Devil's Food Cake with Vanilla-Almond Buttercream

When I was a kid, I always thought that the worst part about growing up would be having to give up summer. Not even just giving up the fact of having summers off (because by the time I hit high school I was working through the summers anyway), but just the magic of summer. How everything seems to happen over the summer, and how everything that does happen over the summer always seems a thousand times more excellent because it’s bathed in sunshine and tank tops and pool water.

And then I grew up and almost across the board, every summer of my adult life has been awesome.

But since moving to Scotland, it’s a little easier to forget this: the weather stays more or less the same year-round, and it’s never properly hot. Plus, despite the fact that this city sits on the water, it’s literally never warm enough to even put your toes in, much less go for a dip. So I forget how awesome the summer is until it sneaks up on me, year after year, just like this one has managed to.

But you know what’s great about letting the summer sneak up on me? When it finally rolls around, it’s awesome. Here’s what the next month-and-a-half look like Chez Cowan: interviews for a new job as my contract is up in mid-July, then a week in Barcelona with my bestie. When I get home from Spain, I’ll have houseguests waiting for me who arrive while I’m away, then the day after they depart is Judson’s birthday party. The next day Holtzmann gets spayed (not exciting except that we’re hoping it will help her outgrow some of her annoying puppy habits), then it’s Judson’s actual birthday, my last day of work and then we head to the US for two weeks of sun and sand in my hometown at the Florida beach. When we get back, the Edinburgh Fringe will be in full swing and I’ll be ready to hit the ground running on whatever my next gig is. It’s nearly as busy as last summer’s new job-Highlands-Amsterdam-Tokyo-Mont St. Michel-Athens-Paris madness, and I can’t wait.

But the part I’m most excited about, in case I glossed over it a little too much there, is seeing my bestie in Spain. Emily and I regularly go two years at a time without seeing each other, but it never gets any easier to do and it never gets any less special when we reunite. I’ve never been to Barcelona so I’ve been counting down the days for ages now and I cannot wait to catch up with her there. Also, Emily owns and runs a wildly successful and super awesome bakery in California, so of course whenever I think of her I also think of cake.

Enter Judson and his co-worker’s birthday, and I had the perfect excuse to mix up a pretty awesome triple layer chocolate cake on which to practice my (still relatively new) frosting skills to occupy my time before I leave for Spain at the crack of dawn on Thursday.* I’m super proud of this cake and really disappointed that I don’t have a picture of the interior to show you as it was quickly dispatched out of my kitchen as soon as I finished it, but I have a crowdsourced opinion that it was stellar and I have my own personal knowledge of how far my frosting/piping skills have come to tell you that this is the prettiest cake I ever made (a record I hope to soon break, given that Judson’s birthday is rapidly approaching).

The cake is ‘devil’s food,’ but I’m putting that in inverted commas because, well, it’s not like any devil’s food I’ve ever tasted. Maybe devil’s food meant something different in the 1950s, maybe my cocoa wasn’t dark enough or maybe the recipe just didn’t come out the way it was supposed to, but this cake was so light in colour that before I sliced it, Judson thought it was white cake. Don't fear, though, it still tastes incredibly rich and chocolatey, just maybe a bit more caramel-y and a little less fudgy than I would have anticipated. I went a little over the top with the filling and frosting because I was in a celebratory kind of mood, but you could use the filling as listed below and leave the cake 'naked' for a more chocolate-on-chocolate version, or you could cut the frosting recipe in half for a more reasonable amount of frosting. But really, you should make it as below for the next celebration you attend. It's delicious, classic, and, really, who doesn't love chocolate cake?

*Thursday, as you may or may not be aware, is the longest day of the year. Which means that even though I’ll be up at 4am to catch my flight, the sun will have been up for nearly an hour before I wake up.

The verdict:

5 spoons out of five. I had a blast making this cake, and was so pleased when it turned out to be as tasty as it looks. Make this for a party and you'll cement your invite to every party until 2018.

Two years ago: Peach-Apricot Pie

the recipe:

Devil's Food Cake with White Chocolate Ganache and Vanilla-Almond Buttercream

the directions:

Preheat oven to 170C/350F & line two 9” layer pans with parchment on bottom.
Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, then set aside.
In saucepan, whisk together cocoa, egg yolk and 1 c milk.
Simmer, stirring constantly, until smooth and thickened (mixture should coat a rubber spatula), then set aside to cool slightly.
Cream butter and sugar, add eggs and beat well until smooth.
Blend in cocoa mixture (this will melt the butter mixture and will make a batter that is very liquid).
Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with remaining ½ c milk, then beat until smooth.
Add vanilla and stir to combine.
Pour into prepared pans and bake 20-25 minutes until a wooden pick in the middle comes out clean.
Allow to cool completely, then fill with this recipe and frost.


