2005_08_gift_southern_cooking.jpgThe Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations from Two Great American Cooks by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock (Knopf, 2003)

Gothamist is convinced that when it comes to birthday cake, taste trumps appearance. Sure, you want a cake that's attractive, but it doesn't need to be fancy. And with those candles blazing on top, who's cares if there's flowers or birthday wishes scrolled on top?

So when we needed to make a birthday cake for a friend, we decided to go with a classic double-layer chocolate cake from Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis' Gift of Southern Cooking. While New York City is no longer blessed with Miss Lewis' presence (at Cafe Nicholson in the '40s, Gage and Tollner in the '70s), we'll just have to make due with recipes like these.

This chocolate cake definitely falls into the category of classic Southern cooking. Similar to a devil's food cake, but with vegetable oil instead of butter (a common trait of Southern cakes), the recipe calls for low-gluten cake flour, resulting in a mouth-meltingly-tender crumb. And the coffee in both the batter and the frosting helps counteract the sweetness of the chocolate. You won't taste the coffee--it just deepens the chocolate sensation.

The recipe may seem overwhelming at first, but this cake isn't particularly difficult to bake. And the frosting is embarrassingly simple to prepare--it just needs time to cool and thicken before it's ready to spread on the cake. So give yourself plenty of time and be sure to follow the recipe closely, and you'll have a birthday cake that will amaze your friends.

2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup double-strength brewed coffee
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
2 eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup sour cream, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup heavy cream
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pound semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 cup hot double-strength brewed coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

To make the cake: Sift together sugar, flour, salt, and baking soda in a bowl. Pour the hot coffee over the finely chopped chocolate, and allow chocolate to melt completely.

In a separate bowl, whisk together until well blended eggs and vegetable oil, followed by the sour cream, vanilla, and coffee-chocolate mixture. Stir this liquid mixture into the dry ingredients by thirds, stirring well after each addition until completely blended. Divide the batter evenly between two buttered and floured parchment-lined 9-inch cake pans. Drop each cake pan once onto the counter from a height of 3 inches, to remove any large air pockets, which could cause holes or tunnels in the baked cake layers. Bake in the preheated oven for 30-40 minutes, until the cake springs back slightly when gently tapped in the center or a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove immediately to cooling racks, and allow to rest for 5 minutes before turning out of the pans.

To make the frosting: Heat the cream, butter, sugar, and salt in a heavy saucepan until the butter is melted. Add the chocolate and cook over very low heat, stirring constantly, just until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and blend in coffee and vanilla. Transfer frosting to a bowl to cool, stirring occasionally, until it is of a spreading consistency--about 1 hour, depending on the temperature of the kitchen. (If your kitchen is very warm, move the frosting to a cooler area to cool and thicken, but do not refrigerate or chill over ice water. Chocolate and butter solidify at different temperatures, and harsh chilling could cause the frosting to separate and turn grainy.)

To assemble the cake: When the frosting is of a spreading consistency and the cake layers are completely cooled, put one cake layer on a serving platter, bottom side up, and frost the surface thickly. Top with the other layer, bottom side down, and frost the top and sides. For best results, allow the cake to sit for 2 or more hours before slicing. Store, covered, at room temperature.

*NOTE: For the richest, darkest frosting possible, resist the urge to whisk or beat to cool faster. Excessive stirring incorporates air, which will cool and set the frosting more quickly, but will also dilute its dark color and flavor. And because it takes a little while to cool to the proper consistency, have all of the ingredients ready and make the frosting as soon as the cake layers are in the oven to bake.