Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Black Cake III

Memory, friends, is a fungible commodity. And I don't mean malleable, though it is most certainly that, too. I mean that your brain (or at least my brain; it is undoubtedly wrong to assume that your relatively sane and ordered brain works in the same manner as my brain, which, were it not kept in relative check by my skull, would at this moment be rolling around Costco, trying to sing the ingredient list for Ferrero Rocher or Almond Roca to a Johnny Cash tune) stores its memories in little units which might show up where they don't necessarily belong so that when you're remembering that time when you were twelve and washing the dog and ended up face down in the mud, your brain might have shifted part of what happened from another episode to the first episode. For your entertainment, of course.

So it's entirely possible, maybe even probable, that when I remember the original Gourmet version of Laurie Colwin's story on Black Cake as being somewhat different from the one that appears in Home Cooking that I am mistaken. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that my brain is not playing tricks on me in this one instance. I am pretty sure that in the original column, there was more and/or different discussion about decorating the black cake and that this discussion included the phrase "Black cake is elegant" as part of an explanation as to why you should use silver dragees but not sprinkles.

Regardless of just how fevered my brain may or may not be at the moment, however, I wasn't entirely satisfied with my decoration of my black cake. It looks a bit like a reject from a Weyerhauser advertising design contest. Alas. When you decorate your black cake, you will do better because you will not have my visual/artistic limitations.

Ms. Colwin, whose work I cannot help but adore, recommended using an egg white and confectioner's sugar icing for the black cake, and I would not have considered disregarding her advice in this matter. She did not give the recipe, claiming that it was available in "any cookbook," by which one assumes that she meant any reasonably comprehensive cookbook and not, say, 365 Ways To Cook Chicken. I took my recipe out of Joy of Cooking, more or less. Ms. Colwin had recommended adding some almond extract so I did. Basically, you take two egg whites, beat them until they're stiff, and then beat in half a teaspoon of almond extract, the juice of half a lemon, and most of a pound of powdered sugar. You add the powdered sugar and lemon juice alternately, until you have a spreadable consistency and a sufficient quantity for your cake.

This icing dries quickly and hard, so you'll need to work swiftly or keep it covered with a damp cloth. You would be well advised to use first a small amount of the icing for a thin crumb coat.

You might also be well advised to then discard the remaining egg white icing and instead use a nice buttercream to finish. The egg white icing was probably originally recommended because a full-sized black cake is a lot of cake, and the hard dried egg white icing will retain its character more or less indefinitely. But if you have some way to make sure that the cake is going to be eaten in a relatively short period of time, why not go for something that tastes like something besides powdered sugar, at least for the finish coat? Of course, if you use the egg white icing, it is relatively easy to remove it from your slice of cake with your fork in one or a few pieces, so you don't actually have to eat it, but one presumes that a softer icing with an almond flavoring (and that is less than 90% sugar; the black cake is already plenty sweet) would be welcome. Or maybe I just don't know how to make good egg white icing, a possibility I am more than willing to consider.

If I had it to do again (and I do, given that even after I've mailed all the ones I'm mailing, I'll still have a sizeable one left), I would have remembered to get some paste food coloring so that I could make a large quantity of red icing and a smaller quantity of green, and then I would have iced the cake in red and piped green holly leaves across the top. And then I would put on some silver dragees. After all, black cake is elegant.


Anonymous leslie said...

My husband's family is English so they go in for Christmas cake in a big way. This is a black cake although I don't think it's as good as what you've been writing about. The icing has been the source of much hilarity over the years. Royal icing is hard but there are degrees of hardness. The most memorable year it took a hammer and chisel to break into the cake and the platter didn't survive the exercise. One can control the hardness with the addition of a little glycerine according to Rose Levy Berenbaum but I'm not fond enough of it to have explored it.

5:09 PM  
Anonymous lindy said...

The English version is not only harder, but also thicker than one might imagine. Often, there is a layer of marzipan under the top layer of icing, as I recall, Leslie?
I know it is awful, yet I have a sneaking fondness for it.

It brings to mind a birthday celebrated, when I was little, in England, with my elderly Auntie Florrie, who shared my birthday. The eight year old and the old lady were equally delighted with the fancy (and rigid) royal icing roses and birds on our mutual cake, which said "Happy Birthday Linda and Florrie" on it, as if we were twins. I do believe I eventually ate all the decorations, as I was being indulged.

Or, come to think of it, maybe the adults were just too smart to eat them.

I think encasing a fruit cake in that stuff probably helps preserve it.

6:08 PM  
Blogger anapestic said...

Marzipan! I had even thought, several times over the past few months, that what the cake really needed was a layer of marzipan under the frosting, and I even had most of a pound of blanched almonds that I had spent an hour removing the skins from and that I could easily have made into marzipan, but it did not occur to me last weekend. I think that in future, I should like to make at least some of the cakes small enough to serve at a single event and cover them with sweetened whipped cream flavored with almond extract. If memory serves, The Cake Bible also has ways to extend the life of whipped cream.

I hope the platter that was lost to the hammer and chisel was not a family heirloom, leslie. Surely it is worth the loss of any ordinary platter to have such a good story.

