Sunday Chocolate Cake, Two Ways

A very cute chocolate layer cake with pink frosting and pink sprinkles and a slice removed and partially eaten.

Kitra: This week I wanted a cake-y cake. Something fluffy, that I could top with frosting, and feel like I was having a tiny celebration (instead of isolating at home and refinishing my dresser for the… 3rd? 4th? time).

Jordan: Meanwhile—though Kitra is the one waiting out a COVID exposure period—I’ve spent the day at home with maybe a cold, maybe allergies, or maybe just general exhaustion. Whatever it is, I’m in the type of mood where a tiny celebration just sounds like a tiny chore. I wanted a cake that I didn’t even have to turn out of the pan.

Chocolate cake is usually good for any occasion, so seemed like a solid route to go here.

We made the chocolate cake from Odette Williams’s Simple Cakes, but honestly, this post is more of a set of suggestions than anything. You can use this chocolate cake or another one. Sunday Chocolate Cake is a mood, not a recipe.

For me, I needed something adorable to look at while my bedroom is covered in wood dust, and wanted to use a bunch of freeze-dried strawberries. So, 6-inch 2-layer cake with strawberry buttercream and—importantly—sprinkles.

My cake has some added cinnamon and chili—when I’m sick, I want everything to be a little bit spicy—and an icing based on the one we use for Texas chocolate sheet cake, but more chocolatey and less sweet.

I don’t know that this cake is going to be one I come back to, though it’s perfectly lovely. It’s just so moist that it transforms from fluffy into something… bouncy?

Bouncy is definitely the right word. It’s a flexible recipe, though. I realized that I had no milk, so reached for coconut milk… only to find I had no coconut milk either. Or cream. Or emergency shelf-stable almond milk. So mine was made with water and nonfat milk powder and gluten-free flour and you know what? It came out perfectly fine.

And I used buttermilk because that is never the wrong answer when you actually have it in the house.

So know that if you just need a Sunday Chocolate Cake and your pantry is a little bare, you can probably make it work as long as you have flour and cocoa.

As an added bonus, making a half batch of batter (we both did) means that things bake and cool faster so we went from 0 to cake in about 90 minutes.

Take the below offering and do what you will with it. Just remember: Sunday Chocolate Cake is but a state of mind.

A thin slice of chocolate cake with warm chocolate frosting oozing off the top.
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Malted Milk Ball Cake

A vanilla cake with swoopy chocolate frosting.

Kitra: We had about 3% left in our cake batteries for the day today, which means we were looking for something *easy* that did not require a trip to the store.

Jordan: This cake, it turns out, is a perfect 3% energy cake. I would say that it perhaps even charged our cake batteries slightly!

As always, the place to turn for a “no thank you I’d rather nap” cake is Snacking Cakes, which we love.

This is the basic vanilla cake from the book, with a bit of malt powder added (which is one of many variations the author suggests). I don’t know if it’s the malt or just the cake, but this was one of the most beautifully golden cakes I have ever seen.

Also, it’s so moist and fluffy and… spongey? In a good way. It’s really a solid cake, very soft and pretty.

And (in case you’ve forgotten the premise of Snacking Cakes from the last time we referenced it), it’s also a very easy batter that requires just a bowl and a whisk to make.

We both agreed a glaze was the way to go here, since we wouldn’t have to wait for the cake to cool completely, and also no stand mixer or saucepan would be needed. And luckily, we both turned and said “milk chocolate glaze?”

Unfortunately, Kitra was out of milk chocolate… which turned out to be incredibly fortunate.

We were debating the merits of cocoa powder versus walking to CVS for a chocolate bar, when I realized: HOT COCOA MIX.

This cake is good, but the star of this really is the topping. It’s somewhere between a glaze and a frosting—somehow both swoopable and pourable—and it has that perfect amount of artificial flavor that you need when the weather has gone from 70° and sunny to snowing and windy over the course of a weekend.

