I am so excited to be sharing this Devil’s Food Cake with Ultra-Rich Buttercream and Chocolate Ganache from Zoë François’ new book, Zoë Bakes Cake. I have known Zoë for many years now, after spending the last decade working with her and Jeff Hertzberg over on Bread in 5, and also working with her on this current book (I took the how-to book photos, see below).
A few notes about the Devil’s Food Cake:
I made this cake over 3 days; I made the cake layers and then froze them. The next day I made the buttercream and cut and frosted the cake, chilled it for 2 hours, then applied the ganache crumb coating and chilled it overnight. The third day I coated it with ganache, let it set, and served it.
If you are new to buttercream, please note that French and Swiss Buttercream do taste butter-y, and are supposed to. If you would prefer an American Buttercream, I have a recipe here that can be used. This Ultra-Rich Buttercream, however, is incredible and tastes amazing with the chocolate.
Make sure to check for graininess when heating the yolks and sugar together! If you don’t heat them until smooth, your finished buttercream will also be grainy. I found heating my egg yolks and sugar to between 150 and 155 was perfect.
Egg yolk foam will look very different than egg white foam when whipped with sugar. While egg whites and sugar will almost triple in size and be glossy and light, the egg yolk foam will turn pale yellow, and only increase in a volume a little bit. If you are following the recipe instructions below and whipping the egg yolk foam as directed (6 to 8 minutes, and a bowl that feels room temperature), you should be just fine adding the butter.
While I love all Zoë’s bread books and use them often, I have been waiting anxiously for her to finally have a book of her own. If you aren’t familiar with Zoë’s work, the short answer is that she is a pastry chef extraordinaire, and you can check out some of her amazing recipes and process videos on her website and over on her Instagram account.
The long answer is that she is generous, kind, hilarious, thoughtful, talented, patient, and hardworking, and all of this is evident in her work.
I first met Zoë on a photoshoot; I had just started working with her and Jeff doing blog posts for the Bread in 5 website and was hired to bake bread for the week. The photoshoot took place in Zoë’s house; I was on the second floor in a four-plex-turned-single-family-home that still had a tiny kitchen on each level. The first day of shooting I was baking loaves of bread, trying to stay ahead of schedule and have everything ready for the next photo.
Pastry cream was needed for a shot, and Zoë handed me a recipe and told me to make it quick. I had never made pastry cream before and felt terrified as I took the recipe from her, not able to bring myself to tell her I had no idea what I was doing.
After reading the directions through 40 times and saying a quick prayer, I somehow I pulled it off – there before me in the pan was a thick, yellow custard. I took the pan off the heat and as I brought it to her she grabbed it from my hands, and placed it back on the stovetop. “Cook out the starch!” she insisted. “Whisk it until it’s glossy and smooth, or you’ll have a grainy mess.”
I meekly obeyed, and ended up with the most beautiful, smooth pastry cream I had ever seen.
I learned in that moment to trust her completely, and have ever since.
The rest of the week we spent a lot of time tucked away in that hot, tiny kitchen, and my memories are of us laughing until we cried and working until our legs and backed ached. We have worked on many more projects over the years together, and I am always confronted with a few things.
First: the beautiful, kind, charming, and generous Zoë you see on Instagram is exactly the Zoë I know in real life; nothing about her is fake or contrived. Second: every time I’m with Zoë, I learn something new.
Whether it’s something subtle, like how to roll my pie dough more efficiently, or something more advanced, like how to whip meringue perfectly, each and every time I am with her I am shown pastry in a new, and better light. Third: every time I’m with Zoë, I laugh. We have so much fun in the kitchen together, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to both work with her and just be with her. Andrew Zimmern commented about her that this “lady is a star” and I have to agree; she is a bright, beautiful light.
All of this brings me back to her book. This book! It’s a must-have baking book, regardless of your skill level and how many cake books you may already have on your shelf.
Through her recipes and instruction, Zoë is able to take intricate, complex cake creations and present them in ways that are straightforward and accessible to everyone – new bakers with much to learn as well as experienced bakers with years of recipes under their belts. Her “Cake Academy” chapter alone is worth buying the book for; everything from creaming butter, light-as-air foam, meringue, mixing, folding, decorating, and piping is covered.
“In the opening chapter, Zoë explores the techniques and tricks of cake baking, using step-by-step photos to break down baking fundamentals like creaming butter and sugar and whipping egg whites, making it easy to follow along. In the following chapters she gives simple, straightforward recipes for loaf cakes, layers, fillings, frostings, and more–including treats like Apple Cake with Honey-Bourbon Glaze, Lemon Curd Pound Cake, Coconut Candy Bar Cake, and Chocolate Devil’s Food Cake. There’s even a tutorial on how to make a wedding cake from scratch, complete with constructing the layers.”
