Chocolate Cake For The Soul
“Let's face it, a nice creamy chocolate cake does a lot for a lot of people. It does for me.”
When I am in need of some soulful contemplation, the kitchen is where you will find me. I was baking cake this past holiday season--- just the thing to make during rainy weather and melancholy moods. Seeking ways to cheer myself, I read through cake recipes. "Chocolate cake," I thought to myself, "what a good idea."
Like a hopeful little girl peering through the display case of cakes, I searched for a recipe. It was Christmas time and I was in the mood to bake something sweet. When I bake, the first thing I like to do is to put on a favorite apron. I feel pretty doing this, just like dressing up for a party. Cold gray weather is chased away by the warmth of the oven. The smell of cake batter, the wonder of dark chocolate. Humming along to Ella, Nina, Billie and Etta, cracking eggs into a bowl, measuring out sugar, creaming butter, sifting cocoa, melting chocolate.
Cake. It evokes so many memories. I'm ten years old, waiting for my girlfriends to arrive for my birthday party. My mom is in the kitchen preparing a strawberry shortcake layer cake. It has big strawberries glazed in syrupy red on top. I wore the same jelly color on my lips--- my favorite lip-gloss. Maybelline Kissing Potion, Strawberry.
The scent of cake brings me back to my childhood summers, running through sprinklers, warm evening breezes, the scent of gardenias and jasmine and the odors of other things like barbeques and suntan lotion. When I smell cake, a cascade of memory pours through my senses--- the kitchen in my grandmother’s house, her The Joy of Cooking cookbook on the countertop, the laughter of my two aunties, conspiring with each other about lighting birthday candles and when to bring out the cake. Birthday parties, colored icing, my son eating platefuls of cake as a toddler, hands and face covered in icing, wax dripping in pink, blue. Paper party plates, plastic utensils, marbled green and chocolate 'monster cake' at elementary school Halloween carnivals, my two daughters, their birthday cakes, hot pink sprinkled cupcakes. Memory of cake and love: sharing a slice with my children and letting them eat all of the cake, taking only a bite for myself. A pink pastry box full of memories opens up, where the scent of cake lures and leads me down the road from my grandmother’s house to my tenth birthday in summertime, to my own kitchen, as my children wait for a taste of whipped cream and cake frosting from the whisk.
Baking came to me easily. I don't know why. My mother didn’t teach me, nor did my grandmother. Though my mother wasn’t the baking type, I do have one fond memory of her in the kitchen. It was an evening just before my school year ended for summer vacation, mid-June, my birthday, the 14th. My mom was making cupcakes with red icing for my birthday. I’m sure it was Betty Crocker from a box or possibly Pillsbury. She poured ribbony batter into cheery paper cupcake liners held sturdy by a muffin tin and placed them delicately into our O’Keefe & Merritt oven. The scent of cake filled the house. I couldn't wait for the cupcakes to come out of the oven, hot, steaming in the centers, eating them plain. My mom made these to bring to my classroom. The icing was colored with bright carmine red, because I was fascinated by that color--- carmine red--- and I loved to say it. Carmine red is also known as Natural Red 4 or cochineal, a red color made from insects. I didn't know about where the color came from, or question the plastic tube of food dye. This was the 1970’s and I was just a girl in elementary school that obsessed on the names of pigments in paint tubes and crayons. To me carmine red food dye was for concoction and creation, being a magnificently edible color. The cupcakes were all decorated with toothpick American flags and rainbow sprinkles.
Angel food cake mystified me with its pillowy white cake that fluffed from egg whites. My mom made it in an orange-colored Bundt cake pan, offering it up in large slices with fresh strawberries. Cake, white like clouds and cotton puffs. It was miraculous how it seemed less of cake and more of something heavenly.
