Chocolate Birthday Cake // Not Without Salt

“Roman, tomorrow is your birthday. We can do anything you want. We can go get ice cream? I can make you a special dinner? Anything.” Roman sat there thinking while I bombarded him with questions marveling that I was about to watch my number two turn 5.

“I want a chocolate cake and I want it to say, ‘Baron, Roman love Mama’ and have the Lone Ranger with a gun, kicking his leg like this.” He proceeded to show me exactly what he wanted the Lone Ranger to be doing by shaping his lego Lone Ranger into the perfect position.

Chocolate cake it is. I’ll worry about the details later.

In the morning, Roman chose Fruity Pebbles from the store as it’s tradition in our house that the birthday child gets to choose any kind of cereal, even the sugary, unnaturally bright colored types that we never keep in the house unless it’s someone’s birthday. This tradition continues from my husband’s childhood and it’s one we all love and benefit from. Because yes, I totally indulged in a bowl of crackly, sort of fruit flavored pebbles that morning and also, I stole a few bits of the shells mac & cheese that the birthday boy requested for dinner. You know, the boxed kind with the fluorescent cheese powder. That box exists in our house too. And each time I rip into that box I feel a little guilty. The same guilt that I feel when I walk out the front door and my daughter says, “I want you to stay and snuggle with me.” It’s the “am I reading too little to them? Should they be taking more vitamins? I should have scratched their backs longer last night. Why did I say that and in THAT tone?” It’s that sort of guilt that piles on my shoulders weighing me down and whispering thoughts of inadequacy all throughout the day. This guilt that builds my defense before I need to defend a thing. This shame that makes me feel unworthy, unloved and constantly attacked even by my sweet children.

Lately I’ve become fed up with those feelings. What am I so afraid of that I’d burden myself with all this guilt? That my children won’t feel loved enough? Impossible. If it were attainable and if it’d prove anything to them I’d run to the moon and back for my kids. I have no question of my love for them so why then do I assume they will question it? If I’m operating out of that never ending source of love for them then they will feel loved by me, even if they want me to read another book, or scratch their backs longer or wish that I could stay home and snuggle all day.

Chocolate Birthday Cake // Not Without Salt


Chocolate Birthday Cake // Not Without Salt

That’s now where I’m trying to parent from – knowing full well that I love them completely. When they aren’t completely satisfied I remind them of my love, remind them that I’m human, apologize when I’ve been selfish, and walk confidently in my love for them. Because when I’m confident in that love then they are too.

And if I they ever need a reminder of my love for them I’ll tell them about their 7th and 5th birthday parties when we played games for hours under neon lights, surrounded by dozens of candy-crazed kids running around and ate fabricated pizza at Chuck E. Cheese. That’s right. We partied with Chuck E. and I got to say it was so nice walking away and not having to worry about clean up. Initially I felt guilty for going along with this plan. I’m the mom who throws epic lego/pirate parties and THEY want Chuck E. Cheese. But I love them and they loved the party.

I did, however, bring in my own cake because I draw the line somewhere. It was the same one that Roman requested on his actual birthday. The same one that I had made four times in three weeks during “the great birthday season of 2013” which brings about one cake after the other. It’s this simple chocolate cake with a tangy and bittersweet chocolate frosting, in particular, and it is always in the mood to celebrate.

This cake has been on the blog before but I really do think it’s worth mentioning again. For one thing it’s made all in one bowl, for another all the ingredients are pantry staples and finally, and most importantly, the flavor is richly chocolate, the texture is soft and springy and strong enough to hold the frosting which is loaded with bittersweet chocolate and sour cream. Although the texture and flavor of the cake really improves after a day’s rest, it can, if need be, be made and frosted in a matter of a couple hours when the birthday boy wants chocolate cake even though the to do list doesn’t allow for much room in the day, you make it happen. Not because you feel obligated too or would feel guilty if you didn’t but because you love him and that’s enough.

