Baking for Bookworms: Chocolate cake from Veronica Roth’s Divergent


I’ll be doing a separate post soon about my thoughts on Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, but for now, let’s get cooking! Or baking. Whichever you prefer.

The first mention of chocolate cake happens during visiting day, which doesn’t occur in the movie, but basically it’s a time for the family members to officially say goodbye to each other and wish each other well in their new lives. For Tris, this is a startling moment because her mother reveals that she came from Dauntless and chose Abnegation as her faction:

“She walks away, and I am too stunned to follow her. At the end of the hallway she turns and says, ‘Have a piece of cake for me, all right? The chocolate. It’s delicious.’ She smiles a strange, twisted smile, and adds, ‘I love you, you know.’                        -from Chapter 15

The cake, in some odd way, becomes a symbol of the Dauntless, in the same way plain food stands in for Abnegation. I’m not sure exactly what the chocolate cake is supposed to express, but nevertheless as the series progresses it becomes more and more clear that this is Dauntless’s ‘thing,’ just like eating things out of cans is the what the Factionless do. (I actually think something spicy would be more symbolic. Dauntless are risk takers, but they’re not really all that indulgent. If anyone has thoughts on why their food is chocolate cake, I’d love to read them in the comments!)

But on to the cake!

This is my favorite chocolate cake recipe—it’s cakey and suitably chocolate-y, but you can have a piece of it and not feel totally sweeted out or that it’s just too rich. It’s somewhere in between light and dense and has a mid-size crumb. It’s awesome, in other words.

Recipe from Julie Richardson’s book Vintage Cakes



  • 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
  • ¼ cup cocoa powder
  • ¾ cup boiling water
  • ¾ cup full-fat sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, at room temp
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup canola or other light flavored oil
  • 3 egg yolks at room temp (eggs are easier to separate cold—I like to separate and then leave them on the counter with the butter. You can save the whites for a Swiss meringue butter cream)
  • 3 eggs at room temperature
  • your choice of frosting—I like raspberry or fruit flavored butter cream with chocolate, but this cake would go well from everything from a chocolate ganache or nutella to any sort of frosting you can come up with

This recipe makes 3 cake rounds or one sheet cake. If you’re using rounds, grease and line the bottoms with parchment. If using a sheet cake, grease.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Put the unsweetened chocolate in a bowl with the cocoa powder. Pour the boiling water on top and let sit for one minute. Stir together until combined and smooth. Add sour cream and vanilla extract and set aside.

Sift together your dry ingredients and whisk to combine.

Cream your butter and sugars together until light and fluffy (about 3-5 minutes on medium speed). Scrape down the sides of the bowl before drizzling in the oil on low speed. Turn speed up to medium high and beat until fluffy, three minutes.

Blend in the egg/egg yolks one at a time, adding the next one as soon as the first is fully incorporated.

On a low speed, add 1/3 of the flour mixture, and then alternate with the chocolate mixture, beginning and ending with the flour. Stop mixing before the last of the flour is incorporated and finish by hand to ensure you don’t lose all the air.

Spread batter into your prepared pan(s). Smooth the tops and tap the pans on the counter to settle the batter. Bake in the middle of the oven until the cake bounces back when the center is touched (about 22-25 minutes for the rounds, about 30-45 minutes for the sheet cake—I haven’t prepared this cake in a sheet pan, but that’s my estimate).

Cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes before flipping the rounds out or keep the sheet cake on the wire rack until cooled (I hate turning sheet cakes out. I like serving them out of the pan).

Spread with your desired topping (even just a sprinkle of cocoa or powdered sugar) and serve.


What food makes you feel Dauntless? Let me know in the comments.



Baking for Bookworms: Pineapple Upside Down Cake from Dollface by Renee Rosen


Pineapple upside down cake tends to be a standout dessert no matter where you encounter it, but in Renee Rosen’s book Dollface, it’s a standout dish for reasons beyond its distinct and colorful appearance. Vera, the main character, leaves her childhood behind to enter the dangerous world of the 1920s flapper. It’s only a matter of time before she finds herself on a mobster’s arm (or two) and though she ends up married, there’s little that’s “settled” about it. The pineapple upside down cake is one of her forays into domesticity, and the cake’s demise just moments after this quote takes place, speaks to how perilous her world truly is. If food is one of the ways we create a home, than it can also be a sign of the security we lack:

“For my first stab at home entertaining, I turned to a recipe for upside-down pineapple cake in Mrs. Wilson’s Cook Book. I’d made a practice cake the day before that had fallen as soon as I’d removed it from the oven, so I’d started over, measuring the flour and baking soda from my newly purchased canisters. I prepared the shortening and with my new hand beater blended the ingredients into a fluffy, frothy batter. After it came out of the oven, I was so stinking proud of myself. The cake on my counter looked not too different from Mrs. Wilson’s photographs. I set it in the center of my buffet, carefully covering the top with a glass cake dome.”             181


