Wedding Cake Chronicles Part 1: Chocolate cherry cake with Swiss buttercream

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There’s no peanut butter involved–I just suck at setting up fancy pictures.

Why I’m doing this:

Some friends of mine recently started planning their wedding and asked me to make the cake. [cue panic] I agreed, of course, because I am clearly not busy at all and I never turn down a chance to be awesome. I’m obviously a reasonably decent baker, but if I’m going to do this, I need to do this properly. That means finding the perfect recipes, flavors, and techniques to make this wedding cake look better than what a frantic grad student can make in her apartment kitchen. So my game plan for the next ~10 months now is to make at least one cake per month to figure out what the hell I’m doing.


So my goal is to make at least 1 cake per month, and I will be co-opting this blog as my lab notebook. I made one cake already, but I completely forgot to take any pictures, so….we’re just going to pretend that never happened.

This particular cake was inspired by a black forest cake. Traditionally, this is a chocolate layer cake with cherry filling and whipped cream, and is totally delicious. Unfortunately, whipped cream does not hold up well to time, temperature…anything, really. So I kept the chocolate cake and cherry parts and replaced the whipped cream with Swiss meringue style buttercream. This was my first attempt at Swiss buttercream, and I would say it was a great success! The bride- and groom-to-be are big fans of American/Wilton-style buttercream (essentially, butter and powdered sugar) for its sweetness, but I am really hoping to class it up a bit for a wedding cake. I’ve previously tried Italian meringue buttercream (on the cake that was a lie), but they thought the texture was too buttery and that it was inadequately sweet. So when I found this recipe for extra-sweet Swiss buttercream (source: Woodland Bakery Blog), I figured I’d found a great compromise.

The chocolate cake recipe came from the America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book. I wasn’t a huge fan of the chocolate cake itself, though I generally dislike chocolate cake, so maybe it’s just me. I definitely thought the cake was better on day 2, after the cherry juice has soaked in and made it moist. Overall, I would probably not choose to make it again, because it was a whoooooole lot of work and I was ultimately not impressed by the results.



Cherry Filling

  •  14.5 oz can tart cherries
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 tbsp corn starch
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Theoretically, you could use sweet cherries if tart cherries are not available, but you’d need to reduce the added sugar.

Chocolate cake

  •  1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder*
  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk powder**
  • 1 cup water, room temperature**
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 4 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped***
  • 1/2 cup hot water
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs plus 2 yolks, room temperature
  • 12 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened

*Who the hell keeps Dutch-processed cocoa on hand? Actually, I usually do, except for when I’m buying groceries in the middle of the night and fancy stores aren’t open. This was one of those times, so I used natural cocoa, and the world didn’t end.

**Who the hell keeps buttermilk on hand? Many cake recipes call for it, so I always keep a tub of SACO powdered buttermilk in the fridge. It’s good for a year or more and it’s really easy to substitute into baking recipes; for each 1 cup of buttermilk called for, just add 1/4 cup powder to the dry ingredients and 1 cup water with the liquid ingredients.

***Who the hell keeps unsweetened chocolate on hand? I don’t. Officially, you can substitute 3 tbsp cocoa powder plus 1 tbsp vegetable oil for 1 oz unsweetened chocolate. Or, you can say “Screw it!” and just use semisweet chocolate and hope for the best. Guess what I did…

Swiss Meringue Buttercream

  •  6 egg whites
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 3/4 cup butter-flavored Crisco
  • 2 cups butter, room temperature
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract


Step 1: Make the filling

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If you’re a better planner than me, it’s probably more efficient to make the cake first and cook the filling while the layers cool. IF, however, you are also terrible at remembering to get butter out of the fridge to soften, make the filling while you mentally will energy from the air into the butter molecules. It works, I swear.

Drain the cherries, reserving juice. Combine 1/4 cup juice, cherries, sugar, and corn starch in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until thickened, stirring constantly. Stir in vanilla. Cool before using.

Step 2: Make the cake

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Don’t be a n00b like me, with mismatched pans. Really, that’s bad. Oops.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease three 9-inch round pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk powder. In a small bowl, mix together 1 cup water (the buttermilk water) and the vanilla.

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In a double boiler, combine the chocolate, cocoa powder, and hot water and cook over barely simmering water, stirring constantly, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Stir in 1/2 cup of the sugar and continue to heat until thick and glossy, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

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In the stand mixer’s bowl, whip the eggs and egg yolks with the whisk attachment on medium-high speed and gradually add the remaining 1 1/4 cups of sugar. Whip until the mixture is very thick and voluminous, 6 to 8 minutes.

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Swap out the whisk for the paddle attachment, then beat the cooled chocolate mixture in on medium speed until incorporated. Beat in the butter, one piece at a time.

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Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat in alternating portions of the dry and wet mixtures until just incorporated.

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Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake 20-25 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking. When they are done, allow them to cool in their pans for 10 minutes before flipping the layers out onto cooling racks to cool completely.

2014-06-08 16.28.58Always keep and eye out for stupid mongrels who have a chocolatey death wish.


Step 3: Make the frosting

Before you begin, make absolutely certain your mixing bowl and whisk attachment or beaters are clean and completely grease-free. Any grease leftover from making the cake batter will cause the meringue to fall flat.

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In a double boiler (or something similar), mix together egg whites and granulated sugar. Heat over simmering water, stirring constantly, until mixture reaches 115 degrees and is no longer grainy. Pour the hot mixture into your mixing bowl (here, I used my KitchenAid with the whisk attachment) and whip at high speed until very stiff peaks form.

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not even close

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check out those stiff peaks!!!

Once you get super duper stiff peaks, add the powdered sugar all at once and turn the mixer to low to mix it in (to avoid throwing it everywhere), then turn the mixer to medium-high to fully blend it. Add the butter and shortening in 2-3 additions, then beat at high speed until smooth. Add vanilla and beat until incorporated. The final product should be thick and silky. If the frosting separates after the addition of the fats, just keep whipping it!


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Step 4: Assemble!

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 Stack up the layers, with a piped frosting dam and a pile of cherry filling in between each layer. Frost the top and side and decorate as desired. With a spinning turntable and a metal bench scraper, I managed to smooth the frosting in just a couple minutes–I will never use a stupid spatula for this job again! I found that this frosting at room temperature is soft enough to easily frost a cake, but will probably need to be refrigerated briefly to be stiff enough for any intricate piping. This frosting does not crust, but stays smooth and shiny. I haven’t tried coloring it, but I will sometime in the future!

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I didn’t do any fancy decorating because I was late for a party, but I’ll try some piping with this frosting sometime later.



  1. I’ve made that chocolate cake recipe before. I wasn’t super impressed either. It’s definitely acceptable, but not the ultimate chocolate cake I had hoped for, and I even followed the recipe.

    1. That’s really disappointing! I usually love the stuff that comes from the America’s Test Kitchen books, but the best thing I can say about this cake was that it held up well to manipulations. Personally, I’d rather have a messy cake that tastes great.

      1. I seem to remember that it wasn’t as moist or as chocolatey as I had hoped for, which is probably better for what you were doing with it, but was kind of disappointing from a chocolate cake perspective.

      2. When I tasted it a few hours after making it, it was definitely too dry. It really needed to sit for a day, and was much better, though still not amazing, after the cherry juice had soaked in. The next cake I made (post in progress) used a different cake recipe that was more of the moist, fudgy cake I was hoping for.

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