 Chocolate Birthday Cake // Not Without Salt

Chocolate Birthday Cake // Not Without Salt


Chocolate Birthday Cake // Not Without Salt


Chocolate Birthday Cake // Not Without Salt





Chocolate Cake with Bittersweet Sour Cream Frosting

This cake has been called “magic cake” and “dump and stir cake” which is how Regan Daley in “In the Sweet Kitchen” refers to it. Since discovering this recipe it’s been my go-to chocolate cake. I used it often when I made wedding cakes for a living. I only deviate to another recipe on occasion when I’m lured in by the addition sour cream or buttermilk in the batter but this simple recipe never fails. It’s a wonderful tasting cake that just so happens to be vegan and doesn’t have you messing with melting chocolate. It also makes fantastic cupcakes.

makes 3 8” inch layers or 24 cupcakes


3 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups sugar (I’ve used white or brown or a combination of the two and all work well)

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 cup vegetable oil (or other, nearly flavorless oil)

2 tablespoons white vinegar

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup coffee (you can use instant espresso granules instead, 1 tablespoon mixed with 1 cup water)

1 cup water


Prepare three  8 inch cake pans with butter and parchment on the bottom.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl until everything is well blended.

Add the wet ingredients and whisk to combine. Evenly divide the batter between the three pans and bake until the top springs back gently when pushed, 20-25 minutes.

After 5 minutes out of the oven, cool the cakes on a wire rack before frosting.




Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting

Essentially we’re making a ganache frosting but instead of cream we’re using sour cream so we’ll get a thick, creamy and tangy frosting which quite beautifully pairs with bittersweet chocolate. 


4 cups /1 lb 6 ounces chopped, bittersweet chocolate

2 1/2 cups / 1 lb 6 ounces sour cream

1 cup powdered sugar

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt


Melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a large pot of simmering water. Once completely melted turn off the heat but keep the bowl over the pot of water. Stir in the sour cream until well combined. If some of the chocolate firms up, turn the heat back on to melt through. Stir until everything is well mixed and no little clumps remain.

Carefully stir in the powdered sugar and salt. Taste and adjust to your preference. It is a very tangy frosting but if you’d prefer less tang you can add a bit more sugar.

Let the frosting sit off the heat until you can easily spread it on the cake layers, for an hour or so.


Assembling the cake


Sometimes if I’m feeling up to it I’ll put a layer of jam on the cakes or a flavored simple syrup (whiskey is nice here). Simply brush the layers with the syrup or jam just to moisten and then proceed to frost.

To keep clean up easier, I put down layers of parchment to cover the cake plate, then I slide them out when I’ve finished frosting to reveal a clean plate. Because this cake is so moist, sometimes the bottom layer sticks to the parchment so I’d recommend buttering or spraying the parchment to prevent sticking.

Due to the frantic state in which I was baking the cake the layers turned out very uneven. I didn’t want to bother with trimming the layers (I get very lazy in my cake baking) so I used the frosting to help even out the layers.

Start with one layer of cake and put about 1 cup of frosting in the middle. Spread around the first layer and push any excess frosting to the sides of the cake.

Top with an additional layer and repeat the process. Take a step back to see how straight the cake is and adjust if need be.

Finish with the final cake layer. Put a large amount of frosting on the top and push the excess over the sides and frost the sides.

In leu of a crumb coat I just usually put a thick amount of frosting on to hide any crumbs. But if you’d like you could cover the cake in a light layer of frosting, which glues the crumbs to the cake, then refrigerate and frost with an additional layer of frosting once the first layer has set.

Don’t forget to top the cake with the Lone Ranger as I did.

107 Responses to “Chocolate Cake with Bittersweet Sour Cream Frosting”

  1. sundiegoeats

    This looks beautiful and so easy! My go-to is the Epicurious double chocolate layer cake but this seems a lot easier and uses similar ingredients/ratios but a lot less bowls! (Always a plus)

  2. sara

    how adorable are those boys? too much. Loved your words, Ash. So honest and relatable. Even without kids, guilt has its way of creeping in. I have yet to find a go-to chocolate cake, so this is next on the list. Happy month of birthdays – we have the same over here.

  3. Shanna

    It is such a good life lesson to love others in a way that makes them feel loved: “I love them and they love Chuck E. Cheese.” That’s beautiful.

  4. Kimber

    Yummy! Just wanted to check something… One cup of coffee and one cup of water? Or is the water for the espresso powder? Thanks!

