Baking 101: The Chocolate Cake


My beautiful picture

Dear Friends,

I could just post this most wonderful chocolate cake recipe, and you could be happy.

But I’m a certified home-ec educator, and I can’t just let this go. I have to teach you about cake.

Really, this post should be called “You Think You Don’t Like Cake, But You Haven’t Had Homemade” or “Why You Should Stop Taking Recipes Off of Blogs and Start Taking Recipes out of Betty Crocker Cook Books”, but that seemed hypocritical. Instead I want to give you a basic no-fail chocolate cake recipe and talk about what a cake needs to be successful. Then, instead of being disappointed every time you try a recipe on pinterest that turns out dry and lack luster, you can modify these great basics. It’s like clothes and fads, but recipes and fads… Lets just say, Mr. Wood and I disliked cakes until recently when we started making our own (with out box mixes).

So yes, you will go through some education. But you will be glad.

First, let me tell you a little about Betty Crocker. Betty Crocker is really Marjorie Husted—Home economist and business lady born in 1892. Although a lot of information you read will tell you that Betty Crocker never existed, she did in a long series of home-economists dedicated to improving the homemaker’s life. Betty Crocker first materialized in the 1920s with General mills and quickly became a commercial icon. People would write to Betty with problems about recipes, dinner and marriage life. At the high point of her career she was getting up to 5,000 letters a day.

Marjorie Husted

Marjorie Husted (holding a cake)

We now recognize Betty Crocker as a red spoon. All of her feminine-wise-homemaker essence wiped away by “so easy even I can do it” boxes of sugary treats. Where is the empowerment in that? When the woman Betty Crocker was at her prime she helped homemakers, gave them power to learn their craft, showed them respect for what they did and helped the world admire their skills.

So why does betty Crocker matter now? We might not have the image of a strong homemaker that takes pride in what she does in the home any longer, but we do have the tried and true recipes of the thousands of Betty Crockers who made it their job to simplify and improve recipes till they reached a stage of elegance. They developed recipes where one could actually learn how to make something sweet, delicious and special.

I know that was a pretty tall soap box and I don’t think Betty Crocker is the only answer, however, for the person who is trying to gain basic skills and understanding of recipes a staple like Betty Crocker that has been around for almost a century is a good place to start.

You are probably thinking: what about Martha Stewart? I love a good solid crafter. She makes beautiful foods and has wonderful taste, but often her recipes are too complicated, confusing or missing basic information that only an advanced baker would know is necessary. Often her recipes have left me and others frustrated before the thing is even out of the oven. So, in terms of looking for a good source for simple but delicious recipes I would turn to someone with good street cred, or scientists… (America’s test kitchen and Alton Brown will have to consume another blog entry). Avoid going after fad chefs. Remember, Betty Crockers mission was to help the every-woman be successful in the kitchen—that’s us. So, just want to learn how to bake well?

Then lets get back to the basics.

A cake needs some basic things. Structure (flour), Leavening (baking powder, soda or eggs), liquids, and tenderizers (sugar, butter, oil, molasses, eggs etc). Without one of those pieces you have something odd (e.g. no liquid=cookie, no leavening=spongy rocks). By balancing them we get a wonderful product. The ideal cake should have a moist crumb, but not be dense (like dense? I will talk about how to alter texture in another post) but not so moist it falls apart when you frost and serve it. A cake by itself should taste good, and frosting is only the compliment. Below is the recipe for chocolate cake from Betty Crockers cookbook published 2006. Because the newer edition favors fast-paced, quick and easy I’ve altered the recipe in 2 ways.

First, I prefer to mix the cake with the shortening method where you beat the fats and sugar until fluffy, and then beat in 1 egg at a time keeping a thick mixture. Then you alternate adding in the dry ingredients and the liquid. This way your cake gets some air incorporated into the batter for a lighter texture, and your flour won’t get over beaten. If you over beat cake batter once the flour is added you get a gummy chewier texture--aka not good. This method is the best for good cake crumb. Second: I added some brown sugar because I like a hint of molasses to help make the chocolate flavor rich.

I’m sure there are other great cake recipes out there, maybe even some better. But, I promise you this cake is simple, easy, reliable, moist and delicious. You shouldn’t stress about making wonderful cakes, but you should make them.

My beautiful picture

Chocolate Cake (with ganache and hazelnuts)

My beautiful picture


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour pans (either 13” x 9” or two 9” cake pans).

2. In a large bowl beat softened butter and sugars till light and fluffy (don’t be afraid to scrape the bowl down).

3. Add eggs one at time, beating each egg in well before adding the next. This should maintain some sort of fluffy texture instead of it all breaking down.

4. Add vanilla

5. In a separate bowl add all the dry ingredients left and whisk or sift until there are no lumps. Add about 1/3 of this mixture to your butter/sugar and mix till mostly incorporated. Then add about 1/3 of the water (you can use milk if you want) and mix until mostly incorporated. Continue alternating these steps till all flour and water is added (ending with water). Scrap down sides of bowl and mix till cake batter is uniform—but don’t overbeat. It sounds annoying but is really easy.

6. Pour into pans and bake. 40-45 minutes for a 13” x 9” and 20-30 minutes for 9” rounds. It is done when a toothpick or knife inserted in the middle comes out clean except for a few moist crumbs. If it is totally clean you have probably over baked it.

7. Cool on wire racks for 10 minutes, then take the cakes out of the pans to finish cooling (otherwise they will stick to the pans). Frost, serve and enjoy!

If you have any questions just ask! I’ll post the easy (low fat-ish) ganache recipe later. It is prettier then frosting sometimes, and usually tastes better. I hope you learned something knew. If not, just trust me and this recipe.


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  1. Dear sweet Shannon, I love reading your post. You make me a better home maker! Thank you for the recipe I have never made a cake that didn't come in a box. I want to try this recipe so bad. But where does one obtain coco?

    1. thanks Karem! Cocoa is just referring to cocoa powder available everywhere in the baking aisle. You should tell me how it goes if you make it!