5:15 AM  
Anonymous leslie said...

I've never had a Christmas cake with marzipan under the icing but it sounds like it would be a good addition. You're right about the hard icing being used to preserve the cake - one soaks it in booze (usually brandy in B's family) and encases it in the icing to age for several months.

Sadly the platter was one my mother-in-law had decorated - she used to do china painting. After that incident the cakes were always broken into on a carving board instead of a platter!

The Cake Bible's method for stabilizing whipped cream uses gelatin. It gives a weird, spongy texture to the cream which I don't much like but does let one hold a cake at room temperature for quite a bit longer without the cream softening too much.

6:42 AM  
Blogger meretrice i. d'oscena said...

Leslie is right on about RLB's stabilized cream- it stands up beautifully between cake layers, but the texture is a little wrong. But who am I to question Rose, the Mr. Spock of baking.
Her books read more like epic sci-fi to me, as though I am reading 'Dune' with 85 versions of buttercream standing in for the Spice. One of these days, I'm going to make that Crimson Empress charlotte thing that looks like a raspberry brain, just to see if anyone will eat it.

I'm new to this blog and am loving it; and as a fan of dark, heavy, spicy, soaked-in-so-much-booze-it's-a-fire-hazard fruit cakes, am fascinated by this black cake.

Is the fruit soaked in Manischewitz not too sweet? As a Nashville boy, I always soak my cakes in bourbon; is the wine going to be too sweet for me?

11:21 AM  
Blogger anapestic said...

Is "Meretrice" a common name in Nashville? This is one of those situations in which I'd be better off if I'd really learned Italian and not just how to pronounce it for singing, isn't it?

You are certainly welcome to soak the black cake in Bourbon after it's baked. I don't know how essential the Manischewitz during the initial maceration is to the finished product, but there are other ways to control the sweetness, of course.

I would probably not subject this cake to a whipped cream that had been stabilized with gelatine. I would probably just try to put the whipped cream on at the last minute or use a buttercream and pass the whipped cream separately.

I am, of course, very impressed with RLB, but there are areas where she and I disagree. She believes, for example, that the best way to get a strong chocolate flavor in a cake is to replace a lot of the chocolate with cocoa, and I think that's just wrong. Her buttercreams, however, are heaven.

11:45 AM  
Blogger meretrice i. d'oscena said...

You sing too?
Meretrice is more of an unheard-of name in Nashville. Sorry to be such an opera you-know-what, but I have used that name to post on an opera site,

I'll try the wine sometime- not everyone, even down here, enjoys the earthy taste of bourbon as much as I. Wine and rum would surely be more universal.

This cake is also a nice alternative to the traditional candied fruit used in fruitcakes.

I made a more uppity Martha S-type frutcake last year with no supermarket candied fruit, just good dates, golden raisins, dried cranberries, figs, apricots, dried cherries and the like, but some people were put off by the absence of the green/red cherries.
And the figs really freaked them out, but I thought they were incredible. I still have half a loaf of that cake from last year.
Two bites and you've got your beer goggles on, but the flavor has become amazingly complex.

1:05 PM  
Anonymous leslie said...

I have made the Crimson Empress charlotte and it was wonderful although a lot of work. RLB doesn't believe in a simple recipe when she can devise a more complicated version but I've never had a recipe fail following her directions. I find I can often shortcut her incredibly meticulous versions though.

7:17 PM  
Blogger meretrice i. d'oscena said...

Thanks, Leslie--
It's good know going in that all that work will not be in vain.
Did anyone have a problem with the brain-like appearance, or is that just me worrying?

I just made a "Gingerbread Cake with Candied Kumquats" that I renamed the Pain-In-The-Ass cake because it was so time-consuming to slice and seed all those kumquats. And then, the kumquat slices that covered the top of the cake looked like sliced cherry tomatoes (albeit greenish-yellow ones). 10 different guests told me that they thought they were tomatoes, and I swore that I would keep the cake recipe (which was rather nice) and ditch the kumquats.

8:45 AM  
Blogger anapestic said...

mer (you don't mind if I call you that, do you?), I asked my partner, who's Italian, what your name meant, and when he told me, I was shocked (shocked!). Though he and I agree that it's a good name for an opera, er, afficionado.

9:50 AM  
Anonymous leslie said...


I never thought of it as brain-like until you mentioned it. Always thought of them as spirals and now you've burned an image into my brain!!! heh.

5:44 PM  
Blogger meretrice i. d'oscena said...

Meretrice means "Fresh as the First Lily of April." Right?

Just kidding.
In Donizetti's fictionalized account of Mary Stuart facing off with Queen Elizabeth, Mary says:
Figlia impura di Bolena,
Parli tu di disonore?
Meretrice indegna e oscena,
In te cada il mio rossore.
Profanato è il soglio inglese,
Vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!

Sorry to hijack your blog with unrelated material.
And leslie, sorry to ruin the Scarlet Empress for you. Maybe we can both make it for Halloween next year- a little extra super-concentrated raspberry sauce and you've got a prop from 'Dawn of the Dead'

8:54 AM  

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