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A cocoa'd clash of the titans

Shown here surrounded by toys at a family picnic, Martha Stewart's One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes and Beatty's Chocolate Cake from Ina Garten were combined in a multi-layer cake. Photos courtesy Deep Media.

As anyone familiar with the recipes and columns featured on this site might assume, I am pretty much my family's unofficial baker. One could also rightly assume, seeing my penchant for chocolate, that this fondness might run in the family.

And so, with birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, family reunions and all other manner of festive events, I bake a lot. Not that I am complaining; far be it in fact.

Sometimes there is nothing I would rather do than to pull out my beloved mixer and spend the afternoon measuring, beating and baking. Nowadays I am most often aided by the efforts of my rather endearing assistant, who particularly enjoys sifting dry ingredients and feels it his birthright to lick the bowl whenever possible.

But I digress. Back to the chocolate. Since this love for all things to do with the cacao bean seems to be part of our familial DNA, chocolate cakes are often the request for our celebratory events. Every time I am asked, these words activate my June Cleaver gene; I become consumed with the desire to make the most delicious, most gorgeous, most towering creation of irresistible, indulgent cake and decadent frosting imaginable.

A few years ago I started making the One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook to satisfy this task. They were met with resounding accolades as everyone proclaimed them to be the "best ever." I made these for picnics, frosted with chocolate buttercream and decorated with accents of Martha Stewart's signature jadeite green. Truly a one-bowl wonder, I made them in a layer cake variation for a joint birthday party and was later told tales of attendees fighting over the last slice.

Then along came Beatty. I never met her, but was introduced to her legacy by Ina Garten on the show The Barefoot Contessa. It seems that this wonderful woman, the grandmother of Ina's friend Michael the florist, made a fantastic chocolate cake. Like Martha's, hers came together with a single bowl and beater and was advertised as delicious. Who was I to argue with Ina? So the next family event rolled around, and out rolled Beatty's cake. Now this recipe was deemed supreme, and all others were said to pale in comparison.

"What about Martha's?" I asked my family.
"This is better." They replied.

The problem was, I know better than to trust my family and friends. See, I know them. They are a fickle, fickle bunch. Easily swayed by the power of chocolate, give them a slice of homemade cake and they will pretty much say whatever you ask them to. They know cake that is in front of you will always be far superior than the cake that has long been eaten.

I had to find out for myself.

It just so happened that recently I was contemplating the task of a cake for an annual family picnic. It was to celebrate a six-year-old's birthday, and when I asked for particulars I was told "chocolate, no nuts." Armed with this instruction, I decided that purity was the way to go; chocolate upon chocolate. And layers. Lots of layers. What child (or adult for that matter) doesn't catch their breath just a little at the sight of a towering slice of birthday cake?

I was perusing recipes when I realized the opportunity at hand. I could finally settle my chocolate cake conundrum - whose cake was better, Ina's or Martha's? I did the math - one single layer 9"x13" cake (or double layer 9") serves about 16 people. If I took two recipes for cakes that size, I could easily serve my 30.

Then I ran into a problem. If I did one layer of each cake, they may bake up to different textures or colours. That would not work. As anyone who knows me can tell you, I am a stickler for consistent results in baking.

But I did not want to pass up this chance to finally try these cakes side-by-side. I considered my options and came up with an unorthodox plan.

Make each recipe to the letter, or at least to the letter of the notes I have made over the years. Take one 1 1/4" ice cream scoop of each batter and bake until done in a miniature muffin pan. Take the rest of the two batters, combine them, weigh them, then divide them evenly between three 9"x13" pans for baking. I would have two pure testers to compare, and three identical layers for the picnic.

It was just crazy enough to work. And, well, require a heck of a lot of dirty bowls and two nights of staying up well past my bedtime. And yes, I am fully aware of my obsessiveness.

But it was so worth it. Battle chocolate cake has a winner - Martha*.

I wish I had taken a photograph of the miniature cupcakes, but it was later than I would like to admit and there was no way I was pulling the camera out at that hour.

Take my word for it, Martha's baked up with a beautiful, glossy-smooth crown and sprang back jauntily to the touch. Ina's was slightly more reticent to recover and flatter on top - a trait helpful in layer cakes, but for a cupcake it looked a little depressed. However, the dark, peat-like colour of each was strikingly similar when compared, as was the crumb. Both cakes boasted a texture that was well-formed, open and moist. If I was pressed to note a difference, Ina's was ever so slightly more moist and delicately-elastic to the tongue.

And now the taste. While Ina's did have a prominent cocoa flavour balanced by a subtle coffee undertone, Martha's was somehow more intense, without being overbearing. I could not put my finger on it, but there was something that gave the latter more character. I am sorry and mean no offense Beatty, but something about your cake (while exceedingly tasty) was a smidge reminiscent of a boxed cake when put up against Martha's. Truly, Ms. Stewart's was that good. It was richer, deeper, chocolateyer. I found it was every -er I could hope for.