On the cover of Bon Appetit was a beautiful Spiced Bundt cake with Apple Caramel Sauce that captured my eye. A snowy layer of powdered sugar and caramel on top of the cake made it so alluring. It looked too perfect to be real. But I attempted the spice cake for Thanksgiving dinner. I didn't expect to create the sort of perfection required for the cover page of a magazine. I craved spice cake with that powdery drift of sugar. Meanwhile, the four-burner electric stove of my little kitchen handled a big clay pot of soup, another pot next to it full of water and milk for celeriac puree, while the oven was filled with four Cornish game hens, and a cranberry port sauce reduced on simmer in a pan. I made caramel for the spice cake and kept the Tahitian Vanilla Bean Gelato hidden in the freezer, away from the sticky hands of my two sweet-obsessed little girls. The cooling spice cake smelled wonderful with the aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg, though it didn't come out of the cake pan well enough, so I dressed it with pecans and caramel. I wanted it to come out like my grandmother’s spiced Bundt cake. Once out of the oven, it smelled marvelous. But the cake was ruined on the top when I overturned it. What to do? I remedied the surface with a heaping amount of caramel crusted pecans. The cake itself reminded me of a giant sticky bun. I wasn't terribly proud of it but no one complained. It tasted good although a bit dry, so more caramel and ice cream added helped matters much. Vanilla ice cream added to any cake can make a difference, and the spice cake absorbed it in creamy amounts.
But chocolate cake was the answer to all of my winter baking questions. When in doubt, it comforts, no matter what name, shape or form.
I baked a chocolate cake on Christmas day with my four-year-old daughter. She was excited at the mention of baking chocolate cake with mommy. She loves her little matching apron, pouring in the ingredients into the mixing bowl. Flour and sugar accidentally spill out, she can't help it. The dark chocolate, the butter. She cracks eggs as carefully as she can, sometimes too much. I tell her, "don't worry, be brave." Then I show her how to break the egg against the edge of the mixing bowl. With a giggle she does it again, and the egg comes out perfectly without a speck of shell. She is pleased. Her four year old fingers take care in opening the egg. She mixes it up with a whisk.
We hurried out the door to meet my aunt and grandmother for our Christmas day tradition of dining at our favorite Chinese restaurant. I left the cake cooling in its pan on top of a cake rack. I was sure it would be just fine when we returned.
After dinner we had tea at my aunt's. She gave me a Chocolate Babka that my other auntie sent to her mail ordered from Zabar’s. It came in a package and the expiration date was set for sometime in February. I marveled at how a cake could last that long when my own don’t last more than three to four days. When we returned home, the chocolate cake stuck in its pan. I ran a knife along the outer rim to see if it would turn out onto the plate. No such luck.
It's just another excuse to make more chocolate cake, I sighed. I knew I had buttered and floured the pan. Though I still had a pan full of rich chocolate cake at my mercy. With heavy cream in the fridge, some rum, Zabar's chocolate babka and a wedge of Valrhona dark chocolate, I set about to make chocolate cake trifle. Trifle was what I made when things didn’t come out the way I hoped. It was a symbolic approach to life, how to make things better. If a cake doesn’t come clean out of the pan, make trifle. It’s all a matter of attitude.
Chocolate is enough to lighten anyone's heart. Chocolate, the aphrodisiac, the temptress, the cacao vixen of romance, lust and passion, if not chocolate for love and the love of chocolate, then what?
“Happiness. Simple as a glass of chocolate or tortuous as the heart. Bitter. Sweet. Alive.”
-Joanne Harris, Chocolat
Like Marcel Proust's memories evoked from a madeleine and a cup of tea, I had the desire to bake chocolate cake when I inhaled the seductive cocoa in its tin container while making hot chocolate for my children. I was a little girl again. I longed for comfort. I needed consolation. I wanted to be five years old, the smell of cake, birthday parties, happiness.
I wanted chocolate. Chocolate, in all its many forms, is the one thing, the aphrodisiac that evokes memories and emotions. It seduces, its mystery is never ending. It is an emotional and symbolic food. Combine this with something like cake, and it transports the sentimental impressions of chocolate to a blissful level.
