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I have a recipe for a chocolate buttermilk cake. It's not constructed like most cakes, but it's always turned out OK. I've always wondered what does the coffee in the recipe do?

Is the coffee just there as an additional flavor? (The cake never tastes strongly of coffee.) Can I use a cheap instant coffee, or will a higher quality coffee make a difference? Does the acid in the coffee do something? Does the temperature of the coffee really matter?

Here's the recipe:

3 cups flour, 2 1/2 cups sugar, 1 1/2 tablespoons baking soda, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, 1 1/3 cups vegetable oil, 1 1/2 cups buttermilk, 3 eggs, 1 1/2 cups freshly brewed hot coffee, 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

Slowly combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cocoa powder. Blend (on medium speed) in the oil and buttermilk. On low, mix in the eggs, one at a time. Add the hot coffee and vanilla and mix on low speed.

Divide into two 9 inch round cake pans and bake at 350° for 30-35 minutes.

from Caprial's Desserts by Caprial Pence and Melissa Carey

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If the coffee were only there for flavor, then I could replace it with 1 1/2 cups of hot water, right? – KatieK Apr 26 '12 at 18:00
Katie, that doesn't sound right - you could replace coffee with water if you wanted NO flavor. – Rick G Apr 30 '12 at 0:30
@RickG - In the spirit of a "scientific" experiment, I could make one cake with the coffee, and one with hot water, to identify the effects of the coffee. I imagine that both experiments would still have a chocolatey flavor. – KatieK May 11 '12 at 19:09

it's probably there to add depth to the flavor, since chocolate and coffee complement each other so well. i've used the instant kind in similar recipes and it's just fine.

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If you add coffee to a recipe with chocolate, the coffee will enhance the chocolate flavour and normally, you won't taste the coffee. I'm not that sure in your case, since it's a lot of coffee.

You surely can use instant espresso powder or something similar.

I don't think the temperature does anything (make sure it's not too hot, or you'll cook the eggs). I guess it's there to make sure you use fresh coffee (which has a better taste than old coffee).

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I tend to think instant espresso powder is fine even when the coffee flavor is quite noticeable, though maybe a coffee purist would disagree. (It's also great for baking, since you can dissolve it a small amount of liquid, and get all the flavor without adding so much water.) – Jefromi Apr 26 '12 at 16:09
Possibly, but I haven't tried that myself. And yes, it gives you more control than regular coffee does. – Mien Apr 26 '12 at 19:17
I have recipes that call for instant coffee - which I really can NOT stand to use. Instead, I use instant espresso powder which gives me good results. – Rick G Apr 30 '12 at 0:32

coffee enhances the chocolate / cocoa for a more chocolatey cake. I don't think you should be able to taste the coffee though, the fact that you can taste the coffee suggests that either there's to much coffee or its to strong, to correct this you can try reducing the amount of coffee or try with instant coffee as I believe it's not as strong, I also don't think using instant coffee will make to much of a difference, most recipes call for instant coffee. And if it's asking for hot coffee, then make sure that's what you use.

Personally I'd try using instant coffee instead of freshly brewed, first, and see how that tastes.

The cake won't be as chocolatey without the coffee, however should you wish to remove it, you can by simply substituting the same amount of hot water with the amount of coffee specified by the recipe.

Hope this helps.

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