Chocolate Cake Bake Off, Part II

After baking 12 chocolate cakes for the chocolate cake bake off, the last thing I wanted to do was bake more. (Honestly, if you’re trying to kick an addiction to chocolate cake, just try baking 12 of them in one day, tasting all of them, and then eating a sizeable tupperware of leftovers for days after trying to foist half-eaten cakes on all your friends.)

But I couldn’t shake my curiosity on how a few key recipes that I had omitted from the bake off would fare against the rest of the contenders. So one Sunday afternoon, I tested those recipes against a few control cakes:

New cakes:
  • Magnolia Kitchen: oil/butter-based
  • King Arthur Flour: oil/butter-based
  • Sarah Kieffer: nearly identical to Ina’s recipe, plus melted bittersweet chocolate
  • Foodess: nearly identical to Ina’s recipe, except it’s butter-based
Control cakes:
  • Bon Appetit (top oil/butter-based cake)
  • Ina Garten (winning oil-based cake)
  • Hershey’s (second place oil-based cake)

If you haven’t read through the original chocolate cake bake off post–I recommend doing so now for context!

Methodology

All 7 recipes were made the day of, baked in 8″ Fat Daddio anodized aluminum cake pans and tasted plain.

Ingredients: Gold Medal all-purpose flour, Kroger butter, Borden’s cultured buttermilkAdams imitation vanilla, Diamond kosher salt, Kroger sugar.

Chocolate ingredients: Valrhona Dutch-process cocoa powderGhiradelli natural cocoa powder70% Valrhona baking bars66% Valrhona feves. (Thank you to Valrhona for sending me samples to play with!!)

The tasting method for this experiment was much more casual–I brought the cakes to a Game of Thrones finale watch party and everyone who sampled the cakes wrote down their overall rating out of 10 on a piece of paper. This was, obviously, a far less scientific endeavor with a sample size of just 8. But here’s a mini chart of the average overall scores:

Bon Appetit 8.06
Magnolia Kitchen 7.06
Sarah Kieffer 6.88
Hershey’s 6.78
Ina Garten 5.11
Foodess 4.44
King Arthur Flour 3.78

One key note: this mini bake off was somewhat off the cuff and while baking, I ran out of my usual coffee thanks to unpreparedness–so I had to swap in a different brand, which changed significantly changed the taste of several cakes. However, I think there are still important textural insight to be had below!

Analysis

Bon AppetitI was actually quite thrilled that Bon Appetit took first this time around as this was one of my favorite cakes from the original bake off. Clearly my small group of GoT fans agreed. Compared to the others, this cake had a distinctly light and melt-in-your-mouth texture with a relatively more intense chocolate flavor (not super intense, but it tasted slightly darker and richer than other cakes). I think this cake was also boosted by a nice roasty coffee aftertaste, so people clearly preferred the taste of the coffee used in this cake. It’s an all-star cake! Go make this now!

Magnolia Kitchen: Maybe I can blame it on the fact that I don’t live in New Zealand, but I had never heard of the very funny and very talented Bernadette Gee before several people implored me to try her recipe during the last bake off. (If you don’t follow her on Instagram yet, she’s hilarious.) Anyway, she says her chocolate cake converts even the haters–and even though the picture in her cookbook preview looked crazy tantalizing, I ended up omitting her from the original bake off since the second page wasn’t available online and I didn’t want to confuse people trying to make her cake (turns out there’s not much on the second page except “pour batter into tins, bake for 30-40 min, then cool for 5-10 minutes before turning out onto a rack”). But back to her cake. It was pretty much my dream bakery-style cake–a crumb that’s impossibly even and moist, yet light. It gives off the impression of being rich and dense while remaining airy. By itself, the chocolate flavor isn’t super strong, but I imagine stacked in a layer cake, it would be fantastic. As Bets is the queen of layer cakes, it’s no surprise that this cake held up well to cutting and moving–it’s nicely sturdy and would cooperate well in a layer cake. While Bon Appetit will probably be my go-to for casual, medium-effort gatherings, this will be my go-to for more refined, need-to-impress occasions!

Sarah Kieffer: Sarah has a couple chocolate cake recipes on her site–this is her take on Ina’s recipe; this is a version that uses sour cream. I tested this version as it seemed like the closest take on Sarah’s recipe from her book–it’s very similar to Ina’s recipe; the main difference is the addition of a few ounces of melted chocolate. And how much of a difference does this make? Very little to my tastebuds, as it turns out. In my notes, I wrote that this cake had a “super airy crumb, maybe slightly looser than Ina’s” and a “slightly deeper chocolate flavor.” But I won’t lie–eyes closed, I probably couldn’t distinguish this cake over Ina’s. However, other people seemed to be able to tell enough of a difference to rate it slightly higher. Just because this requires the extra step of melting chocolate, I’ll probably end up turning to Ina’s in the future–but now I’m curious to try Sarah’s recipe with sour cream…

Hershey’sIn my notes, I wrote “best crumb so far, but very mild flavor. Essentially, I think opinions didn’t vary much from the original bake off–the uncomplicated, super soft crumb is pretty much universally crowd-pleasing, but it could still be more chocolatey.

