Chocolate Espresso Layer Cake - Savory Simple

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. 

Chocolate Espresso Layer Cake - Savory Simple

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.

Chocolate Espresso Layer Cake - Savory Simple

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?

Chocolate Espresso Layer Cake - Savory Simple

Sometimes, when I’m lucky, it all comes together perfectly in the end. And when that happens, it feels like magic.

Chocolate Espresso Layer Cake
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
You need a kitchen scale to measure out this recipe but there are plenty of cheap scales available in stores and online. It’s a worthy investment! See below the recipe for a list of all equipment I used for making this cake.
Serves: 1 8-inch triple layer cake
Ingredients
Chocolate Espresso Cake:
  • 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
Chocolate Espresso Italian Meringue Buttercream:
  • 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
Instructions
Prepare the cakes
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Distribute the batter evenly between the 3 prepared cake pans, using a spatula to even out the tops.
  5. 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.
Prepare the frosting
  1. 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.
  2. While the sugar is cooking, whisk the eggs on high in a stand mixer with the whisk attachment until a soft peak has formed.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
Assemble the cake
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Cake is best when served at room temperature.
Notes
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
Parchment Sheets
Wilton Cake Rounds
Wilton Cake and Cookie Lifter
Digital Thermometer
Offset Spatula
Valrhona Cocoa Powder

More Cake Recipes

Savory Simple – Peach Buttermilk Mini Cakes
Savory Simple – Strawberry Swirl Dream Cake
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

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Comments

  1. This cake is STUNNING, Jen! I know just what you mean about having sweaty palms when making a cake — I always feel that way when I make one. And yet, even if it doesn’t turn out perfectly, it still tastes delicious. :) This one, however, is both!

    • Thanks so much , Stephanie! I’m thinking about making cakes more often so it’s not such an ordeal. I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying as a baker than a beautiful layer cake.

  2. This truly is a magical cake!! It is stunning and I only wish I could make one half a beautiful as this!! Please come teach me how it is done?! This is just stunning and every layer is perfect, not to mention the flavors going one here! INCREDIBLE!!

    I want that perfect slice!

  3. If a cake can be breathtaking, this is it.

  4. WOW !!! That cake IS perfect! Great job on the photography too!
    I completely understand about the nerve wracking business of making layer cakes. But they are still my favorite to make. One thing I do to ensure even layers is to measure the batter as I fill the pans. It’s more time consuming but well worth it if you are aiming for perfection. I also always use those magic strip thingy’s they really help to keep the top even and never domed. The frosting is where I start to sweat bullets! The entire ordeal of frosting makes me tremble!
    Keep on making layer cakes so I can! :)

    • I used to measure each pan on the scale but have gotten pretty good at eying it. What’s the magic strip? Is that the saw with 2 handles? I have one of those but find it flimsy so I usually use a serrated knife if I need to remove a domed top.

      • They are cloth like bands that wrap around the outside of the cake pans and held on with clips. though I have seen them made with velcro but haven’t tried them yet. They work wonderfully. No change to the texture or the flavor of the cake and every single time I have used them (which is all the time) my cakes are beautifully flat on top.
        I got mine at Wilton and there they are called Bake-Even Strips.

        Good luck and keep on baking! :)

  5. What a beauty! You had me at chocolate espresso.

  6. This is STUNNING. Absolutely perfect. I’m in awe — hope to one day make a cake half as beautiful as this. Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. Just gorgeous, Jennifer! I can totally relate to the anxiety of the all or nothing moments! I made a layer cake yesterday & asked my husband to level one of the cakes because I was so nervous about messing it up – LOL! I’m saving this recipe for my sister-in-law’s birthday in November! Thanks for the inspiration!

  8. This cake looks like it could seriously be the best chocolate cake I have ever had! Worth a shot ;)

  9. I might just have to step out of my 2-chocolate-cake-recipes rut and make this one! For the frosting, do you melt the (solid?) chocolate and combine with the espresso and vodka? I don’t think I’ve ever had buttercream with spirits before!

    • I add the liquids one at a time. I almost included this note- I find the easiest way to melt the chocolate is in the microwave. 15-25 seconds at a time, stirring in between. Once it’s melted, stick it in the fridge or freezer for a bit until it’s room temperature.

  10. Jennifer this is your most beautiful cake to date I think! It’s just stunning. The layers, and the PRECISION. It’s a work of (cake) art! Pinned! I would love a slice!

  11. I’m so in love with the first shot, Jen! You did such an amazing job with this challenge and you totally nailed it. Love the styling, the light, the cake itself… beautiful and delicious cake that I’ll never forget. :)

  12. OMG Looks so sinfully good! It looks like it would send any chocolate/espresso lover to heaven. I can just imagine how moist and chocolaty it tastes. Looks beautiful!

