The Virtue of Birthday Cake

"Birthdays are milestones in the evolution of an individual or a group," according to the entry in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.

Interesting notion. A milestone it is indeed, but a marker of individual evolution -- this is something I'd never considered.

Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. (Kim O'Donnel)

I like it: With every birthday, we don't just age, we evolve. This way, the birthday stops being a numbers game and instead a nod to one's state of being. For years, I've come to think of the birthday as a personal New Year's Day, an opportunity to reflect on the previous year and to set intentions for the next one. To mark the occasion, it is fitting to celebrate the sweetness of having lived another year with cake.

Like humans, cake has evolved over the ages, and there are references to sweetened bread in ancient Egypt and to Cato's description of a honey-sweetened cheesecake in 200 BC, referred to as a "placenta."
The ritual of eating something sweet to celebrate a life event is ancient, usually earmarked for weddings or the birth of a child. Not until Europeans settled on the other side of the Atlantic did birthday cake become part of the cultural vernacular of this country.

At first, it appears that a select few enjoyed birthday cake celebrations, but by the mid-19th century, with the invention of the enclosed iron stove (rather than an open hearth) and chemical leavening, regular folks began to enjoy the crumb of a birthday cake. Until then, the cake in question was fruitcake, which eventually morphed into pound cakes and sponge cakes. References to layer cake with icing began to surface around 1871, shortly after the Civil War.

Closer to the turn of the century, when Fannie Farmer published her "Boston Cooking-School Cookbook" (1896), the chocolate layer cake made its debut, a concept that Americans warmed up to slowly.

Chocolate cake with chocolate icing is exactly what I made this weekend in honor of my brother Tim, who turns 36 today. Many of you know that Tim was hospitalized for a few months last fall, his future hanging in the balance. With such an amazing recovery, Tim is back at work and making great strides in this ride called life. A celebration of this milestone in Tim's evolution was in order. It was decided: We would gather together from points south and north, and we would eat cake.

He wanted chocolate, which in my kitchen means only one thing: "Very Good Chocolate Cake" from the late southern cooking doyenne Edna Lewis and her kitchen collaborator Scott Peacock (a recent James Beard award winner). The cake is incredibly moist, which I tweaked with applesauce and plain yogurt instead of oil and sour cream, but it's the frosting that will forever be ingrained in our memories. Whoever thought a pot of chocolate, butter and cream would send you to the moon.

I believe I heard the birthday boy howling.

Thank goodness for birthday cake. And thank you, Tim, for giving me a reason to bake one.

Very Good Chocolate Cake
Adapted from The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock

2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup hot (not boiling) water
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
2 eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup applesauce
1/2 cup sour cream (alternatively, use plain yogurt)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Note: This makes more than enough frosting than is necessary, plus it's so rich that you don't even need a coating inbetween cake layers. I have halved the amounts below in the past, approximating amount for sugar.

1 cup heavy cream
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into several pieces
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pound semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 cup hot water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325. Butter, flour and line two 9-inch cake pans with parchment paper.

Sift together sugar, flour, salt and baking soda in a bowl. In another bowl, pour hot water over chocolate, allowing it to melt completely. In a third bowl, whisk eggs and applesauce, then add sour cream, vanilla and chocolate mixture. Fold wet mixture into dry, by thirds, incorporating after each addition. Divide batter evenly between the cake pans.

Bake 30-40 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. Transfer cake pans to racks and allow to rest for five minutes before turning out of pans. To unmold, run a flat-edged knife between cake and sides of pans. Turn pans facedown onto rack and carefully lift. Allow cakes to completely cool before peeling off parchment and frosting.

Frosting: Heat cream, butter, sugar and salt in a saucepan until butter is melted. Add chocolate, cooking over very low heat, until just melted and mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and blend in water and vanilla. Transfer frosting to a bowl to cool, stirring only occasionally, until it is spreadable -- about an hour. Do not refrigerate.

Assembling cake: When frosting is ready, put one cake layer on cake plate and frost from center, thoroughly covering surface. Top with second layer and frost the top and sides. Allow cake to sit two hours before slicing.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 21, 2007; 11:02 AM ET Culinary History , Desserts , Entertaining
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Thank you so much for sharing this cake. I can't wait to try it.

Also, I'm so glad that you were able to celebrate Tim's birthday, with him in good health!

Posted by: MM | May 21, 2007 1:09 PM

Looks great. Crazy question: how does one line a round pan with parchment? Do you just line the bottom of the pan or do you make a separate ring of parchment and a circle of parchment?

Posted by: Baltimore | May 21, 2007 2:02 PM

Is that really 2 cups sugar? Isnt that too much?

Posted by: Columbus | May 21, 2007 2:36 PM

Kim, ardent follower here!
Birthday cake has been on my mind lately too. My husband loves Black forest chocolate cake, with generous amounts of kirsch thrown in ofcourse!
I've tried a couple of recipes in the past, but I'm unable to recreate the ones I've had in Europe. I'm looking for a good recipe, do you've a recipe you can share?
I need to bake it this weekend!

Posted by: ardent follower | May 21, 2007 2:39 PM

Columbus, yes, it's 2 cups sugar. You are free to adjust amounts. I did not find cake overly sweet, and I'm particularly sensitive.
Baltimore, turn pan over and with a pencil trace around the edges and then cut around edges. You'll need two circles.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | May 21, 2007 2:51 PM

Wow! Thanks so much for posting this recipe. Back when I lived in Decatur, my favorite dessert outing was to Watershed for Very Good Chocolate Cake. 7 years later, whenever I hear the Indigo Girls' song "Watershed," my mind still drifts to chocolate cake. Yum!

You don't happen to have their heavenly tomato basil soup recipe too, do you?

Posted by: Silver Spring | May 21, 2007 3:44 PM


I love birthday cake. I have never been a fan of chocolate birthday cake, but this I want to try. Any advice on what might be good for someone who's recently joined weight watchers that can't imagine life without birthday cake?

Posted by: LisaLuvs2Cook | May 22, 2007 9:25 AM

Kim, does the water-chocolate mixture need to cool at all before being combined with the other ingredients?

Posted by: Christine | May 22, 2007 10:51 AM

I smiled when I read "the birthday as a personal New Year's Day" since my birthday is on New Year's Eve. I've always thought it was a time of reflection, anticipation of the year ahead, excellent chocolate cake (is there any other kind?), and the power of the birthday wish! The wish I made when I blew out the candles on my 30th birthday cake was simple: If I'm to marry, I would like to meet the man I was to marry that year. A few months later I met my future husband! I still fervently believe in the power of the birthday wish!!!

Posted by: SLP | May 22, 2007 10:52 AM

I was excited to read that someone is planning to bake a black forest cake for her husband this weekend--we must be living parallel lives, because that's my plan, too (it's hubby's 30th b-day)! But, if I decide to buy one instead, could anyone recommend the best bakery for this particular cake? (My fall-back option is Heidelberg Bakery in Arlington.)

Posted by: Rebecca | May 22, 2007 1:11 PM

Lucky brother ... this looks SO yummy. I wish I could have a piece right. now. :)

Posted by: SF | May 22, 2007 1:42 PM

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