I knew it was not a good idea to listen to family members on a chocolate high. Sometimes due diligence, along with a bunch of eggs and a box of cocoa, is the only way.

* Some commenters are surprised at Martha's win. To be frank, I was too; I love Ina's cake. Upon reflection, I wonder if Ina's was a victim to its texture; its light sponginess melts in the mouth, while Martha's edge in structure allows it to linger. In short, you simply have more of an opprtunity to taste the latter. It should be noted though, that I did alter Martha's original recipe (see below), so the victory is subject to a condition.


For those wondering what the layer cake was like after I combined the two recipes, it was sinfully yummy. The layers baked up exceptionally even, but their size and tenderness did make them a somewhat delicate to handle.

I am fairly sure that the number that ended up at the event was somewhere closer to 50, and the cake served the crowd handily. Everyone came back with glowing reviews. I would almost hazard to say the cake was better than Martha's cupcake, but I am scared to start down that slippery slope. Goodness knows, I can't make a behemoth like this one for every event, now can I? With results like this though, I won't say I'm not tempted.

You will note I have not included the recipe for the frosting, because that research is still ongoing. In this instance, I used a loose adaptation of a few recipes for chocolate buttercream between the layers, covered with an improvised ganache smoothed over top.

One bowl chocolate cupcakes
From Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook (Clarkson Potter, 2005).

As the recipe is subject to copyright, I have only included my notes here. However, a quick search does find it published online (not through the official site, not the one that begins with 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder).


• In lieu of milk alone, I use 1/2 cup sour cream plus 3/4 cup milk. Alternatively, I have had success swapping in some buttermilk.
• As many may remember, I am an addict when it comes to espresso and chocolate in combination; so I use about 1/4 teaspoon of espresso powder dissolved in the warm water. If espresso powder is unavailable, I recommend at least 1/2 cup of prepared coffee substituted for the same amount of water (combined with enough warm water to meet the recipe's specification).
• If using kosher salt for baking, I sometimes will stir it into the liquid ingredients instead of sifting it into the dry. This way you ensure that it is fully dissolved.

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Reader Comments (23)

Great post!

August 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJessica@Foodmayhem

i thought ina garten would be the winner! but martha is still one of the trusted out there i reckon. i'll take this recipe down cheers! although i find myself always returning to Mrs Field's devil's food cake for the best chocolate cake - at least tht's what my family says. my mates still swear by my guinness chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting. i'm sure i totally agree with them. a cake without booze isn't quite right in my mind. x

p/s your cake's beautiful!

August 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdiva

Lots of really great tips and tricks, just good info in general. You photos are just gorgeous. Bravo!

August 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJulia

What a great looking cake! Modern and simplistic...I love it!

August 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMy Sweet & Saucy

Girlfriend ~ That cake is so beautiful and it's also pulling on my heart strings!

August 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie

Whew! What a contest. I too am a bit surprised that Martha won over Ina... I mean, that Martha's people won over Ina's people. But your hard work is appreciated by those of us who are less obsessive (read: lazier). Rock on! Also, I love the second picture.

August 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterparsnips aplenty

Love how the cake is decorated. I am also surprised that Martha won. It is good to know. Make sure to give us your tips for the frosting and cake decorating.

August 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAt Home with Kim Vallee

Beautiful cake! Tara. I like the colors on the cake. :)

August 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterThip

Oh my goodness, I am impressed, both with your recipe testing and your decoration skills. Holy cow, your cake is beautiful. Could I beg for a tutorial? Pretty please?

August 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLuisa

this cakes look great. I t s so perfectly decorated :-)

August 20, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSnooky doodle

As strange as it seems/sounds I'm always skeptical about chocolate cakes that use only cocoa powder, my go to chocolate cake has been the baker's one bowl chocolate cake, it has never failed me and I can toy with it when I'm in the mood.

I don't know what it was about your post, maybe the planets were aligned I had all the ingredients at home, so I said what the heck lemme give this a try.

I used the one bowl cupcake recipe from the Martha Stewart website, my only complaint was the salt, I should have known looking at the recipe that it was far too much, that aside the texture and taste was fabulous!

Now yesterday, I made the one bowl cake (seems the same as the cupcake recipe, just more batter I guess) recipe from Martha cutting down the salt to a light 1/2 teaspoon and it was PERFECT ultimately chocolately!

Thank you so much, as you inspired me to try something new and I may never go back to bakers, lol ok, maybe I will, but I suppose it'll depend on what I'm going for in the end. The baker's recipe yields a dense cake whereas this one is light.

