cocoa layer cake with whipped mascarpone cream

And just like that, a year has passed.

Crew turned one on January 20th. It happened as they all said it would: fast. I didn't quite believe them when I was deep in the throes of nightly feedings at 2am, rocking and shushing until I could rock and shush no more, and subsisting on a woefully inadequate intake of coffee. The days seemed long. But those months - they passed quicker and quicker until I begged them to slow down. And here we are.

I wanted his first cake to be a special one. Now that I work at a cookbook shop (more on that later), I had ample opportunity to page through book after book to find just the recipe for the occasion. But it wasn't until I was thumbing (or should I say clicking?) through one of my favorite blogs when I came across THE cake. I made a few changes to recipe and love the way it turned out. Not too sweet, oh-so-chocolately, and with just enough crumble.  I think you'll be pleased too.

We celebrated with our families and threw a little party. I made all sorts of things to eat and served this boozy punch (the party was 95% adults and, well, who doesn't want boozy punch at a kid's birthday party?) In truth, the party got postponed a week when I ended up burning my hand preeeetty badly - baking this cake, no less! (Side note: It is in one's best interest to pick up the hot pan with the hand actually wearing the oven mitt. I shall say no more.) Fortunately, one-year-olds don't seem to notice or mind much when you move their party at the last minute.

Crew has quite a bit of gusto for all things in the category of bread and pancakes, so I figured it would be a cinch to win his heart with this cake. Imagine my surprise when, as we all stood around singing "Happy Birthday" and helping him blow out his candle, he picked up his cupcake and heaved it onto the floor. I kid you not.

We all just stared - speechless - until bursts of laughter began to crescendo through the room. Having never been offered anything to eat in its entirety like that, I'm most certain he thought it was some sort of ball. Naturally. Anyhow, when there's spilled cake, well, you pick it up! As soon as we broke it into a few smaller pieces for him, he had an absolute heyday smashing it every which way and relishing in his first tastes of cream and vanilla and chocolate.

So, more about this cake. It's got a pastry cream that comes together in a ruffly swirl and is flecked with thousands of tiny vanilla beans. The egg yolks are cooked through a bit as it comes together, providing all the more excuse to sneak in a few (dozen) licks from the spatula.

There is the teensiest nod to health in this cake too, if you're the sort that deems a cake made with whole wheat flour healthy. (I do if it means more cake to be had.) But I will say, it isn't too sweet either, which lends itself quite handy for a one-year-old experiencing sugar in any profound way for the first time. 

The chunks of chocolate throughout are heady and deeply satisfying in the way they sort of melt together like marshmallows in a Rice Krispie Treat, but at the same time, have just a bit of bite and chew.

And maybe because it was homemade and sentimental and all of that, it just felt wholesome. Crew, for one, seemed on board. I'm certain he'll be a lover of all the cakes like the best of us.

cocoa layer cake with whipped mascarpone cream // makes one 9" layer cake

adapted from Sprouted Kitchen

Layer cakes can be quite the project, so make the pastry cream a day or two in advance to get ahead. The cake serves up nicely when baked the night before too. Just frost the cake a few hours before it will be served. If the weather is mild (like Seattle often is), it does just fine to sit on the countertop. If it's summer or you live in a warm climate, place the frosted cake in the refrigerator and take it out about 30 minutes before it will be served. 

pastry cream:

1 vanilla bean

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup whole milk

4 egg yolks

1/4 cup natural cane sugar

2 tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

pinch of sea salt


To make the pastry cream, split the vanilla bean lengthwise using a paring knife and scrape out the seeds. Heat the cream, milk, and vanilla bean seeds in a saucepan until just boiling at the edges. Turn off the heat and let it steep for 10 minutes. Whisk the yolks and sugar together in another bowl. While whisking, add a bit of the warm cream mixture to the yolk mixture to allow it to temper and warm it through. Add another half cup, continuing to whisk. Now that everything is the same temperature, add the warm yolk mixture to the saucepan. When the mixture starts to simmer, add the flour 1 tablespoon at a time, while whisking, like you're making a bechamel. It'll take about 30 seconds and you'll see it start to thicken. Once it looks like the consistency of sour cream, turn off the heat and continue to stir a few more times to make sure everything is smooth. Stir in the butter and salt. Let it cool and transfer to the fridge while you prepare the cake.

cocoa cake:

1/2 cup butter, room temperature

1/2 cup brown sugar or muscavado

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 cup agave nectar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup cocoa powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 1/4 cup buttermilk

3 oz good quality chocolate (milk or dark - I used both), chopped


To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350° F. Butter two 9'' cake pans. Line the bottom with parchment paper for better cake removal and rub a bit of butter on that as well; set aside. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, about two minutes. Add the eggs, agave, and vanilla; mix until evenly combined. In another large mixing bowl, sift all of the dry ingredients together, getting rid of any clumps. Slowly alternate adding small amounts of the dry mixture and the buttermilk to the wet mixture until just combined. Stir in the chocolate and divide the mix between the two cake pans. Bake on the middle rack until a butter knife inserted into the center comes out clean, beginning to check after 14 minutes or so. Remove and cool completely.

whipped mascarpone cream:

2 cups whipping cream

1/2 cup confectioners sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar or muscavado

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

pinch of sea salt

1 cup (8 oz) mascarpone cheese


To make the cream, whip the cold whipping cream with an electric or stand mixer. Once it starts to hold shape and soft peaks begin to form, add the confectioners sugar, brown sugar or muscavado, vanilla, and salt. Whip a bit longer until stiff peaks form, then add the mascarpone. Whip once more until evenly combined. 

to build + frost:

Once the cake is completely cooled, invert it out of the pan and remove the parchment. Place one layer on the plate or stand you'll serve it on. Spread the pasty cream all across the top surface (you'll think it's a lot, but add it all; the cake absorbs it while it sits and it's not as thick as you think). Place the other cake on top, pushing in any filling that smushed out (unless you like that sort of thing). Frost the cake generously with the whipped mascarpone cream in whatever pattern or style you fancy.

photos by kristal joy photography (and a few by me)