    • Ashley Rodriguez

      Kimber – Yes, it’s 1 cup of coffee and 1 cup of water. You can use 2 cups of water with 1 tablespoon espresso powder instead. Or I’m sure it’d be fine with 2 cups of coffee. Since I was making this for kidlets I only used 1 cup of coffee as I wanted them to sleep that night. 🙂

  5. LauraLili

    Think this recipe was originally called the Cock-eyed cake, from the very amusing “I Hate To Cook Book” by Peg Bracken. It’s a brilliant recipe – I’m all about adding in cinnamon, my perennial obsession!

  6. Aimee @ Simple Bites

    I need more chocolate AND more coffee in my life. This looks like the perfect combination for my cravings.

    And what is with the back scratching? It’s requested all the time here too. 😉

  7. Kate

    This is the best thing I’ve seen all day. Looks sooo yummy. I’ll have to give this a shot!!

    Kate x

  8. Sally Kanehen

    this will, for sure, be the next chocolate cake I bake. It look like the all around perfect recipe! And right on for being confident in your children’s knowledge of your love. Those are words I needed to hear, thanks.

  9. jer

    He’s a little young for me, but Roman sounds like my kind of guy. I’ve been requesting the chocolate/chocolate birthday cake for 50 years. Happy Bithday Roman.

  10. Sarah

    Hi! I am interested in using this for my wedding cake. Does it hold together well and not get too crumbly when cut?

    • Ashley Rodriguez

      Sarah – I used it for wedding cakes all the time. It’s a sturdy cake and loves being made in advance. If you do put a bit of simple syrup or jammy layer in between just go easy on it as too much tends to make the cake too tender and not great for stacking. Other than that it’s the perfect cake for stacking – bakes evenly, quickly, tender crumb that can handle a bit of weight.

  11. Alice @ Hip Foodie Mom

    I just love this post on so many levels! I think every mother feels the same way you do re: their children. . glad you are taking the right approach in parenting. . that you just love them completely. Sometimes, this is all we can do. I really dislike going to McDonald’s (for the play area) but as you know, we have the Seattle weather and they have an indoor play area so we go . . b/c the girls love it and have a ball. . and somehow manage to squeeze an ice cream sundae (or 2) out of me. Smart kids.

  12. janet

    Grace, remember Grace. Poured down lavishly from above.

    The pictures are awesome!

    Thanks for sharing.

  13. Loretta | A Finn In The Kitchen

    Something rich like this cake sounds so perfect right now. Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t have it hanging around… 🙂

    I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever made a sour cream frosting before. I guess I’ll have to add it to the list!

  14. Kiran

    Hi Ashley
    Nice pictures of your Children. Best wishes!
    Its a very nice cake and simple recipe. I do have a question. Can I pop all the baking tins at the same time in the oven or do they need to go in separately for 20-25 min each? Please clarify.


  15. molly

    Oh Ashley. I just think you’re the cat’s pajamas. Not despite the Fruity Pebbles, but absolutely because of them.

    A huge happy birthday to Mr. Roman (5!!). And keep on walking that walk. You rock it.


  16. Christine

    Oh, thank you for this post, Ashley! I have followed along with your blog for a long time, and I appreciate, so much, your honesty and willingness to share your experiences. My son and daughter are almost exactly three years apart (soon to turn 3 and 6), and I am in mad party planning mode, even though we aren’t doing anything extravagant at all. I want it to be perfect, you know? Yet, I know that at the same time it won’t be and I’m finally at the stage in mothering and party planning where I can say, “you know what, that’s just fine.” What matters is that we all have fun and make good memories. Mama stressing out about everything does not make it fun, and I’ve been known to do just that. 🙂 The cake sounds amazing! I’m going to give it a try for our “birthday season”. Thank you for sharing and all the best to you and your beautiful family.

  17. amy

    I really, really love what you wrote. Mommy guilt plagues us all, and my three boys are a constant life lesson for me. Oh, and the cake. I’m absolutely trying it for one of the upcoming b-days we’ve got going on!

