Nick Malgieri
Nick Malgieri

Melissa's Chocolate Pecan Cake

I first heard about this rich cake from that inveterate traveler, my friend Gary Peese. He had tasted the cake in Cape Town and was intrigued by it. So I sent my deputy cake sleuth, my friend Kyra Effren, to Melissa's, a lovely prepared food store a little outside the center of Cape Town. Kyra goes to visit her mother there several times a year and is always ready to tackle a new cake project. Unfortunately, neither Gary nor Kyra was able to extract the recipe from the store, so I made it my business to go right to Melissa's when I arrived in Cape Town for my first visit in June of 2004. I was thrilled finally to have a taste of the now-legendary cake, and I immediately realized that the intriguing butterscotch taste of the chocolate filling came from the presence of South Africa's highly salted butter in it. The cake layers themselves are firm and almost chewy, though not with a brownie-style texture. Here is my attempt to reproduce the much-sought-after cake. If you ever travel to Cape Town, don't neglect to drop by Melissa's for a piece of cake so you can compare the versions.

One tall 9-inch cake, about 16 servings

Chocolate Cake Batter

3 cups sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups boiling water
3 large eggs
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter, melted
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup sour cream

Chocolate Filling

1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter
1 1/2 pounds (24 ounces) semisweet chocolate, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup (about 3 ounces) pecan pieces, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
Chocolate shavings for finishing

Three 9-inch round pans, 2 inches deep, buttered and the bottoms lined with disks of buttered parchment or wax paper

  1. Set racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
  2. For the cake batter, stir together the sugar, flour, salt, and baking soda and set aside.
  3. Place the chocolate in a heatproof mixing bowl and pour the boiling water over it. Let stand for 2 minutes to melt the chocolate, then whisk smooth.
  4. In another large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs to break them up and whisk in the butter, vanilla, and sour cream. Whisk in the chocolate mixture.
  5. Gently whisk the flour and sugar mixture into the batter a third at a time, whisking smooth between additions, and whisking more vigorously if you see lumps.
  6. Divide the batter equally among the prepared pans and smooth the tops. Bake the cake layers until they are well risen and a toothpick inserted in the center of each layer emerges clean, about 40 minutes. While the layers are baking, change the position of the pans once, moving those from the lower rack to the upper one and vice versa.
  7. Cool the cake layers in the pans for 5 minutes, then invert them onto racks and remove the pans. Invert onto other racks so they are right side up, then cool the layers completely. Remember to remove the papers under the layers before assembling the cake. (Leaving the papers under the layers after they are baked makes them easier to move around without crumbling.)
  8. To prepare the filling, bring the cream and sugar to a boil over medium heat in a large saucepan, stirring occasionally to make sure the sugar dissolves.
  9. Remove the pan from the heat and add the butter and chocolate. Shake the pan slightly so that the butter and chocolate are completely submerged in the hot cream and let the mixture stand for 2 minutes to melt the chocolate. Whisk smooth and whisk in the vanilla.
  10. Cool the filling in the refrigerator just until it reaches spreading consistency, about 1 hour.
  11. Before beginning to assemble the cake, remove about two thirds of the filling and combine with the chopped pecans. Reserve the remaining third of plain filling.
  12. To assemble the cake, place a dab of the filling on a cardboard and press one of the layers onto it, right side up. Spread with about half of the pecan-enriched filling. Place another cake layer on the filling and spread with the remaining pecan filling. Place the last cake layer on the filling upside down, so that the smooth bottom of that layer is uppermost.
  13. Use the rest of the filling without the pecans to smoothly cover the entire outside of the cake.
  14. Use a metal spatula to press the chocolate shavings against the side of the cake. Refrigerate the finished cake for 1 hour to set the filling.

Serving: Bring the cake to room temperature before cutting into thin wedges. (This is a very rich cake.)

Storage: Keep the cake loosely covered with plastic wrap at a cool room temperature. Wrap and refrigerate leftovers, but bring to room temperature before serving again.