The Great Chocolate Cupcake Experiment

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Look, after you’ve done the great vanilla cupcake experiment, you kind of start questioning all your favorite recipes.

So when Matt told me he wanted chocolate cake for his birthday, my first thought was the recipe that’s been my go-to for years. But then I wondered… how does that recipe compare to other recipes? How can I say my usual chocolate cake recipe is great if I have no means of comparison?

And thus another experiment began.

I took a similar approach to my vanilla cupcake experiment: four different recipes, one battle arena, one winner.

The contenders:

Contestant #1: The Most Amazing Chocolate Cake Recipe via The Stay at Home Chef

The author of this blog says she’s been searching for a great chocolate cake recipe for years and that this is the one. She compares it to the cake in Matilda. Of course that’s going to have my attention.

This recipe uses all-purpose flour and vegetable oil, two leaveners, an acid (buttermilk), and has a 2:1 ratio of flour to cocoa powder.

Contestant #2: My Favorite Chocolate Cake Recipe, adapted from Foodess

I’ve always liked this one because it produces such a moist cake. But the last few times I’ve made it, I’ve thought it could use a little more flavor. It’s still good; I’ve just… wondered.

This recipe uses all-purpose flour and butter, one leavener (baking soda), an acid (buttermilk), and has a 2.3:1 ratio of flour to cocoa powder.

Contestant #3: The Ultimate Chocolate Cake Recipe via Make Fabulous Cakes

I wanted to include a recipe that used cake flour and oil since that’s the combination that won the vanilla cupcake experiment. The author of this blog seemed to really know what she was talking about–and she’s clearly an expert cakemaker and cake decorator, as evidenced by the many images of beautifully decorated cakes in the sidebar–so when she said this recipe truly does make the ultimate chocolate cake, I believed her.

This recipe uses cake flour and oil, two leaveners, and has a 2.7:1 ratio of flour to cocoa powder.

Contestant #4: The Ultimate Homemade Chocolate Cake via My Recipe Confessions

The author of this blog says she created this recipe after many different recipe testing attempts in her quest to make a cake similar to The Cheesecake Factory’s chocolate cake. Which I’ve never had, but the fact that the author spent so much time (and so many recipes) to create this suggests that it’s something good.

This recipe uses all-purpose flour and oil, two leaveners, an acid (sour cream), and has a 1.4:1 ratio of flour to cocoa powder–by far the chocolatiest yet.

The Fight to the Death

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As before, I reduced the recipes to make about 4-5 cupcakes each. For Contestant #1, I replaced the hot water in the recipe with hot coffee because I’ve found coffee to enhance the flavor in the chocolate cake and all the other recipes used coffee. And if I’m looking for the best recipe, I’m going to make adjustments to make sure each recipe I use is at its best to start with. (Which is why I also kind of ignored the vanilla measurements for all the cakes in favor of my own heavy-handed vanilla pour. Not very scientific, but I know what I’m about.) I reduced the amount of sugar in each recipe, as I do for all recipes. For each recipe, I also used half regular cocoa powder and half Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder. This is something the Stay-at-Home Chef mentioned doing for her frosting to make it darker, and I liked the idea of doing this in the cake for a deeper chocolate flavor. I could have thrown in some recipes that used chocolate instead of cocoa, but I’ve always been a cocoa kind of girl, so cocoa-based recipes it is.

Once all cupcakes from all four recipes were baked, I cut each cupcake into quarters and Matt and I stood in the kitchen, sampling quarters together and sharing our thoughts with each other like the wannabe Food Network judges we are. (I call Amanda Freitag.) We also took turns drinking from a carton of almond milk between contestants because, you know. Palate cleansing. I’m sure Amanda does the same thing.

Here are the results.

“You Tried” Award: Contestant #2

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That’s right. My usual chocolate cake recipe came in dead last. It just didn’t have much of a pronounced flavor compared to the others. It didn’t have as soft of a texture as the winner, and it ranked third in the test of springiness and in the evaluation of its dome shape. My notes for this one say “Okay.”

“Just Kind of There” Award: Contestant #1

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I don’t have much to say about this one, except that I ranked it third and Matt ranked it second (and this is my blog, so third it is). My notes from our official tasting say “Okay. ‘Weird aftertaste’ (less chocolatey).” It was fine. Aside from this one’s slightly rounder dome on top, I’d have trouble telling this one apart from the above one–they’re pretty similar.

