Chocolate has become one of my favorite ingredients to photograph. I love the way the rich brown tones look on a darker, shadowy backdrop. So when Amanda from I Am Baker contacted me about taking part in a chocolate cake food styling challenge, I couldn’t resist. I decided to prepare a chocolate espresso layer cake with chocolate espresso Italian meringue buttercream.
I love layer cakes but I have to admit they stress me out. There are so many all or nothing moments where there’s just no turning back. Getting the three layers of cake to be even and level. Making sure the buttercream doesn’t break. Flipping layers of cake upon frosted layers of cake, hoping that each one sits just perfectly so that the sides are even. It makes my palms sweat. No matter how many times I’ve made layer cakes, I still get nervous at these defining moments.
As a food photographer I always procrastinate cutting that first slice. I’ve spent so much time with the frosting and everything looks so beautiful from the outside. Will it look as good on the inside? Will the frosting layers be even? Will the slice pull neatly away from the cake so that I can get a picture of both together? Will the center have an even point?
Sometimes, when I’m lucky, it all comes together perfectly in the end. And when that happens, it feels like magic.
- 10½ ounces all purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons espresso powder
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- 3 ounces unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1½ cups half and half (or 50% cream and 50% whole milk)
- ¼ cup espresso vodka, such as Van Gogh
- 1½ tablespoons pure vanilla extract
- 9 ounces (2¼ sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 21 ounces granulated sugar
- 6 large eggs, room temperature
- 13 ounces granulated sugar
- ¼ cup + 2 tablespoons water
- 1 teaspoon corn syrup
- 5 egg whites
- 16 ounces (4 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed and at room temperature
- 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted
- 1 tablespoon espresso vodka, such as Van Gogh, room temperature
- 1 tablespoon brewed espresso, room temperature
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place an oven rack in the middle position. Lightly spray the bottom of 3 8-inch cake pans with baking spray and then cover them with parchment rounds. Set aside.
- Whisk together the flour, espresso powder, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Sift in the cocoa powder and whisk until the dry ingredients are evenly combined. In a separate small bowl, combine the half and half, espresso vodka and vanilla extract.
- In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on low speed for 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, allowing each egg to incorporate before adding the next. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. With the mixer still on low speed, swiftly alternate between adding the dry and liquid ingredients over the course of a minute. Scrape down the sides well, making sure to reach the bottom of the bowl. Turn the mixer on medium speed for 30 seconds.
- Distribute the batter evenly between the 3 prepared cake pans, using a spatula to even out the tops.
- Bake until the a toothpick comes out of the center of each cake clean, approximately 30-35 minutes. Allow the cakes to cool completely in the pan before removing.
- Add sugar, water and corn syrup to a medium sized sauce pot. Cover and turn the heat to high. Once the liquid begins to simmer and steam has developed, remove the cover (this helps prevent crystallization). Using a candy thermometer, cook the sugar to the soft boil stage, 235-240 degrees F.
- While the sugar is cooking, whisk the eggs on high in a stand mixer with the whisk attachment until a soft peak has formed.
- Turn the mixer speed down to medium low and very slowly pour the syrup down the side of the bowl into the egg whites. Don’t pour the hot syrup directly into the meringue.
- Once the syrup is completely incorporated, turn the speed to high and allow the meringue to continue to form a stiff peak while cooling down. Mix on high until the meringue has reached room temperature. To speed up this 15-20 minute process, ice packs can be placed around the bowl.
- Once the meringue is room temperature, slowly begin incorporating the soft butter on medium speed. Once all of the butter has been incorporated, turn the mixer speed up to high and very slowly add the chocolate, espresso and vodka.
- Place the first layer of cake on a revolving cake stand and remove the parchment paper. Placing a cardboard round below the cake is optional but will make transporting the cake easier after it is assembled.
- Spread approximately one cup of buttercream on the cake and spread it around evenly with an offset spatula. Add more buttercream as needed to reached the desired thickness. Repeat with the second and third layer (don't forget to remove the parchment each time). Use an offset spatula to apply a thin layer of frosting to the side and top of the cake. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to set this first layer of buttercream. Cover the entire cake with a final layer of frosting. Grate some unsweetened or semi-sweet chocolate on top of the cake for decoration, if desired.
- Cake is best when served at room temperature.
Italian meringue buttercream is an advanced frosting. To simplify the recipe, substitute any regular chocolate buttercream frosting and add some of the espresso powder (here is a good one).
Here's a great article with tips on how to solve common buttercream issues.
I’m getting a lot of questions about how I got such a clean slide. My method: use a long, sharp knife. Run it under hot water, wipe it dry and immediately cut one slice in a straight down, non-sawing motion. Don’t pull the knife up, pull it straight out toward you. Then repeat the process for the other side, starting with the hot water. That’s how I do it!
Also, I use Valrhona cocoa powder (linked above under “Tools I Used”) which is a high quality cocoa powder used by most high end bakeries and restaurants. Using a standard grocery store cocoa powder will work perfectly well but the cake may be lighter in color).
Tools I used:
(these links go to my Amazon affiliate store)
Ateco Revolving Cake Stand
EatSmart Precision Pro Digital Kitchen Scale
KitchenAid Stand Mixer
Wilton Cake Rounds
Wilton Cake and Cookie Lifter
Valrhona Cocoa Powder
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Savory Simple – Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Banana Cake
The Beeroness – Epic Chocolate Stout Cake with Chocolate Bourbon Sour Cream Frosting
Poet in the Pantry – Buttermilk Bundt Cake with Salted Caramel Icing
Muy Bueno Cookbook – Mexican Chocolate Kahlua Cheesecake