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Chocolate Cake Quest

My quest for the perfect chocolate cake has haunted me ever since I realized I had a knack for baking — not the professional kind with pastry bags and such — but homey baking that produces yeast rolls, fruit crumbles and birthday cakes. And for me, a birthday cake has always meant a chocolate layer cake with chocolate frosting. Don’t talk to me about boiled white icing or other fluffy stuff. To me, only a cake covered in thick chocolate icing will do, and to my mind it ought to replace “apple pie” in that adage “as American as apple pie.” Versions of apple pie exist in many Western cultures around the world, but chocolate layer cake is distinctly American.

For years I have never passed up a recipe claiming to be “the best chocolate cake you will ever eat,” and I would find an occasion to try it out, only to be disappointed. The cake would be too bitter or too sweet or too airy or dense or dry or simply lacking in any outstanding characteristic that would make it memorable, some intriguing je ne sais quoi element of flavor. Nor am I alone in this particular quest, for I have come to find that anyone who grew up in Brooklyn still talks about the long-defunct Ebinger’s bakery that produced the legendary Blackout Cake they grew up with and adored. Tears come to their eyes as they describe its heavenly properties: layers of moist dark cake separated by pudding and then iced with chocolate and topped off with cake crumbs clinging to the sides of the cake and along its top.

Several notable cookbook writers have offered recipes claiming to be authentic, but none has satisfied me, perhaps because I didn’t grow up in Brooklyn. I found the cake, first of all, a big drag to make. Getting the pudding right, slicing the layers into thinner layers, and then the fussy business of crumbling one of the layers and applying it to the sides and top of a frosted cake was just too much. After all of that, I just didn’t find the result thrilling. Sure, the contrast between the textures of the cake and the pudding filling was nice, and it certainly looked great, but again, the cake itself lacked that special texture and flavor that have kept me on the hunt.

So many chocoloate cake disappointments

I have tried recipes for cakes with batters tinted red, for one made with mashed potatoes, and for various recipes for fudge cakes, all promising bliss, but none truly satisfying. Some were too sticky and dense, others too unsubstantial and light, and all just plain boring. My quest went on until a day some years ago when I was at a meeting in Louisville, Ky., that wound up at the Woodford Reserve Distillery, which caters meals in its banquet hall.

Famous for its bourbon whiskey, the organization also serves up excellent dinners in its impressive facility, a place that has been referred to as “one of the best kept secrets of the South.” I don’t remember much about the main part of the meal except that we served ourselves from attractive buffets loaded with such Southern dishes as fried chicken, greens, sweet potatoes and many salads, and I recall being satisfied and very happy. But then came the dessert table, which offered an array of cakes, pies and puddings, among them a chocolate cake glistening with swirls of chocolate frosting. I headed straight for it, thinking that I would go back for some pie if my expectations for the cake would suffer my usual disappointment.

I remember every sensation of that moment — what was going through my mind when I plunged my fork into that slice of cake and had my first taste of it. It was moist and deeply chocolate and had a flavor I couldn’t identify but knew it was the je ne sais quoi I had been seeking. It was as if an orchestra had suddenly appeared and let loose with soaring strings from a thousand violins. I was shaken and overwhelmed by the knowledge that I had finally found THE CAKE. Of course I sought out the maitre d’ to request the recipe, but was turned down when told that it could not be distributed just then because it was going to be published.

At last, the best recipe is in hand

I spent the next year or so looking in every new Southern cookbook I could lay my hands on and was especially alert for a recipe for cake connected to the Woodford Reserve Distillery but had no luck. Finally I looked online and there it was — Woodford Reserve Chocolate Cake. Everything about the recipe is unusual. Instead of creaming butter and sugar the way most cake recipes begin, butter is melted with two kinds of chocolate to which sugar, strong coffee and bourbon are added. After cooling, the dry ingredients are added, and eggs and vanilla come in at the end. The whole thing bakes for an hour and a half in a slow oven, a direction I have never before seen in a cake recipe. The secret ingredient, of course, is the bourbon, which offers a nuanced flavor to the cake.

These days I get my fix of Woodford Reserve Chocolate Cake by offering to bring dessert to any potluck to which I am invited, and I am quick to throw birthday parties for friends. In my circles, the cake has become as famous as the Ebinger Blackout Cake — and for good reason. It is the perfect chocolate cake.

Woodford Reserve Chocolate Cake

Serves 16, generously


1¾ cups strong coffee
¼ cup Woodford Reserve bourbon
½ pound unsalted butter
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate
2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups all purpose flour
2 well beaten, large eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon finely ground pepper
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


  1. Combine coffee and Woodford Reserve, butter and chocolate and simmer over very low heat till butter and chocolate have melted. Whisk mixture to incorporate.
  2. Add sugar and stir till dissolved. Let mixture cool 10 minutes.
  3. While mixture is cooling, sift remaining dry ingredients together. Using a whisk, incorporate flour mixture into the liquid, making sure that all flour is dissolved.
  4. Whisk in beaten eggs and vanilla extract.
  5. Place finished batter into a 9-inch springform pan that has been buttered and dusted with cocoa.
  6. Bake at 275 F for 1½ hours or until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out just holding a couple of crumbs.
  7. Cool cake entirely before removing from the pan.
  8. This cake has never met an icing it didn’t like! Woodford bakers prefer caramel.

*Author’s Note:
In response to requests for an icing recipe to go with this luscious cake, Barbara Haber suggests:

Chocolate Frosting
3/4 cup good quality unsweetened cocoa  (I use Ghirardelli)
3 cups confectioners sugar
1 stick of softened butter
3 – 4 tablespoons of half-and-half or heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla

Sift together cocoa and confectioners’ sugar in a bowl.  In another bowl( I use the bowl of my stand mixer for this) combine 1 cup of this mixture with the butter and a tablespoon of cream and beat until smooth. Add vanilla. Add the rest of the sugar mixture alternately with cream all the while beating well.   If mixture seems dry, add more cream carefully until the consistency is just right for spreading on the top and sides of the cake.

[This makes a lot of frosting, but the cake, which is not especially sweet, can hold up to it But, use your own judgement.] — Barbara

Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.

  • Kitty Everard 8·25·12

    I haven’t tried it yet, but I will. What is the carmel icing recipe?

  • Tina Caputo 11·23·14

    I baked this cake for my friend’s birthday yesterday, and it was terrific! Very moist, and great depth of flavor from the bourbon and coffee. One tip: The batter is pretty thin, so you might want to put foil around the bottom of your spring form pan to catch any leaks. I topped it with my mom’s butter cream frosting (the recipe is on Zester). Thanks!

  • Barbara Haber 11·24·14

    Hi Tina,
    So glad you liked the cake. While I’ve never had a problem with spring form leakage, I often take the precaution of putting it on a baking sheet just in case. I was just thinking about the cake this morning since I am planning to bring one to the annual winter solistice gathering I will be attending next month. People love it.