Ina Garten Vs. Martha Stewart: Who Makes The Best Chocolate Cake?

Chances are that if you've ever baked a homemade cake, you've also encountered your fair share of headaches in the kitchen. From gummy layers to soggy bottoms, you never know what might unfold when trying a new recipe. Faced with the prospect of cake-related disaster, many of us often turn to professionals for help. 

Who better, then, to seek baking wisdom from than entertaining legends Ina Garten and Martha Stewart? Each cookbook maven has their own famous chocolate cake recipe for fans to try at home. For Ina, it's Beatty's Chocolate Cake, a Garten family favorite that first appeared in 2006's "Barefoot Contessa at Home" cookbook. Meanwhile, Martha's luxurious, layered Ultimate Chocolate Cake recipe made its debut on her Martha Stewart Living television show in 1999.

While the perfect chocolate cake may mean different things to different people, it's safe to assume that both Garten and Stewart can whip up a mean version of the classic dessert. But what if someone was to pit these two cake recipes against one another in a one-on-one cake-off? We at Tasting Table decided we were up to the challenge and set out to determine which celebrity chef's chocolate cake recipe would officially take the cake.

Ingredients: Beatty's Chocolate Cake

At the core of every good chocolate cake recipe is cocoa powder. Ina Garten's go-to cocoa powder for Beatty's chocolate cake is Valrhona, but she gives readers the option to use a "good cocoa powder." Given the flexibility, we opted for a good Dutch process cocoa with The Fresh Market's Baking Cocoa, an 8-ounce bag purchased from the grocery retailer for $6.99.

Another important ingredient for Ina Garten's famous chocolate cake? A high-quality vanilla extract, which Ina says is "really important when you're doing chocolate" cake in her Barefoot Contessa walkthrough of the recipe. Although she doesn't specify exactly which vanilla to use, we spotted Nielsen-Massey's Madagascar Bourbon pure vanilla extract — which retails for $32 per 4-ounce bottle — among her collection of cake ingredients. With this in mind, we pick up a 2-ounce bottle of Nielsen-Massey's standard vanilla extract from The Fresh Market at the economical price of $9.99.

The frosting portion of Beatty's cake requires one unusual component: instant coffee powder. Although we're partial to Sanka, the nation's first instant decaf coffee, we decided to experiment with Medaglia D'Oro's instant dark roast instead — an imported espresso powder procured from Target for $3.99 per 2-ounce jar. Naturally, the chocolate buttercream recipe also uses six ounces of solid semisweet chocolate. Though Ina suggests Valrhona, we discover Guittard's semi-sweet chocolate is perfect for the job, containing a total of three 2-ounce bars for $6.59 from The Fresh Market.

Making the Batter: Beatty's Chocolate Cake

While making the batter, we watched the Beatty's Chocolate Cake segment from "Barefoot Contessa" to ensure we mirrored Ina's technique. The Food Network star's approach is laidback and reassuring, leading us to believe that this portion of the recipe should be a breeze.

Our first step was to sift the ingredients using Ina's method of gently tapping them through a tightly-woven strainer. We also used the assistance of our KitchenAid stand mixer, which just happened to be a dead-ringer for Ina's model. We gently mixed the dry ingredients, a mixture of cocoa powder, flour, salt, and leavening agents, with the help of its paddle attachment. After stirring together shaken buttermilk, two extra large brown eggs, and a teaspoon of vanilla, we got to work on Ina's secret ingredient.

Coffee appears in both Ina's and Martha's recipes, but Ina recommends using a full cup of hot coffee in Beatty's chocolate cake. "I always think coffee is really important for chocolate. It makes it taste really chocolatey," Ina tells Food Network fans. According to Ina, the hot coffee tip is borrowed from her friend Michael Grim's grandmother, the inspiration — and namesake — behind the original recipe. We felt our chocolate batter seemed rather thin for a cake recipe, but a quick glance at Ina's reassured us that everything was going according to plan.

Baking Process: Beatty's Chocolate Cake

Before we dive into the Beatty baking process, we must get one thing out of the way first. Make no mistake, Ina's recipe requires two 8-inch cake pans. Sure, you might think you can get away with using a larger-sized pan, but we wouldn't advise it. Even a one-inch difference in diameter can lead to stunted, sunken cakes — and trust us, it doesn't feel good to see your dejected work lay untouched on the holiday dessert table.

