Devil’s Food Birthday Cake with Strawberries and Milk Chocolate Buttercream

Who doesn’t love a hefty slice of dark chocolate cake? This one plays off strawberries’ affinity for chocolate, sandwiched in between moist cake and heavenly milk chocolate meringue buttercream. There’s an appropriately diabolical twist: a hint of ancho chile powder for warmth and complexity, but that won’t light anyone’s tongue on fire (chileheads can add a teaspoon of cayenne).

Devil’s Food Birthday Cake with Strawberries and Milk Chocolate Buttercream
Makes one (9-inch) four-layer cake, plenty for 8 to 10 guests

1 recipe Ancho-Spiked Devil’s Food Cake, each layer split to make a total of four (recipe follows)
1/2 recipe Milk Chocolate Meringue Buttercream (recipe follows)
1 1/2 to 2 pints fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 cup toasted sliced almonds

To assemble the cake:
Place a cooled cake layer on a stand or presentation platter. Spread with a quarter of the Milk Chocolate Meringue Buttercream. Cover evenly with a layer of strawberry slices, using a third of the strawberries. Place the second cake layer on top; repeat the layers. Then repeat again for the third cake layer. Place the fourth cake layer on top, spread with the remaining buttercream, and decorate the top of the cake with the toasted sliced almonds (and a whole sliced strawberry if you like).

Ancho-Spiked Devil’s Food Cake
Makes two (9-inch) cake layers

3/4 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder, sifted
3/4 cup boiling water
1 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pans
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for coating the pans and parchment
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3 large eggs

Step 1: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Step 2: Butter two 9-inch-by-2-inch round cake pans. Line the bottoms of the pans with a circle of parchment paper. Lightly butter the parchment and dust with flour; tap the side of the pans on the countertop to dislodge any excess flour.

Step 3: Whisk the cocoa powder into the boiling water until smooth.

Step 4: Add the buttermilk and vanilla and whisk to combine.

Step 5: Onto a piece of parchment, sift together the measured flour, baking soda, salt, ancho chile powder, and, if using, cayenne.

Step 6: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the measured butter with the white and brown sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy.

Step 7: Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times while beating.

Step 8: On low speed, add half the dry ingredients, all of the cocoa mixture, and the remaining dry ingredients, beating after each addition until combined.

Step 9: Divide the batter among the prepared pans (you can make sure they are divided easily by using a scale to weigh them).

Step 10: Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean, about 25 minutes.

Step 11: Let cool in the pans on wire racks for about 10 minutes, then invert the cakes onto the racks, peel off the parchment, and let cool before frosting.

DEVIL’S FOOD CAKE VARIATIONS
• To make a plain devil’s food cake, omit the ancho chile powder and optional cayenne.
• To make a chocolate-mocha cake, omit the ancho chile powder and optional cayenne. Substitute hot coffee or espresso for the boiling water.
• To make a chocolate chocolate-chip cake, omit the ancho chile powder and optional cayenne. Stir in 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips along with the last addition of the flour mixture.

Milk Chocolate Meringue Buttercream
Makes about 3 quarts

This buttercream comes together quickly, so have all your ingredients measured and at the ready. Don’t worry—this recipe seems intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s really quite fun. You will need a candy thermometer. A stand mixer is best. This recipe makes a ton of buttercream, but the good news is that it freezes really well, so whatever you don’t use on your cake, just spoon into an airtight container and freeze for up to 3 months. To use, defrost overnight in the refrigerator, then set out at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours or until softened. You might need to beat it in the mixer until spreadable.

9 large egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup water
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
3 cups unsalted butter, at cool room temperature, cut into pieces
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled but still spreadable (make sure the chocolate is really cooled or it will melt the buttercream!)

Step 1: In a stand mixer using the whip attachment, beat the egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt on medium-high speed just until they begin to get foamy.

Step 2: While beating, add 1/2 cup of the sugar in a slow, steady stream. When the egg whites get to medium peak, turn the mixer to low (this will continue to stir the meringue while you boil the sugar syrup without overbeating the meringue).

Step 3: In a saucepan, stir together the remaining 1 3/4 cups sugar and the water. Drizzle with the corn syrup. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, swirling the pan occasionally at first until the sugar is dissolved. Use a pastry brush dipped in water to “wash down” the sides of the pan. Using a candy thermometer, boil until the syrup reaches 245 degrees Fahrenheit or firm-ball stage.

Step 4: As soon as the syrup hits this temp, return the mixer to high speed and whip the egg whites to medium-firm peaks, just a few seconds more.

Step 5: Turn the mixer to medium-low speed, and very carefully pour the sugar syrup into the meringue, doing your best not to let the syrup hit the sides of the bowl or the whip. Continue beating until the mixture cools down a bit, about 15 to 20 minutes. It will expand in volume.

Step 6: When you can touch the bottom of the bowl and it feels nearly room temperature, start adding the butter in pieces.

Step 7: Once the butter has been added, turn the mixer to high speed and beat until smooth and creamy. At first, it might look chunky, but keep whipping until the buttercream becomes smooth and lustrous. Add the vanilla and cooled melted chocolate and beat until smooth. Use right away, or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day; bring to room temperature before using.

BUTTERCREAM VARIATIONS
• To make vanilla buttercream, omit the chocolate.
• To make espresso buttercream, omit the chocolate and vanilla. Dissolve 2 tablespoons instant espresso powder in 2 teaspoons hot water. Let cool completely. Stir in after you whip in the butter. Beat until smooth and creamy.
• To make caramel buttercream, omit the chocolate and stir in 1/4 to 1/2 cup dulce de leche along with the vanilla after you whip in the butter. Beat until smooth and creamy.
• To make lemon buttercream, omit the chocolate and stir in 1/4 to 1/2 cup lemon curd along with the vanilla after you whip in the butter. Beat until smooth and creamy.

Photos and animated GIFs by Chris Rochelle; styling by Kim Laidlaw

Kim Laidlaw is a cookbook editor and the author of Home Baked Comfort, Baby & Toddler On the Go (an IACP Cookbook Awards finalist), and Williams-Sonoma Dessert of the Day. She teaches baking and pastry classes at the San Francisco Cooking School, and is a recipe developer and former professional baker who has been in the kitchen covered in flour since she was big enough to stir the biscuit dough. Follow her on Twitter @kimlaidlaw.