Roman’s Holy Communion Cake

communioncakeMy nephew Roman made his first Holy Communion yesterday, a huge rite of passage for young Catholic kids. When I was little, I remember “playing communion” with Nilla wafers, and I recall my own first communion very well. I have the dress and veil I wore in a cedar chest in my bedroom, along with other family heirloom garments like my grandmother’s wedding dress and my grandpap’s Navy sailor suit.

Roman requested a chocolate cake with chocolate icing for his communion celebration, and the look on his face when he first saw it was priceless. He got an enormous piece, of course.

I’ve made this cake in cupcake form before, and adapted the recipe for two 8-inch rounds here. This would also make at least 24 cupcakes, or a 9 x 13 sheet cake.


Dark Chocolate Cake

  • 3 cups flour
  • 6 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 6 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 cups water

Chocolate Buttercream

  • 1 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 3-4 tablespoons milk
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla extract

Vanilla Buttercream (for accents)

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • Scant 1 cup powdered sugar
  • About 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 teaspoon


For the cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 8-inch round cake pans with baking spray. Line the bottom of each pan with a circle of parchment, and spray a second time.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. Make three wells; place vinegar in one, vanilla in the second, and vegetable oil in the third. Add water and stir very well to combine; the batter will bubble up just slightly as the ingredients come together. Your batter will be fairly thin, but should be mostly lump-free.

Divide batter evenly between the pans. Bake for about 30 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Be careful not to over-bake; the sides of these cakes set up pretty quickly and can burn if you let them go too long.

Remove cakes from oven and carefully run a knife around each edge to loosen them from their pans if they’ve stuck at all. Allow to cool for about 5 minutes in the pans, then carefully flip out onto wire racks (removing the parchment for each cake bottom) to cool completely.

For the frostings

To make the chocolate buttercream frosting, in a large bowl, sift together powdered sugar and cocoa powder and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat butter on medium speed for about 1 minute; add salt and beat another 30 seconds.

Add powdered sugar and cocoa and beat on low speed to incorporate as much sugar into the butter as you can.  I cover my mixing bowl with a kitchen towel during this step to prevent a sugar storm.

Add three tablespoons milk and two teaspoons vanilla extract; beat for three minutes.

Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl and add the final teaspoon vanilla extract, then beat for another minute.

To make the vanilla buttercream frosting, in a medium bowl, sift powdered sugar and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat butter on medium speed for about 1 minute; add salt and beat another 30 seconds.

Add powdered sugar and beat on low speed to incorporate as much sugar into the butter as you can.

Add 1 tablespoon milk and the vanilla; beat for three minutes. Add remaining milk a half-tablespoon at a time to reach a consistency that can be easily piped.

To assemble and decorate

Flip one cake upside-down onto your cake plate; spread a medium-thin layer of frosting on top. Carefully place your second cake on top of the first layer and frost the top, then the sides.

Fit a piping bag with your desired tip; pipe decorations as you like. I decorated Roman’s cake pretty simply, with his name, a top border that looked a bit like rosary beads, and crosses on the sides.

RomanHCHere, Roman marvels at his cake (and did not lick it). 


Chocolate Cake

chocolate cake






My five-year-old nephew Roman took a bite of a homemade sugar cookie on Christmas Day and made a face I wasn’t expecting: he wrinkled his nose and shook his head, the universal sign for “I don’t like this.” How could this be, I wondered? He’s a kid, right? Don’t children love sugar?

My brother Andy, Roman’s dad, remarked that kids eat a lot of processed foods, that they’re not necessarily used to homemade tastes. This make me think about the difference between the baked goods you buy at the store–packaged cookies, boxed cake mixes–and how different they really are from homemade. If you bake a cake from a mix, you’ll get fluffy, moist layers that will stay fresh for several days. Bake a cake from eggs, flour, butter, and sugar, and you’ll get a denser, more crumbly treat that lasts three, maybe four days tops (depending on your ability to resist slicing up a huge piece every time you pass your cake stand).

This recipe is a simple, one-bowl affair that requires no melted chocolate, just cocoa powder, and yields a single layer. Caramel frosting pairs well with this cake, but I chose to dust it with powdered sugar, make some whipped cream, and serve it “plain.”


  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup shortening
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 egg
  • Powdered sugar, for dusting
  • Sweetened whipped cream, for garnish, if desired


Grease and flour a nine-inch round cake pan; set aside. Note: if you plan to leave the cake in the pan, you can simply grease and flour it, but if you wish to remove the cake from the pan to set it on a cake stand, I recommend greasing the bottom of the pan, lining it with a circle of waxed paper, then greasing and flouring the paper.

In a mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.

Add milk, shortening, and vanilla, beating on medium speed for two minutes.

Add egg and beat on medium speed for another two minutes.

Pour batter into prepared pan; it will be a light brown color and very fluffy in texture.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool cake on a wire rack in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove from the pan (if you desire) to cool completely.

Dust with powdered sugar and top with sweetened whipped cream if desired.

Sweetened Whipped Cream


  • 3/4 cup whipping cream
  • 3-4 tablespoons powdered sugar


Chill your bowl and beaters (or whisk attachment) for 10-15 minutes.

Add whipped cream and powdered sugar to the chilled bowl and beat on medium, then medium-high speed until soft peaks form.




Buttermilk Chocolate Sheet Cake






Long before fondant dominated the Food Network and entire shows were dedicated to bakeries who could fashion cakes into realistic reproductions of Hogwarts Castle, there was the sheet cake.  The sheet cake is, for those who prefer not to spend more on a cake than they’d spend on a car payment, the go-to dessert for family or professional gatherings, celebrating birthdays, baby showers, graduations, and office farewells.

