Essential Recipe: Chocolate Layer Cake

updated Jan 21, 2020
Chocolate Layer Cake
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(Image credit: Faith Durand)

A discussion of chocolate cake should always be prefaced by Gourmet columnist Laurie Colwin: “Anyone who spends time in the kitchen eventually comes to realize that what she or he is looking for is the perfect chocolate cake.” Each cook has decided preferences when it comes to his ideal chocolate cake, but they usually fall somewhere on the spectrum of Colwin’s three types: flourless, fudgy, and cocoa.

Today what I have for you is the third on that list: a tender, moist, fluffy cocoa cake that is still deep, dark, and chocolatey. Oh, and super quick.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

Some chocolate cakes are completely flourless — quivering mousses of pure cacao. Others are closer to a brownie with a crackly crust. Some cakes, which for some reason seem to be most frequently found in grocery stores, appear to be dry sponge cakes colored brown. The latter put me off chocolate cake for a long time — I’m a fudge girl, myself. But this recipe changed that for me.

This is a cake cake, with a traditional cakey texture — light, spongy, and moist. It has a beautiful shiny top with a springy middle, and it is also an easy, one-bowl recipe. I adapted this from a Hershey’s recipe; it makes sense, I suppose, that they would have perfected a chocolate cake by now.

It’s really perfect cake — tasting deeply of chocolate, with dark, almost bitter notes that penetrate the whole bite. It isn’t Death by Chocolate; it isn’t a dense fudgy flourless torte; it’s a simple yet true chocolate cake, suitable for layering and frosting. Basically, it’s the recipe you’re looking for when you want a layer cake, a birthday cake for a budding chocolate-lover, a base for German chocolate cake, or any others in the host of reasons to make chocolate cake cake — not a pot de creme on a platter.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

More Cake & Icing Recipes

Looking for the icing recipe? I used a very basic cocoa buttercream for the cake in the photos (whip butter for several minutes with cocoa and powdered sugar, adjusting each until you get the flavor you want). But here are a few more recipes in case you are looking for something else. Also, would you prefer yellow cake to chocolate? Try the one below — it’s my favorite.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Chocolate Layer Cake

Makes1 (9-inch) layer cake


Nutritional Info


  • 2 cups

    white sugar

  • 1 3/4 cups

    all-purpose flour

  • 3/4 cup

    cocoa powder

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    baking powder

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    baking soda

  • 1 teaspoon


  • 2

    large eggs

  • 1 cup

    whole milk

  • 1/2 cup

    vegetable oil

  • 2 teaspoons

    vanilla extract

  • 1 cup

    boiling water


  1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour three 9-inch round baking pans. (Or, instead of flour, you can use cocoa powder, to match the color of the cake.)

  2. Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large mixer bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat with a mixer on medium speed for 2 minutes. Mix in boiling water. The batter will be quite thin. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.

  3. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center of each cake comes out clean.

  4. Set the pans on wire racks and cool for 10 minutes. Then, lightly run a knife around the inside of the pans to help the cake edges release. Flip the cake pans over, one by one, and tap firmly with the palms of your hands. Carefully lift up the cake pan; the cake should release easily. If it doesn't drop right out, drape with a warm wet towel while continuing to tap.

  5. Cool the cake layers completely before frosting.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

(Images: Faith Durand)

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