Ina Garten: If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll remember that Ina scored first in the other bake off–i.e., above Hershey’s. So why the change in rankings this time around? Of course, sample size/tasters is one explanation. Another is that I tried Ina’s recipe using Dutch-process cocoa this time around (previously, I used natural cocoa, as with Hershey’s). Although people generally say that Dutch-process cocoa lends a richer cocoa flavor, I’ve also read the opposite–that natural cocoa lends better flavor, even though the appearance doesn’t look as dark and rich. This may be a point in the latter theory’s favor. In any case, the texture of Ina’s cake remains fantastic–silky, spongy, and melt-in-your-mouth soft.

Foodess: This recipe is nearly identical to Ina’s recipe except it uses butter instead of oil–the pictures look EXTREMELY fudgy, so I was quite curious about the side by side comparison. To be quite honest, I couldn’t detect a huge difference between Ina, Hershey’s and Foodess in the end! I found the crumb just sliiiiiightly tougher than Ina’s, and I couldn’t detect the butter flavor. I think cake was mostly ranked lower than Ina/Hershey’s because the coffee flavor was stronger (again, baker’s error from not using a consistent coffee source). The crumb also seemed slightly less even (see the air bubble in the above photo)–for me, oil is always easier to bake with, so I’ll stick with oil-based cakes but if butter is your preference, this cake was still delicious!

King Arthur FlourWhile this cake received a relatively low score, I actually think this is a very good, very addictive cake (and the thousands of 5 star ratings on their site would agree). I made this using natural coca powder and compared to others, it was by far the driest. This was probably due in part to the relatively low percentage of fat, and potentially the choice of cocoa powder–it seemed that some commenters who used Dutch-process cocoa ended up with a moister cake. However, this isn’t to say the cake is overly dry. To me, it was still sufficiently moist with excellent flavor–more of a light chocolate flavor that goes well with the slightly powdery mouthfeel. It’s fairly fluffy, light and not too sweet–I could see this being a crowd-pleaser.

Conclusion

With two oil + butter cakes taking the top spots in this second mini bake off, it’s safe to say that if you haven’t tried this technique/type of recipe yet, it’s worth a try (I also have my eye on Milk Bar’s German chocolate cake recipe if you’re looking for an extra challenge). Even though the last oil + butter cake (King Arthur Flour) landed in last spot, I still think it’s a cake worthy of trying.

When it comes to the question of the mother recipe, Ina Garten, I’ve now tried 5 permutations:

  • The original with Dutch-process cocoa
  • The original with natural cocoa
  • Swapped oil for butter (Foodess)
  • Swapped coffee for water (Hershey’s)
  • Added melted chocolate (Sarah Kieffer)

And based on my non-supertaster tastebuds, the winner is…probably Sarah Kieffer, by a hair? I would rank them in the following order:

  1. Sarah Kieffer
  2. Ina Garten with natural cocoa
  3. Ina Garten with Dutch-process cocoa
  4. Hershey’s
  5. Foodess

But honestly, even after tasting them side by side, I can say they are quite, quite similar. If you’re trying to decide which recipe to use, I would choose based on whatever ingredients you have on hand. Not the most exciting answer, but it’s the truth–if you’re too lazy to make coffee for Ina’s recipe, Hershey’s will be almost just as good. If you don’t have Dutch-process cocoa, well, you get the idea.

Let me know your thoughts if you try out any of these recipes and happy baking!!

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10 thoughts on “Chocolate Cake Bake Off, Part II

  1. Lucas
    Comparing cakes from part 1 and 2, which are the richest in chocolate taste? I remember Stella Parks's being good, how does it compare the new Inês?
    Reply
    1. erika Post author
      I wouldn't say it's overwhelmingly chocolatey, but I really feel that Magnolia Bakery has a very rich overall flavor and pretty darn good chocolate flavor. Based on my (admittedly faulty) memory, I think I'd put it on par with Stella's cake!
      Reply
  2. T
    Please share the coffee you use! And thanks for doing this! Plan on trying one of these for my son’s birthday!
    Reply
    1. erika Post author
      I wish I could tell you what coffee I use, but it was some bag I had forever and I don't currently have access to check it! If you like to drink coffee, whatever you like to drink is probably a good bet to use. (And if you need a new coffee recommendation, I highly recommend looking at Crema.co (coffee subscription company))! And yay, hope your cakes turn out great!!
      Reply
    1. erika Post author
      Hi Janet--several publications have run experiments and found that imitation vanilla performs as well or better than regular vanilla! I admit I was also surprised to read this and while I've never done a side by side test myself, I've never noticed the difference between a batch of anything with regular vs. imitation vanilla. Plus, it's way cheaper to test recipes with :) Check out the epicurious article below if you're curious to read more! https://www.epicurious.com/expert-advice/real-vanilla-extract-versus-imitation-vanilla-extract-baking-cookies-article
      Reply
  3. Sally
    this is awesome! I love the Foodess recipe, so this is so interesting to me. For Sarah Kieffer's cake (I LOVE her book), did you use Dutch Process cocoa? Also, what's your preferred coffee? Thanks!
    Reply
    1. erika Post author
      Ahhh yes I'm not saying Foodess' recipe is bad by any means, our little group just didn't prefer it quite as much! Yes, for Sarah's cake we used dutch process cocoa. Arg I don't have the coffee label with me--I don't remember the name but will try to remember to cite it next time!
      Reply
  4. Margot
    More chocolate cake! You're amazing. I think I recommended Sarah's recipe for your taste-offs, based on her scoring high in the cinnamon roll bake off (worth it!) and I am glad to see it scored high, and also interesting that it's so close to Ina's. I actually made Ina's chocolate cake for Father's Day since it was the top recipe from the last bake-off and everyone loved it!
    Reply

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