It’s milky, not overwhelmingly sweet, and I would eat it by the spoonful if we’d made any more than we needed for the cake. I love it. 10/10 will make again. I would eat it in a box. I would eat it with a fox. I would eat it sitting on a pile of rocks. You get the idea.

A vanilla cake with swoopy chocolate frosting. Two slices are on plates next to the cake.
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Semla Cake (Swedish Almond Cardamom Cake)

A bundt cake, dusted with powdered sugar and filled with almond paste, with two slices removed and plated with whipped cream.

Kitra: As a cardamom-lover and extremely pale person, I have developed a deep affinity for Scandinavian baked goods. I’ve fallen hard for Korvapuusti, the Finnish cinnamon bun variation, but nothing tops my affinity for Semla. I saw a picture about 7 years ago and set myself on a mission to make them. Cardamom bun? Almond paste? Whipped cream?? Yes please. I’ve only made them a few times, but wow are they delightful.

Jordan: They’re a traditional Swedish pre-Lent treat that somehow morphed into a during-Lent treat as well. This does not track with my understanding of Lent as a time of abstention, but I suppose when you live in the frigid darkness you need something to get you through.

There’s something about the idea of scooping out the innards of a food, reusing them, and then scooping them back out with a hat made of the food that is incredible to me and I cannot get over.

And if anyone is confused and/or horrified by what Kitra just said, here’s the summary: Semlor—the plural of semla—are lightly sweetened cardamom buns. You slice off the top (the “hat,” as we call it), scoop out the middle like a tiny bread bowl, mix the crumbs with almond paste, refill the bun with this mixture, add a generous amount of whipped cream, and put the hat back on at the end. A common way to eat them is to use the hat like a spoon to eat what you can, then eat the rest of the bun as-is.

And if that doesn’t sound like the most incredible idea, I don’t think we can be friends.

(Fun unrelated fact: Kit Kats are also made of themselves.)

BUT. It’s also kind of a lot of work. Which is fine, because they are great and you only have a narrow amount of time where they’re supposed to be eaten (not that I’ve observed that restriction…) but it also means I’ve been dreaming of a way to get that experience without so much finessing.

Kitra sent me a very excited message when Erin McDowell (our beloved Pie Queen) posted a beautiful semla cake, so we set our sights on that. It… did not go well.

Maybe it was cold (it was), maybe we were impatient (we were), but it just did not do what we wanted.

The cake—really a bread baked in a bundt pan—did not rise. At all. It was one of the saddest cakes we have ever made. I think Kitra laughed until she cried when we turned it out and saw the final product.

So we took the first failed batch of dough, turned it into the aforementioned Korvapuusti, ate the baked loaf with butter for breakfast, and went back to the drawing table. It needed to be yeasty and bundt-shaped, but not actually require rising because we planned to make this cake in the winter and yeast does not like my house in the winter.

We found our solution in an old Smitten Kitchen post, a pound cake based on a James Beard recipe. We added cardamom and some yeast for flavor, and we had our base.

It’s just not semla if it isn’t yeasty. And semlor shouldn’t be *too* sweet, since you fill them with something that is incredibly sweet. This one turned out pretty much exactly like we hoped.

From there, it was just a matter of scooping, mixing, and reassembling.

And if I may say so, this cake was made for scooping.

The cake itself is sweet but not too sweet, moist but not squishy, and equally perfect for breakfast, dessert, or fika. Lightly sweetened whipped cream is optional but very strongly encouraged.

It really helps cut the sweetness, and is in my mind an essential component. We decided not to fill the cake with it, though, to help with storing and serving.

We ended up with a beautiful bundt cake with a wonderful surprise inside, and possibly the easiest way to both make and eat semlor.

A bundt cake lightly dusted with powdered sugar, seen from the top down
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Lemon Coriander Cornmeal Cake

A cake covered in syrupy lemon slices and coriander seeds.