Pineapple Upside Down cake is one of those lovely, simple cakes that can be made in one bowl, that don’t have to be frosted, and stay marvelously moist. In short, it’s one of my favorites.

recipe adapted from Martha Stewart

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 can pineapple rings (you can use fresh pineapple of course, but I like the perfect roundness of the canned, not to mention it’s cheaper and easier)
  • 6-12 whiskey soaked maraschino cherries (the soaking part is optional. I found these in my liquor store and they were amazing. You could easily make them yourself–keep the juice for cocktails and soak for at least a couple hours, or you can use regular cherries. I like these cherries and I don’t normally like the regular maraschinos, but if you’re really against the little things, you can use whole pecans too)
  • 1 1/3 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 egg
  • grated rind of one lime, plus 1 tablespoon juice

Preheat oven to 350F.

Melt butter and pour in (or melt it in) either a cast iron skillet, a pie pan, or a deep cake pan. Sprinkle the sugar over the top and press in the pineapple rings. I typically start on the edges and work my way around before putting the ring in the middle. Put the cherries in the middle of the rings and between the rings as you like (I cut mine in half and stick them in so the cut side faces up).


Make the batter by first combining all the dry ingredients. Add in milk and vegetable oil and beat for one minute. Add vanilla, egg, and lime and beat until just combined.

Pour batter evenly over the fruit.

I love the way the pineapples make little crenellations like on a castle tower or rampart.

Bake for 45 minutes, until golden brown and springy to the touch. Cool in the pan for five minutes before flipping onto a cake plate or platter.

This would have looked so pretty on my glass cake plate, but I have no clue what might have happened to it… Oh well.

I love that these cakes are so distinct–these and the french macarons are some of my favorites to look at. What’s your favorite dessert to gaze at (even if it’s not your favorite dessert to eat)?

Baking for Bookworms: Sponge Cake from Longbourn by Jo Baker


There were a lot of interesting, traditional British dishes to choose from in this book, but since Sarah, the protagonist, had particularly lurid memories of sponge cakes, I thought I would share a traditional sponge cake with you.

The book is filled with food because it primarily takes place in the servants’ domain, and the kitchen is therefore a major part of their lives. The act of preparing food for others that you can never afford to eat is extremely difficult, and shows an extreme class disparity quite sensitively. Most of the dishes are used to add color and description to the lives that are so influenced by the work they do for the Bennet family, and the sponge cake shows the bitter side of Sarah’s childhood in service:

“When she was a girl, and still growing, ravenous, whenever there had been a cake–a sponge cake, dusted with sugar, which Mrs. Hill had conjured up out of eggs and flour and creamy butter–Sarah would never even let herself look at it because she knew that it was not for her. Instead, she would carry it upstairs to be rendered into crumbs, and the crumbs lifted from the plate by a moistened Bennet finger, and the empty smeared plate carried back again. So Sarah would stare instead at the carpet underneath her feet, or at the painting of a horse with a strangely small head that hung at the end of the hall, or the rippled yellow curtains in the parlour, and would do her best not to breathe, not to inhale the scent of vanilla or lemon or almonds; even to glance at the cake was an impossible agony.”                     157


Thankfully, we can have a slice of this cake. It’s a quite simple cake–you can even make it all in one bowl. You’ll note that the measurements are in ounces because of the cookbook I adapted this recipe from, but you can easily find a conversion chart if you don’t have a kitchen scale.

Recipe adapted from

For Cake:

  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 4 oz self-rising flour (or add 1 tsp baking powder to all-purpose flour)
  • 5 oz sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

For Filling:

  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 2 heaping tablespoons of your favorite jam (I used raspberry)
  • powdered sugar for dusting


Preheat oven to 375. Grease two cake pans and set aside.

Making sure your bowl is completely free of grease (I like to take a paper towel with some vinegar and run it all around the bowl and whisk) whisk egg whites until stiff. Add yolks and sugar and beat until creamy. Add in lemon juice and extracts. Fold in flour and salt.

Separate mixture into two pans and bake for 20-30 minutes until the cake is golden and springy.

Turn out onto cooling rack and cool completely before filling.

For filling, beat cream until almost stiff, then add jam and continue beating. Fill the cake with cream and top with powdered sugar.


My oven cooks things really quickly, and even though I set the timer for the lowest time, it was still a little burnt, hence the cut edges. But even slightly burnt the cake is surprisingly good. What’s your favorite thing to put whipped cream on? If the answer is everything, then we should totally be friends.

Baking for Bookworms: the Death Day cake from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets


They say that even the best laid plans fail. But since my plan wasn’t even closet to being that good, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this cake was basically a complete failure. I’m sorry that this wasn’t posted on time, but I had to come to terms with this cake before I could really write about it.

