Maida Heatter’s Cowtown Chocolate Cake

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I do not know Maida Heatter personally. But like anyone who has read, re-read, absorbed, baked-through and kept-constantly-at-hand the recipes in any of her seven cookbooks, I know Maida by her choice of words, the enthusiasm with which she shares the story behind a recipe, and the meticulous you-can-count-on-these methods she writes-up with each recipe how-to.

I am hoping that the pretty, soft-back re-release of “Maida Heatter’s Cakes” from Andrew McMeel will give another decade of cooks the chance to meet Maida. Since you’re a Lost Recipes Found fan, I know you love stories of recipe origins. MH loves them too, writing about the 1927 birth of the Orange Chiffon Cake, from 64-year-old insurance salesman Henry Baker, the story behind Jan Smeterlin’s Queen Mother’s Cake, first shared by Clementine Paddleford (one of my own personal heroines) in the New York Herald Tribune, and the story of the “real” NYC Hisae chocolate honey cake, a Robert Redford favorite.

But Maida doesn’t mention the name of the Ft. Worth coffee shop that long ago used to serve this delicious “Cowtown Cake”, a densely chocolatey, moist and fudgy layer cake made with brown sugar, espresso and buttermilk in the mix. If I can get Maida to share more on that mystery, I’ll let you know! ‘Til then, bake this!

Makes 12 servings

Cake Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt 1 tsp powdered (not granular)
  • instant coffee or expresso
  • 5 oz unsweetened chocolate
  • 4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs separated
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Chocolate Sour Cream Icing Ingredients

16 oz milk chocolate

12 oz semisweet chocolate

pinch salt

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 cups sour cream at room temperature


Adjust a rack to the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 9-inch round layer-cake pans, line with rounds of parchment or waxed paper cut to fit. Butter the paper and dust with fine, dry bread crumbs. Invert the pans over paper and tap lightly to shake out excess. Set pans aside.

Sift together flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt and powdered coffee or espresso. Resift ingredients one more time and set aside.

To melt chocolate (recipe adaptation): Place chocolate into microwaveable bowl. Heat at 50% power 1 minute. Stir. Heat again for 1 minute at 50% power, stirring occasionally until completely melted (add more time as needed, but stir frequently and do not overheat.) OR–Maida’s way– place chocolate in the top of a small double-boiler over warm water on moderate heat. Cover the pan with a folded paper towel to absorb steam and then the pot cover. Let cook until the chocolate is almost completely melted and smooth. Remove top of double boiler and set aside.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft. Beat in vanilla and brown sugar. Remove and reserve 3 Tbsp of granulated sugar; beat the remaining granulated sugar into the butter mixture. Add the yolks and beat well. Then add the melted chocolate which may be slightly warm or cool and beat until smooth. On low speed, add the sifted dry ingredients in three additions alternately with the buttermilk in two additions, scraping the bowl as needed with a rubber spatula and beating only until smooth after each addition. Remove the bowl from the mixer and set aside.

In the small bowl of the electric mixer (with clean beaters), beat the egg whites until they hold a soft shape. Reduce the speed to moderate and gradually add the reserved 3 Tbsp of reserved granulated sugar. Increase speed again and continue to beat only until the whites hold a point when the beaters are raised. They should not be stiff or dry. The chocolate mixture will be thick; add about one-quarter of the whites and fold the two together, or, stir a bit to incorporate. Then add remaining beaten whites and fold until completely incorporated. Place half of the batter in each of the cake pans and smooth the tops. (Note: I made a three-layer cake, so added one pan)

Bake for about 35 minutes until tops of cakes barely spring back when pressed gently with a fingertip and cakes just begin to pull away from the sides of the pans. Remove from the oven and cut gently around the sides of the cakes with a sharp knife to release. let stand 5 minutes. Cover each cake with a rack, turn the cake pan and rack over, remove the cake pan and paper lining, cover with another rack, and turn over again, leaving the cakes right side up to cool.

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