Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Chocolate Cake with Basil Buttercream and Blackberries

I'm sitting here in my running pants, the vestiges of my mother's birthday party (two weeks ago) still bopping around the lower living room, and instead of cleaning them up or showering or getting on with my day, I am reliving the edible components of my own birthday: a chocolate cake, with basil buttercream, and blackberries. Nothing like a run to get your priorities straight.

My own birthday has gone the way of my mother's, but the cake I baked feels rather timeless. Am I allowed to say without sounding overenthusiastic that this was the best birthday cake ever? That it was my perfect cake? Am I allowed to admit I would kiss Sarah from Vanilla Bean Blog if I had the chance for creating it? Because this creation embodies the pull and shove, the confusion and complexity of people like me. 

The cake itself is all chocolate melodrama: bitter-edged with a clarity of (chocolate) flavor and a tendency to moistness that only comes from a oil-based batter. It gives the baker a heart attack or two, even with the advice of prior bakers, as if it were a moody teenager that won't get her act together. The batter so lacks structure when you pour it into the pans you are sure it will never firm up and do what it is meant to do. You are sure it will be a weepy, gooey, gross mess. But then it surprises you. The cake bakes. It rises. And it does exactly what you hoped it would, in its own way.

All the nail-biting is kind of ridiculous in retrospect. Because even though I've been touting cake simplicity for a while, this is the simplest grand cake I've baked so far. No creaming of butter and sugar. No separating egg yolks or whipping whites. This is one of those recipes where I am sliding it into the oven just ten minutes after I wave goodby to the kids and my Beloved through the window. And I am finishing up the dishes as they walk up the path to the door, having only gone to the store for milk.

In fact, I stood there after it was done with my hands in that ubiquitous hip-holding position, feeling all pleased with myself and preparing to say hello again, and then I panicked: this can't be right: I am done? And I'm only slightly fearful that all the advice Sarah gives is somehow terribly wrong?

But I was done. And she wasn't wrong. And though it surely isn't essential, even this back and forth emotional movement suits the cake. The darkness, the simplicity, the complexity, the spring and moistness of the crumb, it is all so very fitting.

The buttercream on the other hand is all lightness and visual deception. It swoops. It billows. It is like pudding whipped into oblivion. Actually, it is pudding whipped into oblivion. Instead of the usual Italian or Swiss meringue or the French creme anglaise base, this basil buttercream uses a beaten flour-thickened milk and cream, to which we add butter. This is a new genre for me, and an exciting one because the milk base lends itself to infusions. I keep searching around for information regarding the method's origins. Could it be American? Pudding feels American to me. Curious if anyone else feels the same.

Origin and nationality aside, this buttercream is much more suited to summers than the other buttercreams. When it gets a little warm - and mine did - it actually tastes better than when cold. Served like this, that deceiving lightness manages a structured mouthfeel that is obviously not at all fluffy or airy (like with the meringue) and not at all buttery or greasy (like with too-warm French ). Every few minutes I'd catch myself tasting it, feeling it, pondering it.

Folks, I need to go on a spiritual pilgrimage or something. The soul finds what it needs wherever it can: this time I have been moved and enlightened by buttercream. Who knew it was that simple?

Chocolate Cake with Basil Buttercream and Blackberries          

As I have noted a few times, this cake recipe is adapted from Sarah Kieffer's fabulous Vanilla Bean Blog. Not only does Sarah post some stunning photography, but this spring she also won Saveur's  Best Baking and Desserts Blog award for 2014. Congratulations, Sarah. You've earned it. 

Chocolate Cake 
adapted from Ina Garten via Sarah
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup dutch-processed cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup hot French press coffee, or other strong brew

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter two 8 inch round cake pans. Line the bottoms with a circle of parchment paper, then butter again and coat all with flour. Set aside.

Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl and mix with a wooden spoon, whisk, or spatula until combined. You could also use a mixer, but the power behind it is a little overkill.

In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs and vanilla.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients slowly, then add the hot coffee and stir until just combined. The batter will, again, be very thin. (Don't have that heart attack.)

Pour the batter into your prepared pans and bake for 30-40 minutes, until a skewer poked into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Cool the cakes in the pans for at least 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge to loosen, and turn out onto cooling racks bottom side down. Let cool completely before assembling.