Kitra: It has been… *checks watch* … A while. Sorry about that.

Jordan: Look, there were just a lot of things.

We did in fact make two cakes in September which we forgot to post!

I’d argue that we didn’t forget to post them, we just kind of didn’t do it. And then life happened.

Jordan got married!

There were holidays!


Seasonal depression!

All of the weather in the world!

Kitra got a girlfriend and so suddenly had other weekend plans!

All our family came to town (see: wedding)!

Which is to say, there were a lot of things.

We were so, so tired. So we slept a lot and now it is cake time. Again.

We’re back, baby!

And we come tumbling back into the world on a Monday afternoon, with sludge all over the city from a brief snowstorm, and a very bold cake.

This cake is from Canelle et Vanille Bakes Simple, which I am obsessed with. It’s a bunch of delicious, slightly unusual gluten-free recipes and it has yet to find a permanent home on my cook book shelf because it’s been out pretty much constantly.

And since I had no interest in making decisions today, I was down for whatever Jordan wanted. And this is good!

The cake itself is nice and moist, like a cornbread that is sweet but not overwhelmingly so. Despite having three teaspoons of coriander in the batter, it’s not a strong flavor. I think of it as really just giving the cake a vague edge of popcorniness.

I think maybe had we forgone the very strongly flavored topping we might be getting more coriander, which is probably the direction I’d go in the future. It’s fun though! Very sticky and smells great on top.

The topping is definitely assertive. I like it, but I agree that it does overpower the cake a bit, and this cake deserves a chance to shine on its own.

This was a pretty quick cake. Despite a long baking time, the whole thing was done in about 2 hours. We didn’t even have time for a cake-cooling nap.

And if you don’t make the topping, it’ll be even quicker. If you haven’t made cake yet this year, you could do much worse than this one for your first.

A lemon-covered cake with a slice removed and resting on a plate.
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Big and Tall Cheesecake

A close-up of tall cheesecake with a slice cut out

Kitra: It has been well established that we like cheesecake.

Jordan: And this is quite a beautiful specimen, I must say.

Sometimes, you just want an extremely cheesecake cheesecake (sometimes=almost always).

This one is smooth but not heavy, sweet but not cloying, and gloriously tall. This is a cheesecake that shops in the Big and Tall section, hence the title.

Despite the fact that it is an absolute unit, I frequently cut a slice, ate it and then cut another, which is a rarity for cheesecake since a slice often feels like a meal.

I ate almost all of my leftovers for breakfast straight out of the container, standing at the kitchen counter like the lead in a rom-com.

And I was going the breakfast/lunch/dinner/dessert route with mine because I kind of didn’t want to eat anything else.

Some people don’t like making cheesecake because they think it’s fussy, but we promise it’s not that bad. Kitra is the Queen of Cheesecakes and has learned from all of the mistakes so that the rest of us don’t have to.

I mean, if you pick a good and trustworthy recipe and follow it, there shouldn’t be much room for error. But really, just stick an instant thermometer in your cream cheese to make sure it is actually room temperature. (You don’t have to be prepared either, we usually warm it in the microwave.)

That’s my eternal mistake. If your butter is too cold in a cake, it’ll be fine once you beat it up a little. If your cream cheese is too cold, you’re out of luck. Your cheesecake will be lumpy and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Those lumps are the cockroaches of the cake world: they will outlive us all.

Thanks, I hate that analogy.

You’re welcome. All the more incentive to warm that cheese up to a nice 70ish degrees.

You know what I don’t hate, though? This cheesecake. It’s an Erin McDowell recipe and she adds some sour cream, which gives it a little more lightness and nuance.

All hail Erin.

It’s great with macerated fruit, but it’s also completely, 100% perfect on its own.