- 1 cup [200 g] granulated sugar
- 8 egg yolks, at room temperature
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups [440 g] unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups [480 g] heavy cream
- 16 oz [450 g] bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the sugar, egg yolks, and salt and beat on medium speed to mix. The mixture will be very thick and grainy.
- Put 1 in [2.5 cm] of water in the bottom of a double boiler or a medium saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat. Place the bowl with the yolk mixture over the simmering water and stir the mixture with a rubber spatula until the sugar is completely melted. Feel the mixture between your fingers to check for graininess. Once all the sugar has melted and the mixture is smooth, the syrup is hot enough to be safe to consume (see note).
- Return the bowl to the stand mixer fitted with a clean whisk attachment and beat on medium-high speed until the egg foam is light, fluffy, and glossy and the bowl feel just about room temperature, 6 to 8 minutes (see note for visual cues below). If the egg foam isn't cooled sufficiently, the butter will melt when you add it.
- Once the egg foam is whipped and cooled, turn the mixture speed to medium, add the butter 2 tablespoons at a time, and beat until incorporated. Turn the speed to low, add the vanilla, and mix until incorporated.
- Use immediately or transfer to an airtight container and store int he refrigerator for up to 7 days or in the freezer for up to 1 month.
- For the chocolate ganache: In a medium saucepan over low heat, warm the cream until just simmering. Turn off the heat and add the chocolate. Swirl the pan to make sure all of the chocolate is submerged in the hot cream. Let sit for 3 minutes and then gently stir until smooth.
- Transfer the ganache to an airtight container and store at room temperature for up to 2 days, or in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
- Gently warm the ganache over a pan of simmering water, forming a double boiler, to a pourable consistency.
- To assemble: Cut each cooled cake layer in half horizontally, to make a total of four layers. Put one layer on a turntable or serving plate and top with 3/4 cup of the buttercream. Use an offset spatula or knife to smooth it out. Repeat with two more layers and then top with the final layer, cut side down. Frost the cake with the remaining buttercream (there will be just enough buttercream to use in layers and coat the cake with a crumb coat). Chill the cake until firm, 2 hours.
- Make the ganache. Separate about 1 cup [240 g] of the ganache and allow it to set to room temperature (you can place the separated ganache in the refrigerator and stir every few minutes until it is firm enough to spread on the cake, but being careful not to let it get too firm). It will now be spreadable and you can use it to create your ganache crumb coat.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the crumb-coated cake onto a wire rack and set over the prepared baking sheet - you will be pouring quite a bit of ganache over the cake, so this setup will catch the excess.
- Staring in the center of the cake, pour the ganache in a steady stream and work your way out to the edge in a spiral, making sure there are no bare spots. Continue pouring over the edges, until the sides are completely covered. The ganache should be smoothing itself out as our pour. If there are any ripples, ever so gently lift and set down whole baking sheet to settle the ganache; only do this right after you finish pouring or you may end up creating more ripples. Let the cake sit until set up enough that you can move it without disrupting the finish on the ganache, 15 to 20 minutes.
- Run a metal spatula under the base of the cake to separate it from the wire rack before trying to lift it, or the ganache may tear.
Make sure to check for graininess when heating the yolks and sugar together! If you don't heat them until smooth, your finished buttercream will also be grainy. I found heating my egg yolks and sugar to between 150 and 155 was perfect.
Egg yolk foam will look very different than egg white foam when whipped with sugar. While egg whites and sugar will almost triple in size and be glossy and light, the egg yolk foam will turn pale yellow, and only increase in a volume a little bit. If you are following the instructions and whipping the egg yolk foam as directed (6 to 8 minutes, and a bowl that feels room temperature), you should be just fine adding the butter.
Zoe's baker's notes: make sure to clean the whisk attachment after combining the sugar and eggs to prevent getting any undissolved sugar crystals in your smooth buttercream.
To freeze buttercream: Wrap it in plastic (so it doesn't absorb the smells and flavors of your freezer). To defrost, leave it wrapped and bring it fully to room temperature before using. Cold buttercream will have a hard time emulsifying. If you are close to room temperature but it still looks "broken" while you're mixing, wave the metal bowl over the heat of your stove or a pan of simmering water. You can also wave your kitchen blowtorch over the metal bowl a few times, just to warm the bowl slightly.
I found making a double batch of the ganache was helpful. This is a lot of chocolate and cream, but I used almost half of a batch of the ganache to coat the cake with the crumb coat, and to get perfectly coated sides, I needed a lot of ganache. If you have had a lot of experience coating cakes with ganache you may not need the extra, but to be safe you might want to make a little extra.