When your cakes are ready, make your buttercream:

Basil Buttercream
adapted from Baked Explorations via Sarah

Sarah suggested doubling her buttercream for a four layer cake, so I did. But I had a lot of frosting leftover. Here you find 1 1/2 times her recipe, a little awkward with extra tablespoons and the like, but I'm getting a kick out of properly proportioned cake elements. If you want leftovers (for cupcake tops, macaron filling, or midnight snacks), by all means, scroll down further. I've done the math for a full doubled version*, too.

For a 4-layer cake without extra:
2 1/4 cups whole milk
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 1/2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
generous 1/2 cup (9 tablespoons) all purpose flour
2 1/4 cups (4 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened and cut into small slices or nubs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Bring the milk, heavy cream, and basil to just a simmer in a small saucepan. Remove from heat, cover, and let come to room temperature before transferring to the refrigerator for 4 to 8 hours. Overnight is convenient.

Strain the milk, pressing out all the liquid still clinging and hiding to the leaves.

Prepare the stand mixer: bowl and beater in place. In another saucepan whisk together the sugar and flour until combined. Add in the infused milk mixture and whisk over medium heat until it boils, about 15 minutes. Let it simmer a little. The pudding should thicken substantially.

Pour the pudding into the bowl of the stand mixer and beat at high speed until cool, about ten minutes.

When cool, begin adding the butter, a little at a time, then beat a little longer after the butter is incorporated until the buttercream is light and fluffy and has a pleasant spreading consistency.

Note: when I said I liked the buttercream warm, I did not mean when I was mixing it. Don't let your butter sit out too long if it is hot out or it will be too loose and floppy. The butter should be just soft to the touch, so that if you try to poke your finger into a pat of it, it indents easily (but not greasily) instead of breaks. The mantra: temperature is everything.

Likewise, you can make the buttercream ahead of time, days before, but the buttercream must warm up to room temperature before you can attempt to beat it. When it has warmed, allow for at least five minutes to beat and get fluffy again. The texture should be the same as when you first made it before you begin to frost your cake.

*For a four-layer cake with a generous amount leftover:
3 cups whole milk
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 cups basil, loosely packed
3 cups sugar
2/3 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups (6 sticks) butter, unsalted, softened, cut into small bits


2 8-inch round chocolate cakes
1 recipe basil buttercream
3-4 pints blackberries, ollalieberries, tayberries, or marionberries

When the cakes are cool and the buttercream made, set up your first cake layer on a board or cake plate bottom side down.

With a long bread knife, even out any obvious mounds. Snack. Then carefully slice the leveled layer in half horizontally, and slide the top section onto an extra rack or board or other flat, moveable surface, and set aside.

Dollop a generous amount of buttercream onto the first layer and spread to coat. Scatter some blackberries (cut in half, if large) over this. Slide on top the other half of the layer, cut side down, and press down gently to moosh in the blackberries, match buttercream to cake, and even out your top surface. Repeat.

With the second cake layer, even it out and slice it in half before you set it on top of the cake. Begin this time with the top half of the second layer, cut side up. Then proceed as before: generous dollop, spread, berries, lid, ending at last with the bottom (flat side) of the second layer facing up. I find it is easier to frost the cake this way, and see if it is level.

Coat the entire four-layer cake with a thin coat of buttercream, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, and up to overnight. But keep in mind the inner frosting: if you are going to cool it for some time, you can ice the cake upon removal from the refrigerator, but let it sit at room temperature for at least two hours before serving. Otherwise the outer buttercream will be soft and the inner will be cold and hard. Temperature, temperature, temperature...

Smooth another healthy dollop of buttercream on the top of the cool (hard to the touch) crumb-coated cake, then spread buttercream on the sides. Pipe or decorate as desired. Pile the rest of the berries on top. Serve at room temperature, with black tea or coffee, if you like. And enjoy!


  1. This is a beautiful (looking and sounding) cake. The photo with the slice taken out is yet more alluring. Even before trying it, basil in buttercream seems to make a lot of sense. Maybe for my own birthday. I love your description of the moody teenager batter.

    More cakes!

    1. Thanks Andrea. basil in this particular buttercream makes even more sense. I hope you get to make it your birthday cake. I highly recommend it.

  2. This looks like my kind of cake/icing, too. It's on the docket for my own birthday now (actually, I'll have to decide between this and your pink champagne cake). Your photos are looking fantastic! Can we hang out? Ugh.

    1. Ooh, the champagne cake, yeah, tough call. Depends what time of year your birthday is. The champagne cake was nice in coolish weather.