Chocolate Birthday Cake (or Cupcakes), High-Altitude

by Oct 9, 2015

In the late 1990’s after I had assisted one of her baking classes at Draeger’s in Menlo Park, Flo Braker invited me to join The San Francisco Baker’s Dozen, a group of devoted bakers, professional and amateur. When I attended my first meeting, I set next to an elegant older woman with a short, gray ponytail and large pearl earrings. In talking, I would discover it was Marion Cunningham! Flo and Marion…both of them so kind and joyful.

This cake I adapted from two of Flo’s chocolate cakes, Rich Chocolate Cake published in The Baker’s Dozen Cookbook and Dark Chocolate Cake in her book, Baking for All Occasions. For a proper birthday cake, you need frosting, so try French Chocolate Buttercream.

Chocolate Birthday Cake, High-Altitude

makes two round cake layers 6 to 9-inches; adapted from Flo Braker's chocolate cakes


  • 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), room temperature
  • 2 cups less 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs, room temperature
  • cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup sour cream (regular, full fat), room temperature
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


  1. Preheat oven to 365°F. Spray inside bottom and edges of two round cake pans with cooking spray and line bottom with a circle of parchment. (If making cupcakes, insert paper liners into the pan.)

  2. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler. Improvise by placing the chocolate in a small metal bowl and float this bowl in a larger pan filled with an inch of water set over medium heat on the stovetop. You want the water to be hot enough to melt the chocolate, but not splashing up and over the edge into the chocolate. Stir occasionally until smooth then remove chocolate bowl from water bath and set aside.

  3. Cream the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer for a couple minutes. Add the sugar and beat for 4 minutes, until lightened in color and fluffy in texture. Add the eggs and beat for 3 more minutes. Mix in the melted chocolate.

  4. In a 4-cup glass measuring cup or bowl, mix together the sour cream, water, and vanilla and set aside. In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add the flour to the chocolate mixture in three parts, alternating with the sour cream/water/vanilla. Mix just until blended and pour into prepared pans.

  5. Bake until center springs back when you gently touch it with your finger and a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean, about 45–50 minutes for 6-inch pans. Larger diameter pans will cook faster, start checking at 35–40 minutes for 9-inch pans. Cupcakes will cook quite fast, start checking for doneness at 10 minutes. Transfer pans to racks to cool for 10 minutes. Run a butter knife around the edges of the pans, then invert each onto a rack and remove the pans. Let cool completely before frosting.

Recipe Notes / Tips

  • A summary of my high-altitude adjustments for this recipe: add 1 T flour, decrease sugar by 1 tablespoon per cup, decrease baking soda ¼ teaspoon, increase oven temp from 350° to 365°F. If you're at sea-level, don't add the extra 1 T flour, use 1½ teaspoons baking soda, and set oven to 350°.




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