I mean, it tasted good, but like most of my food it couldn’t be called pretty. Or structurally sound. So this post is less of a how-to-do-it post than a how-not-to-make-your-cake-slowly-droop-and-fall post. The frosting though was lovely, and I’ll include the recipe at the bottom.


The cake in question was inspired by the one that’s served at Nearly Headless Nick’s 500th death day party:

“Look, food!” said Ron.

On the other side of the dungeon was a long table, also covered in black velvet. They approached it eager but the next moment had stopped in their tracks, horrified. The smell was quite disgusting. Large rotten fish were laid on handsome silver platters; cakes, burned charcoal-black, were heaped upon salvers; there was a great maggoty haggis, a slab of cheese covered in furry green mold and, in pride of place, an enormous gray cake in the shape of a tombstone, with tar-like icing forming the words,




Food is such an integral part of life, that it maintains its importance even in death. As Nick tells Harry, he chose to be a ghost rather than move into the afterlife. He calls being a ghost a “feeble imitation” of life. So while he can talk and move about, he is neither here nor there. The lack of eating just reinforces this choice and provides contrast to the students, especially to Ron, who is eating or talking about eating nearly every time he encounters the ghost.

A delicious sheet cake. Who would have known while the peaceful cake was cooling that disaster would soon come?
A delicious sheet cake. Who would have known while the peaceful cake was cooling that disaster would soon come?

There are many ways to recreate this cake for your Halloween party that won’t lead to the same kind of issues that I had. The easiest way would be to bake a sheet cake, cut it in the shape of a tombstone, frost it and call it a day.

But that would have been too easy. And one doesn’t marathon watch Cake Boss (because it’s leaving Netflix) without developing some unrealistic ideas of what can be done with cake. So I wanted a tombstone cake that stood up, and I decided to cover it in fondant and all the rest.

What I only slightly anticipated was how unstable the structure would be, how hard it would be to control the different elements, and ultimately it came tumbling down. I could tell you it was meant to and it added to the decay element present in the source material, but it wasn’t. I figured the skewers I added would provide enough support, but…not so much.

At this point, I should have known that this wasn't going to work.
At this point, I should have known that this wasn’t going to work.

For starters, I should have chosen a different cake. A brownie or a denser cake would have created a better base. Before I’d even layered the cake it was breaking and having huge issues. Because I had to cut it so much, that made it far more difficult to frost.

When they say "dirty ice," I really take it to heart.
When they say “dirty ice,” I really take it to heart.

The thing I liked most about the cake was the fondant I’d made. I bought a white fondant and put a little black food coloring in it, marbling it so that it looked like white marble. But you couldn’t even tell on the final cake, because I put the wrong side down and it didn’t really marble all the way through. I’d also never really worked with fondant before, so I had no idea what I was doing. The fondant was a total fiasco. You can’t see the sides, but I basically had to fold the fondant like gift wrap.

My cake in all its lumpy glory.
My cake in all its lumpy glory.

My piping skills also leave a lot to be desired. To be fair, my piping work as far as writing and doing small design work is limited to maybe two cakes, so I shouldn’t have expected the designs at the top to work out. And while I have more experience painting, the brush was a little too long, the food coloring was a little runny for this application, and I’ve never painted a straight up and down surface (besides a wall, which really isn’t the same thing). I tried to pipe grass on the bottom, but my makeshift pastry bags (out of sandwich bags) broke twice and I just gave up.


I did pipe a few little worms. You can see one in the picture above, along with a close up of the one marble vein that showed through the fondant.


In the end, I basically had a huge meltdown. But I realized that at the end of the day it’s just cake (and even tasted good), and that I can’t expect myself to be an expert cake maker when I haven’t really made that many layer cakes (maybe half a dozen). There are lots of ways you could make a tombstone with cake, this is just not one of them. In the end, it was something I laughed about as we shared the cake with family and my little brother’s friends (who aren’t picky about cake at all). This was a great learning experience for me, and an opportunity to realize that cake, and life, doesn’t need to be taken quite so seriously. It’s no use crying over spilled frosting.

This is my favorite buttercream recipe. It’s super simple, tastes great, is stable, and provides a great base for other flavors. Two batches of this would frost and fill a two layer cake. I had to use four for my monstrosity, including the “grass” at the bottom.

  • 1 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1 7oz. container marshmallow fluff
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla

In a stand mixer (or with an electric mixer) beat butter until fluffy. Add fluff and beat for two minutes on medium. Add the sugar one cup or less at a time, and beat for another two minutes. Add vanilla, and taste the deliciousness.

Because this is such a simple recipe, it’s crucial to use good quality butter and vanilla. You will taste the difference if you don’t use pure vanilla extract.

And here’s a link to the original recipe from Mrs Happy Homemaker.

What was your most epic kitchen disaster? I don’t think this qualifies as mine, as there was a time I blew up a pyrex dish while a making a lasagna for Paul’s birthday, and that was pretty bad…