Runner-Up: Contestant #4

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This one was definitely a dark horse. It came in last in the test of springiness and in the evaluation of its dome shape. It was denser than the others. Its texture wasn’t as soft as the others. But it had a wonderfully chocolatey, brownie-like flavor to it, likely due to the high amount of cocoa powder in the cake. It also wasn’t too sweet. My notes from the tasting say “Gloppier texture. Robust, deeper, brownie-like flavor. A bit tough.” (I think the note about the gloppy texture can be attributed to the fact that this came out of the oven last, so it was still a bit warm while the others had cooled. After it cooled, I’d describe the texture as just a bit dense.)

This cake wasn’t as soft as the winner, but I could see this being an excellent layer cake for its ability to stay strong and sturdy, not to mention the chocolatey flavor it brings. As you can tell by the cross-section image, it has an inside very unlike all of the others, which I can’t quite explain but I’m sure it has something to do with baking science.

First Place: Contestant #3

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As with the vanilla experiment, the cake flour and oil combination again turns out to be the winner. This cake was truly phenomenal. It had the softest texture by far, it came in first in the test of springiness, it had the roundest dome shape on top, and it had a wonderful chocolate flavor. Even five days later, when I was picking out leftover cupcake quarters from the Tupperware container I kept them in, I could tell this cupcake apart from the others from its delicate crumb and the fact that it still had an extremely soft texture and it still tasted amazing, even as the others started to lose their softness and began tasting stale.

Matt and I both ranked this one first. My notes from tasting this one are the longest: “Softer texture, good flavor. Consistent flavor. Robust. Slight crunch to top. Tender.”

You can kind of tell from the cross-section image that this one is so moist it doesn’t split cleanly in half–it’s got all those little crumbs sticking to either side. It’s pretty delightful.

So this is my new go-to chocolate cake recipe. I used it a few days later when I baked a cake for Matt’s birthday, and it seemed to be popular among his friends. (Not that that really means anything. Of course you’re going to compliment the cake someone made if they have you over. But one comment I found interesting was that someone said the cake was so moist it jiggled when they cut a slice. I’ve never been told I have a jiggly cake before, but I’ll take it.)

I also found a new chocolate frosting recipe, which isn’t pictured but I’ll share it anyway. Matt wanted both vanilla and chocolate frostings on his birthday cake because he is difficult. I used my usual vanilla frosting recipe, and for the chocolate frosting recipe I tried the Chocolate Truffle Frosting recipe that My Recipe Confessions used when making her Cheesecake Factory chocolate cake. It was deeply chocolatey and delicious. I’ve never used cream in a chocolate frosting recipe before, but it produced something smooth and, well, creamy. I did make some adjustments, because I learned a couple of years back that Matt isn’t a fan of a lot of cocoa powder in frosting recipes (though how can I really be surprised at that when I know he also doesn’t like more than a teaspoon of vanilla in vanilla frosting recipes? Apparently his taste buds are all about moderation).

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Winning Chocolate Cupcakes (Contestant #3)

Source: Adapted from Make Fabulous Cakes

Makes one 2-layer cake or about 24 cupcakes

  • 2 cups cake flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 cup cocoa powder (I used half Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder and half regular cocoa powder)
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup hot coffee (or 2 tsp. instant coffee in 1 cup boiling water)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line muffin tins with cupcake liners.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cocoa powder, and sugar. (The original recipe says to sift them together, but I’m always too lazy to sift. But if you want to be better than me, go ahead and sift.)

Add the hot coffee, oil, and milk, and stir until just combined.

Add the eggs and vanilla and beat for two minutes. It’s okay if the batter is liquidy.

Pour into prepared muffin tins and bake at 350 degrees for 15-18 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few crumbs attached (mine took 18 minutes to get to this stage). Be sure not to leave them in the oven too long–if the toothpick comes out with no crumbs attached, it’s likely over-baked. The goal is a moist cake!

If you are baking this as a layer cake, prepare two 9-inch cake pans with greased parchment paper circles. Follow the same instructions as above, except bake them for about 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few crumbs attached.

Rich Chocolate Frosting

Source: Adapted from My Recipe Confessions

Makes enough to frost one 2-layer cake or 24 cupcakes

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 3/4 cup cocoa powder (I used half Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder and half regular cocoa powder)
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp vanilla
  • Pinch of salt

Whip the butter until creamy. Add all the other ingredients and beat for several minutes (it will start to turn a bit lighter in color).

 

 

 

 

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