Learn the secrets to Anne Byrn’s personal chocolate layer cake recipe

Anne Byrn
Anne Byrn’s chocolate layer cake

It’s no secret. I love chocolate cake. And I’m not alone in the South or any parts of America. Since 1847 when grated chocolate first crept into spice cakes and marbled cakes, chocolate cake has remained a deep and dark classic.

While researching my book, American Cake, I found that every part of our country, every place in time, has a favorite chocolate cake. From the German chocolate, sheath cakes, and red velvets of Texas and Oklahoma, to the World War II chocolate loaf cake first baked near Los Alamos, to the deeply chocolate earthquake cakes of California and the chocolate stout cakes of Massachusetts, to the New York blackout cake and everyone’s favorite, the American brownie, there are a lot of chocolate cakes to love.

My chocolate cake story began as a child when my mother baked chocolate cakes for birthdays and entertaining. She make a cake with cocoa and buttermilk and frosted it with a pan frosting, stirred carefully over low heat until it thickened. After that glossy frosting was spread over, she sprinkled lightly toasted and salted pecans on top. It was heaven!

I’ve read a lot about how, during hard times in our country, people continued to bake chocolate cake, adding sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, chopped beets and even mayonnaise to the batter. They omitted eggs and added applesauce or a prune puree instead. They even created the delicious science experiment known as the Wacky Cake, made entirely from pantry staples. It’s really hard to create a chocolate cake that doesn’t taste great. But there are a few rules for baking a good one.

My rules for baking chocolate cake

Your recipe will dictate whether you are using unsweetened cocoa or bar chocolate in the batter. Follow the recipe, and don’t scrimp on the quality of the chocolate. The better the chocolate — or cocoa — the better the cake. Dutch-process cocoas are darker in color and deeper in flavor, so use those instead of regular cocoa if you want an intensely flavored cake. If your recipe calls for cocoa and you prefer a more nostalgic, middle-of-the-road chocolate cake, use regular.

But chocolate cakes need moisture, in the form of butter or oil, plus the addition of water or buttermilk. Nothing is worse than a dry chocolate cake. And they crave a bit of back flavor — from vanilla or coffee or even a pinch of cinnamon.

Chocolate cakes, too, need the right frosting. If you like contrast, use a cream cheese frosting. If you are crazy about chocolate, then the frosting needs to be chocolate, but preferably a shade lighter than the cake so the contrast is interesting to the eye when you slice into it. To do so, turn the mixer on high power and the color of the frosting will lighten as it beats.

How to frost chocolate cake

Frosting a chocolate cake needs to be done once the layers are cool to the touch. Choose the layers according to their appearance. The best-looking layer always goes on top. And if the layers are well rounded, you may want to slice off the top 1/8-inch with a long serrated knife to level things up. This step will make frosting easier.

Place about 2/3 cup frosting between the layers using a long metal spatula. Then run the frosting around the edges in a thin, first swipe of frosting known as the crumb coat. It seals in the crumbs so they don’t get into your frosting and it makes the final frosting application much more beautiful. Layer on that final frosting coating right on top of the crumb coat. Some pastry chefs like to chill the cake after the crumb coat, but with chocolate cakes I never find that necessary.

Lastly, pile the remaining frosting on top of the cake. With the metal spatula, swirl the frosting across the top to add a decorative touch. You can now garnish with fresh berries and a dusting of powdered sugar — or whatever garnish you choose.

Because chocolate cake can be deeply personal, you may have your favorite garnish and frosting, and I have mine. But on the off chance that you and I have similar tastes — I’m guessing we do — here’s my go-to recipe.

Devil’s Food Cake with Creamy Chocolate Frosting

Serves: 12 to 16

Hands-on time: 45 minutes

Total time: About 2 hours



1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

3 large eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup water

Creamy Chocolate Frosting

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa

1 teaspoon vanilla

4 cups powdered sugar

2 tablespoons heavy cream

Pinch salt


To make the cake: Place a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans.

Place the butter and sugars in a large bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula and stir in the vanilla.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt. While beating on low speed, add the flour mixture to the butter mixture alternately with water, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Divide the batter between the prepared pans and smooth the tops with the spatula.

Bake until the cake just pulls away from the edges of the pan and the top springs back when lightly pressed in the center, 25 to 30 minutes. Let the cakes cool in the pans, set on wire racks, for 10 minutes. Run a sharp knife around the edges of the pans, give them a gentle shake, and invert the cakes once and then again so they cool right side up on the rack. Let cool for 30 minutes before frosting.

To make the frosting: Place the butter and cream cheese in a large bowl and beat until creamy. Add the cocoa and vanilla and beat until combined. Add half of the sugar and beat until combined. Add the remaining sugar and the heavy cream, season with salt, and beat on medium speed until fluffy.

To assemble, place one layer on a serving plate and spread with about 2/3 cup frosting. Place the second layer on top and spread the remaining frosting on the top and sides of the cake. Serve.