A tender chocolate cake with a mild chocolate flavor, one that is sweet and light. Topped here with a milk chocolate brown butter buttercream with an intensity that pairs beautifully with the gentle chocolate cake.
Most popular chocolate cake recipes (and certainly most of mine) use dutch process cocoa which needs only baking powder for leavening and produces a dark chocolate taste, richer and less acidic. It’s wonderful if you want a rich, dark chocolate taste. If however you want something more mild, natural cocoa should be what you reach for.
For this recipe, I was going for a ‘milk chocolate’ flavor, hence the natural cocoa.
This is baking terminology for a cake that is baked in a square pan and served with a layer of buttercream solely on top. Think, half of a sheet pan cake. As opposed to a layer cake which is well, layered, and has buttercream between the layers so that each slice has 2-3 layers of buttercream and cake.
Snacking style is also incidentally, small batch simply because of the size. Okay, it depends on your definition of small batch. If you are serving two people you probably want a cake that is loaf size (yes you can do that here, just halve everything) but a cake made in an 8×8” or brownie pan will serve a small group of 4-6 people.
Butter: unsalted. As with most of my chocolate cake recipes that use butter, I find it’s best to have it at a warm room temperature. Have it out for at least an hour before you start, it should be in that ‘slimey’ stage of softening.
Sugar: fine granulated sugar. Using less sugar will cause the cake to be less moist & tender.
Vanilla & salt: pure vanilla extract and fine sea salt. Use good vanilla! If using table salt, halve the amount.
Cocoa: Natural cocoa powder, ie. NOT dutched. This will give you a lighter chocolate taste.
Eggs: two large eggs, warm them up to room temperature before starting (you can do this by placing them in a bowl of hot water).
Cake flour: milled very finely and from the heart of the wheat, with added cornstarch this makes for a very tender cake crumb. If you need to use all purpose, swap out 1.5 tablespoons of the flour for cornstarch.
Buttermilk: or kefir, full fat is best.
Boiling water: I typically will just turn the kettle on as I start adding the eggs so that the water is steaming hot when I add it to the batter.
Preheat the oven to 325 F (you can also bake it at 350 but 325 will have it rise more evenly with less of a dome in the center) and grease and line a square baking pan with parchment paper.
Start with very, very soft butter and sugar.
Affix the paddle attachment (you can also do this with a hand mixer), add the salt and vanilla and beat until nicely creamed, this will take up to 5 minutes. We want that butter nice and airy!
Add the eggs one at a time and beat. Scrape down the bowl as needed! See those unmixed bits? Those were on the paddle and at the bottom of the bowl.
Scrape down and beat again until it’s very light and evenly mixed.
Over the batter sift the cocoa and the cake flour, add the leavening (baking soda).
With the mixer on low, pour in the buttermilk and then the hot water. Mix until you have a light, thin batter.
Pour into the prepared pan and smooth out the batter so it’s in an even layer.
Bake until a cake tester comes out clean.
Let it cool in the pan then very carefully transfer to a cooling rack. Note: this cake is very delicate!
If the cake comes out with a big dome that might make it hard to frost, slice it off with a bread knife.
Can I make this recipe as a layer cake?
Yes, I would double the recipe and bake it in three 6” round cake pans, bake them at 325 F for 30-40 minutes. If you are making the milk chocolate brown butter buttercream you’ll want it on the stiffer side so utilize the notes in that recipe page.
Can I make this recipe in a sheet pan (13×9”)?
Yes! Double the recipe. Bake temperature can stay the same as the recipe below but you’ll want to check for doneness with a cake tester (or use your finger to carefully press the center of the cake, if it springs back – it’s done).
What other buttercream pairings would you suggest?
If you don’t want to go the brown butter route, try this milk chocolate buttercream recipe (just the milk chocolate part, you might want to double it) or try this mascarpone chocolate buttercream. Alternatively, a vanilla buttercream will do just fine (there’s also a ton of variations on that recipe).
Storing the cake
For a long period at room temperature the buttercream may go soft. If you are leaving it overnight, I’d suggest the fridge and in an airtight container.
Brown Butter Milk Chocolate Buttercream, recipe here (you can halve the recipe to make a thinner layer of buttercream, mine was thick)
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