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Optimized Chocolate Cake

by roselevit

I have way too much time on my hands, so I decided to strategically determine the ideal chocolate cake recipe – chocolate cake’s Platonic form, if you will. If you’re not interested in the process, feel free to skip ahead to the recipe. I collected a handful of chocolate cake recipes from the greats, including famous French pastry chef Dominique Ansel, celebrated Israeli-British chef Yotam Ottolenghi, and Paul Hollywood of icy blue-eyed polar bear baking show fame.

I converted each ingredient in each cake to percentages by weight (aka baker’s percentages) and compared each recipe in a sexy spreadsheet to figure out the ideal range for each ingredient. For the recipes written in US/imperial rather than metric, I used this ingredient weight chart to convert the amounts to grams.

I discovered that the ideal ingredient proportions are as follows:

  • Cocoa powder: range 2-5%, mean 4.396%
  • Flour (all-purpose or pastry): range 16.6-22%, mean 18.76%
  • Sugar (caster or granulated): range 9.8-30%, mean 22.76%
  • Salt: range 0.1-0.38%, mean 0.26%
  • Vegetable oil: range 4.7-11.5, mean 8.54%
  • Eggs: range 7-9.8%, mean 8.58%

The rest of the ingredients were more variable, so there wasn’t a good way to average them. However, we have enough to work with.

I’m going to engineer my perfect cake recipe to make 1,000 g of batter per layer, which makes for easy math. The most basic ingredients are flour, sugar, cocoa powder, eggs, liquid fat, and salt. I’ve chosen to stick with vegetable oil in my recipes instead of butter because it’s generally thought to be much better for moist cakes.

I’ll begin with the average values exactly as they are. This equates to:

  • 188 g all-purpose flour
  • 228 g granulated sugar
  • 44 g cocoa powder
  • 2.6 g salt (~1/2 tsp)
  • 85 g vegetable oil
  • 86 g eggs

This makes about 634 g of batter, so I need to bulk this up to 1,000 g with some other ingredients. I need a leavening agent, and since the majority of the cakes used both baking powder and baking soda, I’ll also use both. The average for baking powder is 0.35% and the average for baking soda is 0.6%. Most of the recipes also included some form of coffee, usually hot and freshly brewed, to add moisture and bring out the deep chocolate flavor in the cake. Among the cakes that used hot coffee, the average proportion was 15.82%. By adding these three ingredients, I’ll add…

  • 3.5 g baking powder (about 1 tsp or a little less)
  • 6 g baking soda (1 tsp exactly)
  • 158 g hot, strong coffee

… resulting in about 802 g of batter. I’m still not there.

Many of the cakes included vanilla extract and an acidic dairy product like buttermilk or sour cream. The average amount of vanilla was 0.61%. The buttermilk cakes averaged 12.36% buttermilk and the sour cream cakes averaged 9.9% sour cream. I decided to use sour cream simply because I prefer the flavor. Add…

  • 6 g vanilla extract
  • 100 g sour cream or buttermilk

… resulting in 908 g of batter. This is where it gets tricky. I need to get to 1,000 g or else none of the percentages I found will be accurate, but I’ve run out of major ingredients to add to the recipe. I’m going to have to play around with that last 92 g, using the ranges I found to add extra of certain ingredients. I figure the best place to start is with those ingredients whose ranges extend far beyond their means and also have a big impact on weight; sugar and vegetable oil seem to fit the bill. What if I increase the sugar from 228 g to 275 g and the vegetable oil from 85 g to 95 g? Since eggs and vegetable oil typically appear in similar amounts, I’ll also increase the eggs from 86 g to 95 g. Now the recipe is:

  • 188 g all-purpose flour
  • 275 g granulated sugar
  • 44 g cocoa powder
  • 2.6 g salt (~1/2 tsp)
  • 95 g vegetable oil
  • 95 g eggs
  • 3.5 g baking powder (about 1 tsp or a little less)
  • 6 g baking soda (1 tsp exactly)
  • 158 g hot, strong coffee
  • 6 g vanilla extract
  • 100 g sour cream or buttermilk

… giving us 974 g of batter. I’ll round up some of the values, such as 158 –> 160 g hot strong coffee, 44 –> 50 g cocoa powder, and 188 –> 190 g all-purpose flour, giving us 984 g in total. Finally, I’ll bring it to 1,000 g with a bit more sour cream.

The final ingredients are:

  • 190 g all-purpose flour
  • 275 g granulated sugar
  • 50 g cocoa powder
  • 2.6 g salt (~1/2 tsp)
  • 95 g vegetable oil
  • 95 g eggs
  • 3.5 g baking powder (about 1 tsp or a little less)
  • 6 g baking soda (1 tsp exactly)
  • 160 g hot, strong coffee
  • 6 g vanilla extract
  • 116 g sour cream

All the bakers I analyzed baked their cakes at 350º F/180º C in round tins for between 23 and 60 minutes. To mix the batter, they whisked the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt) together in one bowl, combined the wet ingredients (oil, eggs, vanilla, and buttermilk/sour cream) in another bowl, poured the wet into the dry, and added the coffee at the end. They all baked them in buttered tins that they dusted with flour or cocoa powder.

Using all this information, let’s bake the world’s best chocolate cake!

World’s Best Chocolate Cake

This recipe was created by synthesizing recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi, Paul Hollywood, Dominique Ansel, and other celebrated bakers. It's extremely chocolatey, fudgy, moist, and brownie-like, but it's also very light. The inclusion of strong coffee brings out the chocolate flavor, making the cake so delicious that you'll barely need any icing! The recipe produces one layer of cake, so double or triple it for a layer cake.
Prep Time 30 mins
Cook Time 45 mins
Chilling Time 30 mins
Total Time 1 hr 45 mins
Servings 1 layer of cake

Ingredients
  

For the Cake

  • 190 g all-purpose flour
  • 275 g granulated sugar
  • 50 g unsweetened cocoa powder plus extra for dusting
  • ½ tsp fine salt (not kosher salt)
  • 3.5 g (scant tsp) baking powder
  • 6 g (1 tsp) baking soda
  • 95 g vegetable oil (avocado, sunflower, canola, etc.)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 6 g real vanilla extract
  • 116 g full-fat sour cream
  • 160 g hot, strong coffee (make about 3/4 cup)

To Assemble

  • Simple syrup (equal parts water and sugar)
  • Chocolate buttercream

Instructions
 

  • Preheat the oven to 350º F/180º C. Butter an 8" round cake pan (preferably with a removable bottom), then shake some cocoa powder around inside the pan until evenly coated.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. In another bowl, whisk together the oil, eggs, vanilla, and sour cream. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk to combine. It will be very thick. Drizzle in the hot coffee and whisk until smooth and well-combined.
  • Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then remove from the pan and let cool fully before cutting and icing.
  • I recommend drizzling the cooled and sliced cake layers with simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water) to keep them moist. After adding the simple syrup, chill the layers for 20 minutes before icing.
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