  18. lyndsay

    aww! what a sweet and absolutely lovely post… you are an amazing mama. sugary cereal, Chuck E Cheese? perfect! i love cereal and when we were kids, sugary “American” cereals were such a treat for us when we crossed the border (I live in Vancouver, Canada)… 🙂

    beautiful cake, too – i’ve made one similar before from a vegan cookbook and it indeed is such a nice cake! the addition of the bittersweet sour cream frosting, however, is something i will definitely have to try!


  19. thelittleloaf

    This is SUCH a sweet post. Who cares if you give your kids the occasional sugary cereal when there’s homemade birthday cake and so much love to share? 🙂

  20. Kasey

    You go friend! I think we as women, as mothers, need to remind ourselves that the life we live isn’t just for other people (even our children). They are loved beyond words and there should be no guilt resting on our shoulders. xoxo

  21. Kathryn

    One day, your children will read this blog and they will read entries like this and realise just how lucky they are to have you as a mother (which I’m sure they do anyway because you make them cakes like this!). The honesty of your love just shines through.

  22. Victoria

    Is it just me, but are there really no eggs in this cake? I was going to make it today, but that surprises me….

  23. Laura Dembowski

    The cake looks fantastic! But the real comment I have is that it sounds like you’re an incredible mom! You sound like you love your kids so much and though there will be times when they are mad at you, frustrated with you, and don’t feel like you love them enough, deep down inside they know and always will that you love them.

  24. Kristiina

    I was also wondering about the lack of eggs in the recipe! Would love to make this for my graduation party…can you confirm that there really are no eggs in the batter? Thanks a bunch!

    • Ashley Rodriguez

      Kristiina – No eggs in this cake. Crazy, right?! I was skeptical at first too but I’ve come around as the cake is tender, flavorful and sturdy without them. The vinegar and baking soda are magic.

  25. Ole @cookingbrains

    I think that you are an amazing person. Thanks for sharing this recipe and most importantly your thoughts and feelings. I guess I will make sure to call my mother tomorrow, just to make sure that she knows how much she means to her 22 year old son. Happy birthday to little Roman.

  26. Kristiina

    Thanks so much for your prompt reply!! I’m sure my friends will love it…I’ll let you know how it goes 🙂

  27. Bren Underwood

    This chocolate cake looks so rich and divine! I’m going to make it for my husband’s birthday this year :). Thanks for sharing this fabulous recipe!

    XO, Bren

  28. Karen

    I love your blog both for your delicious recipes and sincere posts.
    I’ve noticed a theme of issues with self-worth/inadequacy. You might want to try the treatment called EMDR. It worked like gangbusters for me!
    I look forward to future posts!

    • Ashley Rodriguez

      Karen – I’m sort of shocked by your observation. I mean it’s right on. I guess I don’t always grasp that I have people who have read the site for long enough that they really know me quite well. It’s sort of strange but I sometimes share more on the site than I do with close friends. My counselor did try EMDR on me during one session and I didn’t get much out of it. I found the rapid eye movement jarring and over-stiumulating BUT your comment has me reconsidering. I put several EMDR books on hold at the library now. Thanks for being such a caring and observant reader. It’s amazing to me.

  29. shelly

    Hi. I’m curious about the addition of the coffee – if I only use the granules, then that’s only 1 cup of liquid in the batter, from the water. But if I make a cup of coffee, then that’s 2 cups of liquid…
    Doesn’t this make a difference?

  30. Neha

    I made this yesterday in cupcake format, and it was really yummy (and much better this morning). I didn’t make the frosting, so for the tangy taste, I’m just going to stick a bunch of strawberries in them. Maybe that’ll work too! Thanks for the recipe!! 🙂

  31. Sue

    Wow! This looks soo delicious! One quick yet curious question I have tho, how can it be vegan with sour cream?

  32. Andrea Hayford

    I would like to try this recipe in a cupcake form. Do you think it would work ok? Any pitfalls? Its for a picnic and cupcakes would be easier to handle.

    • Ashley Rodriguez

      Andrea – Cupcakes work great. Mine usually bake for about 20 minutes and I think, if I remember correctly, it makes about 2 dozen.