  13. Gorgeous photographs! And a delicious looking cake :)

  14. This cake is totally beautiful!

  15. This is cake perfection! I find I don’t stress out as much about layer cakes as I used to, because I have learned that though I CARE about how it looks, it would seem that my guests just want to rip into it. I made what I thought was an absolutely gorgeous chocolate cake for a dinner party a couple of weeks ago. The icing was perfection. I piped a perfect border. Cocoa nibs were used as garnish. I’d be willing to bet that not a single one of the seven guests could tell you what that cake looked like. {sigh} But they sure looked happy…

    • I know no one else cares as much as I do but I always feel like a failure when it’s not even. I’m too much of a perfectionist. I love the idea of cocoa nibs for garnish!

  16. OMG!!! I am speechless! Your cake looks out of this world! I would LOVE a slice or two!! I can only imagine that this would be wonderful with a cup of espresso!!! Beautiful cake and beautiful pictures!!

  17. STUNNING!!! Love the simple beauty of this cake… and I’m sure it’s delicious to boot!

  18. WOW.. that is one stunning cake.. Perfection!

  19. This cake looks amazing! I love the lighting as well! :)

  20. Wow this looks so perfect and WOW it has the Espresso Van Gough vodka! I love that vodka!

  21. ALMOST too perfect to eat! LOL! I would still dig in and eat this one slow and savor it!

  22. What a gorgeous cake! You did an incredible job!

  23. Wow, Jen! This looks amazing! Love the photos, the styling, the cake and the perfect slice!

  24. This might be the perfect layer cake ever and perfect photography too! The slice is perfect and the layering is soo even. I want a piece of that cake right now :) Just brilliant!

  25. Thus far I’ve been to afraid to tackle a layer cake-someday I’ll get there and when I do I hope it looks half as stunning as this one!

  26. Prettiest cake I’ve ever seen. :) I always get SO nervous cutting that first slice too Jen. But yours came out beautifully! Hope the potluck was great!

    • Thank you :) The potluck was a lot of fun! There were 10 of us, just the right amount of people. Next time, though, I’m getting a bunch of disposable tupperware to hand out. Everyone left the leftovers and I didn’t even realize it until people were gone. SO MUCH FOOD.

  27. oh my gawd, perfection and gorgeous!!! you rocked this chocolate cake food styling challenge. your cake and photos are beautiful and romantic. . and looks so delicious! love this!

  28. What a PERFECT cake. I love the tones in the photograph. BTW, how did the blogger potluck go at your house?

  29. Big BIG slice for me!!!

  30. Gah Jen– THIS CAKE. I mean it looks so dense and rich and– the slice looks COLD and that is my favorite. It is totally freaking gorgeous and now all I can think about is chocolate. Thanks a lot. Dang.

  31. The cake and styling is just so breathtaking :) Pinned!

  32. GORGEOUS pictures! They make me want to reach in and take a slice. Can’t wait to try out this recipe!

  33. That is one gorgeous piece of layer cake. It looks delicious and the photo is moody…love that.

  34. I guess your stressing about how the slice will turn out is worth it, because these look PERFECT!!! And the recipe sounds divine!

  35. Gorgeous pictures and delicious looking cake! Now I’m craving this luscious chocolate treat.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  36. Stephanie says:

    Echoing everyone else here, but that is one gorgeous cake.

    Can you please share your secret to getting such a sharp, clean slice?

    • Hi Stephanie, thank you! As far as getting a clean slice, use a sharp serrated bread knife or slicer. 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!

  37. I’d say this looks pretty magical! Just stunning.

  38. What a stunning cake! And thanks for the tip on getting such a clean slice.

  39. WOW! Impeccably done in every way!!!

  40. Holy smokes this is gorgeous! Your cake looks PERFECT and sounds so delicious too! :)

  41. I love chocolate and espresso and cake and these photos. Yup, I approve! Very jealous of your perfect slice. Mine just fall over haha

  42. This is the exact same narrative I have every time I make a layer cake. Your cake is beyond stunning. The photos and the ingredients. Chocolate cake? My fave. With espresso AND vodka? Even better. And you made italian meringue buttercream – that and swiss are my go-to buttercreams. This is MY kind of cake!!

  43. I agree with what you’ve written. When cakes come out perfect, I just feel so so good! :) and thats such a clean cut :) Fabulous pictures.

  44. Yummy looking cake and great photography. How did you get such a nice clean slice? Did you freeze it first then cut it? Looks amazing.

  45. This cake, these shots…just absolutely gorgeous!

  46. Your cake looks divine, it came out PERFECTLY and it’s good to know that someone with such amazing photos such as yourself still stresses out as much as us amateurs ;)

    Seriously, this cake is like show-stopping gorgeous.

  47. lovely, lovely cake. your lighting is heavenly. yum!

  48. Jen, this was one delicious and gorgeous looking cake and I am so glad I got to taste it ,thanks!

  49. Jennifer, this cake is as dreamy as can be. I appreciate the anxiety you feel assembling layer cakes and the subsequent wonder of what the interior will reveal and do when cut. By all accounts you’ve nailed this sweetly!

  50. This cake is so beautiful! I can completely appreciate the anxiety about uneven layers and suchlike as I’m totally awful at the aesthetics of baking. It usually tastes good though, so I have learned to accept my creations looking… interesting. I am going to bookmark the recipe for later use, but I know mine will look nothing like as amazing as yours!

  51. Pretty chocolate layer cake, Jen! Love the styling and lighting in those shots!

  52. Ok….how in the world does one cut a perfect slice without dragging the frosting down? Can’t figure out how to get that glossy magazine picture perfect slice. Do you freeze the cake then slice? Reveal your secret :)

  53. Just Gorgeous! Can This Buttercream Be Refrigerated Well?

    • It can be refrigerated for a good while but I actually recommend freezing it. Buttercream will last forever in the freezer, just let it come to room temperature before using.

  54. This cake is stunning! I have no clue how you made it so even, the frosting too. Just gorgeous and your photography skills are excellent. I saw this on I Am Baker and just had to stop by ~ so glad I did! Now I will be
    following you and am excited to see more.

  55. I found this amazingly delicious cake recipe yesterday and couldn’t resist making it. My family said it was THE MOST yummy cake I’ve ever made! The Italian meringue buttercream is slightly tricky to make but worth the effort. Thanks Jen for your recipe!

  56. I love layer cakes, and this one does look beautiful! Mine hardly ever turn out to be completely even, but they do always turn our pretty tasty :)

  57. Wow! This cake is stunning I want to eat it through my screen!

  58. That is so stunning!!
    How do you get the slices so perfect – is it refrigerated first?

  59. What an absolutely beautiful cake! I get nervous when cutting into a cake for the first time too. Will the layers be even? Will the middle bits of buttercream squish out? What if I make it all topple over? (Thank you, too, for the tip on using a hot knife to cut the cake. I’ll try that next time!)

  60. Can I ask how you got the cake from the decorating cardboard to the platter you photographed it on? I’d be so paranoid about the layers shifting during transport or something!

  61. Jennifer, honest to god, this is the most gorgeous cake I’ve ever seen made by a blogger! It is FLAWLESS. Beautiful job on this. I bet it tastes even better than it looks!

  62. Is there a substitute for the vodka? I don’t have any on hand.

  63. You had me at Espresso. I personally am not the biggest chocolate cake fan but I love espresso and the vodka espresso really piqued my interest. Boozy cakes are always fun and met with anticipation around my kitchen. Your photos are beautiful and I wanted to make this. Wow oh wow! This is a showpiece cake! It was absolutely delicious and sliced up perfectly. I’ve had nothing but rave reviews and will make this again and agin for very special occasions. My batter was not the dark color but beautiful nonetheless and perfect in every way. I wonder if you used dark cocoa maybe?

    • I used Valrhona cocoa powder which is very rich, much more so than the cocoa powder you’ll find at the grocery store. A lot of restaurants use it to get super intense chocolate flavor but it’s harder to come by in stores (specialty shops might carry it). I ordered mine online.

  64. I saw your gorgeous cake a few days ago and pulled it up again just now as I’m getting ready to assemble and frost a chocolate cake this morning! I scrolled through the comments so I’ve already found the answer to my question about how you achieved such a perfect slice (answered 4 or 5 times!) – I definitely think a little how-to post would be awesome! :-)

    • I just might! In the end, slow and meticulous really makes the difference. I make sure every layer is even and flat. I try to evenly portion out the frosting. I’m slow with frosting the outside and making sure the sides and top are level. And then, yes, the slice has to look good :)

  65. Jen,
    Your photography is simply wonderful. This post, words and photos, was a visual feast.
    Thanks–now I’m going to walk the dog down to the store for something sweet, as I’ve got a hankering!

  66. Wow, it’s so cool to hear you talk about how you love taking photos of chocolate. I was just whinging last night about how hard it was to make a chocolate ganache look good… “It’s too brown!”. I think I need to double check my lighting and backdrop, then give it another go. During the DAYTIME, so as to get rid of artificial lighting :)
    Love the look of this cake. Your simple food styling does it so much justice… those perfect layers just shine wonderfully! Definitely giving this a go, soon.

  67. oh my, this cake is absolutely divine :) such beautiful photos!

  68. Yummmy! This looks fascinating and delicious and I could go on!
    I just wanna ask you is there a substitute for the alcohol? Or can I totally onmit it without ruining the cake?
    Thanks so much for your help! I hope to see and try more recipes from u website

  69. I’m making this cake today for my daughter, she’s moving to Cali, we live in MA :(:(:( So I want it to come out perfect. The cake doesnt scare me. It’s the frosting!!!! Frosting always makes me so nervous! Ugghhhh What if is is yucky?? It will ruin the entire cake!! Maybe you can come over and help :)

    • I won’t lie, Italian meringue buttercream can be tricky and I’ve screwed it up before. It might be best for you to just use a buttercream recipe like the alternate version I linked at the bottom of the recipe. Why worry about it when you don’t have to?

  70. I’ve been wanting to try my hand at an Italian meringue buttercream and this cake sounds divine! Yours is absolutely gorgeous!

  71. I know I’ve already commented on this one but had to ask, where does one find espresso vodka? at the grocery store or online? This cake is seriously perfection.

  72. This cake looks so delicious! it definitely warrants being pinned to make for a special occasion.

  73. This cake looks AMAZING! I would eat the whole thing!

  74. Hi. I made this cake today after spotting it a while back. My cake didn’t turn out that lovely rich brown but still tastes very good. It also took 45 minute to bake. My Italian buttercream turned out AMAZING (first ever attempt).
    Thank you for sharing such a beauty. I enjoyed the challenge today and appreciate the challenge you clever bakers face you truly are an artist and master.

    • Hi rachel! I’m so glad you liked it. What type of cocoa powder are you using? You’re the second person to mention this so I think I need to add a disclaimer. I use Valrhona which is very rich with a high cocoa fat. I didn’t realize it would impact the color of the cake. This is the good quality cocoa powder that most restaurants and bakeries use.

      • I used E. Guittard Cocoa Rouge (Red Dutch Process Cocoa – picked it up at Sur la table). Still tastes great. I now have an 8 inch layer cake sitting in my fridge and knowing how many eggs and butter went into this masterpiece I need to call some friends over quickly to consume it all! Thanks again, I look forward to trying more of your recipes :-)

  75. This cake is so gorgeous and combines two of my all time favourite flavours but I CANNOT get over how perfect and sharp that slice is! How do you do it? I am always sliding sideways somehow.

  76. That looks fabulous!!

  77. lisabella says:

    This looks like heaven on a plate. Definitely bookmarking it!

  78. What an AMAZING cake! I wish I had some right now! Thank you for this recipe! I’m off to bake!

  79. Hello Jennifer,

    I am a big fan of chocolate and espresso, and I love all your recipes. I don’t drink alcohol, so I was wondering if I can substitute 1/4 cup of espresso vodka for 1/4 cup of brewed espresso. I know the flavor will be different, but I really can’t have vodka, so I want to see if that can work. Also if I can substitute the espresso vodka for coffee extract in the buttercream.

    Thank you so much,
    Eman :)

  80. I want to try this recipe …this cake seems delicious..but I wanted to ask whether it is impossible to bake the cake and decorate on the eve of the party? will it still taste good even one night spent in the fridge? thank you :)

    • Oh absolutely. It will stay moist and delicious for days, just allow it to come to room temperature before serving but best results (even though I admit to eating it cold on many occasions. I always make layer cakes the day before entertaining just incase there’s an unforeseen issue.

  81. How did I miss this the first time around? And espresso Vodka??? I didn’t even know that existed. Looks like it’s a trip to the store for me ;-)

  82. This chocolate espresso layer cake is gorgeous!! I’d love to bake it! Congrats! :)

  83. Hi.
    Can I substitute the corn syrup with maple syrup, honey or agave syrup? Or maybe anything else?

    • Jennifer Farley says:

      The purpose of the corn syrup is to prevent the sugar from crystalizing. The other syrups you mentioned won’t have any effect on that. You can try omitting the corn syrup altogether but the sugar is more likely to crystalize which will prevent the buttercream from working.

  84. Hi I have made this cake and LOVE it! Thank you:)

    Can you please tell me, is it possible to make this cake and freeze it before icing it? I have to make one for an event but I am short on time, so I wanted to make it a week before, freeze it and then defrost it the day before icing. Thanks!

    • Jennifer Farley says:

      You can! I would say you can actually make and freeze this cake (sans icing) up to one week in advance.

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