My dad loves malted milk balls. Every Christmas, we wrap up a box of them and tuck it in his stocking. He knows it’s coming, but he always exclaims with surprise and excitement, as if we’ve gifted him a vintage Patek Phillipe. That’s a quality in him that I seek to emulate: the ability to make even tiny things feel like celebrations. To greet ordinary moments with extraordinary joy.
Can I always do this? No. Do I always do this? No. But I can most certainly greet a chocolate cake with a handful of malted milk balls. And by greet, I mean pile the top of it with them like a ridiculous and delicious game of baking Jenga.
So I’m here to tell you to make this cake. Or maybe you don’t actually have a reason to bake a multilayer, candy-topped chocolate cake this week. (Oh, what’s that? You don’t consider “layer cake baking” part of weekly meal planning? Fine.) In that case, I’m telling you to bookmark the recipe and make it next time you need a birthday cake or celebration dessert of any kind.
For the cake, I knew I wanted to make a malted chocolate version of some sort. One, because of my dad. Two, because I myself love malted milk—when we were little, my mom used to warm up milk (raw, from our Jersey cow) and stir in some malt powder (plus a little sugar, if I remember properly). It was her version of a comfort food: creamier and more subtle than hot chocolate but equally warming and soothing. And three, because we featured an epic chocolate malt cake in last year’s spring issue of the magazine I edit—Sift magazine—and frankly I haven’t stopped thinking about it.
This recipe is a similar concept in flavor, but the layers are straight chocolate (instead of added malt to the layers as we did in that Sift recipe), with a fluffy malted chocolate buttercream filling. Instead of making a separate glaze, I simply reserve some of the filling and add melted dark chocolate to it. You get a thinner, darker, richer frosting to use on the sides and top without fussing with a second batch of frosting. Win-win!
I also borrowed a trick from the Momofuku Milk Bar school of cake-baking and created a quick malted milk “soak” to brush over the layers. Adding a “soak” step like this is more work, but is a very worthwhile bit of effort to create layer cakes that are more moist and more flavorful.
Oh, and do you have to top it with such an obscene amount of malted milk balls? Yes. Yes, you do. No, seriously, don’t make this without them. Don’t argue with me!
Besides the cake, I’m also here to tell you (ask you?) to spend a few minutes…right now…thinking about some small things that you love. I’m not talking about your end-all-be-all list of favorite things. Just some things that reliably make you happy.
Mine at the present moment include the smell of bacon cooking in the morning, the crunch of a perfectly toasted piece of sourdough, and playing the song “As We Enter” by Damian Marley very loudly when I drive. (Do I look as cool as I feel when I do this? Likely, no.)
Also, re-reading these lines from Kim Addonizio’s book, because the descriptor of melted blackberries is so apt I can barely stand it:
“Because there is a feeling you want, and it isn’t this one. Because you’re falling in love with a man and are afraid to tell him. Because you’re camping and the sun is going down over the river as you lie together on an old green blanket, in love, and when the wine spreads through you like melted blackberries, you will go into the tent and hold each other on top of the zipped-together sleeping bags. Remember saying, ‘Please don’t leave.’ Because who are you without it?”
Or, these, from Carrie Fountain, who writes with such shiver-inducing precision about the way it feels to move through the world. She says things like, “Again it comes to me: how the living body can feel irrevocable, like a church, cool and well lighted, a high ceiling painted with tiny yellow stars” and also, “Here is a heart with juice and seeds. It’s mine.”
But it was this poem of hers that got me most, called "Want”, part of which is below:
“The wasps outside
the kitchen window
are making that
thick, unraveling sound
and it has just occurred
to me, standing,
washing the coffeepot,
watching them hang
loosely in the air //
is the heart’s constant
project: this simple
how to hold
and hope together;
to see on the unharmed
surface of one
the great scar
of the other; to recognize
both and to make
something of both;
to desire everything
at once and to desire it
all the time;
and to contain that desire
fleshly, in a body;
to wash it and rest it
and feed it; to learn
its name and from whence
it came; and to speak
to it—oh, most of all
to speak to it—
every day, every day,
saying to one part,
“Well, maybe this is all
you get,” while saying
to the other, ‘Go on,
break it open, let it go.’”
Note: The recipe makes a lot of filling! But you know, might as well really lean in when you’re making cake, right?
Malted Chocolate Layer Cake
Makes one 8” two-layer cake
For the cake
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon espresso powder (optional)
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup hot brewed coffee
For the filling and frosting
1 pound semisweet chocolate (chopped or chips)
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup malted milk powder
3 ounces dark chocolate, melted and cooled to room temperature
handful of malted milk balls, crushed slightly (for garnish)
For the soak
1/4 cup whole milk, warmed slightly
2 tablespoons malted milk powder
To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°. Line two 8” or 9” round cake pans (make sure they are at least 2” deep) with parchment and grease the parchment and the sides. Note: you can use either size pans, but I prefer 8” layers as they’ll be a bit taller and more impressive-looking.
In a stand mixer, mix the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and espresso powder (if using) together. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. Gradually add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, mixing at low speed, then add the coffee carefully, mixing until the batter just comes together.
Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and about for 30-35 minutes (start checking at 30—the cake is ready when it springs back lightly to the touch). Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for 20 minutes before turning out to finish cooling completely on a wire rack. While the cakes are still slightly warm, brush them with the soak. First, whisk together the warmed milk and malted milk powder. Using a pastry brush, gently brush (or drizzle) the liquid over the cake layers. You don’t have to use all of it (you don’t want the cake to be wet by any means), but use at least 2 tablespoons if you can on each layer for the most flavor.
To make the frosting: Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave until smooth, then set aside to let it cool slightly (you don’t want it to be piping hot when you add it to the frosting). In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the sour cream, melted chocolate, salt, and malted milk powder, and beat until the frosting is thick and spreadable. If it doesn’t seem spreadable enough, refrigerate it for 15 minutes and then beat again.
Set aside about 1 cup of the frosting. Stir the melted and cooled dark chocolate into that reserved 1 cup of frosting (you can use the stand mixer here which will be easier).
To assemble: Place one layer of cake—soaked side-up—on a plate or cake stand. Top with as much filling as you want (I like a ton!), and then place the next cake layer on top, also soaked side-up. Frost the sides and top with the dark chocolate frosting.
Pile as many malted milk balls as you can on top! If you want even more malt flavor, combine some malted milk powder with a bit of confectioners’ sugar and dust this lightly over the top of the cake before adding the malt balls.