Though Ina uses standard 8-inch cake pans, we had Wilton's Decorator Preferred pans on hand. Wilton's pans have an extra bit of height at three inches tall and are best for heavy batters, but using them didn't impair the baking process. To make our cake pan linings, we simply placed our empty cake pans over parchment paper, outlined their edges, and cut both sheets into rounds.

Because Ina's batter is on the thinner side, it's a little tricky to evenly distribute the mixture into each cake pan. With the oven preheated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, we slide our greased and parchment-lined pans onto the middle rack and hope for the best. After 35 minutes of baking, we let the finished cakes cool in their tins before transferring them to wire racks. Retrieving the cakes from their tins is a remarkably easy task, with nary a crumb left behind on each pan.

Frosting and Decorating: Beatty's Chocolate Cake

Making Beatty's chocolate cake batter is relatively simple, but its frosting is a tad more demanding. The first task in preparing Ina's frosting recipe is chopping semi-sweet chocolate into thin, meltable shards by hand. This process is the most time-consuming of the entire recipe, but we'll admit it's also pretty cathartic.

With our chocolate chopped and butter softening, we enter the double-boiling phase of the recipe. Having been burned in the past by seized, lumpy chocolate, we took a deep breath and placed the bittersweet shards in a bowl snugly situated above the pot. To our delight, the chocolate melting went off without a hitch, and we gave it a quick celebratory stir before setting it aside to cool. Our final step is to whisk together a small portion of instant coffee, which lends a creamy chocolate hue to the rest of the mixture.

Overall, we're pleased with Ina's frosting. It has an extremely silky consistency and feels light as air despite its rich ingredients. As we apply the first dollops to our cake, we can't help but notice how easily it glides across the surface. Unfortunately, our kitchen was considerably warmer than usual due to the sudden arrival of summer, and the frosting did seem a bit melty. Still, we think it held its shape quite well against the conditions. Ina insists that decorating an old-fashioned cake is "supposed to be a little messy," and we follow her lead with a rustic, swirled application of frosting.

Visual: Beatty's Chocolate Cake

Our first impression of Ina's cake was that it shared a few things in common with homemade brownies. It has a lustrous, papery finish coupled with its rich, fudgy color. Both cakes looked sturdy and attractive, and the slight difference in height didn't seem to affect their quality.

In terms of Ina's frosting, we were thoroughly impressed. The satiny, milk-chocolate-colored topping provides some beautiful contrast against the dark chocolate cake. Plus, this frosting looks rather tempting all on its own — in fact, we were surprised by how close it mimicked the appearance of a light chocolate mousse. It's gorgeously soft and shiny at room temperature, but it takes on a plush, structured finish when chilled.

Cutting into Ina's cake is met with a tiny amount of resistance, but we managed to produce an attractive slice. The cake's interior appears super fluffy and springy, and the paleness of the frosting accentuates its ultra-dark chocolate hue. Overall, our only qualm with the cake's aesthetics is that its crumb is a bit too loose for our liking, which detracts from its stunning presentation as you tuck in.

Taste Test: Beatty's Chocolate Cake

Considering its five-star rating from more than 2,700 Barefoot Contessa reviewers, we couldn't wait to see how Beatty's chocolate cake would taste. For a cake with such indulgent ingredients, we were taken aback by its soft, weightless texture. The cake itself has a very springy crumb, not dissimilar from a classic sponge cake recipe, and its sweetness is perfectly balanced. Regrettably, we didn't taste much of Ina's — or Beatty's — secret ingredient, coffee throughout the cake. However, Ina's frosting recipe more than made up for that.

From our perspective, one of the most enjoyable aspects of Ina's cake is its frosting. Not only does it look beautiful, but it also tastes incredible to boot. It's satisfyingly smooth, with a creamy, delicate mouthfeel. Moreover, it boasts a delicious espresso flavor thanks to the inclusion of instant coffee. A little goes a long way, and we can see what Ina means about it enhancing chocolatey flavors. While some testers mused that its coffee flavoring was too pronounced for a chocolate cake recipe, most of us agreed that it was a welcome accompaniment. There's no denying the coffee notes emanating from the frosting are strong, but they offset Ina's cake flawlessly.

