Now that I’ve been back at school for a week and a half, dining hall food disappointments and baking withdrawals are hitting me. It’s nearly impossible to bake at school, what with lack of supplies, time, and this year an actual oven in my dorm. I mean, come on. But nevertheless, I find myself looking back fondly at my last foray into cake for the summer. My school friends that came to visit had to try what they called “a Katie cake” while they were visiting, and we all knew it had to be chocolate. It is our food of choice when stressed, sad, or just needing a snack. Chocolate chip pancakes, brownies, plain chocolate chips. Dark, semi-sweet, milk. Our other love is coffee, so it was only natural that we would bring the two together for this cake.
A few weeks ago, I ordered Christina Tosi’s first cookbook, Milk. As in Milkbar, the explosive bakery/sweetshop of NYC, now expanding to LA. My only slight obsession with Milkbar began when I watched Tosi’s feature in the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table (which I highly recommend). Since then, she’s basically become my idol. She took baking from a hobby to a profession, and gives it everything. Her desserts are full of creativity and childhood nostalgia, combining to produce something playful, yet sophisticated and nuanced. Her drive inspires me—to know that you can take a passion and make it something more if you choose to. I was able to stop into one of the Milkbar stores this summer on a day trip to NYC, where I bought a compost cookie. It was perfect. Crisp edges, chewy middle; salty, sweet. Everything I want in a cookie. I knew then that I had to get her cookbook to attempt to soak up some of her baking knowledge. I read the book cover to cover—all the methodologies, processes, and philosophies used at Milkbar that has made it the success it is today. To finally get back to the point of this long-winded tangent (I’m sorry, I just get so excited about Tosi), I wanted to try a cake from her kitchen. The classic chocolate cake recipe seemed just perfect, and some espresso could be thrown in to make it my own.
Making a Milkbar cake is a bit of a process, as there are components that need to be made beforehand and timing must be close to perfect. All the ingredients are measured in grams to assure accuracy and add ease to breaking down the ratios. (I’ve included ingredients below in standard measurements to make it easier for my readers, but please reach out if you’d like the gram measures.) But I loved it. I got in that baking zone, and I felt as though I had already learned so much. Unfortunately, the cakes were slightly overbaked and turned out drier than I would have liked. It’s all trial and error, though, right? I used an espresso soak on the layers during assembly to add more moisture and coffee flavor, before filling the middle two layers with dark chocolate ganache and finishing the cake with whipped chocolate buttercream. Fresh flowers, as always, add beauty and interest to the final product. There was a lot of filling in the cake, too much for my tastes, though it was all delicious. One piece is all you can handle in one sitting, unlike my champagne cake of which you can just keep eating forkfuls. But my friends loved eating the cake—as did my mom and my puppy—and getting to be a part of the process (I think) so I consider that a success.
Espresso Chocolate Cake, adapted from Milkbar:
- ½ ounce semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
- 1 tablespoon cocoa powder, unsweetened
- a pinch of kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1/8 cup heavy cream
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1½ cups granulated sugar
- 3 eggs
- ½ cup buttermilk
- ¼ cup grapeseed oil or canola oil
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- ¼ cup espresso
- 1¼ cups flour (all-purpose or cake)
- ½ cup cocoa powder, unsweetened
- 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
- 1½ teaspoons baking powder
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease three 6″ round cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper.
Make the fudge sauce: Combine chocolate, 1 tablespoon cocoa powder, and pinch of salt in a small bowl. Combine the corn syrup, 1 tablespoon sugar, and heavy cream in a saucepan and stir intermittently while bringing to a boil over high heat. When it boils, pour into chocolate mixture. Let sit for one minute. Slowly, slowly begin to whisk the mixture. Increase the intensity of your whisking every 30 seconds, until the mixture is glossy and smooth—from 2 to 4 minutes. Half of the sauce will be used in the cake, half in the buttercream, which can be stored in the fridge until making the frosting.
Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer, on medium-high for 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, and add the eggs one at a time, beating until combined each time. Once all the eggs are added, leave mixer on medium-high for 2 to 3 more minutes. Scrape down sides of the bowl once more.
On low speed, stream in the buttermilk, oil, and vanilla. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and paddle for 3 to 5 minutes, until the mixture is practically white, twice the size of your original fluffy butter-and-sugar mixture, and completely homogenous. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add half of the fudge sauce and the espresso, and mix on low speed until fully incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, remaining cocoa powder, baking powder, espresso powder, and salt. With mixer on very low speed, gradually add the dry ingredients and mix for 45 to 60 seconds, just until the batter comes together. Scrape down the bowl, and mix on low speed for another 45 seconds to make sure there are no lumps of flour or cocoa powder.
Pour batter evenly into cake pans and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow cakes to cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes before removing from pans. Cool completely before assembling.
Dark Chocolate Ganache:
- 4 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
- ½ cup heavy cream
Place chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl.
Heat heavy cream in the microwave for 45 to 60 seconds. Don’t let it bubble over.
Pour the warm cream over the chocolate and let it sit for 2 to 3 minutes. Slowly begin whisking, maintaining the same direction and gathering speed until the mixture is smooth and glossy.
Allow to cool completely before using. I put it in the fridge for an hour or two so that the ganache would be pipeable.
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 4 cups powdered sugar
- 1 tablespoon heavy cream, or more as needed
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- fudge sauce
- 2 ounces chocolate, semi-sweet or dark, melted
Using a hand mixer, cream together butter, sugar, cream, vanilla, and fudge sauce. Add more melted chocolate to fit your tastes; I found 2 ounces to be perfect. Make sure all the ingredients and fully incorporated, and mix for about 2 minutes for extra fluffiness.
When assembling the cake, I used another ¼ cup of espresso as a soak, which is fancy terminology for brushing the top of a cake layer with a liquid to add moisture and flavor.
Pipe an outline of buttercream on each layer before piping in the ganache, and finish the top with only espresso soak and buttercream.
Decorate as desired and you’re ready for eating (or photoshooting)!