Old-fashioned layer cakes, moist-textured and rich in chocolate, are awarded blue ribbons at country fairs and make birthdays memorable. And on Valentine's Day, when passion is high for what's chocolate and sweet, such cakes are happily received and gobbled up.

Downed with a glass of cold milk or hot cup of coffee, or fancied up with ice cream or whipped cream, any of the following make a sumptuous dessert.

The Devil's Food Heart Cake is a double layering of dark, fine-grained chocolate cake all bound together with a simple buttery, thick chocolate frosting. The cake batter is baked in heart-shaped cake tins, which for the purpose of size, should measure nine inches from the tip of the point straight up the middle to the top center of the heart. The cake itself is light and bouncy, not too dense, not too airy; the frosting is like the softest fudge that hasn't quite set.

The Buttermilk Chocolate Cake is exceptionally moist and delightfully springy, with just enough chocolate to darken the batter and give it depth. I like to coat this cake with a very thin cloak of frosting that is more like a glaze; the glaze comes from the recipe file of my mother, who liked to spread it over this cake and the Shredded Chocolate Cake. Thin and Rich Chocolate Frosting is just that: thin, black with chocolate, lightly thickened, with an intensity of richness rarely achieved by other glazes.

The recipe for Sour Cream Chocolate Cake comes from Jason Wolin, owner and operator of 209 1/2 restaurant, where this dessert appears. Working out this cake in my kitchen, I found it to be exceptionally chocolatey, with what chocolate lovers like to call a "full flavor bouquet." This is a dramatic three-layered cake: The batter is dark, with an unusually high proportion of chocolate to flour compared to most standard layer-cake recipes, making for a rich crumb. The frosting, made of sour cream, butter, confectioners' sugar and chocolate, is just fabulous; it can be played with for as long as you have the time and patience to create peaks and swirl-like designs, without wearing out the luster. The frosting doesn't harden into a solid mass, stays beautifully light, and is easy to spread on.

High and Mighty Chocolate Cake is another tall (over five inches high when iced), good-tasting cake. The layers are light textured because the liquid in the batter is ice-cold water, and the sugar specified for use is superfine, rather than the standard granulated, and both make layers feather soft and high. The cake is frosted with a White Icing, but the Sour Cream Frosting or Chocolate Frosting would also be fitting, if not very rich.

The Shredded Chocolate Cake is composed of quite delicate butter cake layers that trap very fine shreddings of semisweet chocolate in the batter. The soft layers have been lightened with beaten egg whites, and they are assembled with the Thin and Rich Chocolate Frosting. This is one of the simple chocolate layer cakes of my childhood, proudly served at Sunday dinners. When grating the chocolate for this cake, it is important to do so on the smallest holes of a hand grater, or on the smallest holes of a rotary grater; the chocolate should be in the form of very fine shreds, or flakes; larger gratings would spoil the texture of the cake.

Made of simple ingredients, these are the layer cakes that never fail to please: CHOCOLATE FROSTING (Makes enough for 1 2- or 3-layer cake)

This is a dense, sweet frosting that is all butter, sugar, and chocolate. It's the kind you are likely to find on old-fashioned loaves of chocolate cake, or on good devil's-food cake.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted sweet butter, cut up into tablespoon pieces

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped

2 extra-large or jumbo egg yolks, at room temperature

1 pound confectioners' sugar, sifted

3 tablespoons light cream, at room temperature

In the top of a double boiler over low heat, melt the butter with the chocolate, stirring occasionally. When the chocolate mixture has melted, remove from the heat and cool completely (this will thicken a bit).

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks on moderately high speed for 2 minutes. Add the cooled chocolate-butter mixture and beat for 1 minute on moderately high speed. On low speed, add the sifted confectioners' sugar, a third at a time, beating well to absorb the sugar before a new batch is added. Add the cream and continue beating the frosting on moderately high speed for 4-5 minutes, or until it becomes thick and has a high shine to it.

Use the frosting on cooled cake layers. BUTTERMILK CHOCOLATE CAKE (Makes 1 2-layer, 9-inch heart cake, or 1 2-layer 9-inch round cake)

This is a completely unpretentious and delectable cake, one that is enriched with buttermilk, which keeps the crumb tender and moist.

