Sunday, June 9, 2013

Salted Caramel Coconut Chocolate Cake (and my favorite chocolate cake recipe)

It's my mama's birthday coming up this week and my dad is gathering us all together to celebrate.

No surprise, I'm in charge of the cake.  I'm not sure when I became the official family baker and I'll admit, it's a treat when my mom takes over the role and makes me a funfetti-out-of-the-box birthday cake each June, but when it's not my birthday, I do the baking.

This is what I came up with for her this year.

A couple of notes: this is the recipe for my very favorite chocolate cake of all time.  It's adapted from Crescent Dragonwagon's Passionate Vegetarian and is one of those "crazy/wacky cakes" reportedly devised during the Depression and WWII as it doesn't call for eggs, butter or milk--ingredients that were scarce at the time.  That also means it's vegan, though even compared to non-vegan recipes, it remains my favorite; it creates a reliably moist, chocolaty cake that never turns dry on me.  I deepen the flavor by using coffee (either stove top espresso or cold brew concentrate) for the liquid and using a bit of black cocoa powder instead of all Dutch-process; both of these adjustments give it a slightly bitter layer over the sweet.  I've been making this recipe for 10 years and finally, a couple of years ago, gave up trying other chocolate cake recipes because I always want to come back to this one.

There's just six of us tonight and none of us will eat half a leftover cake, so I halved all of the recipes except for the salted caramel (that will keep indefinitely in the fridge).  I have a six inch spring form pan and made two layers in there, one after the other, using a halved batch of cake batter.  That's another great thing about this recipe: the batter doesn't fall flat even if you leave it on the counter for 30 or so minutes.

Before you start any of the other components, make up some salted caramel spread.  Seriously, once you nail this recipe, keep some in the fridge at all times--instant luscious dessert either with cookies, as ice cream topping or fruit dip.  While you're making that, toast up about 1 c. of shredded coconut, sweetened or unsweetened.

Chocolate Cake

Makes two 8" cake rounds, one 13x9" sheet cake, 24 cupcakes or 48 mini cupcakes

Preheat oven to 350°.

Grease and flour your cake tins, then line them with parchment (parchment changed my cake-making world!  No more broken cakes.)

In a large mixing bowl, briefly mix together until mostly blended:

  • 7 T. Dutch process cocoa powder (breaking up any large clumps)
  • 3 T. black cocoa powder (your secret weapon for homemade oreos!)
  • 3 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. salt 
Make a well in the center of these ingredients and add:

  • 1 c. coffee
  • 1 c. water (you can certainly use all coffee if you wish)
  • 1/3 c. mild vegetable oil, such as canola or corn
  • 2 T. apple cider or white vinegar
  • 1 T. vanilla
This is the part I love about this recipe: you can take a fork and quickly mix this until it's smooth or mix it with the paddle attachment of your stand mixer.  Typically with gluten recipes leavened with baking soda or powder (i.e. not yeast breads), you want to mix the batter as little as possible to avoid overdeveloping the gluten.  Overdeveloped gluten results in a tough cake that fails to rise properly (ever had a chewy piece of banana bread?  Overdeveloped gluten.).  However, in my experience, you can mix this cake a little past the "just barely" stage; my hunch is you want a bit of gluten development to hold the cake together in the absence of eggs, which typically act both as binder and leavener.  If you're mixing in a stand mixer or a roller-derby style fork mixer, go at it for perhaps two minutes.  More delicate (or distracted) mixing might want an extra minute.  Then transfer the batter to your prepared pans, thwack the pans once or twice on the counter to remove air bubbles and put in the oven.  No matter what kind of pan you're using, don't open the oven door for at least 20 minutes--doing so lets in a whoosh of cool air that can quickly cool the oven just enough for your cake to sink in those critical minutes when its structure is setting (I guess I have to offer the full disclosure that I've given up on perfectly domed cakes at high altitude.  Mine almost always are either mostly flat on top or ever so slightly sunken.  I just use more frosting to hide it.  You just don't want them to fall any more than necessary, which means no premature oven opening.)