I've looked and looked for the best chocolate cake recipe. Chocolate cake, chocolate layer cake, best chocolate cake recipes, chocolate lava cake, chocolate cake with coffee buttercream icing, double chocolate cake, raspberry chocolate cake, chocolate cake with cocoa frosting, devil's food chocolate cake with fudge frosting. Bon Appetit's Ten Years of Fabulous Chocolate Cakes gave me some clues down the path of looking for that perfect chocolate cake. The one that reminded me of a birthday party. Nothing complicated, fancy or dated. No salted caramel filling, no raspberries, no fudge or coffee additions. Just a simple chocolate cake. A chocolate layer cake. But mayonnaise?
Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake, the Bon Appetit recipe heralded. I'm not quite sure of this. But of course, I will try it. Since Christmas passed by, and the New Year has begun, I've longed to make a chocolate cake like this--- one that has three layers and chocolate icing. Each day I wonder, among the many things to do, with my children to take to school, with hours filled with work, with driving around the city, with errands and such at task, will I bake that chocolate cake today? A perfect, chocolatey, easy to come out of the cake pan chocolate cake? It's like asking, today can I make time for a little romance out of my busy to-do list?
I gathered all the bittersweet baking chocolate I could from the supermarket aisle. I would finally bake chocolate cake if I had to stay up at night to do it. I had saved a special bar of bittersweet cacao by a local artisan chocolatier, Chocovivo. The bar was a flaky, bitter stone ground chocolate, 85% cacao. I'd mix that with the Valerie blend of hot chocolate, and the sweetness would be tempered by the bitter. The recipe calls for mayonnaise. Do not pay attention to that and just follow the recipe. You will be happy you did.
I did make a few changes to this recipe--- using Chocovivo 85% cacao, Ghirardelli 60% cacao bittersweet baking chocolate squares, and Valerie Hot Chocolate mix instead of unsweetened cocoa. I used cake flour instead of all-purpose flour. Also I made my own frosting with mascarpone and the hot chocolate mix instead of the recommended frosting recipe from the Bon Appetit magazine recipe.
I took this cake to a friend's restaurant for a party, and one of the guests asked for "just a thin slice," however after eating it, he decided to have another. With a Amelie-like mischievous smile, I suggested that the cake might be an aphrodisiac. I hoped he went home to his wife with some chocolate-inspired passion. It's good to inspire such romance!
Chocolate Chocolate Cake with Cocoa Mascarpone Frosting
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine (I used Ghirardelli 60% cacao)
1 ounce 85% cacao, chopped fine (stone ground rustic chocolate-- Chocovivo brand)
2/3 cup hot cocoa powder (I used Valerie Confectioners Hot Chocolate mix)
1 3/4 cups boiling water
2 3/4 cups cake flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup sugar
1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
1 1/3 cups mayonnaise (do not use reduced-fat or fat-free)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6-8 tablespoons (or more) Hot Chocolate Mix (Valerie Confectioners brand or similar)
24 ounces (3 tubs) mascarpone, room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons or more, whole milk, to thin frosting
Three 8-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour three 8-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides. Combine chopped chocolate and cocoa powder in medium metal bowl. Add 13/4 cups boiling water and whisk until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.
Sift flour, baking soda, and baking powder into another medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat both sugars and mayonnaise in large bowl until well blended, 2 to 3 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating until well blended after each addition. Beat in vanilla. Add flour mixture in 4 additions alternately with chocolate mixture in 3 additions, beating until blended after each addition and occasionally scraping down sides of bowl. Divide batter among prepared cake pans (about 2 1/3 cups for each).
Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, 30 to 32 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on racks 20 minutes.
Run small knife around sides of cakes to loosen. Carefully invert cakes onto racks and let cool completely.
Place mascarpone in a mixing bowl with the hot chocolate mix and powdered sugar.
Using electric mixer, beat mascarpone, hot chocolate mix and powdered sugar in large bowl until smooth and creamy. Beat in vanilla. Add more chocolate if you wish (to taste) until well blended and smooth, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl. Thin with whole milk if necessary.
Place 1 cake layer on platter. Spread 3/4 cup frosting over top of cake layer to edges. Top with second cake layer; spread 3/4 cup frosting over. Top with third cake layer. Spread remaining frosting decoratively over top and sides of cake. Dust with cocoa and powdered sugar for decoration.
DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover with cake dome and let stand at room temperature.
Cut cake into wedges and serve.