Cream butter until light and very fluffy.
Add powdered sugar and blend until smooth.
Add cream, salt, vanilla and almond extract and blend until smooth and very soft.

the ingredients:
the cake:

2 c flour, sifted
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
5 tbsp cocoa
1 egg yolk + 2 eggs
1 ½ c milk, divided
½ c butter, softened
2 c sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla

the filling:

½ recipe white chocolate ganache buttercream from this recipe

the frosting:

4 c powdered sugar
1 c butter, softened
3 tsp cream
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp almond extract

Notes: I doubled this recipe to have four layers so I could reserve one for me to taste-test before Judson took the 3-layer cake to work. Made as above, your cake will only deliver two layers and will thus be slightly shorter than my finished, triple-layer version.

Easiest Peach Panna Cotta (sort of)

Four years ago:

We moved to the UK and I quickly discovered that I can’t get gelatin (or ‘jelly’ as it’s called here) here except for strawberry, and even that comes as a partially reconstituted thick paste, which means I have to wildly adjust any recipes I make with it.* This has led to me requesting (on more than one occasion) that visitors from the US bring me jello powder when they come to the UK. This is a request that is not only embarrassing but also stupid, because nearly all of the things I have made with gelatin since starting this blog have been miserable failures (looking at you, Neon Green Lime Pine-Sol Pie). When friends bring me gelatin, it’s always the same flavours: cherry, orange and lime, because those are the most common flavours in the States and obviously that’s totally fine. But I needed peach, grape and pineapple for a few recipes and I’ve been pretty stumped at what to do about that (other than scour the nearest Trader Joe’s when I am in the US over the summer and hope for the best).

One year ago:

I bought the glass molds you see in this post at a handful of charity shops all in one day (there are two more medium-sized ones that didn’t get used for this dish) because I knew I had a host of things to use them for from the Box… but then I just couldn’t muster the energy to make any of those things, assuming they’d all be awful.

Six months ago:

We were in in Madeira over New Year’s and (of course) visited the local grocery store. I love wandering through supermarkets when I visit a new country- it’s somehow both soothing and exotic, like ‘these people drink the same brand of coffee I do!’ but also ‘WHAT EVEN IS THIS SHINY, SPHERICAL, COMPLETELY TRANSPARENT BALL AND WHY IS IT IN THE CANDY AISLE?’ and when we were in Madeira, we stayed at an AirBnB in the middle of nowhere, so we had no choice but to stock up on groceries.** While wandering the supermarket looking for milk (we circled the entire building three times before we found UHT milk on a shelf stored at room temperature because I guess that’s the only way an island that remote can feasibly get milk at all without it costing an arm and a leg), I stumbled upon… PEACH GELATIN. In an aisle full of flour, baking powder and other dry goods, with nary another gelatin flavour in sight, there was an entire shelf of peach. Naturally, I bought two packets.

But then I got it home and first I couldn’t find the recipe that required peach gelatin, and then I found the recipe but it sounded like a spring/summer dish and THEN I couldn’t think of an excuse to make this because it’s not exactly something I want to take to work or serve to friends, and that’s generally how we get rid of my sweets around here. But now I have the requisite dishware, the correct ingredients and I am out of excuses, so here you go.

Last night:

I finally made this 'creamy fruit salad mold,' but in the interest of making it sound not disgusting, we're calling it Peach Panna Cotta, because that's what it tastes like, and basically what it is.

You may have noticed that this is a large-print recipe from a newspaper in the 1970s. The newspaper is trying to pretend like they’re doing the elderly a service by printing the recipe extra-large, but I have a sneaking suspicion someone backed out of a paid ad at the last second and they just had some space to fill.

*This isn’t a different ingredient; it just has another name on the other side of the pond. But to be clear if you’re making this at home, this is made with powdered or partially reconstituted gelatin, NOT peach jam/preserves.

**As a side note, the owner of the AirBnB left us a bag of bananas, avocados and other fruits from his farm on our doorknob early one morning while we were still asleep. When we awoke, he had left a note with them that said he would ‘like to offer [us] a selection of contemporaneous regional fruits of the moment,’ which is possibly the greatest and most elaborate statement I have ever heard in English. There were two fruits in the bag that we could not identify, and when we image searched them, we found that one is called, literally, sleeve. Obviously this was the best trip we’ve taken in a long time.

