This takes the cake, Part I 

Rarely do I get invited to birthday parties. But suddenly, I have two on the dance card. I don't want to buy gifts that will go unused, so I decide to bake them presents instead.

Imagine the look in the birthday boy's eyes, I think, when he sees a gorgeous, glistening hunk of chocolate-frosted chocolate cake, made in his honor. As a fellow Leo, I can appreciate a purring lion seduced by center-stage attention and the irresistible lure of cake crumbs.

But which chocolate layer cake would rock the proverbial house down?

I turned to Miz B, an old chum and neighborhood cake fiend. At a recent dinner party, she busted a move with the "Very Good Chocolate Cake" from The Gift of Southern Cooking by Scott Peacock (executive chef at Watershed) and Edna Lewis.

It was the best fucking chocolate cake I've ever eaten. I wondered, though, would it be the best chocolate cake I've ever baked?

I would need something to compare it to. After careful research, I settled on the "Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cake" from culinary sex kitten Nigella Lawson's Feast.

Lawson, having written an entire chapter devoted to the chocolate cake, steered me well. With a not-too-crumby crumb, the layers hold up nicely and lend cocoa flavor without too much sugar -- and that's where the killer sour cream frosting comes in, which is good enough to eat alone.

Next week: my report on the Peacock/Lewis cake, and the results of my bake-off.

Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cake

Adapted from Feast by Nigella Lawson

Cake:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup superfine sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/3 cup cocoa powder

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

2 large eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2/3 cup sour cream

Frosting:

3/4 cup unsalted butter

6 ounces good-quality semisweet chocolate (El Rey, Valrhona, Callebaut, Scharffen Berger are all lovely brands), coarsely chopped

2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

1/2 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cake:

• Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 8-inch layer cake pans and line with parchment paper.

• Place all cake ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and whiz until batter is smooth and thick. With a rubber spatula, scoop batter out of food processor and divide into pans, spreading evenly. Bake about 35 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in middle comes out clean. Check for doneness at the 25-minute mark. Transport cakes to a wire rack and let cool in pans at least 15 minutes before inverting.

Frosting:

• Melt butter and chocolate in microwave or in a bowl sitting over a pan of simmering water. Let cool, then add corn syrup. Add sour cream and vanilla, and stir to combine. In food processor, place confectioners' sugar and pulse a few times to remove lumps. Add chocolate mixture and pulse until combined. If too thick, add a teaspoon of boiling water; if too thin, add similar amount of confectioner's sugar.

• Place one of the cakes domed side down on plate or cake stand. Cut four strips of parchment paper to form a square perimeter around cake and place underneath bottom layer. Spoon about one third of frosting in center of cake and spread evenly with a knife or spatula.

• Place second cake on top. Spoon another third of frosting and repeat, spreading until top is evenly coated. Spread sides with remaining frosting and allow to set, then carefully pull away paper. Place in fridge to chill until ready to serve (my suggestion, not Nigella's, as I love a cold chocolate cake).

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