Ingredients: Martha's Ultimate Chocolate Cake

Martha's recipe introduction begins with a gentle suggestion to use Valrhona cocoa powder for the best results. Moments later, we realize this is not merely a suggestion, as Valrhona cocoa is specifically listed in the recipe's ingredient list. Furthermore, Valrhona cocoa appears to be the star ingredient of both the cake batter and frosting recipe, leaving little room for confusion. At roughly $14.50 per 8.5-ounce container, Valrhona cocoa is by far the most expensive ingredient procured for our cake bake-off, but we feel it must be necessary for the recipe's success. After all, Valrhona is consistently listed as one of the world's best chocolate brands.

Interestingly, Martha uses hot coffee in her recipe — also known as the secret ingredient in Ina's cake! To kill two birds with one stone, we purchase whole bean New Orleans French Roast from The Fresh Market, a fragrant variety that costs $12.99 per pound. Our plan is to freshly grind these beans just before preparing the coffee for each recipe.

Martha's cake also calls for extra large eggs, and we can't say enough about the Happy Egg Co.'s heritage free-range eggs. The cheerful package holds an assortment of blue and brown eggs, an unusual sight on most grocery store shelves. They're definitely costlier than the average carton of eggs at $6.99 per dozen, but their dazzling orange yolks and firm whites more than justify the price.

Making the Batter: Martha's Ultimate Chocolate Cake

Unlike most cake recipes, Martha Stewart's Ultimate Chocolate Cake asks that you dust your greased cake pan with a pinch of cocoa powder in place of flour. It's a move that hints at things to come — this cake places a heavy emphasis on all things chocolate.

Per Martha's instructions, we mix the first round of ingredients by hand. It's a tedious endeavor, but it yields a heaving, fluffy batter that looks just like peach ice cream thanks to amber-yolked eggs. Each of the four eggs is added slowly, and they create an increasingly weighty batter as they're mixed in. If you find yourself making the Ultimate Chocolate Cake, be sure to use a spatula with a firm rubber edge for this step, as the slightest give will make the mixing process even more laborious.

According to Martha, the boiling hot coffee, Valrhona cocoa powder, and room-temperature milk should be incorporated next. It's immediately clear that Valrhona has a warmer, richer color than your average cocoa powder, giving the liquid ingredients a pleasantly earthy hue. Ultimately, our biggest takeaway is that this batter is significantly heavier in weight than Ina's recipe, leaving us to wonder how it will fare in the oven.

Baking: Martha's Ultimate Chocolate Cake

Dividing Martha's batter into two artfully-prepared cake pans is easy, as it's thick enough to provide some control over the pour. Sweating like a "Great British Bake Off" contestant under the watchful eye of Paul Hollywood, we pop each cocoa-dusted cake into the oven. After 20 minutes pass, we rotate the pans while still in the oven and give them another 15 minutes to bake. Martha doesn't elaborate on why this is done, but America's Test Kitchen says that this trick can promote more evenly browned cakes — provided you're not making something fragile, like a soufflé.

To say we were shocked at the 20-minute mark would be an understatement. Both cakes quivered like molten lava when we disturbed them from their slumber, and we thought they'd never finish baking. By the second round, however, they developed a well-rounded surface and passed the clean-toothpick test. Even without the addition of baking powder, the cakes rise to great heights, an observation shared by several reviewers on Martha Stewart's Ultimate Chocolate Cake recipe page. Following Martha's lead, we left them to cool — first in their pans, and then on racks — for a total of one hour. Once they were sufficiently cool to the touch, we used a serrated knife to neaten the top layer of each cake.

Frosting and Decorating: Martha's Ultimate Chocolate Cake

First things first: A small bowl, as recommended in Martha's frosting recipe, is not adequate enough to contain the amount of confectioner's sugar at play here. We started with two cups and quickly realized our mistake, as powdered sugar mockingly swirled onto everything around us. Three-and-a-half cups of sugar and one medium bowl later, we added an entire cup of Valrhona cocoa powder to the mix.