The verdict:

4 spoons out of five. Of the three ingredients in this recipe, I hate one (yoghurt), am indifferent to one (gelatin) and adore one (peaches), so I really wasn’t sure how this was going to go. Honestly, it was great! It tastes like panna cotta, a dish I fell in love with on a trip to (of all places) China, but omits nearly all of the fat found in regular cream-heavy panna cotta by using fat-free Greek yoghurt as the only dairy. The recommendation to use canned peaches threw me for a loop as this would obviously be better with fresh peaches, so I did two versions (one small, one large) to test the difference. Fresh peaches are always better, but even the canned peaches left us with a tasty result and while I'm not saying a dessert that involves flavoured gelatin should really be nominated for an award any time soon, there's very little difference between a regular gelatin-set panna cotta and this version, which just amps up the peach flavour with a little boost from the gelatin. This was the perfect light, summery dessert to reward myself after a pretty hectic week, and it's pretty enough (if a little retro) that I'll definitely be making it again.

two years ago: Jiffy tuna supper

The recipe:

Peach Panna Cotta

The directions:

Pour boiling water over gelatin and stir until dissolved.
Stir in peach nectar or syrup.
Very slowly, pour this mixture into the yoghurt (you must pour the gelatin into the yoghurt or it won't form a uniform mixture), stirring constantly.
Chill until slightly thickened but not yet completely set; 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the coldness of your refrigerator.
Gently fold in peaches.
Pour into a 3-cup 'fancy' mold (or individual ramekins if desired).
Chill until firm.
When ready to serve, place mold in a bowl of hot water for 1-2 minutes, then invert onto a serving plate.

The ingredients:

1 3-oz./85g package peach gelatin powder or corresponding amount of jelly
1 c boiling water
½ c peach nectar (or, if using canned peaches, syrup from the can)
1 c plain yoghurt (I used non-fat Greek yoghurt)
1 c canned peach chunks or peeled fresh peaches, cut into chunks

Lemon Cake

Here’s another easy one since it’s hard to muster up the energy for anything difficult in the kitchen when you have 18 hours of daylight at your disposal every day. This time of year in Scotland is just my favourite, but it does mean I’m subsisting on little-to-no sleep because who wants to go to bed when it’s still light outside… even if it stays light until 11 and gets light again at 4am?

I was holding out high hopes for this cake because it’s a typed-up recipe card with the title ‘LEMON CAKE (Hunsinger) Good’, so I really thought that it would be, you know, tasty. I made this assumption for two reasons: 1) Eleanor’s opinions haven’t generally let me down and 2) the cakes involving fruit that I’ve made so far have always been ace (see banana, date, coconut and… are we counting pumpkins and carrots as fruit?). Also, I am pretty sure I’ve heard family stories about Mrs. Hunsinger and her baked goods, so I assume this recipe came from her and was hoping for great things.

But I was disappointed. It could definitely be user error, but I felt the cake lacked flavour and the glaze was too thick and sickly-sweet to properly match the soft and fluffy sponge. The glaze was much brighter and zingier than the cake itself, which was also really distracting. I think part of the problem could be that lemon drizzle cake is practically an institution in the UK, so I’ve tried a lot of really good lemon drizzles since moving here and this one just didn’t measure up. I’d hazard an educated guess that part of the problem is probably the fact that it has no syrup poured over it to moisten the otherwise-fluffy-but-dry cake. Further, it’s not a recipe problem so much as a personal opinion that the other issue is that it contains peach juice (I’ve never been able to find apricot nectar in Edinburgh, so we’re condemned to peach nectar over here in the Recipe Box Kitchen)but no discernible reason for this- it doesn’t change the colour of the cake, the flavour, or add any much-needed moisture. Finally, my cake was made from scratch (partly because that’s how I roll and partly because my grocery store doesn’t sell lemon cake mix), so it’s also possible that 1960s lemon cake mix would have been moist and perfectly lemony and I just don’t have the necessary time machine to make that happen, but homemade is always better, so I kind of doubt it.

All of the above notwithstanding, I took this cake into work and got loads of compliments on it, so maybe my standards are a bit high (or maybe my coworkers are just going easy on my ego).

The verdict:

2 spoons out of five. It wasn’t awful, but it sure wasn’t awesome. But it deserves some credit for being hella easy and pretty adorable.


Two years ago: Self-Frosting Chocolate Cake

The recipe:

Lemon Cake

The directions:

Preheat oven to 160C/325F and line the bottom of a tube pan with parchment.
Lightly oil sides and stem of the pan.
Mix flour, caster sugar, butter, baking powder, zest of one lemon, lemon extract, oil, and nectar.
Beat in eggs, one at a time, until mixture is smooth.
Bake 25-30 minutes until light golden and a wooden pick inserted in the centre comes out barely sticky.
While cake is baking, make the glaze: beat together powdered sugar, juice from 1 lemon and remaining zest until mixture is thick but pourable (add additional lemon juice, a few drops at a time, or powdered sugar one spoonful at a time if mixture is too thick or too thin).
Remove cake from oven and allow to cool for ten minutes in the pan on a cooling rack.
Remove cake from pan and spoon or pour glaze over the finished cake while still warm.

The ingredients:

¾ c flour
¾ c caster sugar
¾ c butter, softened
1 tsp baking powder
Zest of two lemons, divided
1 tsp lemon extract
¾ c vegetable oil
¾ c peach or apricot nectar
4 eggs
1 ½ c powdered sugar
Juice of one lemon (zest it first)