Thursday, September 15, 2005

More Cake, Please

The prune cake, in its natural habitat.

I have, dear readers, incontrovertible evidence that there is evil afoot in the world. I acknowledge that such evidence has not been exactly tough to find in recent times, but evil has, until fairly recently, kept its distance from the anapestic household, lulling me into a false sense of security, making me believe that goodness would always triumph and that I would always be able to find all of my cake pans. But such was not the case last night when I spent a considerable amount of time that I did not really have going through boxes in the basement hoping to find just one of my eight-inch springform pans. Or, for that matter, both of my six-inch springform pans, but none of my springform pans was anywhere. The two six-inchers, the two eight-inchers, the nine-incher, the ten-incher, and the twelve-incher: all gone. (Shut up, Bradford.) I really don't know what to make of it. Has there been some form of pan rapture? Is the apocalypse soon to be upon us, and have only the good pans been taken home to their eternal reward while the regular layer pans have been measured in the balances and found wanting? I don't know, and, for that matter, if there is to be a culinary apocalypse, I have no idea at all what the four horsemen are going to be. Pre-packaged cake mix seems a likely candidate, along with that stuff they sell in tubs and call frosting, but in my saner moments (which I do have: they last for about thirty seconds each and happen almost semi-weekly), I feel that founding a religion on the absence of my springform pans might be premature.

Anyway, nothing was going to stop me from making a redfox-inspired prune cake last night: not having to nag L. to work on learning the fifty states, not having to clean out the mice's cage for the first time (we got the mice last weekend; I put off buying the mice for as long as I could, and I made L. do most of the cleaning, but she and the mice both had to be supervised), not having to do laundry and pack for my last-minute trip to San Francisco for the weekend (I'm leaving this evening to join V. who was out there for a conference: no posts for a few days, I reckon, sorry; drop me an email if there's some place out there where you think I need to eat). Not even having to help A. with her physics homework (Physics? For crying out loud, people, it's the twenty-first century; how can we as a species not have evolved past the need for physics?) was going to keep me from making that cake, so I certainly was not going to be stopped by a little thing like not being able to find the right pan.

Or not having the right ingredients. After my last abject failure at prune procurement, I took no chances this time. I went to the supermarket that is right next to the largest retirement community in Montgomery County, and, sure enough, there were plenty of prunes (oddly, many of them still had their pits in them; I am all for whole foods, but pitting prunes is not my idea of a good time). And, yes, for those of you who know the Maryland suburbs, I live less than three miles from Leisure World. Shut up.

After a great deal of soul and cupboard searching, I decided to use an eight-inch square glass cake pan. I knew this was not an ideal choice and perhaps not even a good choice, but it seemed like the best choice available to me. Let me say up front (oops, too late) that the cake in the square pan was phenomenal, and "phenomenal" is not a word that I use lightly. This is the sort of cake that you taste and then think, "I must have died and gone to heaven! I will finally be reunited with my springform pans! I hope I didn't leave the oven on." Nonetheless, the cake would be better cooked in different pans because it was only phenomenal from about an inch in from the edge. At the edge, it was only very good. And then about 2.5 inches in from the edge, it was underdone (the internal temperature was 150; I would have cooked it longer, but then the edges would have dried out) and required a spoon. (I didn't eat much of the spoon part because I was really not very hungry, and it's a substantial cake even though it's not especially heavy. I put the rest in the freezer, which I never do, but I couldn't bring myself to waste it. I had planned to bring the rest into the office, but while I like my co-workers a lot, I don't like them that much; I like them about enough to bring them a pound cake.) I think that redfox' method of cooking in ramekins is a better preparation, but I suspect that the absolute best preparation would be in individual heatproof cups (ideally, I would use the set of white Corningware teacups that I used to have and that were just perfect for individual plum puddings) cooked for a longer period in a bain marie. With a nice custard sauce. Yum. That would give you the best shot at getting the half-pudding, half-cake consistency that inspired so much mouthjoy last night. ("Mouthjoy" is also not a term I use easily, but mostly because, well, eww.) I will note that my cake (unlike you-know-who's) unmolded perfectly. I was surprised that the center didn't fall through the cooling rack, but it retained its structural integrity very well.

Anyway, I'm going to give the recipe the way I made it, and you can solve the pan problem yourself or wait for future updates. I regret that the measurements are such a mixture of weight, volume, English, and metric, but that is an artifact of the best way to be accurate combined with what I had on hand. I'll try to give notes afterwards to help out people who don't want to weigh their prunes.

The My Prune Cake Is Even Better Than Redfox' a Prune Is Like a Cake Cake Cake

11 oz. prunes
1/2 cup sherry
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
pinch salt
2 T. cocoa powder
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
8 T. butter
1 t. vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/4 cup candied orange peel
50 g bittersweet chocolate

Chop the prunes. I cut them into eighths, but I leave that entirely up to you, so long as you cut them at least into fourths. Pour the sherry over the prunes, cover with plastic wrap and let sit. If possible, do this the day before.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8" square cake pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper or waxed paper.