2 cups sifted cake flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 squares unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled

1 1/2 cups buttermilk, at room temperature

1 recipe Rich and Thin Chocolate Frosting (see recipe below)

Lightly butter the inside of 2 9-inch round or heart-shaped baking pans (the heart-shape pans will measure 9 inches from the bottom point of the heart straight up to the top of the pan). Cut out hearts of circles of waxed paper to fit the insides of the baking pans, press them inside, then dust the sides of the pan with flour; set aside.

Onto a large sheet of waxed paper, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter on moderately high speed for 3 minutes. Add the sugar in two additions, beating on moderately high speed for 2 minutes after each portion of sugar is added. On moderate speed, beat in the eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition. Blend in the vanilla. On low speed, add the cooled chocolate, beating just until incorporated.

On low speed, alternately add the sifted dry ingredients in three additions with the buttermilk in two additions, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Scrape down the sides of the bowl often to keep the mixture even.

Divide the batter among the two pans. With a thin palette knife or small spatula, smooth over the tops, then push up a 1/2-inch edge of batter up the sides of the baking pans.

Adjust the oven rack to the lower third-level notch in a 350-degree oven and bake the layers for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center withdraws clean. Cool the layers in the pan on racks for 3-4 minutes, then invert on racks to cool completely.

Cut 3 4-inch-wide strips of waxed paper and place the strips around the outside of a cake plate or flat serving dish. Place one layer on the plate, and spread with the frosting; top with the second layer. Cover the top and sides with the frosting, smoothing it over decoratively; since the Rich and Thin Chocolate Frosting is more like a thick icing, you may glide it over the cake in a very smooth layer using a long palette knife. Let the frosting set for 20 minutes or so, then remove the waxed paper strips.

Special Baking Note: This cake may be decorated with small crystallized violets, caramelized walnut halves, or candied rose petals and pieces of angelica. THIN AND RICH CHOCOLATE FROSTING (Makes enough for a 2-layer cake)

As frostings go, this one has a strong chocolate presence and is not loaded up with confectioners' sugar. It also makes a splendid glaze for poundcakes.

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped

6 tablespoons unsalted sweet butter, cut up into tablespoon pieces

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/4 cup milk, at room temperature

1/4 cup table cream, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine the chocolate and butter in a small heavy saucepan (preferably made of enameled cast iron). Set over low heat to melt the butter and chocolate, stirring occasionally.

In a small bowl, blend together the sugar and cornstarch. When the butter-chocolate has melted, stir in the sugar-cornstarch mixture. Slowly whisk in the milk and cream. Over moderate heat, bring the contents of the saucepan to a boil, whisking. Remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla extract, and let cool so that it reaches a good spreading consistency. Stir the frosting every so often as it cools down, but do not beat it. Use the frosting when it reaches a lukewarm temperature, warm enough to spread smoothly, but not hot enough that it will run down the sides of the cake.

Note: The frosting should thicken as soon as it reaches the boil, but if it reaches the boil too quickly, it will not thicken properly. SOUR CREAM CHOCOLATE CAKE (Makes 1 3-layer 8-inch cake, serving 12)

This three-tiered dark chocolate layer cake, along with Figs Alice B. Toklas, is a signature dessert of the restaurant 209 1/2. Proprietor Jason Wolin has offered this dreamy cake on the menu for years -- the cake itself has a magnificent chocolate bouquet, and the smooth, glossy sour cream chocolate icing is a not-too-sweet coating over the cake.

5 ounces good quality unsweetened chocolate

1/2 cup boiling water

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

2/3 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed

3 extra-large or jumbo eggs, at room temperature

1 tablespoon vanilla

1 cup sour cream, at room temperature

1 recipe Sour Cream Chocolate Frosting (see recipe below)

Lightly butter the inside of 3 8-inch-round baking pans. Cut out 3 circles of waxed paper to fit in the inside of the baking pans, place each inside the pan, then dust the sides of the pans with a haze of all-purpose flour; set aside.

