photo by Posie Harwood

I didn't feel the original recipe was quite chocolaty enough, so I added some black cocoa powder and a pinch of espresso powder. Do add the cocoa (the espresso powder is optional and serves only to amplify the flavor of the chocolate).

You can make this cake in two 9-inch layers or three 8-inch layers. I feel that a triple-layer cake lends a nice sense of occasion to an otherwise ordinary week, so I make mine accordingly.

A word or two on frosting: Chocolate is a very friendly flavor and is amenable to many toppings. This cake would be lovely with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream. You could fold crème fraîche into that sweetened whipped cream for a sturdier result. You could serve the cake with vanilla ice cream.

The options continue: Try the cake with caramel icing, chocolate buttercream, or malted milk frosting. Dulce de leche, rum, peppermint, and peanut butter would all be smart choices.

I have a deep and abiding love for seven-minute frosting, that fluffy, sugary cloud that’s also called boiled icing or angel icing (making it a nice literary pairing for devil’s food cake). Seven-minute frosting has no fat, just egg whites and sugar, which is a good contrast to a richer, more decadent cake.

This frosting does not keep particularly well, so ideally you should frost the cake the day you're serving it. After a day, the frosting gets sticky and develops a thin, crunchy layer: I happen to love the feel of that crystallized sugar on my tongue, but I have the sugar tolerance of a very hungry 5-year-old. Consider your own preferences, and plan accordingly.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lizzz
  • Posie (Harwood) Brien
    Posie (Harwood) Brien
I like warm homemade bread slathered with fresh raw milk butter, ice cream in all seasons, the smell of garlic in olive oil, and sugar snap peas fresh off the vine.


Lizzz September 4, 2018
This cracked me up. As I was reading the first sentences, I was thinking, "Unless this recipe is better than the one on the back of the Softasilk Cake Flour box..." To us Yankees, Swan's Down is the Southern equivalent. The recipes are essentially identical; Softasilk specifies butter as the shortening, and I think that makes a big difference in flavor.

The Softasilk recipe was my mother's go-to for birthday cake--both my younger brother and I insisted on it, year after year. Mom frosted it with old-style butter and confectioner's sugar vanilla icing between the layers (Posie is right--always go for three) and blanketing the outside.

My version adds a couple of ounces of bittersweet chocolate, rather than coffee, to up the deviltry. I've never made 7-minute frosting, so I'm going to try Posie's version and report back.
Posie (. September 4, 2018
Haha I love that comment! It is such a classic cake—you can’t go wrong but I hope you do try the seven min frosting. It really is SO good with the chocolate! New birthday tradition perhaps?