Tidings of tiers and cheers

Brighten the holiday party with a Peppermint Devil’s Food Cake

Peppermint chocolate cake made by Marlene Parrish in her home in Mt. Washington. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

Peppermint chocolate cake made by Marlene Parrish in her home in Mt. Washington. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

This season’s knockout centerpiece dessert is Peppermint Devil’s Food Cake.

It’s big, rich and way impressive with three dense chocolate-y layers piled high with buttery frosting. The icing on the icing on the cake is crushed peppermint candy. Holiday cake? You bet.

But here’s the thing about cakes. For many cooks, they are intimidating. True, you have to follow directions, and you can’t wing it. True, maybe your cake will be lopsided or won’t look like the photo, but so what. True, the kitchen will get messed up, but kitchens are supposed to get messed up.

No worries. Use our tested recipe and directions as your game plan. But, depending what kind of baker you are, know that the goal is to make a grand cake, although not necessarily to reproduce it exactly. How you get there is up to you.

If you are a baker who is at home in the kitchen, make the cake from scratch. Remember, layers that rest for a day are easier to handle and frost. Make them in advance and freeze them if you have time.

If you’d rather not fuss, then use a cake mix, but please forget the canned frosting, and make your own. It makes a big difference. Know that frosting spreads best at room temperature.

What sets this cake apart is the crushed peppermint candy pat-on.

Whether they are candy canes, stripey sticks or wrapped candies, break the peppermints into pieces and put the pieces in a plastic bag. Gently pound with a rolling pin into right-size chunks and chips.

I found a unique way to get the peppermint pieces onto the cake icing without too much mess. Set the cake in front of you on a work surface. Now assemble a few straws, a chopstick and a “holder” such as a spoon, or better yet, a table-crumb-catcher; pick up some peppermint in the “holder” and, using the straw, blow the crumbs and chips onto the side of the cake. The process is fun and doesn’t take too long. (Do not inhale.) Loose pieces can be poked in with the chopstick. When most of the side is covered, you can scoop mint pieces into your palm and pat them onto the cake for fuller coverage. It’s worth the effort.

Showbiz insists that you make a presentation of this cake. If you have a cake stand, use it. Get out Grandma’s fancy plates. Brew a big pot of coffee. Serve seconds. Thirds. ’Tis the season to be dramatic.

Peppermint Devil’s Food Cake

Peppermint chocolate cake made by Marlene Parrish at her home in Mt. Washington. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)
Peppermint chocolate cake made by Marlene Parrish at her home in Mt. Washington. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)

PG tested

2¼ cups sifted cake flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon fine salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2½ cups brown sugar, firmly packed
3 large eggs
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate (the best quality you can afford)
½ cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup boiling water
Chocolate buttercream frosting (recipe follows)
2 cups crushed peppermint candy

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease bottoms and sides of three 8-inch cake pans and dust with flour.

Sift cake flour, measure it carefully and sift again with soda and salt.

In a large bowl, cream butter until soft and airy. Then add sugar a little at a time and continue creaming until fluffy and light.

Add eggs one at a time. Beat batter hard after the addition of each egg.

Melt chocolate over hot, not boiling water. Add chocolate to batter, using a spatula to get every bit from the sides of the container. Mix thoroughly.

Sift about quarter of the flour mixture into the batter, and stir in well. Add about one-third of the buttermilk and stir slightly, not vigorously. Repeat, ending with flour.

Next, mix in vanilla extract and boiling water. Do not overmix.

Pour batter equally into greased cake pans and don’t be alarmed at the thinness of the batter. Bake 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow the layers to rest for 10 minutes. Turn out the cakes onto cake racks to cool.

When cool (better yet, on the next day), spread with the frosting of your choice between layers, on sides and piled high on top of the cake.

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting

PG tested

1½ cups unsweetened cocoa
5½ cups powdered sugar, sifted
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2⁄3 cup milk (plus 1 to 2 tablespoons more, if needed)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Combine cocoa and powdered sugar in a medium bowl.

In another bowl, use an electric mixer to cream butter with 1 cup of the cocoa-sugar mixture, then add the remaining cocoa-sugar mixture, alternating it with the milk. Beat until frosting is easily spreadable, then blend in vanilla.

When cakes are completely cool, frost the top of each one. Stack them evenly, and frost the sides and top with remaining frosting. Pat the sides with crushed peppermint candy.

Serves 10 to 12.

A side note: Sometimes I make too much frosting. After I use what I need, I freeze the remaining frosting in ice cube trays that I have spritzed first with baking spray. No need to be neat. Just spoon it in; the idea is to have individual blobs. Then, when I make cupcakes, I just pop out a couple of cubes of frosting. Cupcakes will both look and taste fresher.