As far as I can tell, the world is divided into two groups of people: those who want the corner piece, and those who do not (much like those who want raisins in their oatmeal cookies, and those who do not).  We corner-piece folks cannot imagine why others prefer the cake to the frosting, for it is precisely the ample portion of frosting—on all three sides—that draws us to the corner piece in the first place.

This recipe is also known as a Texas Sheet Cake and employs an interesting technique of cooking cocoa powder and butter for both the batter and the frosting, and by pouring the frosting over the cake while it is still warm.  The recipe can be baked in a 15x10x1 jelly roll pan for 25 minutes, but as I don’t have one of those (yet) I employed my 13x9x2 and it worked just fine.

Buttermilk Chocolate Cake


  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract


Grease and flour a 13x9x2 sheet cake pan; set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt.

In a medium saucepan, combine butter, cocoa powder, and water.  Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture just comes to a boil.

Remove from heat and combine with dry ingredients, beating on medium speed until well-combined.

Add eggs, buttermilk, and vanilla and beat on medium speed for one minute.  Batter will be very thin.

Pour into prepared pan and bake for 35 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.

Just after the cake has come out of the oven, prepare the frosting so that it can be spread on the cake while the cake is still warm.

Buttermilk Chocolate Frosting


  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3 tablespoons buttermilk
  • 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


In a medium saucepan, combine butter, cocoa powder, and buttermilk.

Cook on medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil.

Remove from heat and vigorously stir in powdered sugar and vanilla until smooth.

Pour over warm cake and spread with a spatula.

Devil’s Food Cake







Mike’s first “real” job as a newspaper reporter took us to LaPlata, Maryland.  After we moved there it took me a few months to find a job, so I spent the summer baking, sending the results of my confectionery endeavors in to his office.  This cake was a particular favorite, proclaimed by one of his colleagues to be worthy of a blue ribbon at the county fair.  Allegheny County doesn’t have a fair, but if it did, you can bet I’d enter this in it.

I’ve found that if you grease cake pans, then line them with waxed paper or parchment paper and grease the paper before flouring the pan, your cakes will pop out easily.  You can certainly use the traditional grease and flour method without the paper, but this is my preferred technique.  To make the liners, I place the paper down on a counter top, lightly trace its circumference with the tip of a knife, then cut a slightly smaller circle of paper to fit inside the pan.

Also, when I frost cakes, I always frost the sides last.  You can certainly frost the top last if you’d prefer, but I find that saving the sides for last makes a smoother edge where the side meets the top.  I’m not a huge fan of elaborate decorations on cakes, so I use an offset spatula and smooth strokes to create a very homemade, old-fashioned appearance. 



  • 2 1/4 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/3 cups water
  • 1 recipe fudge frosting


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly grease two 9-inch round cake pans.  Line the bottom of each with waxed paper, lightly grease the waxed paper, and lightly flour each pan.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.  Mix well and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat shortening on medium speed for 30 seconds.

Add sugar and vanilla; beat until combined.

Add eggs, one at a time, beating until combined after each.

Add flour mixture and water alternatively in three batches, beating on medium speed until just combined.

Divide batter evenly between the pans and bake for 35 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool in pans for about 10 minutes; run a knife around the edge of each pan to loosen the cakes, then turn them out onto cooling racks and remove the waxed paper from the bottom.  Flip right-sides up and allow to cool completely before frosting.


Flourless Chocolate Cake







Our fun with interfaith baking continues, as both Passover and Easter are upon us!  I’m no Torah scholar, so I’ll leave the explanation of the symbols, foods, and rituals of Passover to the fine folks at  As a baker, though, I can speak to the creativity that Passover requires; observant bakers turn to matzoh meal, potato flour, and all manner of unleavened ingredients to produce cakes, cookies, and other treats for this special time of year.

Tomorrow night, Mike and I will celebrate the beginning of Passover with a Seder, and for the next eight days, Mike won’t eat chametz, or anything that contains leavened grain, like bread, cereal, pasta, even beer.  I don’t abstain from chametz for two reasons; as a Catholic with Eastern European roots, Easter bread is an important component of my faith tradition, and (to be totally honest) I’m nowhere near disciplined enough.

This cake is an excellent flourless option for Passover; it is very rich, so I recommend slender slices served with fresh whipped cream.  You can omit the espresso powder if you don’t have it and use unsweetened American-style cocoa powder instead of Dutch-process, but if you’d like to stick to the traditional recipe, you can get both ingredients from King Arthur Flour; Williams-Sonoma also carries Dutch-process cocoa.

A note about the chocolate glaze: mine didn’t turn out as smooth as I’d like, which means I need to spend more time stirring it once the chocolate has melted to make sure all of the tiny bits of chocolate are incorporated evenly.



  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • ½ cup butter
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon espresso powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ cup Dutch-process cocoa powder


Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Grease a round cake pan; line with parchment paper and grease the parchment.

Cut butter into chunks and combine with chocolate chips in a medium-sized microwave-safe bowl.

Microwave in 30-second intervals until butter melts and chips become very soft, stirring after each interval.  Stir to melt chips completely and transfer to a mixing bowl.

Add sugar, espresso powder, and vanilla and beat until just combined.

Add eggs and beat until incorporated.

Add cocoa powder and beat until just combined.

Gently pour batter into pan and bake for 25 minutes, until the top of the cake has formed a crust.

Cool in the pan for 5 minutes; loosen edges with the tip of a knife and invert onto a cake stand or serving plate.

Allow to cool completely before glazing.

Garnish with toasted sliced almonds, if desired.

Chocolate Glaze


  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • ½ cup heavy cream


Combine chocolate chips and heavy cream in a saucepan and heat until cream is very hot, but not simmering.

Remove from heat and stir until completely smooth.

Pour over cake, allowing to drip over the sides.

Allow the glaze to harden for several hours before serving.