I made what I dubbed 3X Irish Mudslide: Martha's cake doused with a Baileys soaking syrup, chocolate & Baileys mousse and chocolate & Baileys buttercream...can you say, sinful!

Thanks again, gone to finish snooping around your blog to see what other fun stuff I can find :)

August 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterChantal

What a fun experiment. That sounds like something I would do. I have always had tremendous luck with Martha's recipes.

August 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

Good for Martha! After that whole jail episode, girlfriend needs a break or two.

August 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDana McCauley

I love this! I love that you did this, slightly obsessive though it may be. I have been using Martha's recipe exclusively since acquiring the book a year ago. So easy and so good. But I love Ina's books, so I'll have to give it a try. And I love the adjustments to Martha's, the sour cream and the espresso both sound like fabulous ideas. Gorgeous cake; thanks so much for the post.

August 29, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterpatti

jessica, thanks!

diva, I will have to look out for the Mrs. Fields recipe. And I must say I agree, there is something appealing about a boozy cake.

julia, glad you liked the post and thanks for the kind words.

my sweet&saucy and debbie, I wanted something simple and graphic, and I hoped I achieved that. Glad that you both liked it.

parsnips aplenty, it was actually really fun to do. I was happy to have the opportunity to test the two side-by-side.

Thanks for saying so, Kim. Thip, luisa and snooky doodle, I am thinking I'll compile a few tips (though I'm no expert) and include them in the next post on cake decorating.

chantal, I am really happy to hear that this post inspired you to try a new recipe. It is funny how we get set in our ways. Glad that you've had such success with Martha's version, and I will look out for the Baker's recipe. The mudslide sounds decadent!

Kelly and Dana, I often turn to Martha (and Ina) whenever I'm looking for a recipe to try. Though I find her earlier books a bit hit-or-miss, lately Martha rarely disappoints.

patti, nice to see another fan of the One Bowl Cupcakes. I hope you enjoy my tips.

September 1, 2008 | Unregistered Commentertara

What an amazing dessert! Great decorating job :).

We'd like to invite you to participate in our September apple and peach recipe contest (the recipe can be sweet or savory). All competitors will be eligible to win one of three prizes :)! Please email me,, if you're interested.

Thanks :),
KI Chief Blogger

September 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSophie

I've been using Martha's one bowl recipe for several years and it has never failed me, nor has it failed to garner high praise. It's a great recipe to have in one's repertoire.

September 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMevrouw Cupcake

I have been trying to figure out what you used to decorate your cake with (which is gorgeous by the way) and I was wondering if you could tell me what you used. I would like to do that for my sons first birthday cake. Are they little candies or is it icing? Also, what did you use for the letter 'R'? I couldn't tell if it was fondant or not. Thank you so much and again BEAUTIFUL cake!

March 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey Tyler

Sophie, thanks so much for the kind words!

Mevrouw Cupcake, it is a rather no-fail option, and deserves every bit of praise it gets.

Lindsey Tyler, I attempted to find an email address for you, but could not - here's hoping you check back for replies! To answer your questions, the cake was covered in a chocolate buttercream, then a thin layer of ganache. All decorations were in a traditional, American-style buttercream, piped with a plain tip. The "R" was the same buttercream - I piped the edge with a plain tip, then did lines back and forth to fill in. Taking a barely-wet palette knife, and using a gentle hand, I then smoothed the lines to give a filled appearance.

Hope that helps! Feel free to email me directly at tara [at] sevenspoons [dot] net if you need further assistance. Happy birthday to your little one.

March 19, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertara

I use these two recipes and I can't decide which I like better. I was a Martha girl all the way until DH's coworker brought the Ina cake to Thanksgiving. I swear when SHE makes it is better, but when I make it, it isn't AS good. Anyhow I was googling to link those to recipes for a suggestion and saw your (rather old at this point) blog post and had to laugh that I am not the ONLY one who has pondered this!!

October 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

Note Ina stole the Beatty's Chocolate Cake Recipe fro mHershey's otherwise known as the Black Magic Cake. The only difference is Ina's cake calls for good cocoa. When it comes to baking I always trust Martha.

June 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKimberly

Hello Tara!
I have always been a great fan of your lovely recipes and your lovely writing style just keeps me in awe every time I visit your space.Lovely posts and even lovelier photos!

Have posted links to a couple of your posts on dessert recipes on my blog.The link is here:

Do drop in sometime...would love to meet you there!Happy Holidays and wish you have a great New Year ahead with family and friends!:)

December 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWit,wok & wisdom

I'm on the hunt for a perfect kids & adults birthday chocolate cake, and love reading about all the testing you've done.

I have to ask, how, HOW, do you get your frosting so perfect as in the above photo? So smooth, so glossy. Is this a ganache or a frosting? I'm looking at making the Ed Kasky cake - and am deliberating over ganache or buttercream!


March 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNarelle

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