In my experience, you can check full size cupcakes at 20 minutes and 8" rounds at about 25 (mini cupcakes are excluded from the 20 minute rule--they're usually done at 17).  Check 13x9" cakes at 30.  When a knife or toothpick stuck into the center come out with moist crumbs but no wet batter attached, remove the cake from the oven, let it cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then remove it from the pan and continue to let it cool until it's room temperature.

Cream Cheese Frosting

Probably adapted from somewhere but I just wing it.  Again, I halved this recipe for the mini cake.

10 T. unsalted butter
2 8 oz. packages full-fat cream cheese
2ish cups of powdered sugar
a nice dash of vanilla
a little sprinkle of salt--perhaps 1/4 teaspoon

Whip the butter, cream cheese and vanilla together either in a stand mixer or with a hand mixer just until they look like one substance instead of three.

Add the powdered sugar and salt and slowly (unless you like a kitchen coated in powdered sugar) begin to beat it in until it begins to blend, at which point turn the speed up and beat the dickens out of it for at least 2 minutes until it's nice and fluffy-ish (I like a less-sweet cream cheese frosting, but if you're piping it or otherwise need it to have some oomph, add more powdered sugar until your texture is right).

To assemble:

Place one cake layer on a cake plate which waxed-paper strips laid under the edges to give a clean finish.  Spread about 1/2 c. of the salted caramel on top, then place the other cake half over it.  Put this in the fridge for an hour or so to firm up the caramel, allowing it to glue the layers together (this is a great time to make your cream cheese frosting).  Remove the cake from the fridge, cover it in a very thin layer of frosting (your crumb layer), then put it back in the fridge until the frosting is firm (I know, I know!  It's hot here right now and everything's a melting mess, but a little diligence pays big dividends in pretty cakes.).  Remove the cake and slather it in a fat luscious layer of frosting, then take handfuls of your coconut and firmly press them into the sides of the cake until there's an even coat all around.  Then take a nice blob of the salted caramel, drop it on the top, then take the whole thing and put it back in the fridge until about an hour before you want to serve it (cold mutes sweet flavors, so you always want to serve desserts at their intended temperatures, lest they not taste appropriately sweet).

Happy birthday to my mama!



Saturday, June 1, 2013

Macaron Love

I became fascinated with those gorgeous boxes of LadurĂ©e macarons long ago.  Are you familiar with them?  Never having tasted a macaron, it was their beauty that attracted me...those perfect round sandwiches of bright colors with fillings squishing out from between the halves, each a little different but similar enough to create cohesion.  For whatever reason, despite fifteen years of sometimes intense baking experience, I assumed those macarons were out of reach.  I even spent a quick minute researching how much it would cost to have some shipped over from San Fransicso or purchase some from the only local bakery (to my knowledge) that makes them.

Then grad school ended and I remembered the internet.

I started with one batch, following this fantastic, precise and easy to follow tutorial.  I assumed they'd fail, as macarons have a reputation for being finicky, but they worked and I spent the following five hours making five more batches in different colors (the colors!  I can't stop).  They were wonderfully chewy with a simple but satisfying flavor--almost a mix between cookie and candy, as good meringue should be.  I filled them with Swiss buttercream (cutting the recipe for a nine inch cake in half filled six batches of macarons and then some), beaten with a half batch of this salted caramel spread (Obsessed.  Make some to eat with your Biscoffs or to fill your next chocolate cake.)  They're divine.  Totally, totally divine.

Today, I made four more batches, tiny little ones not more than an inch and a half in diameter.  They're joining the others in the freezer (filled macarons freeze beautifully) to be pulled out for the big fiesta.  Seeing my little kitchen table covered today in piles of macarons hit a high note deep inside of me.  This day was a good one.