Frontier Psychiatrist

Game Changer: Cake

Posted on: February 22, 2012

Frankly, I don’t love cake.  And no, I don’t even love cupcakes (sacrilege for a female 20-something in NYC).  I’d much sooner order ice cream or pie or a chocolate croissant before I’d opt for a piece of cake.  I’ve even replaced cake with pancakes as my birthday tradition.  (Hellooo, pancake month at Clinton Street Baking Co.!  Bring on the fresh coconut pancakes, with kumquat syrup, and bruleed bananas!)

Point being, it’s hard to wow me with a cake.  And chocolate cake?  Forget it.  I absolutely adore chocolate, but I’d rather have a piece of real chocolate or maybe a truffle.  But this weekend I met my match, the chocolate cake that stole my heart away.  It was light and fluffy like cheesecake, cloaked in deep, dark ganache frosting, and rich enough for just a sliver to suffice.  And the best part?  I made it myself!  Normally I’m not one to toot my own horn, but this cake was killer.

If you’ve been following my column, you’ll know that I hardly ever bake.  The way I see it, there are two types of cooks in the world (and maybe even people, if you want to extend the metaphor): the chefs and the pastry chefs.  Pastry chef-ery requires meticulous attention to detail, and by nature makes it pretty much impossible to “undo” if you mess up.  Added too much flour?  One too many eggs?  Sorry!  Ya can’t fix it, and you may not even know something’s wrong until it comes out of the oven caved in and soggy.  Whereas with most savory cooking I do, you can taste as you go and adjust for mistakes.  Sometimes you even discover something magnificent by way of error.  But baking is a science, and bakers are chemists.  Chemistry was my only C in college.  Let’s move on.

There comes, however, a point in every chef’s life when the barrier to baking must be transgressed.  Perhaps you’ve found yourself a contestant on Top Chef, and you know Padma and Tom will think you’re a total wimp if you don’t at least TRY for a dessert course.  Or maybe you requested an electric hand mixer for the holidays and want to test it out.  Or maybe it’s your fiancé’s dad’s birthday, and chocolate cake is truly the way to his heart.  Or maybe some combination of those last two?  Yes, that sounds about right.

With these motivators in play, I decided to try my hand at baking once again, this time with a close ally (read: 1.2 pounds of chocolate) on my side.  There was some splashing of buttermilk, and some rising and falling plumes of cocoa powder, but in the end, the two layers of this cake were born, along with a bowl of dense, luscious ganache frosting, destined to become the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had.

Some things I learned from my dabbles in pastry:

  • When they tell you to grease the pans, use a whole lot of butter.  No, more butter than that
  • If you are asked to line the pan with rounds of wax paper, you need to actually cut circles the size of the pan (don’t ask what I actually thought this meant)
  • Add powder to spinning mixing blades and they will throw it right back at you
  • How do you get one layer of a layer cake onto the other?  Very gently lift and plop
  • If you live in New York, you have access to baking mecca
  • For someone with quite lovely handwriting, my icing-writing legibility is subpar
  • Everyone loves (and simultaneously hates) a baker

It was most certainly a success with the future in-laws, and now that I have established myself as a cake rookie, I think you should feel pretty secure in your abilities to recreate this chocolate wonder.  Just cut small slices and invite over lots of friends for a BYOM (milk, obvi) party.

Double Chocolate Layer Cake

From Gourmet magazine, 1999


For cake layers

3 ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut

1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee

3 cups sugar

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)

2 teaspoons baking soda

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

3 large eggs

3/4 cup vegetable oil

1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk

3/4 teaspoon vanilla

For ganache frosting

1 pound fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter

Special equipment

two 10- by 2-inch round cake pans

Make cake layers: 

1. Preheat oven to 300°F. and grease pans. Line bottoms with rounds of wax paper and grease paper.

2. Finely chop chocolate and in a bowl combine with hot coffee. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.

3. Into a large bowl sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another large bowl with an electric mixer beat eggs until thickened slightly and lemon colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a hand-held mixer). Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined well.

4. Divide batter between pans and bake in middle of oven until a tester inserted in center comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes.

5. Cool layers completely in pans on racks. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto racks. Carefully remove wax paper and cool layers completely. Cake layers may be made 1 day ahead and kept, wrapped well in plastic wrap, at room temperature.

Make frosting: 

1. Finely chop chocolate. In a 1 1/2- to 2-quart saucepan bring cream, sugar, and corn syrup to a boil over moderately low heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat and add chocolate, whisking until chocolate is melted. Cut butter into pieces and add to frosting, whisking until smooth.

2. Transfer frosting to a bowl and cool, stirring occasionally, until spreadable (depending on chocolate used, it may be necessary to chill frosting to spreadable consistency). I found that stirring this over a bowl of ice water did a great job of cooling it off quickly and evenly.

3. Spread frosting between cake layers and over top and sides. Cake keeps, covered and chilled, 3 days. Bring cake to room temperature before serving.

Freya Bellin writes alternate Wednesdays for Frontier Psychiatrist. Her recent FP recipes include Rooted in WinterThe Ultimate Roasted Chicken, and Coffee Roasting 101.


3 Responses to "Game Changer: Cake"

[…] Bellin writes alternate Wednesdays for Frontier Psychiatrist. Her recent FP recipes include Game Changer: Cake, Rooted in Winter, and The Ultimate Roasted Chicken. Share […]

[…] for Frontier Psychiatrist. Her recent FP recipes include High on Grass: SXSW Beef Lovers Edition, Game Changer: Cake, and Rooted in Winter. Share this:ShareEmailTwitterFacebookRedditStumbleUponYahoo BuzzDiggLike […]

[…] Her recent FP recipes include Cookie Season, High on Grass: SXSW Beef Lovers Edition, and Game Changer: Cake. Share this:ShareEmailTwitterFacebookRedditStumbleUponYahoo BuzzDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to […]

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