What makes chocolate cake amazing?

My earliest memory of cake was on my seventh birthday. I can still picture it in my mind: styrofoam pillars, royal icing flowers skewered around the corners — it had all the culinary sensibilities of the '90s, complete with a pseudo-Barbie in the middle and bright red “Happy Birthday” scrawled across the cream-colored frosting.

It was a white cake and it didn’t particularly taste like anything, except it was sweet. Seven was an important age, so I had two cakes that day. As a personal treat, my grandmother supplied me with a big rectangle chocolate cake dressed in glossy icing and the same cheesy lettering. “Happy 8th Birthday,” it read.

That was my earliest memory of chocolate cake.

I remember the taste: a chocolate-tinged sweetness designed to appeal to kids my age, more sugar than cocoa or anything else. It was, at that time, pretty incredible. I don’t know where she got it – 7-year-olds don’t bother with such details, however it was Bicol in 1997 and the cake was likely as fancy as one could get. At that age, anyway, it was all about quantity, not quality. 

It’s been over 20 years and I haven’t quite forgotten it, despite the x number of chocolate cakes I’ve gone through, from those foil-packed mass productions to classic Black Forest to spoonable trends to extravagant artisan creations. On a technical aspect, that little birthday cake is never going to win any contests, but it remains to be the first picture in my head whenever I think about chocolate cake.

Manila’s best chocolate cake 

In 2011, Kris Alcantara Mendoza ranked the best chocolate cakes in Metro Manila for lifestyle website Spot. Her top choice, after a carefully considered criteria of flavor and texture, was Ms. Polly’s Chocolate Cake, which she described as having “that imperfect, slightly messy homemade texture that makes you understand that it was never made to impress you with its looks, because it can win you over in one bite.” Ms. Polly had that down-home appeal, the kind that reminds you of lazy afternoons with a snack and a glass of milk. It was a kind of cake that you didn’t think about, you just ate it and it made you happy.

But that same year was when Manila’s restaurant scene began to blossom, welcoming an innovative generation of restaurateurs who would find themselves elevating the once safe local culinary scene to something spectacular – and delicious. Three years later, Mendoza updated her list and Wildflour, which opened in 2012, dominated. 

“Wildflour’s dessert geniuses are not at all shy about slathering this towering slice with icing made of 65% Valrhona Chocolate,” she wrote of the Salted Chocolate Cake, which she deemed a runaway winner. “The cake, dark as night, cascades lightly on the tongue; the salt hidden in between just a sweet afterthought.” Other writers would follow up with two more updates — the most recent being 2017 — but Wildflour continues to rank first.

“Our cake is on the loftier side,” Wildflour co-owner Ana Lorenzana de Ocampo told Rappler. “This makes the layers of sponge, caramel, and ganache distinct and inviting. Rather than rush through each forkful, you end up relishing it.” Indeed, to the lucky eaters who’ve enjoyed a slice or three, the process is as much an experience as it is a dish. 

Wildflour’s chocolate cake, which also comes in a classic version, follows de Ocampo’s philosophy of keeping things simple but using only the best ingredients.

“Simplicity is a sign of perfection,” she said. 

But what makes a good chocolate cake?

Mendoza lists three important factors that she looks for in a chocolate cake: good quality chocolate, proper icing to cake ratio, and a clear understanding that sugar needs to complement the cacao and not overpower it. Mendoza used to write a chocolate blog in New York in 2008 prior to returning to the Philippines. In 2017, she started her own cake business, Cipriano, by recreating her grandfather’s sans rival. In February 2020, she took the leap to baking her own chocolate cake set to her own standards.

“There were already so many standouts and old favorites, some who have been around for decades. How do you even compete with that?” Mendoza told us, confessing that her personal favorite remains Wildflour’s Salted Chocolate Cake. Her chocolate cake started with the icing—in the same vein as her sans rival, she wanted to recreate her lolo’s version: homemade, smooth, rich, with a deep chocolate taste.  

“In a spectrum that goes from Nono’s [Chocolate] Oblivion to Big Al’s, we’re more like the latter. Probably the same sensibility as Polly’s. No trappings of nuts or syrups or caramel. Just chocolate cake and chocolate icing, pure and simple,” Mendoza described of her offering. It’s incredibly modest: two layers with filling and icing, but warm and memorable in the sense that it triggers comfy fuzzy feelings.

“I’d like to think that when you take that first bite your senses become aware of something familiar, but it’s also like meeting chocolate for the first time. And that in spite of its simplicity, there’s a bold chocolate flavor that sort of envelopes you in this big warm hug and it’s like coming home,” she said.

It is nostalgia that stands out as an important ingredient in chocolate cake, but immeasurable unlike cocoa powder or flour or milk. Bakers could vary in their sugar content or in the kind of chocolate they use but nostalgia is perhaps the most essential common denominator – and it must come in huge doses.

“What makes the best chocolate cake is the moment you seek comfort the most, it’s what you look for,” said de Ocampo. “Even better when a cake seems to welcome you with open arms — when your fork sinks easily through a crumb that’s moist and tender, when the frosting or ganache is silky, and when the chocolate is just the right amount of bitter sweetness.”

De Ocampo cites her own personal favorite as the one of her Grandma, Amelia Gordon. “Food was always her language of love. She owned a bakery in Olongapo and I grew up around the delights she made, her rich chocolate cake included.” According to the Wildflour owner, it’s what began her love for pastry arts and led her to a life that revolved around the kitchen. 

There is still the matter of ingredients and technique, of course. Baba Ibazeta-Benedicto, who’s behind another favorite, the aforementioned chocolate cake Nono’s Chocolate Oblivion, uses a dark chocolate. And to get that perfect sponge, she meticulous beats egg whites to precision.

“For me, the best chocolate cake would have to be moist, not too dense, and have a good ratio of icing to cake, and just the right amount of sweetness,” Benedicto explains. Nono’s Chocolate Oblivion exemplifies these efforts: a light sponge with luscious whopped chocolate cream and, to stick out, a coat of walnut praline bits. Nono, incidentally, is Benedicto’s father.

“It’s not difficult to make something that you have a lot of reverence for in the first place,” admitted de Ocampo. However, she confesses that there is — like Mendoza and Benedicto — something personal in its invention. Regardless of the recipe, the discussion of chocolate cake seems to always return to sentiment. 

And for that we are grateful—for Grandma Amelia, for Lolo Cipriano, for Nono, for my own grandma’s store-bought cake. Chocolate cake wouldn’t be without them. – Rappler.com

Sasha Lim Uy

Sasha Lim Uy is a writer, editor, and data analyst for hire. Her work has been published in the country's top broadsheets and magazines, back when they were still a thing. For most of her professional life, she's been eating in the country's best restaurants and writing about them.

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