Place the chocolate and water in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring now and again to combine the two. When the chocolate has melted, remove the saucepan from the heat and stir the melted mixture to form a semithick mass; set aside.

Onto a large sheet of waxed paper, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter for 3 minutes on moderately high speed; reduce the speed to moderate and beat in the granulated sugar. Continue beating for 2 minutes. Beat in the brown sugar, raise the speed to moderately high and continue beating for 2 minutes more. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula often to keep everything light and creamy. On moderately low speed, beat in the eggs, one at a time, blending until they are mixed in very well. After all of the eggs have been added, add the vanilla, and beat on high speed for 1 minute.

In a small bowl, combine the melted water and chocolate with the sour cream. On low speed, add the sour cream mixture to the creamed mixture. On low speed, add half of the sifted ingredients and beat until the flour particles have been absorbed; add the remaining sifted flour mixture and beat it in. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat for 15 seconds longer.

Pour and scrape the batter into the 3 pans, dividing it equally among them. With a thin palette knife or small spatula, smooth the tops, then push up a 1/2-inch edge of batter up the sides of the baking pans. (Making the sides slightly higher than the middle insures the risen cake will have a smooth, evenly flat top.)

Adjust the oven racks to the upper and lower third levels, then bake the layers for 30-35 minutes at 375 degrees, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake emerges clean and the cake shrinks away from the sides a bit.

Cool the layers in the pans on racks for 3 minutes. Run a thin palette knife around the edges, then invert the layers onto racks. Cool the layers completely.

Cut 3 4-inch strips of waxed paper and place the strips around the outside of a cake plate or flat serving dish. Put one layer on the plate, spread with some of the Sour Cream Chocolate icing, place on the second layer, spread with more frosting and cover with the last layer. Cover the sides and top with the rest of the frosting in a thick layer, swirling the frosting decoratively.

Let the frosting set for about 20 minutes, then carefully remove the waxed paper strips.

Special baking note: The restaurant kitchen frequently replaces the 1/2 cup boiling water in the cake recipe with 1/2 cup hot coffee for a richer-tasting cake. To do this, use 1/2 cup strong brewed coffee, or dissolve 1 tablespoon granular instant coffee in 1/2 cup boiling water. SOUR CREAM CHOCOLATE FROSTING (Makes enough for 1 2- or 3-layer cake)

This frosting is satiny-smooth, light and lovely.

5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut up into tablespoon pieces

2 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar

1 cup sour cream, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla

In the top of a double boiler over low heat, melt the chocolate with the butter, stirring occasionally. When the chocolate and butter have melted down completely, remove from the heat and let cool (the mixture will thicken up a bit -- that's okay).

When the chocolate has cooled, place the confectioners' sugar and sour cream in the large bowl of a mixer; beat on high speed for 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl frequently. Blend in the vanilla. On low speed, add the cooled chocolate and butter, beating it in thoroughly. Continue beating the mixture on high speed for about 6 minutes continually; it will become thickened and very shiny.

Frost cooled cake layers with the frosting. SHREDDED CHOCOLATE CAKE (Makes 1 2-layer 9-inch cake, serving 12)

The chocolate is shredded on the fine holes of a hand or rotary grater, and folded into a simple butter cake batter lightened a bit with egg whites.

2 1/4 cups sifted cake flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

3 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature

1 cup milk blended with 1 teaspoon vanilla

2 ounces (2 squares) semisweet chocolate, grated on the fine holes of a hand grater or in a rotary grater

3 egg whites, at room temperature

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 recipe Thin and Rich Chocolate Frosting, or Chocolate Frosting

Lightly butter the inside of 2 9-inch round baking pans. Cut out circles of waxed paper to fit the bottom of the pans, place them in, then dust out the sides of the pans with a fine haze of flour; set aside.

Onto a sheet of waxed paper, sift together the cake flour, baking powder and salt; set aside. In the largest bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter until light on moderate speed, about 3 minutes. Add the sugar in 2 additions, beating until light; scrape down the sides of the bowl often to keep the mixture even. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time. On low speed, alternately add the flour mixture in 3 additions with the milk mixture in 2 additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl after each addition. By hand, stir in the finely grated chocolate.

