From My Mother’s Kitchen: Birthday Cake

DISH: Rich Chocolate Cake
TYPE: Any and all celebrations, (e.g. Cara’s 25th Birthday)

We start this post back in pre-1984 New York City. I wasn’t around yet, and my parents were living in Greenwich Village in an apartment that was soon to become too small. Its kitchen must have been spacious enough though for an electric mixer, because that was what made my mother’s Rich Chocolate Cake an immediate classic. The recipe appeared one day in Bon Appetit, and soon she started baking it to celebrate nearly every occasion. The cake is pretty easy to make if you do have an electric mixer, but it tastes like a labor of love.

Twenty-five years ago, almost to the day, my family moved to a less cool part of New York City (I think that was my fault; there wasn’t enough room anywhere in Greenwich Village, apparently, for a child who cried as loudly as I did). That’s when, as family lore goes, the recipe got lost. It was just a magazine clipping, after all—insignificant enough to float off in the chaos of packing.

Thanks to my mother’s memory for numbers and order (she memorizes license plates after seeing them once), throughout my childhood, this was the cake I ate each year for my birthday, even though we no longer had the recipe. I ate it several other times in a year, too, for family members’ birthdays, not to mention on Christmas. Sometimes, my mom would adorn it with M&Ms all around the sides, and sometimes she would leave it plain. She always made it very early in the morning, and I can’t quite describe what it was like to wake up, as a child, to the smell of that chocolate cake baking.

But then over the years, without the original clipping to consult, my mom sometimes altered the ingredients and instructions. She couldn’t quite remember if there were three eggs in the batter and two in the frosting, or vice versa, and if the cake required a teaspoon of baking powder or a tablespoon. The cake, unfortunately, suffered. Not always, it was just inconsistent. There were times when a thick slice brought back childhood memories, but there were also occasions when the cake was dry and the frosting heavy, and I’d have to second guess my own memory, wondering if that cake I’d loved so much really was anything that special.

Starting in about 2000, my mom began googling the recipe, hoping to happen upon the original article. For a long time, nothing came up. Then, last fall, she found Tina’s Triple Layer Chocolate Cake and recognized the proportions and the ingredients. It was kind of a miracle that another cook had saved the recipe all these years, and that she’d finally posted it online. When mom made the cake last December, for my grandmother’s 91st birthday, it was perfect, just as I remembered it. And, with the recipe available again, I can make the cake all on my own, which I did for my friend Jessy’s birthday this year. It was sort of full circle, since Jessy has been my friend since kindergarten, and she must have eaten slices of this cake way back when, at birthday parties much, much longer ago than today’s.

From my kitchen, 25 years old today, to yours,



Rich Chocolate Celebration Cake
Serves 18

2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 3/4 c. sugar
3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) butter, room temp.
3/4 c. milk
4 oz. (4 sq.) unsweetened baking chocolate, melted
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
3/4 c. milk
3 eggs
1 1/4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
Rich Chocolate Frosting (see below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 3 9-inch layer cake pans.

Sift flour into large bowl. Add sugar, butter, 3/4 cup milk, chocolate, baking soda and salt and beat with electric mixer 2 minutes at medium speed. Add remaining milk, eggs, baking powder and vanilla and beat 2 minutes more. Pour into prepared pans and bake in middle of oven 30 minutes or until cakes test done and have pulled away slightly from sides of pan. Allow to cool completely on rack(s).

Place first layer on plate and frost. Repeat with second layer. Top with third layer and frost top and sides of cake. Decorate top of cake with toasted walnut halves, extra icing, or M&Ms.

Rich Chocolate Frosting
Makes enough to frost one Rich Chocolate Celebration Cake

6 to 8 oz. (6 to 8 sq.) unsweetened baking chocolate
3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) butter
4 c. sifted powdered sugar
6 tbsp. strongly brewed coffee
2 eggs
1 tbsp. vanilla
Pinch of salt

Soften chocolate and butter in top of double boiler over hot, not boiling, water. Stir in remaining ingredients. Place top of double boiler in bowl of ice and beat frosting with electric mixer about 5 minutes or until it reaches spreading consistency.

Posted in: Baking For Others
  • Sara Bennett

    Happy birthday.

  • Jill

    happy birthday middle sis! xoxo

  • Joanne

    Your mother is sitting at your desk with tears streaming down her cheeks…

    Glad that all those early mornings made for such sweet memories!

    Much, much love–Mom

  • Kate

    Happy birthday, sister! Your younger sister is sitting at her desk with tears down her cheeks, too (I guess I got the genes for chocolate and crying), but I can personally attest to the perfectness of this cake. There is simply no better way to celebrate than a slice of this cake.

  • Jessie

    The true test was at GMa's birthday / Christmas where we all stood in the kitchen after dessert and proceeded to eat the cake with our fingers. Don't tell Grandma. I hope you have a delicious and decedant birthday. Much love.

  • Caitlyn

    Such a great post — Happy Happy Birthday, Cara!

  • Kelsey B.

    Happy Birthday and FABULOUS cake

  • bigBANG studio

    Happy birthday, Cara! This looks absolutely delectable. I might try it but also see if I can incorporate Hopie's recipe for Earl Grey chocolate ganache into your frosting recipe. THANKS, GALS! xoxo

  • the southern hostess

    Happy Birthday! What a perfect way to celebrate!

  • Phoebe and Cara, the Quarter-Life Cooks

    Thanks everyone for the bday wishes! It was a fabulous day!

  • Chocolate Shavings

    That cake sounds like the perfect birthday gift

  • gamegrrl2000

    It DOES sound like the PERFECT birthday cake! My birthday is coming up on 11/15, and this may be just the ticket!

  • tom | tall clover farm

    Mr. Bittman's chocolate cake sounds delicious (as does yours), but you win the bake-off hands down in your choice of topping. This confection deserves a rich, fudgy chocolate icing. (Keep the whipped cream for fresh berries.) Happy Belated Birthday and thank you for our gift of this recipe.

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