Thinking Outside of the Box


I’ve had 38 birthdays in my life so far. My favorite one was when I turned 30 and friends threw me the only birthday party I’ve ever had. What I remember most was how much fun everyone had, not just me. The entire night was filled with laughter, especially after one guest hit what turned out be a panic button in the bathroom and building security came to make sure no one had fallen but couldn’t get up.

Mostly, my birthdays all just blur together. Other than the Ballerina Barbie I got on my 10th birthday and the bracelet on my 30th, I couldn’t describe another present I’ve gotten in those 38 years. But I can tell you that every year until about age 12, not a birthday went by without finding a cake on the dining room table when I came downstairs in the morning. My grandmother would make sure that the cake was baked, frosted, and on the serving plate before my feet hit the floor. I guess it helped that I was never an early riser.

My cakes were always decorated with ballerinas, which made no sense since I never took a ballet class in my life. But each year, there they were; their hard plastic figures firmly anchored in my Duncan Hines yellow cake. Just as predictable as it was that the ballerinas would make an appearance, there was no doubt that under that crust of hard sugary icing would be a moist cake – from a box. I was a kid, I thought that’s where all cakes came from. It was a while before I understood the concept of baking from scratch.

Initially, there wasn’t room in my world for the idea of both. I thought it had to be one or the other. But the more cake recipes I tried, the more I realized that box cakes have an advantage; they are darn near foolproof. It’s a trade off. Cake mixes produce consistent results; I’ve never gotten hollow cupcakes from a box. But they are filled with chemicals and preservatives and I usually like to be able to identify the ingredients in what I eat. So my quest to find the perfect, foolproof cake recipe fell by the wayside.

I hadn’t wanted to bake a cake in a long while. But I was reading Cooking for Mr. Latte about a week before my birthday and her mother’s recipe for Chocolate Dump-It Cake made me think it was time to break out the cake pans and turn on the oven. I’m glad I did. This cake is the closest I have ever gotten to the ones my grandmother and Duncan Hines collaborated on. Firm, moist cake with a tight crumb, just like I remembered from birthdays past. But not a ballerina in sight.

It only took me 38 years to come to peace with the fact that it’s not a sin to have a box of cake mix in the pantry. And that from scratch doesn’t always guarantee perfection. I think I will remember this birthday as the year I rediscovered the happiness of cake.

Chocolate Dump-It Cake

Amanda Hesser from Cooking for Mr. Latte

The recipe in the book calls for everything to be mixed together in a saucepan. If you follow this approach, make sure it’s a large pan because will be a lot of batter. I used a 4 quart saucepan and it really wasn’t big enough. The instructions also tell you to whisk the dry ingredients into the chocolate mixture. When I tried this, my flour clumped up into little balls which wouldn’t break up without the help of a hand mixer. In the future, I will probably transfer the chocolate mixture into the bowl of my standing mixer and use the whisk attachment to incorporate the dry ingredients. Also, instead of a 9 inch tube pan, I made cupcakes. If making cupcakes, you’ll want to rotate and switch your pans about halfway through the baking time and start to check for doneness after about 20 minutes.

I found the batter to be very thin. And while the cake isn’t overly sweet, I like my chocolate to have a stronger presence. I wonder if substituting cocoa powder for half of the unsweetened chocolate would produce a bigger chocolate taste? I also added some espresso powder (maybe 2 teaspoons) to the chocolate mixture after it had cooled to try and enhance the chocolate flavor. And because I prefer the taste of dark chocolate over milk, I used bittersweet chips for the frosting.

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/4 pound unsalted butter (1 stick), plus more for greasing the pan
  • 2 cups all purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pan
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt (the recipe calls for sea salt, I used kosher)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips
  • 1 1/2 cups sour cream, at room temperature

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Put the sugar, unsweetened chocolate, butter, and water in a saucepan over medium heat.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until all of the ingredients are melted and blended. Remove from the heat and let cool  for 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In a small bowl, stir together the milk and vinegar. Grease and flour a 9 inch tube pan.