Set the butter aside to come to room temperature. You can hasten the process by using the microwave. Put the stick of butter on a plate, and microwave on the defrost setting for about 25 seconds. If some of it melts a little, nothing will suffer.

Mince the orange peel and set aside. Chop the chocolate (not too fine) and set aside.

In the bowl of your stand mixer, put the flour, the cocoa, the salt, the sugar, the baking powder, the ginger, and the cinnamon. Using the whisk attachment, mix for about two minutes.

Scrape the butter into the mixer bowl and mix again for a minute or so. Add the vanilla and then the eggs and mix again. Scrape down the bowl if necessary. The batter should resemble buttercream at this point, but it is not buttercream, so do not eat it. Neither should you frost cupcakes with it. Make some real buttercream if you want to do that.

Clean off the whisk as much as possible, then dump the prune mixture, the orange peel, and the chocolate into the batter, and fold in by hand. By "fold," I just mean stir. You don't have to worry about deflating this batter.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smooth it out as much as possible, and bake until it's done, about 35 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for half an hour, then turn it out on a rack to finish cooling.


11 ounces of prunes is about 1.5 cups, measured after they're chopped and packed into the cup. I did not measure exactly, however, so I figured the weight by weighing the prune container with and without the remaining prunes and doing some arithmetic.

Redfox used port, and that would certainly be at least as good. I had some port, but it cost me nearly $40 for the bottle, and I just couldn't. The sherry was a decent Amontillado (I know that you think that this parenthesis is going to contain a reference to a certain nineteenth century American author with a well-developed sense of the macabre, but you are mistaken), but since V. had bought it, I didn't know the price and had no qualms. (He would not, however, have spent more than $20 for it.)

See my notes from my last entry about the mixing method. I have again used the method from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible, but there is nothing to stop you from using the standard method.

Redfox uses half all purpose flour and half whole wheat flour because she has that mixed and ready to go on her counter. I think you could use anything from all whole wheat to all cake flour, and the cake would still be great, though cake flour would probably be pointless here. I went for simplicity and just pulled out the King Arthur.

If I had thought of it, I would have diced the orange peel the day before and put it in with the prunes and sherry to macerate.

50 g of bittersweet chocolate happens to be one-fourth of a Sainsbury's 200g Plain Chocolate bar. You can use half a 100g bar or two ounces of bittersweet chocolate. You don't want to use milk chocolate here, and you don't want to chop the chocolate too finely. You want to be able to taste the little pieces of chocolate that have melted into the cake as it was baking. But you have to chop it finely enough that there are enough little pieces to get all over the cake. Pieces about the size of chocolate chips are probably best.

If you can work it so that the cake is still slightly warm when you eat it, you will be even happier. I think that I would cook individual cakes in small molds and put them back in a hot water bath briefly before serving.

I did use Whey Low in place of the sugar. Using regular granulated sugar should give you the identical result, at least as far as taste goes.

I have not actually tasted the original Prune Is Like a Cake Cake, but I am confident that mine is better. The official reasons are the prolonged soaking period and the inclusion of cocoa, the spices, and the chopped orange peel, but if you choose to think that my cake's superiority is a reflection of moral superiority on my part, I am powerless to stop you, though I could not, in good conscience agree with you, since my cake is not at all far removed from hers, and I would not have even thought of making such a cake if she had not been busy shilling for Big Prune.

During the early parts of the cake making, I was again struck by the similarity between this cake and a Jamaican black cake. I suspect that some marginal gains in the complexity of flavor could be achieved by letting the prunes and orange peel sit in the port or sherry for a longer period. When I first made black cake, I used a recipe by Laurie Colwin from her Gourmet column, and it involved using a large quantity (maybe a full bottle, but I don't remember) of Manischewitz concord grape wine, in which various chopped dried fruits were submerged for a few weeks. My then-roommate Rob thought that what I should really be using was port, and he offered to contribute a bottle for a future batch, but I never took him up on it, and the black cake was awfully good as it was. I haven't made it in a few years, but it is spectacular, and it has a wonderfuly complex flavor that evokes a reaction similar to the one I had last night. Perhaps I will make one for Christmas this year.


Anonymous lindy said...

This all sounds very very good. However, I want some of that black cake. I have been wanting some since I first read of it in one of Ms. Colwin's two cooking books (I forget which one it's in.)

As I am quite concerned for the welfare of others, I feel I should point out that itwould probably do wonders for your karma and so forth if you made it and mailed me some.

11:24 AM  
Anonymous anapestic said...

I can certainly use all the karma points I can rack up, lindy. I know you weren't really asking, but if I do make black cake (and the clock is ticking on that decision, since the fruits need a while to soak), I'll likely make a huge batch, and I'll happily send you some. Assuming it comes out well, of course.

7:02 AM  
Blogger David said...

Prunes, huh? I guess chocolate can make anything taste good.

1:48 PM  
Anonymous lindy said...

Wow. That would be really great. Perhaps I could send an exchange item. I had been thinking about making my mother's Christmas Pudding this year, but it is a serious project, and would have to be done pretty soon to mellow in time for XMas. (Also, it is necessary to have enough time to soak the finished product with weekly doses of Guinness.)

4:49 AM  

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