Writing the Perfect Recipe

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On today's Please Explain, Leonard will be speaking to Deb Perelman and John Willoughby about recipes, both good and bad. Below, we've posted two recipes for the same, delicious food: Devil's Food Cake. The recipes span the 20th century: the first, from Fanny Farmer, was initially published in 1896. The second, by the team at Cook's Illustrated, was tested hundreds of times before its publication in 1994. Notice how much shorter the Farmer recipe is--we'll be debating whether brevity is a good thing, or whether more specific recipes yield better results. But before we do, we'd like to hear from you: what do you look for in a recipe? Let us know in the comments below!

Recipe for “Rich Devil’s Food Cake” from 1965 edition of Fanny Farmer

Butter a pan 9 inches square. Set the oven at 350 degrees.

Cook until thick in a double boiler

            4 tablespoons cocoa

            2-1/2 tablespoons sugar

            2 tablespoons water

Remove from the heat. Stir in

            ½ cup milk


            2 eggs

Beat the whites until stiff. Beat in gradually

            ½ cup sugar

Cream together until light

            ½ cup shortening

            1 teaspoon vanilla

            ½ cup sugar

Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time. Add the cocoa mixture.

Sift together

            1 cup flour

            ½ teaspoon cream of tartar

            ½ teaspoon salt

            ½ teaspoon baking soda

Beat into the batter. Fold in the egg whites. Spoon into the pan.

Bake about 35 minutes.


Classic Devil's Food Layer Cake with Whipped Cream

From Cook's Illustrated. Published July 1, 1994.  

Why this recipe works:

While developing our devil’s food layer cake recipe we found very little difference between cakes baked with standard American cocoa and “Dutched” cocoa. We chose water over milk or buttermilk to moisten our cake batter, discovering that cakes made with dairy had a more muted chocolate flavor. 

While developing our devil’s food layer cake recipe we found very little difference between cakes baked with standard American cocoa and “Dutched” cocoa. We chose water over milk or buttermilk to moisten our cake batter, discovering that cakes...(more)

Serves 12

This is an extremely tender cake -- it almost falls apart with the touch of a fork - yet when you chew it, it turns out to be resilient and spongy. Since this batter rises higher, make sure to use 9-by-1 1/2-inch round cake pans.


  • Classic Devil's Food Cake
  • 1/2cup   natural cocoa powder
  • 2teaspoons instant espresso powder , or instant coffee
  • 1cup boiling water
  • 3/4cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2cup plain yogurt , low-fat, or buttermilk
  • 2teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 8tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
  • 1 1/4cups granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs , at room temperature
  • 1 1/4cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3/4teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2teaspoon table salt
  • Whipped Cream
  • 2 1/2cups heavy cream , cold
  • 3/4cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1teaspoon vanilla extract


  1. For the Cake: Adjust oven rack to center position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-by-1 1/2-inch round baking pans with shortening. Line pan bottoms with waxed or parchment paper; grease paper as well. Dust pans with flour; tap out excess.

  2. Mix cocoa and instant coffee in small bowl; add boiling water and mix until smooth. Stir in brown sugar and yogurt or buttermilk. Let cool and add vanilla.

  3. Beat butter in bowl of electric mixer set at medium-high speed until smooth and shiny, about 30 seconds. Gradually sprinkle in sugar; beat until mixture is fluffy and almost white, 3 to 5 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating 1 full minute after each addition.

  4. Whisk flour, baking soda and salt in medium bowl. With mixer on lowest speed, add about 1/3 of dry ingredients to batter, followed immediately by about 1/3 of cocoa mixture; mix until ingredients are almost incorporated into batter. Repeat process twice more. When batter appears blended, stop mixer and scrape bowl sides with rubber spatula. Return mixer to low speed; beat until batter looks satiny, about 15 seconds longer.

  5. Divide batter evenly between pans. With rubber spatula, run batter to pan sides and smooth top. Bake cakes until they feel firm in center when lightly presesd anad skewer comes out clean or with just a crumb or two adhering, 23 to 30 minutes. Tranfer pans to wire racks; cool for 20 minutes. Run knife around perimeter of each pan, invert cakes onto racks, and peel off paper liners. Reinvert cakes onto additional racks; cool completely before frosting.

  6. For the Whipped Cream: Beat cream at medium speed in an electric mixer until thickened. Add confectioners' sugar and vanilla and beat until thick. Apply frosting onto first cake layer and spread with a long metal spatula, top with second cake layer, top second layer with frosting, spread and then frost sides. Decorate top with chocolate shavings, if you like. Serve.