Curious Cook: Chocolate is the answer

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The question? Irrelevant.

There are two absolutes concerning this confection.

Everyone who tastes it asks for the recipe.

And, every time someone makes it for the first time, they panic; baking old-timers and newbies alike.

You probably know of Ina Garten. She’s the former owner of a famous specialty food store. When she sold it, she kept the store’s name, “Barefoot Contessa” as her own moniker.

She’s actually having a moment right now. Garten isn’t just a foodie with some cookbooks and TV shows. While living in Washington, D.C., where her husband worked for the State Department, Ina earned her MBA at George Washington University. She then went to work for the White House in its Office of Management and Budget. She worked her way up and became a budget analyst, writing the nuclear energy budget.

While doing this she found time to purchase and flip houses in the uber-ritzy D.C. neighborhoods of Kalorama and Dupont Circle. In 1978, she used the profits from this very successful endeavor to purchase Barefoot Contessa specialty foods, where she did most of the cooking.

In her books and TV shows, she shares lots of classic recipes. But this is my absolute favorite.

If you close your eyes and think of chocolate cake, this is that cake. Her version is rich, moist, and delicious; and the frosting tastes like sweet chocolate butter.

This cake looks like the centerpiece of a genteel Victorian picnic where the men are wearing suits and boaters and the women all look like Gibson girls dressed in floaty white dresses. This cake should be set on the table next to an old-fashioned cut-glass pitcher of lemonade.

It is the absolute platonic ideal of a chocolate cake.

When you mix up the batter ingredients, you will experience confectionary panic. The batter will be thin. I mean thin like the consistency of heavy cream thin. When you make the batter, you’ll think you’ve screwed it up or the recipe has a huge typo. You haven’t — you’re doing it right and the recipe is correct, I promise. Every time I make this cake, I have to calm myself down because I forget how ridiculously thin it really is.

I can’t count the number of anxious phone calls The Kid and I have received and the number of terrified bakers we’ve had to gently talk down, like a toddler with a hand grenade.

A word of caution about the frosting: although I am always on the “more is better” bus, this philosophy will not work here. The amount of chocolate in the recipe is perfect. If you add more, as the frosting sets, it will get hard and crack, ruining the beauty of your work. Don’t do it. If you have to add more chocolate, grate it on top, or make those glamorous chocolate curls. Or curl up in your jammies while you’re waiting for it to cool enough to frost, turn on some reality TV, and eat it.

In the end, you could also call this a “get” cake.

If you make it, you’ll get the praise, get the raise, or get engaged.

So, maybe “get” going.

Thanks for your time.

Contact me at

Beatty’s Chocolate Cake

Recipe courtesy Ina Garten

Butter, for greasing pans

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans

2 cups sugar

3/4 cup cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee

Chocolate Buttercream, recipe follows

Preheat oven to 350. Butter 2 (8-inch) round cake pans. Line pans with parchment paper, then butter and flour them.

Sift flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into bowl of electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until combined. In another bowl, combine buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. With mixer on low speed, slowly add wet ingredients to dry. With mixer still on low, add coffee and stir just to combine, scraping bottom of bowl. Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until cake tester comes out clean. Cool in pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto cooling rack and cool completely.

Chocolate Frosting

6 ounces semisweet chocolate

1 /2 pound butter, softened

1 extra-large egg yolk, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/4 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar

1 tablespoon instant coffee powder

Chop chocolate and place it in heat-proof bowl set over pan of simmering water. Stir until just melted and set aside until cooled to room temperature.

In the bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter on medium-high speed until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add egg yolk and vanilla and continue beating for 3 minutes. Turn mixer to low, gradually add confectioners’ sugar, then beat at medium, scraping down bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy. Dissolve coffee powder in 2 teaspoons of hottest tap water. On low speed, add chocolate and coffee to butter mixture and mix until blended. Don’t whip!

To frost: place one cake layer, flat side up, on flat plate or cake pedestal. With knife or offset spatula, spread top with frosting. Place second layer on top, rounded side up, and spread frosting evenly on top and sides.


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