A cheesecake with a slice removed and resting on a plate, with blackberries on top.
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Black Bottom Cupcakes

Four chocolate cupcakes with sour cream topping; one is sliced in half to reveal a cheesecake center

Kitra: It feels like a shower outside, so if I’m turning on my oven it’s going to be for a short time and for something I really want to eat.

Jordan: This is the first cake we’ve made in a while that was just an easy decision. Kitra wanted black bottom cupcakes, and so we made black bottom cupcakes.

If you, like me, really want to eat cheesecake most of the time but don’t have cheesecake-making energy, may I suggest black bottom cupcakes?

These are a mild chocolate cake (think devil’s food cake) with a beautiful center of cheesecake. The name is a little misleading; the chocolate will fully surround the cheesecake center.

Like it’s cheesecake wearing a chocolate skin suit.

Creepy, but I was going to use the word “swaddling,” which is not necessarily better.

[Here we had a long conversation about whether or not one can use a skin suit to swaddle something, which we will mercifully spare you from.]

And because I wanted them to feel even more like cheesecake, we added a sour cream topping which also makes them less sweet.

These are delicious at room temperature, but even better cold. A dessert you can keep in the fridge when it’s a million degrees outside? Perfect!

It’s too hot to eat room-temperature foods.

And keep in mind that because these are cupcakes, they bake quickly and cool quickly. You can go from start to finish in under an hour if you’re efficient.

And you can eat them with your hands. Peak cheesecake efficiency.

Swaddle away, friends.

Four chocolate cupcakes with sour cream topping; one is sliced in half to reveal a cheesecake center, and a hand is reaching to grab one.
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Crispy-Fluffy Cardamom Cake

An almond-topped cake on a stand, with a slice cut out. The slice is on a plate with strawberries next to the stand.

Jordan: This cake is so fluffy I could die.

Kitra: I think it’s fascinating that the adjective you chose to describe it is fluffy because while that’s true, I don’t think it’s in the top 10 I would’ve come up with.

Ten adjectives, go.

1. Crackly

This is true. The top has a layer of sugar and almonds that gives it a nice bit of texture—though it’s not as crackly as, say, this caramelized almond cake, and the almonds stay a little on the chewy side.

2. Lacy

Also true, very similar.

3. Spiced

The only spice is cardamom, but hoo boy does it come through. Not in a bad way! In a delicious way, assuming you like cardamom.

4. Light

We’re getting close to fluffy, but carry on.

5. Crisp

The sides of the cake do have a beautiful crispness, like the edges of a crepe or an incredibly thin fortune cookie.

6. Dreamy


7. Versatile

This is a breakfast cake, or a dessert cake, or a snacking cake. This is an anytime cake.

8. Surprising

Yes. I was very pleasantly surprised by how nuanced this cake was, and even more by how incredibly fluffy it was.

9. Fun

Sure, why not.

10. Unassuming

I would argue that this is similar to “surprising,” but you’re right—it doesn’t look like much, but it’s very delicious.

Point is, the two things that really stick out to me about this cake are the awesome crispy crackly edges which make it way more fun to eat than most cake, and the big pop of cardamom, my favorite always. But I guess it’s also fluffy, sure.

You did describe it as similar to angel food cake, despite being nowhere near as dry, as sweet, or as boring as angel food cake often is. (The last part is my editorializing.)

I would never say those things about angel food cake, which can be very flavorful and (as I know from making a crapton of them) a little too wet. Sticky, at least. This one has a similar vibe though in terms of flavor (minus the cardamom) and doesn’t require a whole bunch of egg yolks to sit around in your fridge unused until they dry out and you forget what they were.

It’s truly such a simple cake, especially if you have a stand mixer. You throw together your sugar and eggs, beat the crap out of them, and then add some cardamom seeds, melted butter, and flour. The most time-consuming part is cracking open a handful of cardamom pods to get the seeds out, but it’s worth it for the delightful little pops of cardamom scattered throughout the cake.