When the chocolate mixture has cooled, whisk in the milk mixture and eggs. In several additions, add in the dry ingredients. Do not overmix. When the mixture is smooth, add the vanilla and mix once or twice to blend.

Transfer the batter into the cake pan, set on top of a sheet pan, and bake on the middle rack until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 to 35 minutes. Let the cake cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the pan and cool on a rack.

While the cake is cooling, melt the chocolate chips in a double boiler then let cool completely to room temperature.   If your chocolate and sour cream are not at the same temperature, the icing will be lumpy and grainy. Test by stirring a little of the sour cream and chocolate together in a bowl; if it mixes smoothly, it’s ready. Stir the sour cream into the chocolate, 1/4 cup at a time, until the mixture is smooth.

When the cake is cool, frost it as is or cut it in half so you have two layers. You may want to make a larger batch of frosting if you have two layers.

Keep in the refrigerator and enjoy cold or at room temperature.

{Printable Recipe}

11 thoughts on “Thinking Outside of the Box

  1. Thanks Wendi! Since my divorce, I’ve been making my own birthday cakes -so I may just have to give this one a whirl this week!

    1. Dani, definitely give it a go. But would you believe I have an even tastier cake recipe coming up? I do. It’s a little more work but the final cake (and frosting!) are unbelievable. Mark December 9th on your calendar.


  2. Wendi,

    My grandmother used to make this cake on holidays. You knew it was either Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas when the hot milk cake appeared covered in buttercream icing and sprinkled with fresh coconut.

    4 large eggs
    2 cups of sugar
    2 cups of flour
    2 teaspoons of baking powder
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/4 pound (1 stick) of butter
    1 cup of milk
    1 tablespoon of vanilla

    Bring milk & butter to a boil (melting the butter) remove from heat, set aside. In a bowl mix the flour , baking powder & salt. Preheat oven to 350
    Grease (I use baker’s secret to spray — Grandma always buttered & then floured pan) cake pan. (We mainly use a bundt cake pan.)

    In a large bowl mix the eggs and sugar TOGETHER (beat until sugar well blended w/eggs) — Add in half the flour mixture –mix together until blended –then add remaining flour mixture and mix till blended. Add in hot milk & butter — mix well. LAST STEP is to add vanilla, mix then pour into pan. DO NOT OVERBEAT YOUR BATTER —this is the hard part, you must only mix until blended –over-beating will give you a tough cake.

    Bake in center of oven for 25-35 minutes (until cake tester comes out clean).

    This may take some practice. I never did get the way of it. My grandmother used a tube pan instead of layers. worked ok also

  3. IF you are looking for almost foolproof–the hot milk cake is it. I got the recipe from a high school friend’s mother (in Baltimore!) and have been making it ever since. My recipe is almost exactly the one above (1 STICK of butter, not a pound!!!!) and I bake it in a 9×13 pan. When you take it out of the oven, you can cool and frost OR (what I do) rub a stick of butter gently across the top a few times and sprinkle heavily with cinnamon/ sugar mix. I have passed this recipe from here to Richmond and people still come up to me and say they still make it…

    1. I have no idea what I was thinking subbing 1 pound of butter for 1 stick. Who do I think I am, Paula Deen? I do love the idea of a buttered/cinnamon/sugar topping.

      Oh, I see a new cake post coming up before the end of the year. I’ve got a kick ass yellow cake that will be up after Thanksgiving. But I think I’ll have to squeeze this one in somewhere.

  4. Okay! the hot milk cake is on the counter in the 9×13 pan with cinnamon/sugar on top.

    I hadn’t made one in donkey years. Good to know I have not lost the touch! Gave a piece to the spouse.

    He wants a powdered sugar and milk glaze under the cinnamon sugar. He must think he is Emeril! or he has watched too much Paula Deen and her gooey butter cake!

    the water is on for the tea to have with the cake. Who needs to wait for holidays?

    Ya know, I am seeing this with blueberry or strawberry topping…..maybe peach…..I never knew the opportunities were so endless!


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