It was on my summer bucket list: Make my first layer cake. And I did it! My birthday was this past weekend, and I made myself a cake. I had in mind a pretty little chocolate peanut butter number, but when it came time to start making grocery lists, I spied a cookbook on my shelf that I’ve often drooled over, but never used: Baked: New Frontiers in Baking. And after perusing it for a few minutes, I knew the Sweet and Salty cake was the way to go. This is a rich chocolate cake made even more decadent with salted caramel and caramel chocolate ganache. For reals.
The thing about making a layer cake that always intimidated me is that there are so many steps involved. You have to make multiple components, then engage in complicated assembly. You’re about to dirty all the dishes. You’ll end up with frosting in strange places. Things can go wrong, especially if you throw caramel making into the mix. BUT. Despite these potential pitfalls, and the not-negligible amount of effort that went into this endeavor, it was sooo worth it. If you think that cake mix and frosting from a cardboard container taste just as good as homemade, I beg you to try making this cake. You will realize how wrong you were.
The cake in this recipe is tender and sweet, but stands up to the challenge of being sliced in half and man-handled into layers. The caramel pushes the edge of burned but when combined with cake and chocolate and salt it just brings the flavor of the whole into a deeper, more special place. And the frosting is buttery and rich and so good I ate way too much of it just straight up with a spoon while I was decorating. I have a ton leftover, too, which I am already envisioning smeared on graham crackers, one of my favorite frosting delivery mechanisms.
Some layer cake tips:
- Make the cakes the day before, and refrigerate them overnight. This will make them easier to slice and assemble without disaster.
- Parchment paper is your friend: Once you begin to assemble and frost the cake, slice strips of parchment paper under the cake, all around its perimeter, to protect your platter from frosting. Then, when you’re done, just slide the strips out and you have a clean serving vessel.
- Do not forget the phrase “crumb coat”: Put down one thin layer of frosting all over the cake first, to capture any stray crumbs. Refrigerate to set, and then put the real frosting on. This will keep your outer frosting layer clean and crumb free.
Don’t stress out if your layers aren’t perfectly even, or your cake is a little tilted. I will admit that the perfectionist in me was perturbed by my very-slightly-uneven cake. But you know what? It still tasted incredible. And what really matters when you’re making a layer cake, anyway: celebrating with friends, champagne, and chocolate cake, or worrying about uneven layers? And it might have taken me 33 years to figure out, but an imperfect cake is really a small matter in this life.
Thanks to everyone who helped me celebrate a fantastic birthday this year, most especially Sean, a.k.a Mr. X, who brought me flowers, took me out to dinner, patiently waited through the dirty kitchen situation caused by cake making, ate his first corndog with me, and generally in every way made me grateful to be celebrating another year with him.
- ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1¼ cup hot water
- ⅔ cup sour cream
- 2⅔ cups all purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- ½ cup vegetable shortening
- 1½ cups sugar
- 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon fleur de sel
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
- ¼ cup sour cream
- 1 pound dark chocolate, chopped
- 1½ cups heavy cream
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
- 2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool and cut into ½ inch pieces
- 2-3 teaspoons fleur de sel
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans, line the bottoms of the pans with parchment paper rounds, then then grease the parchment paper. Dust the pans with flour, and knock out the excess.
- In a medium bowl, combine the cocoa powder, hot water, and sour cream. Whisk to mix the ingredients completely, and set aside to cool.
- Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and the salt, and set aside.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and the shortening on medium speed for about five minutes. The mixture will be a bit liquidy. Add the sugars and beat for another five minutes, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until they are thoroughly mixed in after each addition. Add the vanilla, and beat until incorporated. Scrape down the bowl, and mix for another 30 seconds or so.
- Add half the flour mixture, then the cocoa mixture, then the remaining flour mixture. Make sure each addition is mostly well mixed in before adding the next.
- Divide the batter between the two prepare pans and smooth the tops. Bake for about 45 to 50 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through cooking time, until a skewer or knife entered into the middle comes out clean. Transfer the cakes in their pans to a wire rack to cool for about 20 minutes. Then invert the cakes on the rack (carefully!), remove the pans and the parchment paper, and let cool completely.
- You can make the cakes ahead of time; just wrap them in a double layer of plastic wrap and either refrigerate or freeze them (if you’re making them WAY ahead of time). Let them thaw before you assemble the cakes.
- In a small saucepan, combine the cream and fleur de sel. Bring to a simmer over very low heat until the salt is dissolved, then set aside.
- In another small saucepan, combine ¼ cup water, the sugar, and the corn syrup, stirring them together carefully. Cook over high heat until a candy thermometer reads 350 degrees, or for about 6-8 minutes. The caramel will be dark amber. Remove from the heat, and let cool for about a minute.
- Carefully whisk in salted cream, and the sour cream. Let the caramel cool to room temperature, and refrigerate until you’re ready to assemble.
- The caramel can also be made at least a day ahead of time. Let it warm at room temperature for a little while before assembling the cake.
- Put the chocolate in a large, heatproof bowl and set aside.
- In a small saucepan, bring the cream to simmer over low heat.
- In a medium saucepan, combine ¼ cup of water, sugar, and the corn syrup, stirring together carefully. Cook over high heat until a candy thermometer reads 350 degrees, or for about 6-8 minutes. The caramel will be a deep amber color. Remove from the heat and let it cool for about a minute.
- Carefully stir the cream into the caramel, adding it a bit at a time if necessary to prevent the caramel from bubbling oer. Slowly stir it for about 2 minutes until the bubbling subsides, then pour it over the chocolate. Stir the caramel and chocolate together until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth. Set the mixture aside to cool (I put it in the freezer for a few minutes).
- Transfer the mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer. Mix on low speed until the bowl feels cool to the touch. Increase the speed to medium-high and add the butter piece by piece, beating until each piece is thoroughly incorporated. Scrape down the bowl and continue to beat on high speed until the mixture if fluffy. If it seems very liquidy, you can refrigerate it or put it in the freezer for a few minutes to firm up a bit.
- Slice through each of the two cake layers carefully so you have four thin layers. If the cakes domed while baking, trim the tops so they are flat. Place the first cake layer on a serving platter or cake tray, and slide rectangular slips of parchment papers under the cake, all around it, so that the platter is protected from frosting drips and smears.
- Spread ¼ cup of the caramel mixture over the top of the first layer, and use a spoon to spread it around. Let it soak in for a bit, then spread ¾ cup of the ganache frosting over the layer. Sprinkle with a bit of fleur de sel, then top with the second layer. Add just the ganache, and spread it evenly before topping with another layer of cake. Add the caramel, the chocolate ganache, and a sprinkling of fleur de sel, then top with the final cake layer. Spread it with the chocolate ganache frosting, in a thin crumb layer, then put the cake in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes, to firm up the crumb layer.
- Finally, frost the sides and top with a nice thick layer of frosting. You will probably have frosting leftover. Garnish the top with the fleur de sel.
- This cake will keep at room temperature or in the refrigerator (properly covered) for about three days. You probably want to let the cake sit at room temperature for an hour or two before serving, if you’ve stored it in the refrigerator.