And you can, technically, buy cardamom seeds out there in the world. (But why would you, when cardamom like the stuff at Diaspora exists?)

Kitra and I may not agree on how to describe this cake—or on angel food cake—but we both ate our first slices of this cake in contented silence because it was just excellent.

A top-down view of an almond-topped cake on a stand.
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No-Bake Rhubarb Cheesecake Bars

Two tall slices of rhubarb-swirled cheesecake on a plate alongside the remaining cake on a cutting board.

Kitra: I saw Erin Clarkson of Cloudy Kitchen post a “coming soon” photo of rhubarb cheesecake, and sent it to Jordan immediately. But soon isn’t ever soon enough for rhubarb cheesecake so we made it up. Sorry, and please go check out Erin’s version when it’s up!

Jordan: I have no doubts that hers will be excellent, given that we shamelessly stole her idea and used her cheesecake base and ours was also excellent, not to brag or anything.

Rhubarb is extremely underrated, so there’s no such thing as too much.

I have questions about why we cultivate it in the first place—the leaves are literal poison?? and the stalks don’t taste great unless you cook them with sugar?—but I’m glad we do, since there’s just something delicious about rhubarb.

And it doesn’t need to be cut with strawberries, or anything else. Rhubarb is GOOD. We had a plant in our front yard growing up and the start of rhubarb season was so exciting.

Rhubarb’s unique flavor really shines when it’s paired with something simple, which makes it a great candidate for a cheesecake topping.

And we love cheesecake. You do too, I assume. Because you should. It’s great.

This, however, is not a normal cheesecake. This is a no-bake cheesecake, which—per Erin’s blog posts—is common in New Zealand but which we had never made. It’s much lighter than a typical dense, rich, egg-based cheesecake.

Plus, it was hot as hell in DC last weekend when we made this, and will be for most of the rest of eternity (thanks climate change, for the sweat) so losing the oven was good. And would be even better for my kitchen where there is no AC.

If you’re not a fan of traditional cheesecake—either making or eating it—this one might be worth a try. My partner, who usually doesn’t like cheesecake, was a fan of it because the filling is so light and fluffy, almost like a cream cheese mousse.

Which also means it’s a way better breakfast/snack/just because cheesecake since you don’t feel like you’ve eaten all your food for the day after a few bites.

Fair warning, though, that it is extremely easy to eat directly out of the container with a fork while standing at your kitchen counter. Not that I have experience with this.

Seconded. Also, can we talk about how thick (thicc even?) it is???

An absolute unit, as the kids say. A chonk.

Yes, we used the wrong size pan and that was a problem, but even in the right size pan it’s a sturdy crust and a nice thick layer of everything. Bless.

I would call this roughly a 2:1 filling-to-crust ratio, which is the right ratio. Crumb crusts are the best crusts and I will die on this hill of graham crackers.

So, with further apologies but also thanks and a lot of credit to Erin, please cheesecake.

A whole cheesecake with rhubarb topping swirled beautifully through the top layer.
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The Quest for the Right Chocolate Frosting

Four chocolate-frosted cupcakes with candles that read "YAY!" and a #4 candle with a balloon on it.

Kitra: What better time to go deep into our lifelong quest for a recipe that mimics canned chocolate frosting than our 4th birthday!

Jordan: Last year we had to make birthday cakes from our separate homes, which was much more of a bummer. But this year, Kitra is fully vaccinated and I’m halfway there, so we swung in the opposite direction and gathered for a frosting-making extravaganza.

Cake birthdays have escalated from “we made a birthday cake for the concept of making cake, what an absurd thing to do” to “let’s make a half dozen frostings and do a semi-scientific taste test to see what we like best.” Just wait for what we’ve got in store for our 5th birthday…

We started this experiment with some criteria. The goal here is not to make the best chocolate frosting, necessarily, but to make one as close to canned frosting as possible. (Some might argue that canned frosting is in fact the best frosting; that’s another conversation entirely.)

