Sunday, April 18, 2010

Maybe I don't like Cake. Maybe I do.

Let me explain.

One of my first jobs was in the bakery department of Nugget Market, a local grocery store that has been family owned since 1926. My life in food truly began in earnest there, for in that job, I was making a choice to work and pursue the world of food, the world of cake decorating and baking especially, regardless of pay, regardless of the strange sweet smell I always seemed to reek of biking home.

But to tell you the truth, I never--ever--ate the cakes. This was mostly because Nugget Market bakery department has not yet pulled its potentialed self out of the quagmire of sad, cheap ingredients. The buttercream is not make from butter. It does not melt when you eat it; it coats your tongue with a film of hydrogenated nastiness. It tastes like sweet chalk. The cake itself is dry and perfumed ever so slightly with Goo-Be-Gone, that aroma that lets me know before I've really even tasted it that the that food in my mouth is not really food at all. It is the cake equivalent to Cool Whip. It is the GMO of baked goods. It is Frankenfood.

But despite the off flavor and texture, the cakes always looked glorious. Layered and iced and decorated with roses or shells or swirly patterns, they were a party statement. They demanded attention, like irises do.

I loved, I adored, I cherished the job of cake decorating. Seriously, it was like getting paid to look at paintings. I felt like sculptors must feel when they begin generating an income while making the bowl, the funky windmill made from scrap metal, the blob-o-goo they really see as art.

Since my time in the bakery department, I have set out to find the deeper beauty in cakes. I knew there was cake goodness. Somewhere. A summer or two ago I made it my mission to find buttercream I liked. Buttercream just sounds like something someone like myself should adore.

And then, finally, my Chocolate boss-friend make the chocolate butter cake with passionfruit buttercream. It was a beautiful recreation of a popular truffle she makes at Cocoa Nymph: a chocolatey, tender-crumbed cake paired with layers of slightly tangy melt-in-your-mouth buttercream. Perfect contrast. Perfect texture. And it was made with real-food ingredients.

Since that cake however, I have not really liked any celebration cake I've made. What is with my cake luck? Maybe I don't even like cake. Last weekend I made a cake from Rose Levy Beranbaum's Cake Bible: two layers of dark fudge cake with a milk chocolate buttercream sandwiched between and covering it.

I decided to doodle for the decorations. Think of the cake top
as chocolate scrap-paper.
I know it looks wonky...its been a while!

My one and only alteration was using whole wheat pastry flour instead of white pastry flour. Ms. Rose says this fudge cake is best the same day, but I beg to differ. It just did not hit the spot. It was overwhelmingly sweet, heavy, and tasted too wheat-y. I love chocolate, but I like complexity. The one-dimensional chocolate on chocolate thing without a fabulous texture was just not doing it for me.

To add insult to injury, I actually made two batches of it! I overbaked the first one in an attempt to utilize a babysitter. I went to the store for more chocolate with the cake still baking away in the oven. It wasn't exactly charred, but it was definitely hard around the edges enough to render it inedible for my purposes. (It might still be nice as a bread pudding, or smothered in sauce otherwise.)

As usual, the second went much more smoothly. I breathed deeply a lot and made sure we both had a lot of silence around us. But still, when the night tasting came, I was disappointed.

I tell you of the cake though because as is also usual of other things I've made (banana tart), the next morning's taste was actually totally satisfactory. At room temperature after a night of rest and with a cup of hot coffee, the texture and wheaty flavor had matured and settled down and the meltability of the buttercream was perfect.

Maybe I do like cake. Maybe like other things, the right cake at the right time with the right accompaniments is what its all about. I am already dreaming of the next one (hmm, chocolate cake with pistacio white chocolate cream and a dark ganache overflow on top--actually another combination inspired by a Cocoa Nymph truffle).

So before I give you the recipes...some lessons I have learned:
1) When baking for a crowd, basic ingredients should not be tampered with on the first bake. This includes flour.
2) Follow that intuition for flavor! I cook and bake with contrasts. I like layers: sweet-bitter-deep-sour, creamy-soft-crunchy-chewy. Tamper with the peripheral ingredients accordingly at anytime.
3) Assemble smaller cakes. Two layered celebration cakes are fun, but usually there aren't enough people at the celebration anyway to actually warrant such a big cake. Recipes I find typically make two 9-inch rounds, but I can save one for later so that if I am not personally intrigued with the finished product, I can still tamper with the second round without having to make another cake.

Chocolate on Chocolate Cake (adapted from The Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum)
Next time, I would add some zing to the buttercream and have noted accordingly. Be sure to use a fresh butter that you really enjoy the flavor of and a type of chocolate that makes you swoon.

For the Cake (make the day before serving)

3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons (spooned lightly into a cup) unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa
1 1/2 cup (liquid measure) boiling water
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups whole wheat pastry flour, sifted and lightly spooned
2 cups dark brown sugar, firmly packed
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Butter and flour two 9-inch cake pans and line with parchment at least on the bottom.
In a medium bowl whisk together the cocoa and the boiling water. Let cool.
In another bowl, combine eggs, 1/4 of the cocoa mixture, and vanilla.
In a large mixing bowl combine the remaining dry ingredients and sugar and mix until combined. Add butter and remaining cocoa mixture. Mix on low speed until dry ingredients are moistened, then increase speed to medium and beat for about 1 1/2 minutes to strengthen the structure of the cake. Scrape down sides. Gradually add the egg mixture in three batches beating for about 20 seconds after each addition.
Scrape batter into prepared pans and smooth the surface. Bake 20-30 minutes or until a tester inserted near the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center.
Let cakes cool 10 minutes before loosening the sides with a knife and inverting onto greased wire racks. Reinvert so that the tops are up and cool completely before wrapping.

For the Buttercream:

1 pound milk chocolate
8 ounces dark chocolate
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter
try some spices (1 teaspoon total of cinnamon, cayenne, cardamom, anise) or the zest of 1 orange

Melt chocolate slowly in a double boiler (or a bowl over the pot) over low heat so that the water is just almost simmering. Take the whole contraption off the heat and stir chocolate until it begins to melt. Return to heat if the water becomes cool, just be careful not to overheat the chocolate. Let cool
In a bow beat the butter with the cooled chocolate until uniform in color.
(Keeps at room temperature for 3 days. Do not try and beat straight from the refrigerator, let come to room temperature first.)

Ice the cake and serve at room temperature the day after making, with a hot beverage. Enjoy!

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