Whenever Janet and I wanted to feel naughty, we went to Nichols Lunch.

Tucked off the Southwest Trafficway in Kansas City, Nichols drew a crowd about as far from our high school suburban life as we could imagine. Nursing iced teas in our bow-tie blouses, we’d steal glances at the working girls and giggle about how cosmopolitan we were.

I know we ate lunch a couple of times (and mingled with the lush and louche one night after a Journey concert). But I can’t remember a thing we had.

Except for cake.

Nichols — like most of its diner brethren — had a glass-encased cylindrical tower that greeted patrons at the front door. It was filled with cakes: Mile-high, multi-layered, cloud-frosted confections that dared you to abstain. I rarely did.

But …

Those cakes were always disappointing. Slightly dry. Slightly gummy. A little gritty from the pounds of sugar whipped into the frosting. I always left our Nichols adventure feeling a little cheated.

Nichols Lunch has long since closed. But my quest for a perfect cake — moist, tender, sweet but not cloying — remains.

I think I’ve found it:


Ruth Reichl’s ginormous chocolate cake easily feeds 25. Loaded with cocoa, dark brown sugar and butter, the cake oozes deep, dark, richly sweet flavor with a tender, moist crumb. The frosting — made with unsweetened chocolate and whipped cream cheese — is slightly bitter, keeping the confection from tasting like a sugar bomb.

I made this cake yesterday for my son’s 18th birthday. Baked in two 9- by 13-inch pans, it’s long and sturdy. But if you wanted to emulate diner cakes of old, you could bake it in three or four round cake pans.

It’s an easy recipe. You probably already have most of the ingredients in your pantry (I only had to run out for the whipped cream cheese). The hardest part is getting those huge cake layers to stack without cracking. (And waiting for it to cool before slathering on the icing.)

This has become my go-to chocolate party cake. It would never have fit in Nichols’ cake display. But it feeds my louche sweet tooth just fine.

Ruth Reichl’s Chocolate Cake (from Reichl’s book, “My Kitchen Year”)

 For the cake:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 cups boiling water
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar
  • 6 large eggs (use large to ensure moistness)

Generously grease two 9- by 13- by 2-inch pans. Line them with parchment paper, and grease that as well.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In another bowl, combine the cocoa powder and boiling water. Whisk well until the mixture is somewhat creamy. Add the milk and vanilla and whisk to combine.

In the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer, place the butter and both sugars. Beat until well-incorporated, about 5 minutes.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating about 20 seconds after each addition.

cake batter1Add a third of the flour mixture to your batter, slowly beating only until incorporated. Add half the cocoa mixture, again beating slowly just ’til incorporated. Add half of the remaining flour mixture and beat it in, then the rest of the cocoa mixture. Finish by slowly beating in the remaining flour.

Remove your bowl from the mixer. Using a wooden spoon, beat a few times to ensure all your dry ingredients are incorporated into the batter.

Pour half the batter into one prepared pan, then the other half into your second pan. Smooth the tops and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool for 2 minutes, then invert onto a rack to cool completely.

caker layers

When the cakes are cool, make the frosting:

  • 5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped
  • 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup whipped cream cheese
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar

Melt the chocolate (I did this in the microwave, blasting it in 20-second intervals until smooth). Set it aside to cool.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter and cream cheese. When the chocolate is cool enough for you to touch, add it, the vanilla and a pinch of salt. Beat well.

cake layer with icingAdd the powdered sugar and beat until smooth and creamy.

Place one cake layer on a platter. Top with a third of the frosting.

cake layers stackedCarefully lay your second cake layer on top of the first.

Smooth the rest of the frosting over the top and down the sides of the cake. Decorate anyway you choose. Serve immediately, or place toothpicks in the cake and cover with plastic wrap.