As the last few birthday cakes show, I already have a favorite chocolate frosting, but it’s just not the same thing.

Our ideal frosting needed to be dark brown and aesthetically pleasing. It needed to be nicely spreadable and sturdy enough that you would eat a leftover room-temperature cupcake the next day without a second thought.

And the taste, the taste should be just a little alarmingly fake. We’re not looking for a rich dark chocolate or anything. We’re looking for something that tastes a little mass-produced, and is mild enough to satisfy a child but interesting enough for us to eat on a graham cracker over and over again.

Finally, while this is not a dark chocolate frosting—we have ganache for that—it needs to be fudgy and a little dense. That’s why Kitra’s go-to chocolate frosting doesn’t work here; it’s too fluffy and a little more “chocolate-inspired” than fudge-flavored.

We condensed all of these ideas into the following categories, which we rated on a 1-5 scale: Appearance, Spreadability, Stability, Taste, Crackerability, and Similarity to Canned Frosting.

“Crackerability” is how likely we are to just eat this on graham crackers as a snack, which is the primary way both of us interact with canned frosting.

It’s also the name of our jam band.

The Contenders

A plate with eight numbered chocolate frostings arranged in a circle and a stack of graham crackers in the center.
  1. A recipe from Maida Heatter’s Cakes. Not her chocolate buttercream, which involves seven egg yolks(??) and a double boiler, but one that still looked promising.
  2. The fudge frosting from Vintage Cakes, which includes brown sugar in an otherwise ganache-like base.
  3. A whipped ganache with mixed milk and dark chocolate.
  4. A recipe our mom sent us, which she claims is the closest she’s found to canned frosting.
  5. Joy the Baker’s best chocolate buttercream, which includes a substantial amount of chocolate Ovaltine.
  6. Hummingbird High’s “THE Chocolate Frosting,” which similarly has a bit of malt powder in it.

We also had a can of Duncan Hines chocolate frosting on hand for comparison (#7 above). The plate shown here was one we assembled for Jordan’s partner, so he also had #8, which was a frankenfrosting made of some of our favorites after the initial tests.

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Lemon Snack Cake

A slice of lemon raspberry cake with icing over top

Jordan: Kitra has been all in on Julia Turshen’s cookbooks recently, so that’s obviously where our next cake needed to come from.

Kitra: I’m always all in on Julia Turshen, but especially since her new book came out a few weeks ago, because it is perfect in every way (beautifully written, great food, easy to make things, gay, so many dogs, and have I mentioned beautifully written???) and I’ve eaten from it about 4 times a week since I got it.

This cake is… not from that book.

But it is conveniently from another of her books, which both of us happen to own. (Okay, I got Jordan’s copy for her but it was on her wishlist!)

It’s titled “afternoon cake” in the book, but this is really an anytime cake—which, to be fair, is the best kind of afternoon cake.

And since we both planned to bring cake to outdoor afternoon gatherings on the same day, it seemed like a sign that this was the cake to go with.

It’s also something of a choose-your-own adventure cake. The original uses orange zest and juice; we both used lemon instead, though we took it in different directions.

I went with the lemon poppyseed variation offered in the book, because I will use any excuse to add poppyseeds to something. Muffin-esque cakes > other cakes.

I swirled in some jam—with limited success, to be fair, but that may have been user error rather than the recipe’s fault. Both of us added a simple lemon glaze as well.

I ate 65% of this cake in one afternoon in my front yard, and my only regret is not just eating all of it.

And mine got good reviews at the farewell picnic I went to, despite my having overbaked it. Fortunately there’s almond flour in the batter, which keeps it from getting too dry and crumbly if you make the same mistake.

We’re both pretty tired while writing this, but the real takeaway is cake = good, make some and revel.

A round lemon-poppyseed cake on a cake stand, with a small pitcher of glaze and a stack of plates next to it
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