By the time Mich'l and I worked together in the pastry shop at a hotel in Atlanta, I already knew that I was going to leave to cook on the restaurant's hot line. After nearly three years of non-stop pastry, sometimes 18 hours a day, I was ready for a change. And just as I was getting ready to go, Mich'l showed up. Armed to the teeth with legendary experiences (working for and with the stars of the pastry world) and heart-breakingly wonderful recipes (collected over more than a decade as she moved through our hotel's properties around the country), Mich'l was a welcome dose of frenzy -and optimism - in our otherwise dreary shop. Unlike other newcomers to the shop, she wasn't jockeying for a title or ownership of our product. That role belonged to our executive pastry chef who preferred autocratic control and traditionalism over productivity and happiness. Newcomers either fell in with him - and, by default, the rest of us - or grew quickly dissatisfied and found better jobs at other hotels or country clubs. No one left the shop to work in the benefits-free zone of restaurants. Mich'l was neither cowed by his barking or put off by our established routines and recipes. With a manner that was a cross between doting mother and Betty Boop, with a touch of SoCal rebel thrown in for seasoning, she was able to convince our exec to change up the recipes that were, until that moment, the sacred cows of our shop.
My ice cream recipes? Out the door. Replaced by ones given to her by Sebastian Canonne (who everyone claims as an influence, but most have to pay to work with these days. Not M'chl). Our cake? She had better recipes from L.A.
Mich'l had the credibility the rest of us - mostly rejects from restaurant kitchens and country clubs - lacked. And she seemed to know everyone in the industry.
One of the biggest revelations for me was a recipe she brought to the property from her last job. It is a glorious, sweet-but-not-too-sweet version of a devil's food chocolate cake with wonderful sour notes in the icing that offset the usual heaviness of similar cakes. I'm not sure who originated the recipe, but I've passed it on to everyone I know because it is not only easy but a consistent crowd-pleaser. I've used it as the basis for wedding cakes, I've served it at birthdays. My sister who lives in Berlin bakes it weekly for parties (and it is great for cupcakes, too). Friends, Grandma's Chocolate Cake is your ticket to love, respect, and a fulfilled life full of flowers, birds, and magic. Or maybe it is just a great cake.
I love this cake. The photo above shows how this cake may come out if you get a little sloppy with the execution. Not my best work.
The recipe is as reliable as a cake recipe can be, and the results are always great. Just make sure to mix for as long as the recipe indicates. Yes, a seven-minute mix followed by a four minute mix is odd, but it works. Trust me.
Here is a link to the GLUTEN-FREE and EGG-FREE version of this cake.
The Ingredients, more or less, messy:
Grandma’s Chocolate Cake
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees
2) Boil water, add cocoa. Stir until smooth and thick, about 1 minute. Allow to cool.
3) Combine buttermilk, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla extract.
4) Mix together flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda in large bowl. Add buttermilk mixture and mix together (using a paddle attachment) at medium speed for 7 minutes. Add COOLED cocoa mixture and mix for additional 4 minutes.
5) Pour into prepared cake pan and bake in center of the oven for 30-40 minutes. Check doneness with toothpick. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely
1) Melt butter and chocolates together in a double boiler (or microwave). Keep warm
2) Alternate adding sour cream and confectioner's sugar into the icing, mixing thoroughly and scraping down after each addition. Icing should be very dark, not light (as in my pictures below).
3) Add vanilla and salt. Allow to cool completely before using.
For those of you who are more visual, here are a few photos that may (or may not) help you when it is time for you to turn Grandma's Chocolate Cake into your own.
The first step - combine cocoa and water and boil. The cocoa, after it boils, will thicken significantly. Do not boil more than necessary to thicken:
It will look like pudding, but don't be tempted to eat it. Just let it cool.
In your Kitchenaid (or similar stand-up mixer), start the seven minutes of mix. Since it takes a while for the cocoa to cool, there's no need to work simultaneously with the cocoa and the mixer. You can do this by hand if you have a lot of stamina or if lack of equipment drives you to it:
After seven minutes, add the cooled cocoa mixture and run the mixer at medium speed for an additional four minutes. Don't forget to scrape down the bowl, as you'll notice I've forgotten to do:
It will look like this after four minutes - OK, I admit, not a helpful photo (except for the color of the batter) but I like the way my mixer looks:
You'll then pour the batter into prepared (either sprayed, parchment lined, or butter-and-floured) pans of your choosing. Lately I've been choosing smaller pans (8") because it tends to bake better. I have also been using the convection setting for a more even bake. If you do go with convection, remember to rotate your pans in the oven or you will get lopsided, inconsistent rise!
While the cakes are baking, make the icing.
Add your sour cream - remember to scrape down to avoid lumps:
Mix, but DO NOT OVERMIX! The key is to just combine the sour cream and the chocolate mixture without adding too much air, which will make the icing hard to spread without visible air bubbles:
Do you see the lumps, above? I do. Gah! The icing will get lighter in color, but the lighter it is, the more air has been incorporated. Try to keep the mixer on low speed.
It will look like this:
That's slightly too light. I had to stir it up a bit to get some of the air out. I'm not always great at following my own instructions.
The cakes, when done, should be depanned and allowed to cool. I was out of parchment so I used aluminum foil and threw a little sugar down:
Slice them to size - cut off bulging tops etc. so that your cake will sit flat (and note the tunneling - I've never made this recipe and had an even crumb):
Or it may look like this:
Or like this: