Here’s the thing about me and homemade cakes. I love making them, I really do. They’re one of the first desserts I learned to make, and to this day are still my favorite. But cakes cause me an inordinate amount of stress – not because they’re hard to make, but because the baking and assembly process can be time consuming so I have to figure out in advance when I have time to complete each step, and also because the decorating possibilities are nearly endless. I guess you could say it’s “good” stress, the way massaging a sore muscle creates “good” pain. But still. Every time there’s a cake-baking on the horizon, I map out a schedule in my mind and think about it nonstop. I’ve lain awake in bed early in the morning fretting over how I should make a Doodle Jump cake for a friend’s birthday. I think in the end, it’s going to be cakes that give me gray hair, not the legal work that I do on a daily basis.
Take this chocolate peanut butter cake, for example. I made this for a small dinner party at my apartment. Three weeks before the dinner, I started perusing recipes online and flipping through my cookbooks, eventually settling on three top contenders and then finally deciding to make this one when a friend told me to go with my gut and my gut demanded, “CHOCOLATE! PEANUT BUTTER!” Who was I to deny my gut such a wonderful combination?
Even then, the fretting continued. I wondered if I should omit the ganache coating and instead frost the cake in a more complicated manner, doing ruffles or zigzags or swirls. I worried that we’d barely make a dent in an intensely rich 9-inch cake before realizing, duh, that I could halve the recipe and make a 6-inch cake. Along the way, I got distracted by cake stands and ended up impulsively doubling my cake stand collection on a Friday afternoon. (I still have not figured out where to stash my new purchases…partially because I also went a little nuts buying dinnerware that same day. Dinnerware that is likely to get smashed when I move across the country in a two months. I never make things easy for myself.)
In the end, I decided to make the cake the way the recipe called for. Turns out, I made the right decision. This cake is insanely good. If you like chocolate and peanut butter – and if you don’t, we may not be able to remain friends – you will adore this. The chocolate cake is a little tricky to work with because it’s so tender and falls apart easily, but those same characteristics also mean that it’s incredibly moist and soft. The peanut butter cream cheese frosting is sweet, rich, and slightly tangy, and the thick layer of semisweet chocolate ganache imparts a slight bitterness that ever-so-slightly counteracts the sweetness of the frosting. (Though I won’t lie – I think the frosting is the best part and was relieved when there was enough left over after assembling the cake for me to eat a few spoonfuls out of the bowl.) My friends and I managed to polish off half the cake in one sitting, after we had already stuffed ourselves with dinner. Two days later, it was entirely gone from my apartment. I had no regrets.
Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake
From Smitten Kitchen
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder,
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup neutral vegetable oil, such as canola (I used grapeseed)
1 cup sour cream
1 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter bottoms and sides of three 8-inch round cake pans. Line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment or wax paper and butter the paper.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the oil and sour cream and whisk to blend. Gradually whisk in the water, then the vinegar and vanilla. Whisk in the eggs and beat until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and be sure the batter is well mixed. Divide among the 3 prepared cake pans.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean. Let cool in the pans for about 20 minutes. Invert onto wire racks, carefully peel off the paper liners, and let cool completely. (As Deb notes, these cakes are extremely soft and fragile, and are easier to work with if you stick them in the freezer first for about 30 minutes. This reduces the risk of them breaking when you turn them out of their pans, and also aids in assembly.)
To frost the cake, place one layer, flat side up, on a cake stand or large, flat plate. Slide strips of parchment paper halfway beneath the cake – this is to keep the cake stand or plate clean from frosting. Spread 2/3 cup of Peanut Butter Frosting (recipe below) evenly over the top. Repeat with next cake layer. Place the last layer on top, then spread a thin coat of frosting on the top and sides. This is the crumb coat, a thin layer of frosting that binds the crumbs of the cake so that they don’t show up in the final outer layer. (As you can see from the pictures, this cake is so tender that it started tearing when I frosted it, and I had trouble eliminating crumbs even in the outer layer of frosting.) Chill the cake in the fridge for 15-30 minutes, then use the remainder of the frosting to create a smooth final outer layer. Gently pull the parchment paper strips out from under the cake.
To decorate with the Chocolate–Peanut Butter Glaze (recipe below), just pour the glaze over the top of the cake, and using an offset spatula, spread it evenly over the top just to the edges so that it runs down the sides of the cake in long drips. Refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 30 minutes to allow the glaze and frosting to set completely. Remove about 1 hour before serving.
Leftover cake can be kept, covered, in the refrigerator for at least 2 1/2 days. It’s a very moist cake and my guess is that it would last even longer, but I wouldn’t know because my leftovers were quickly devoured.
Peanut Butter Frosting
Makes about 5 cups
10 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2/3 cup smooth peanut butter, not all-natural (to avoid separation of oil)
In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy. Gradually add the confectioners’ sugar 1 cup at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl often. Continue to beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes.
Add the peanut butter and beat until thoroughly blended.
Chocolate-Peanut Butter Glaze
Makes about 1 1/2 cups
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/2 cup half-and-half
In the top of a double boiler or in a bowl set over simmering water, combine the chocolate, peanut butter, and corn syrup. Cook, whisking often, until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.
Remove from the heat and whisk in the half-and-half, beating until smooth. Use while still warm. (Note: In order to have the glaze drip over the cake but not cover it completely, it’s important that it doesn’t become too thin. If it does, put it in the fridge to let it firm up a little. The ideal texture is where it puddles on the top of the cake and needs some gently nudging toward the edges in order to ooze down the sides.)