  33. lei

    Oh Crap! I didn’t realise that “1 cup coffee (you can use instant espresso granules instead, 1 tablespoon)” meant that if I used the granules it should be in 1 cup of water also. I just put the granules dry… I thought the batter was a bit on the dry side… dang, it’s in the oven already… ummmm… guess i’ll find out soon what happens! *fingers crossed*

  34. Talia

    Hi! I made this frosting on a cake today and my boyfriend said that it was “by far the best frosting” that he’s had in his entire life. So, yay! 😀 I am a rookie baker person who is famous for burning water, though, so my cake itself wasn’t so great. It’s kinda hard to tell whether that is because of the recipe or my abilities, though. Anywho, I am still trying to find that perfect cake recipe! How do you think this particular cake compares to “black magic” cake? Have you made that one? If so, what makes you prefer this recipe? The only reason I didn’t prepare this cake recipe is because it is supposed to be so much better the next day, but I am an impatient, instant gratification type of person. I did read the comments and made a blackberry syrup to moisten the cake layers. Again, it was very good…but I wish I had tried this cake recipe because mine was…meh.

  35. Talia

    Just to clarify in case my comment seemed weird, the cake I actually made today wasn’t using the above recipe, and I regret it. Lol

  36. Kyle

    I have to be honest I am usually more of a vanilla kind of guy when it’s a choice between that and chocolate. That is, until I tried a slice of this cake. My girlfriend saw the recipe and recently made it and it is unbelievably good. It’s borderline illegal it’s so delicious. I’m a blogger myself and I have to take a moment to give you some accolades on your photography. Every image you have up on this blog makes all of your dishes look absolutely exquisite! Keep up the good work!

  37. stephanie

    Super excited to try this cake. Stupid question though – when you say “1 cup coffee” that means 1 cup of coffee grounds? or 1 cup of brewed coffee?I assumed the former but then got confused by some of the other comments. thank you!

  38. Rebecka

    The cake is in the oven now & is starting to smell sooo gooood! How much of the frosting would you make for a half batch of cupcakes?
    Thank you!

  39. H

    question….when you say you can substitute the cup of brewed coffee with a tablespoon of instant espresso…you are just using a tablespoon of those granules and that’s it? My cake seemed to be quite dry since I didn’t use a liquid cup of coffee but used the instant granules instead…

  40. raquel feeney

    this looks amazing but i REALLY want to cook without oil — only standard in your fridge natural ingredients (eggs, butter, milk, etc.). Can I substitute the oil with butter???


    • Ashley Rodriguez

      I haven’t tried replacing the oil for butter in this recipe but I know there are a lot of great recipes out there that use butter. I’m partial to the chocolate cakes that use sour cream or buttermilk as well.

  41. Neha

    I just stopped by to say I LOVE this recipe, and have used it multiple times–it’s so easy and you always get consistent results. I also love making this with cream cheese frosting.

  42. Diane

    Question Do you have to use coffee or can I just add another cup of water?

  43. Diane

    Lol ok I have made this cake twice this morning replacing the 1 cup coffee with water. The first batch turned out great it looked perfect in the pan but I didn’t have the pans prepared well enough (cause I was on the phone while doing it and didn’t pay attention) so they stuck, cake pieces still tasted good though but I’m trying to make this for a birthday on Saturday so it has to be just right. so I try again making sure the pans are well prepared, I take them out of the oven and one layer is flat on one side and not the other, strangest thing I’ve ever seen. Do you know what might have happened?

  44. shirley

    I have baked the cake twice ,it tastes awesome but when i slice it its crumbling.i have followed the recipe to the T.the only thoing i changef is the salt .i used regular salt .

  45. Brooke

    Yummy. I showed my daughter this recipe and she made it. She nailed it first time. We love your site. Thanks for all the delicious recipe ideas.

  46. Lauren

    Wow. Thank you very much for sharing this. I made this through the week for a practice run for my son’s party this weekend. Was fabulous, although I’m having to play around a bit with oven temperature/baking time as I’m baking it as one cake instead of in layers. I added extra coffee this time around for a bit more richness. Loved this, and was truly much better a few days in. And I have to say, the easiest cake I have ever made.

  47. Sally

    I made this cake (a triple recipe) for a Battalion Birthday Party BBQ…the pressure was on as I’m the new LT’s wife (yes, being an army spouse not-so-occasionally sucks).

