Velvet Devils Food Layer Cake

In July 1994 I was browsing the news stand at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach when I noticed a rich looking recipe for “Velvet Devils Food Layer Cake.” I bought my first ever issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine. That was 16-1/2 years ago, and although I bought the magazine for one reason; the cake; as I read further I began to appreciate Chris Kimball’s tireless approach to cooking. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

Moist and chocolaty. Chris Kimball hasn’t surpassed his 16-1/2 year old cake.

I have also tried many of Chris Kimball’s newer chocolate cakes. Still all these years later, I believe that Chris Kimball has not surpassed this moist, chocolaty masterpiece. I have made this cake 100 times since 1994, and it has never let me down. I have converted it into metric and made it in Argentina and Europe. In my household it has become as my “Very Chocolate Cake”.

The Cook’s Illustrated link to the original cake recipe is here. But my modified version is below:

1/3 cup (80 ml) non-alkalized cocoa, such as Hershey’s measured by spoon and sweep
2 cups all-purpose flour, by dip and sweep
1-7/8 cup sugar
18 tablespoons (300 grams) unsalted butter, softened
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon instant espresso or instant coffee
1-1/2 cup boiling water
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt

  1. I usually substitute two double espressos (4 ounces, 1/2 cup) and reduce boiling water to 1 cup. Whatever you use, be sure that the total liquid equal 1-1/2 cups.
  2. Bring a pan with water to a boil. In a small bowl, mix together the powdered cocoa and instant coffee; pour in boiling water (and espresso) and mix until smooth. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before stirring in the vanilla.
  3. Pre-heat your oven to 350°  and set an oven rack to the middle position.
  4. Cut two wax paper inserts to fit inside your two 8”x1-1/2” round cake pans.
  5. If the butter is not fully softened, microwave for 35 seconds.
  6. Beat butter in standing mixer equipped with paddle attachment at medium-high speed for 30 seconds; until it becomes smooth and shiny. With the mixer running, gradually sprinkle in sugar and mix for 3 minutes until it becomes fluffy and almost white in color. On at a time, add eggs and mix for 1 full minute after each addition.
  7. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt. With mixer on lowest speed, add about 1/3 of dry ingredients to batter, and immediately add 1/3 of the liquid cocoa mixture. Mix just until the ingredients become nearly incorporated. Repeat flour/cocoa additions twice more.  Turn off mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl using a rubber spatula. Mix on low speed for 15 seconds more; the batter will become smooth like satin.
  8. Evenly pour the batter between the two pans. Use a rubber spatula to work the batter to the sides and to smooth the top. Bake cakes at 350° for 25 minutes; until a toothpick comes out with only one or two crumbs. Transfer pans too wire racks, cool for 10 minutes.
  9. Run plastic knife around perimeter of each pan to loosen. Invert cakes onto wire rack, and allow to cool completely before frosting. Remove the wax paper AFTER the cakes have cooled.
  10. Re-invert cake before frosting.

The chocolate butter icing recipe is here.

6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup light corn syrup
12 tablespoons unsalted butter

  1. Don’t start making icing until 15 minutes after cakes are removed from the oven.
  2. Melt chocolate and butter in a medium bowl over pan of almost-simmering water.
  3. Stir in cup light corn syrup. (or substitute is 1/2 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons water, cooked for 2 minutes at full boil)
  4. Set bowl of chocolate mixture over a large bowl of ice water (or refrigerate for 20 to 25 minutes).
  5. Stirring occasionally until the frosting is just thick enough to spread.

I have made this cake so many times I know all the potential issues. Here they are:

  1. When melting sugar to substitute for corn syrup, be sure to let come to a full boil for 2 minutes. With a partial boil the sugar will appear liquefied, but a granular texture will persist after the icing  cools.
  2. Remove the wax paper after cooling. When the cake is hot, it is more likely to come apart and stick to the wax paper.
  3. If you have leftovers, to prevent the cake from drying out refrigerate after 24 hours.  The texture will change completely in the refrigerator because of all the butter, but it will still be delicious.

Rating: 5 stars.
Cost: $4
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess?  Medium.
Start time 3:00pm. Ready at 5:00 PM.

14 Responses to Velvet Devils Food Layer Cake

  1. Confucious says:

    A classic for every invited to your home! 🙂

    I miss it!

  2. Foodiewife says:

    So, where’s my slice? How I’d love to see the inside.
    I’m with you. CI never lets me down. I’m going to post a recipe in a few days that was spectacular. I just posted his Chicken and Dumplings. They are a keeper!

  3. Todd says:

    It seems that CI has changed their website so that non-members can’t read the recipes that you post.

  4. Stephen Goeller says:

    I am curious, why did you make modifications to the recipe ? I have made many of the more recent chocolate cakes and they never seem to be good enough. This one looks fantastic!

    • I didn’t knowingly make changes. But as I traveled around the world, from country to country, I changed my recipe to accommodate the locally available ingredients and measurements (i.e. kilos), and then tried to change it back now that I am back in the US. It was only upon relinking back to the original recipe (for this posting) that I saw that the two were no longer the same; either that or they revised the recipe on the website. I have lost my original printed magazine from 1994, which would have told me for sure.

  5. Sonya says:

    OK, I thought I had enough dessert recipes (500+ favorites, I am not kidding), but now I have to try this! Just wondering, you said “if the butter is not soft, microwave for 35 seconds”, did you mean to say “3 to 5 seconds”? Just in case someone who hasn’t baked much might melt their butter… unless that was correct. Anyway, you have inspired me – I can’t wait to bake this!

  6. Sonya says:

    Thank-you! That sounds like a good place for the microwave – lol. BTW, I got really curious about whether CI had updated their recipe since the 1994 magazine, and emailed someone on Amazon who had rated the CI 1994 annual, and she kindly emailed me the list of ingredients from the Velvet Devil’s Food Cake. The 1994 magazine is exactly the same as what’s now posted on their site.

    The original recipe from the magazine:
    1/2 cup nonalkalized cocoa, such as Hershey’s, measured by spoon-and-sweep
    2 tsps. instant espresso or instant coffee
    1 cup boiling water
    2 tsps. pure vanilla extract
    12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
    1 1/4 cups sugar
    2 large eggs at room temperature
    1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, measured by dip-and-sweep
    1/2 tsp baking soda
    1/2 tsp salt

    I thought you might be curious to know, too 🙂

    I’m really looking forward to making this cake!

    • In guess in general CI doesn’t update their recipes, but I have noticed that they de-publish some minor recipes from their website.

      Any small differences were caused because I took this recipe around the world. When living in Argentina I adapted it to metric, and it slightly evolved further while I was living in Czech Republic, based upon the local ingredients available there. Finally when I moved back to US, I re-converted everything back to cups and teaspoons.

      Good luck with the cake, it always comes out fantastic.


  7. Sonya says:

    Hi! Just realized that I never reported back – I ended up making this cake as well as 13 other cakes that day (yes, I have OCPD!!!), and this one was very good. Our personal favorite recipe was the Cook’s Illustrated Moist and Tender Devil’s Food Cake from 2000, as well as their Ultimate Chocolate Cupcakes with Ganache Filling from 2010. We also realized that we always preferred Callebaut cocoa powder over Hershey’s. This post was the inspiration for my quest for our favorite chocolate cake, so thank-you 🙂 !!! Sorry it took me so long to reply 🙂

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