In a medium-size bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks are formed, then gradually beat in the sugar, beating until the peaks are stiff and glossy.

By hand, stir 3 tablespoons of the whites into the cake batter, incorporate well, then fold in the remaining whites until no large patches of whites remain.

Pour and scrape the batter into the prepared pans, dividing the batter evenly between the two pans. With a small palette knife, lightly smooth the tops, then push up a 1/2-inch edge of batter gently up the sides of the baking pans. (Making the sides slightly higher than the middle makes the baked cake rise to an even level, without peaking.)

Bake the layers in a 350-degree oven (with the rack in the middle position) for about 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center withdraws clean, and the cake gently pulls away from the sides of the pan.

Cut 3 4-inch-wide strips of waxed paper and place the strips around the outside of a cake plate or other flat serving dish. Put one layer on the plate, cover the top with icing and top with the second layer. Cover the sides and top with frosting in a thick layer. Let the frosting set for about 1/2 hour, then carefully remove the waxed paper strips. HIGH AND MIGHTY CHOCOLATE CAKE (Makes 1 3-layer 8-inch cake, serving 12 generously)

The unlikely ingredient in this cake is the liquid, which is in the form of ice-cold water. While using ice water (rather than room-temperature milk or buttermilk) seems to defy principle, it makes the cake light-textured and delicious. This is a very tall cake, even taller if you add a fluffy white icing and make big, high peaks. There are many versions of this cake, with varying amounts of chocolate, and different kinds of sugar. I like to use superfine sugar; that gives a fine-grained texture to the cake. Most recipes call for 3 ounces of chocolate, but I add 4 ounces for added richness.

3 cups sifted cake flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature

2 1/4 cups superfine sugar

3 jumbo eggs, at room temperature

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled

1 1/2 cups ice-cold water

1 recipe White Icing (see recipe below)

Lightly butter the inside of 3 8-inch round baking pans. Cut out 3 circles of waxed paper to fit the bottom of the pans, place inside the pan, then dust the sides with flour; set aside.

Onto a large sheet of waxed paper, sift together the flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter on moderately high speed for 3 minutes. Add the sugar in three additions, beating on moderately high speed for 2 minutes after each batch is added. Scrape down the sides of the bowl frequently to keep the mixture even. On moderate speed, beat in the eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition.

On low speed, blend in the melted chocolate and beat just until the chocolate is incorporated. On low speed, alternately add the sifted dry ingredients in three additions with the ice water in two additions, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Scrape down the sides of the bowl often.

Divide the batter among the three pans. With a thin palette knife or small spatula, smooth the tops, then push up a 1/2-inch edge of batter up the sides of the baking pans.

Adjust the oven racks to the upper and lower third level notches. Bake the layers at 350 degrees for about 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cakes comes out clean and the cake layers have shrunk from the sides of the pan.

Cool the layers in the pans on racks for 3 minutes. Run a thin palette knife around the edges, then invert the layers onto cooling racks to cool completely.

Cut 3 4-inch wide strips of waxed paper and place the strips around the outside of a cake plate or flat serving dish. Put one layer on the plate and spread with some of the White Frosting; top with a second layer, spread with icing, and finally top with the third layer. Cover the sides and top of the cake with the remaining frosting, making ripples and peaks for decoration. Let the frosting firm up for 20 minutes, then remove the waxed paper strips from around the bottom of the cake. WHITE FROSTING (Makes enough for a 3-layer cake)

This is one of those cooked frostings for which you'll need a fairly deep double boiler. It has a marshmallow-like consistency and so it is a favorite with children.

4 extra-large or jumbo eggs whites, at room temperature 3/4 cup plus 1/8 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons light corn syrup

Pinch salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

Place the egg whites, sugar, corn syrup, and salt in the top of a large double boiler. Set over gently simmering water (on low heat) and begin beating with a portable electric mixer to combine the ingredients. After a minute or two, increase the speed to moderate and beat 7 minutes, when the frosting should be firm and glossy. Remove the top of the double boiler from the heat, and beat in the vanilla. Continue beating the frosting for about 3-4 minutes longer and cooled down. Use the frosting immediately.