The ultimate chocolate frosting is a bit harder to control when it comes to decorating. Although it looks more shapely, we find it difficult to wield. What's more, it tears at the top layer of the cake as we apply it, despite it being sufficiently cooled. We felt that Martha's frosting recipe acted very similarly to a dense, shelf-stable frosting, the kind you'd find in any retail grocer's baking aisle.

Depending on your feelings toward frosting, one issue we encountered could be this recipe's worst — or best — attribute. We'll just get straight to the point: there's entirely too much frosting for a single cake here. Sensing something was up by the halfway point of decorating, we applied generous lashings of frosting everywhere we could, but it was no use. We were still left with nearly twice the amount of chocolate frosting we needed for our cake. So unless you're an absolute frosting fiend, you may want to consider scaling down this recipe.

Visual: Martha's Ultimate Chocolate Cake

The first thing we noticed about the Ultimate Chocolate Cake, aside from its huskiness, was that it's very sticky. Even after greasing, parchment-lining, cocoa-dusting, and cooling, it desperately clung to every surface it touched. And while Ina's cake may have had a brownie-like crust, only Martha's has a uniquely fudgy, brownie-like interior. Another distinctive quality of the Ultimate Chocolate Cake is its very fine, moist crumb, which reminds us of an Italian rainbow cookie.

Cutting into Martha's cake was a satisfying venture, as our knife slid through each layer with ease. It even produced a nice, clean cake slice in spite of the cake's sticky tendencies. Just like its cake mate, Martha's frosting is undeniably thick in texture. While mixing it, we felt it could even be mistaken for cake batter itself. It's also easy to see that it's the darker topping of the two cakes, bearing a burnt umber hue. That said, we were a little disappointed to find the frosting and cake were virtually indistinguishable in color. All things considered, it's still a striking creation, with slick, gleaming frosting and a scrumptious-looking crumb. 

Taste Test: Martha's Ultimate Chocolate Cake

If there's one word to describe Martha's cake, it's dense. That's not to say that it's gluey or unpleasant, but this cake has to be one of the fudgiest we've ever tried. Naturally, those who prefer brownies to cake will be big fans of Martha's recipe. Proving this point, our resident brownie enthusiast — and cake hater — happily polished off a slice.

The cake is ridiculously chocolatey, to the point that you might believe there are chocolate chips strewn inside its batter. Perhaps Martha was right to encourage us to splurge on Valrhona chocolate. On the downside, each bite confirms it's a touch too sugary on our tongues. The sheer intensity of chocolate flavor arrests your tastebuds at first, closely followed by a wave of sweetness. It's a fairly one-dimensional tasting experience, but we love its rich, luscious texture.

Of course, the frosting is the sweetest element of all, loaded with nearly four cups of sugar. It may be enjoyable for frosting fans, but it's a bit much for sugar-sensitive palettes. The cake and frosting share similar flavor profiles, and we wish there was something more to occupy our senses.


Let's just say this: different people will like different cakes. To us, Ina's cake was the clear winner. Its flavor profile is more complex than Martha's, and we fell in love with its impossibly silky, coffee-tinged frosting. If you enjoy chocolate mousse, love a good espresso, and pine for cakes with fluffy crumbs, you'll swoon for Ina's recipe, too. As a bonus, making Beatty's Chocolate Cake is simpler than you'd expect. Though Barefoot Contessa places it at the "intermediate" skill level, we'd say it's suitable for beginner bakers.

On the other hand, those with a strong affinity for dark, velvety chocolate and super-sweet desserts will more than likely favor Martha's Ultimate Chocolate experience. It's a classic, old-fashioned chocolate cake recipe that doesn't skimp on the sugar. We loved its look and texture, but it proved a little too sweet for our liking. Additionally, we felt the recipe required a substantial amount of work, from procuring the Valrhona cocoa powder to hand-mixing heavy batters. As one can imagine, this took away from its total score.

Ingredients like melted semi-sweet chocolate, instant coffee, and raw egg yolk lent a luxurious element to Ina's frosting and allowed her cake to win by a whisker. In the end, selecting a favorite from the two recipes comes down to personal preference, and we encourage you to try your own cake-off for yourself.