Saturday, May 30, 2009

Finally Finding THE ONE: A Chocolate Cake for All Occasions

All bakers can easily tell you the recipes that they consider to be their signature recipes for various occasions. Recipes that they use over and over again. The

tell-tale stain spotted recipe card or the cookbook pages that stick together all leave a trail to a bakers favorite recipes.

Over the years I have narrowed down my brownie recipes to various degrees of effort required. I have one family recipe that calls for cocoa powder and bakes in only 15 minutes. Another brownie recipe is a bit fancier and calls for good chocolate and can be dressed up for a special occasion.

I’ve never had anyone wish for a traditional birthday cake when they see the unexpected sight of brownies poked with candles and piled high on a cake stand for a last minute birthday celebration.

I have a chocolate chip cookie recipe that has become so well known and liked that my daughter often use them as currency (or bribery) at her school.

Years ago I started a Christmas tradition of baking a chocolate chip coffee cake for each family to take home for Christmas morning. I’ve threatened to stop this tradition but intense lobbying on behalf of the tradition flattered me into keeping my oven humming and my house smelling like chocolate and cinnamon each holiday season.

And of course, I have a sugar cookie recipe that comes out with the cookie cutters for all major holidays.

But I have yet to really commit to any one chocolate cake recipe. Sure, I have had many flings with various chocolate cake recipes over the years but none that I considered to be THE ONE or at least one of a few that I go back to time and time again.

It was with this thought in mind that I looked at the recipe for chocolate cake that master baker, teacher and former bakery owner Evie Lieb had emailed to me after the Baker’s Dozen meeting in April.

Perhaps this recipe was going to be THE ONE.

I decided to take a look at the other cake recipes that I had collected but had never made a commitment to as my go to chocolate cake recipe.

Time for a Bake-Off at the ring-a-lings Test Kitchen! I decided that I would look for the following criteria:

Ingredients typically found in pantry or fridge
Multiple serving options: berries, whipped cream, dusting of powdered sugar, frosting, glaze, caramel or chocolate sauce or plain
Looked good – good presentation
Mixed together quickly with a minimum number of bowls and utensils
Consistent results
Minimal time in the oven
Easily made in various pan sizes

First up, the aptly named Everyday Cocoa Cake, a recipe from the February 2003 issue of Gourmet Magazine. I like this recipe because it uses always on hand cocoa powder and is quickly mixed together and poured into a 9” cake pan. I sometimes substitute coffee for the 1.5 cups of water for a richer taste. I can dress it up with a chocolate or caramel sauce or just fresh berries. But I found that the cake didn’t hold up to a glaze or frosting very well. It just wasn’t sturdy enough. So anything other than a dusting of powdered sugar was out of the question. This cake also has to bake for almost an hour, which is a bit long for a last minute gathering.

I next considered a recipe from the February 2008 Gourmet Magazine issue called amusingly enough, Devil Dog Cake. The recipe calls for the cake to be piled high with marshmallow frosting but I nixed that in favor of a simple chocolate frosting. This cake also uses cocoa powder and is baked in an 8” square pan. It bakes for about 55 minutes. I made this cake three times and the first time it was a big hit in the flavor department and it looked impressive with its chocolate frosting thickly spread on top. The second and third time I made it the cake fell in the middle after it cooled. It also only looked good with frosting, not powdered sugar.

I recently read Molly Wizenberg’s (creator of food blog, orangette) new book, A Homemade Life . In her book she talks about her favorite chocolate cake recipe. In fact, she loves it so much she baked 20 of them to be served at her recent wedding! I just had to consider her recipe in this competition. She calls this cake “The Winning Hearts and Minds Cake” because according to Wizenberg, that’s what it does. It uses a good bittersweet chocolate and is pretty much a one-bowl cake; it bakes for about 25 minutes. It doesn’t need a glaze or frosting – it is best served with lightly sweetened whipped cream. And it was a great tasting cake but it wasn’t a good-looking cake. In fact, the cake structure was quite delicate and not that attractive.

On to a recipe from a 1976 issue of the now defunct House & Garden Magazine called Six-Minute Chocolate Cake. I found this recipe in my well-thumbed Moosewood Cookbook. It is certainly the easiest recipe of the ones I tried. You actually mix all the ingredients in one pan so clean up is a breeze. There are no eggs in the recipe, which makes it a good choice when you really are down to the last quart of milk in your fridge. It is another cake that calls for cocoa powder so another ingredient typically on hand in the pantry. I tried this recipe with a simple chocolate glaze. After the glaze is applied to the cooled cake, the cake is then refrigerated. This cake gets rave reviews from guests when served on a hot day with a simple addition of raspberries. The downside of this recipe is that it can’t be released from the pan making for an unimpressive presentation. I might try it in a 9” springform pan next time. It also calls for vinegar, which reacts with the baking soda in the pan. I had a few cakes where the vinegar didn’t get distributed enough throughout the batter despite my best efforts making for a few forkfuls of strange tasting cake.

And last, I tried the recipe from Evie Lieb called “The” Chocolate Cake. I had the pleasure of sitting with Evie at the last Baker’s Dozen gathering. She told me that this is also one of cookbook author Flo Braker’s favorite chocolate cake recipes. In fact, Braker included this recipe (with a few minor tweaks) in her latest masterpiece, Baking for All Occasions under the title of Dark Chocolate Cake, page 350. Lieb and Braker have been friends for many years. They both discovered that this was the other’s favorite chocolate cake back in the 1970s. The original recipe came from Family Circle Magazine. Both Lieb and Braker have adopted this as one of their signature cakes for all types of occasions.

This recipe calls for unsweetened chocolate, sour cream and cake flour -- all ingredients that are typically found in a baker’s pantry.

Because of the sour cream and cake flour, the texture of this cake was very light with a fine crumb. It reminded me of the cake mixes my mom would use in the 1970s but without the chemical aftertaste.

But one of the best things about this cake is that it can be baked in various sizes: 3-8” layers, a single 9”x13” pan or two 9” layers making it a very versatile option for all kinds of occasions. Braker includes even more pan suggestions in her book. Depending on the pan, this cake bakes from 15 minutes to 40 minutes.

It is great served plain, dusted with powdered sugar or frosted. It can also be served with fruit, whipped cream or a caramel or chocolate sauce. As you can see from the photo, my family liked it right out of the pan.

I also made this recipe into a 3-layer cake using 8-inch pans. Fancy!

Evie also gave me her recipe for chocolate frosting which comes together quickly using her food processor method.

So, I think I have a winner – “The” Chocolate Cake met all my criteria. I have already put the recipe Evie Lieb emailed to me in a clear plastic sleeve for all those sticky fingerprints that are sure to accumulate as I reach for this recipe again and again.

(note: at a recent book signing for her latest book, Baking for All Occasions, Flo Braker noted to fellow blogger Rachel Boller that there was an omission in the dark chocolate cake recipe. The correction is to add the melted chocolate just after the eggs.)

1 comment:

  1. Pat, A wonderful looking and tasting cake. Your search reminds me of the late Laurie Colwin (Home Cooking) and her search. I found a link to the 3 chocolate cakes she finally landed on as her best. Here it is