True Beauty Comes from Within (featuring imperfect Chocolate Cake)


We’d like the smoked salmon mousse on buckwheat blinis; the prosciutto, cherry jam, and goat cheese triangles on pumpernickel bread; and the clams oreganata to start.  Then the cobb salad with roasted sweet onion vinaigrette; the grilled flat iron steaks with rosemary and garlic; crispy smashed Yukon gold potatoes with gremolata; and haricot verts with shiitake mushrooms and molasses.  Do you make chocolate birthday cake?

I sat in front of my laptop nodding, nodding, nodding, frown.

Birthday cake. Hrumph.

Though I’ve fielded this question dozens of times, there is none that addresses my insecurities more succinctly.

Because I think I can see into my client’s minds and this is what they imagine:

(I didn’t bake this)

This is what they expect:

(didn’t bake this one either)

They want me to do this:



There are people whose whole careers are dedicated to creating birthday cake masterpieces to stun, shock, and titillate clients everywhere and those people aren’t me.

Well,” my email response begins. “Let me say it like this… I can create a cake that is so delicious your guests will talk about it for weeks, but if you need it to be adorned with pastel buttercream peonies with a swoopy calligraphed, consummately kerned Happy Birthday perfectly centered in the middle of the cake, well, then I’m not your girl.  If you’re ok with an imperfect cake that tastes great, I’m in.”  Send.

If you know me, you know that quitting isn’t my bag. I chose this profession because I’m always interested in making better food. So, I’ve taken cake decoration classes and practiced and yelled at myself. I have tried. Tried and tried and tried for years to make stunning cakes to no avail. It took time to arrive at this point, therapy even, but I think I’m ready to admit that I yam what I yam and that’s not an artist of confection.

Here’s a secret: though this ugly cake confession is humbling, it is the best way I have of matching my talent to my client’s expectations. If the response is a swift, “That’s fine. I’ll order a cake from a bakery,” I instantly know what they expect from me. And by ordering a cake from a bakery, I know that they understand who I am. I am an outstanding chef who can orchestrate an evening of stunning edible opulence.

Just. Not. Cake.

Your cake sounds perfect.” The client wrote.

And it was perfect, even though I had to frost it on a small counter in a dark wine closet and it was lumpy and uneven.

It was the most beautiful ugly cake around.

It was me.

So here’s the recipe for the most perfect imperfect chocolate cake.  Make it beautiful, make it ugly, make it right now.  You won’t be disappointed.

Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Frosting


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2  cups sugar
  • 1 cup cocoa
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup boiling water


  1. Preheat oven to 350º F.
  2. Butter or spray two 9-inch cake pans with baking spray and then flour the pans to create a true nonstick surface.
  3. In a large bowl or a standing mixer combine flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Stir to combine.
  4. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the milk, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla.
  5. Add the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, mixing with a large spoon or the paddle if using a mixer.
  6. Carefully add the boiling water and mix for about a minute to add air to the batter.
  7. Pour evenly between the two cake pans and bake for 30-35 minutes.
  8. Remove from oven and let cool completely before frosting.


Chocolate Frosting:


  • 1½ cups butter (3 sticks) at room temperature
  • 1 cup cocoa
  • 5 cups confectioner’s sugar
  • ¼ cup cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  1. In a large bowl or bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter until it becomes soft.
  2. Add the cocoa and then slowly add the powdered sugar, cream and vanilla alternately, scraping the sides of the bowl with a plastic spatula to make sure everything gets combined.
  3. Mix on high speed for about a minute to ensure great consistency and a thorough mix.
  4. Add more cream if it’s too hard or more sugar if you find it’s too wet.
  5. Frost away!

Here’s a clip of me making this cake on KATU’s Afternoon Live:


10 thoughts on “True Beauty Comes from Within (featuring imperfect Chocolate Cake)”

  • I also took many cake decorating classes – never got very goad oty kids and their friends weck tore always impressed – baking was never my strong point and now I rarely do so – there are several great bakeries here in Cape May so I stick to my savories and all is well.

  • I’m not a chocoholic and your cake makes me want to steal it away with me in a bubble bath to devour all by myself! Besides, I “see” a heart shaped in the frosting, so it’s super custom fancy fine to me 🙂 xo

  • Alison, based on past postings of yours, I know that our birthdays are very close together. Any time you and Francis want to come celebrate in the glory of a Chicago autumn, I’ll joyfully make this gorgeous, perfect cake for us. Happy Birthday, a few months early!

    • Naomi,
      What a wonderful invitation! Coincidentally, Francis and I were just saying last week that we’d never spent time in Chicago. Looks like we’re not going anywhere for a while now, but if and when we come your way, we’ll let you know.
      I hope you and yours are well and able to relax a bit during the chaos.
      Take care, Alison

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