    Your recipe doesn’t call for any eggs and I admit to being very doubtful but went through with it due to shortage of time and the easy ingredients (i.e. no Wondra, Belgian Dark Chocolate).

    Did I mention my husband’s post is like 5 miles from the DMZ and the commissary has only the bare necessities? Speaking of hardships, I mixed the batter up using a plastic fork (no mixer!) on a coffee table that functioned as my “kitchen”. The cake layers were baked in square foil disposable baking pans and I had to walk down 3 flights of stairs with each cake pan to bake it in the communal kitchen of the dilapidated barracks.

    The cake when it came out of the oven seemed rather dry and but I went ahead frosting and putting it together because I didn’t walk up and down 3 damn flights of stairs for nothing and hoped the battalion would to drunk to notice come dessert.

    Thankfully, I was very wrong, the cake ended up being moist and perfectly delicious. I added 2 eggs to a triple recipe because what kind of self-respecting baker would I be if I didn’t mess with an already perfectly good recipe?

    I made (using a rice cooker and microwave) a thick carmel drizzle which I spread between each layer with a sprinkle of sea salt and frosted the cake with a chocolate buttercream (and some sour cream because your recipe looked good and I had just a tiny bit of sour cream) frosting. The frosting job was rough as I only had a plastic knife to work with but I crunched up half a bag of pretzels and sprinkled/pressed them into the frosting at the last and drizzled the remaining carmel over it.

    Despite the cake being square, the outcome was surprisingly elegant and appetizing. The cake was a hit and received many compliments. The moist dark chocolate cake was perfect with the frosting, carmel and pretzel “crust”. I was very surprised how well it came out.

    Thank you so much for sharing your lovely chocolate cake recipe, I can personally attest that it is truly foolproof even with the most unforgiving baking equipment/kitchen. Your blog is lovely, I truly enjoy it and look forward to more of your wonderful recipes!

  48. Cintya

    Is it 1 cup of coffee and 1 cup of water? or just 1 cup of what I want to put in the batter?

  49. Julie

    My mom made me a delicious, homemade from scratch, chocolate cake with chocolate frosting every year during my childhood until I was 18th and a senior in high school. It was delicious and something I looked forward to every birthday. I continued the tradition into adulthood, and I think that cake definitely laid the foundation for my love of chocolate cake and rich, delicious, creamy chocolate frosting. I always love to find new recipes and this one sounds great…the photos are gorgeous!

  50. Sally Kanehen

    I’m so excited, I came upon your recipe as I was looking for a recipe to celebrate MY second born’s 5th birthday tomorrow! It’s a perfect fit! One question, how would you suggest storing it once frosted? Fridge? I’m thinking the sour cream in the frosting would be best kept cool. Making it tonight, frosting tomorrow, and digging in tomorrow night. Thank you!

    • Ashley Rodriguez

      I realize I’m a bit late to respond but yes, I’d refrigerate the frosting then let it slowly come up to room temperature. Sometimes whipping it in a stand mixer helps speed up the warming up process. Happy birthday to your boy!

  51. chelsey

    Hi! I plan on making this cake some time today, and I was wondering…do you use regular cocoa powder or dutch-processed in this? I assume regular, since you don’t specify? Thank you!

      • Chelsey

        Wow! Thank you for replying so quickly! I so appreciate it! And this cake! The cake turned out tremendously wonderful. I really thought the recipe was too simple to be very good, and I was pleasantly surprised! The only thing I did different was the frosting (I used a fudge and a vanilla buttercream frosting). This is my new go-to chocolate cake! Thank you for sharing it.

  52. Olga

    This cake turned out amazing, my two year old is allergic to eggs, but loves chocolate and he loved this cake and so did everyone else. I’m not a baker but this is a very easy recipe to follow.

  53. Natalie

    This is one of my go to recipes for my cake business. Love it! So easy, tastes great and is super moist. I find though it makes just 2 really nice cake layers. I am thinking of doubling it or making 1.5 recipe. Do you think this would cause a problem? I see you have 3 pretty hefty cake layers in your pictures. Did you double the recipe? Thanks a million!