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retromade Want a great cake?

It is not easy to be June Cleaver in a Desperate Housewives world.

Forget the pearls and stiff-starched shirtwaist dress or the hair so tidy and motionless. Time is what we covet from those days immortalized (albeit sanitized) in black and white.

We want the time to relax on the couch after dinner, sipping coffee from cup and saucer instead of paper cup with heat-shielding sleeve. Or maybe even time to welcome a child home from school with a honking slice of homemade chocolate cake and a glass of milk so cold it rattles the teeth. How lucky were Wally and Beaver?

Say it with reverence: "homemade chocolate cake." Not semihomemade. Not half-scratch. Not something the Cake-Mix Doctor dreamed up.

I am talking real chocolate cake, one that starts in your kitchen with butter and sugar and ends with plenty of people thinking you are June Cleaver incarnate. Even without the hairspray.

It's time to master one of life's treasures: Heirloom Devil's Food Layer Cake with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting.

Better than a box

Baking a layer cake is not particularly difficult, though you need the discipline to follow directions. The equipment is not obscure. Anyone with a couple of 9-inch round cake pans, a roll of parchment paper and a mixer can turn out an applause-worthy confection.

I am a recent convert. Like many of my generation, and certainly several after, I have been duped into thinking that cakes from boxed mixes are as good as scratch versions. Convenience dulled my taste buds and clouded my thinking.

A solid recipe, which is provided with this story, changed my opinion. It helped me produce a cake with an impressive depth of flavor not found in boxed mixes. The crumb (internal structure) was tight and bold. Mixes result in featherweight cakes, their texture something like Wonder Bread. The taste is mostly forgettable, but a steady diet of weak cakes has made us believe otherwise.

I finally accepted that there's a reason the eggs are mixed in one at a time and that the prescribed times for incorporating are, in part, what builds the cake's structure and texture. Tossing all the ingredients in the bowl and blending on my frenzied timetable is why my early attempts had the appetizing qualities of a door-stopper.

I hope you'll give this recipe a try or dig out another from a favorite cookbook. Carve out three hours on an evening when there's no soccer practice or PTA and enlist the help of an interested child. I had an 11-year-old aide who practiced his math skills (you try dividing 13/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon into thirds) and got hands-on lessons in science (chemical reactions, to name one).

If the evenings are jam-packed, bake on a weekend morning for a dinner party or potluck gathering that night. I like the idea of making one boffo offering, even if the rest of dinner is takeout.

All in the technique

An entire book could be written about a single chocolate cake recipe. The importance of technique (creaming, sifting, blending) along with the role of every ingredient could be explained in excruciating detail. Take, for instance, the eggs, which by the way should be at room temperature before being added to the batter.

"The combination of fat and protein in whole eggs provides structure, richness and moisture to batters," writes Lisa Yockelson in Chocolate Chocolate (Wiley, 2005), a book I recommend for both its recipes and basic baking information.

How about the butter? A "defining element," Yockelson writes.

Technique, too, must get its due.

Thoroughly creaming butter and sugar, especially in this devil's food cake recipe, is what helps establish volume and texture. Yes, the baking soda adds leavening but a mere 1 teaspoon cannot achieve what six minutes of mixing on moderate speed can. The added air helps bring the finished cake to desired heights.

Make sure the melted chocolate is tepid, otherwise the heat will destroy the volume that has been beaten into the batter. The finished batter looks like a glossy mocha cloud or, to a child, the inside of a Three Musketeers bar.

Don't worry, there won't be a test. The recipe takes into account the science behind the cake. You only need to respect the directions.

Serve a piece de resistance with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream. And, no, that doesn't need to be homemade.

Even June Cleaver might balk at that.

Jennifer DeCamp of the Times contributed to this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or jkeeler@sptimes.com.

Heirloom Devil's Food Layer Cake

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate

21/4 cups bleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

12 tablespoons (11/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

13/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar

3 large eggs, room temperature

13/4 teaspoons vanilla extract

11/4 cups buttermilk, whisked well

Chocolate Butter Frosting (see recipe)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease the inside of two 9-inch layer cake pans (11/2 inches deep) with shortening or butter, line the bottom of each pan with a circle of parchment paper cut to fit, grease the paper and dust with flour.

Microwave chocolate on high for 1 minute. Stir and set aside to cool to tepid (lukewarm).

To mix the batter, sift the flour, baking soda and salt onto a sheet of waxed paper. (If you don't have a sifter, you can use a fine-mesh strainer.)

Cream the butter in the large bowl of a freestanding electric mixer on moderate speed for 3 minutes. (You can also use a hand mixer.) Add the sugar in three additions, beating for 1 minute after each portion is added. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for 45 seconds after each addition. Blend in the vanilla extract and melted chocolate.

On low speed, alternately add the sifted mixture in three additions with the buttermilk in two additions, beginning and ending with the sifted mixture. Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl frequently to keep the batter even-textured.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pans, dividing it evenly between them. Spread the batter evenly.

Bake the cake layers for 30 minutes, or until risen, set and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean (with just a few crumbs attached). Cool the layers in the pans on racks for 10 minutes. Remove gently and return to racks to cool completely.

Ice with Chocolate Butter Frosting by transferring one layer to a cake plate and covering with a layer of frosting. Place the second layer on top and frost completely, including the sides, swirling the frosting as you go. Let the cake stand for 1 hour before slicing and serving.

Source: "Chocolate Chocolate" by Lisa Yockelson (Wiley, 2005)

Chocolate Butter Frosting

4-1/2 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted

1/8 teaspoon salt

5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled to tepid

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

7 tablespoons milk, heated to tepid

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into chunks, softened

Place the confectioner's sugar, salt, melted chocolate, vanilla extract and milk in a large bowl. Scatter over the chunks of butter and beat on moderately low speed for 2 minutes to begin the mixing process. (A paddle attachment works best.) When the frosting begins to come together, raise the speed to moderate, and beat for 3 minutes, or until very smooth. Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl to keep the frosting even-textured. Increase the speed to high and beat for 2 minutes, or until very creamy. Adjust the texture of the frosting to spreading consistency, as needed, by adding additional teaspoons of milk or tablespoons of confectioner's sugar.

Note: The texture of the frosting will turn slightly spongy as it stands; beat on low speed for a minute to restore consistency.

Source: "Chocolate Chocolate" by Lisa Yockelson (Wiley, 2005)

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