Friday, January 20, 2006

A Cake for Your Soul

There are, of course, many books on the history of chocolate, and I have read none of them. (Some day, I'll have to remedy this glaring omission, and if you have a suggestion for a good history of chocolate, I would very much like to hear about it, but bear in mind that I prefer the readable over the encyclopedic.) Accordingly, my notions about its history come from snippets that I've heard and read, and like the unconscious mind seeking to form random electric impulses from the brain into a coherent dream narrative, if I don't know something, then I just make it up. Of course, I lie to you this way all the time, but I reckon that most people know what I'm making up and that no one really cares as long as I'm as faithful as possible with actual recipes. I mention it today for no particular reason.

Anyway, my elementary knowledge of chocolate history includes the fact that chocolate first appeared in Mexico in 2375 B.C., when the Emperor Chuaxtxtxtxtl (pronounced "Fred") was having his morning cafe con leche and saw an eagle flying by, carrying a snake in its talons. Chuaxtxtxtxtl (pronounced "Fred") knew that this must be an omen of some sort, and, reacting very quickly, picked up a coffee bean, popped it in his mouth, and spat it some six hundred yards (you will recall that coffee was much stronger in those times, prior to the great caffeine shift of 875, but even considering his chemically enhanced state, Chuaxtxtxtxtl's [pronounced "Fred"] distance and accuracy were remarkable) where it intersected with the eagle's torso, causing the eagle to drop the snake into a basket that was on the back of a donkey owned by a local coffee farmer. The gods were much impressed, and as a reward to Chuaxtxtxtxtl (pronounced "Fred"), they turned both the coffee farmer and his donkey into cacao trees. (This, by the way, is all covered in Ovid's Metamorphoses: The Lost Chapters, which you can order from Amazon.) Bad news for the farmer (and the donkey); good news for the rest of us.

Given the close association of Mexico and chocolate, it is not surprising that I would want to make a Mexican chocolate cake, but as compelling as dear Mr. Ovid is, I actually got the idea from a blog. I get many of my cooking ideas from blogs, of course, though they more frequently come from food blogs. Faustus, however, is a fine cook and a fine fellow (as well as an exceptionally talented writer), and I knew from his blog and from some correspondence that his recipe would be meticulously detailed, with the ingredients measured down to the last gram or eighth of a teaspoon and the processes painstakingly described. In short, his approach would be the opposite of my oh-for-heaven's-sake-just-grab-some-ingredients-and-combine-them approach to cooking. Which is great because it's a lot easier to descend into anarchy than to go the other way. Entropy, or something, you know (I narrowly escaped having to take thermodynamics over twenty years ago, and I am still grateful).

Faustus was, I must say, a bit reticent to share his recipe with me. I, of course, am a great recipe ho ("I'll take words I never thought I'd see anapestic type for $1,000, Alex!") and bestow my (culinary) affections on anyone who displays the least amount of interest, but I certainly understand the impulse of the (culinary) prude, who wants to keep his secrets to himself. Nonetheless, there are few powers on earth that can come between me and a recipe I really want, and through a variety of inducements (the nature of which is not important), I eventually persuaded him to put out.

The recipe below, however, is not Faustus'. I did use his recipe as an inspiration, but having seen how important the secret was to him, I would have felt like a cad divulging it to anyone else. There were also certain elements of the recipe that I was unfamiliar with: a technique that I wasn't confident in my ability to pull off, and an ingredient that I was sure I would be unable to acquire.

There are, unsurprisingly, numerous recipes for Mexican chocolate cakes available on the Internet, but all of the ones I looked at used cocoa instead of chocolate. If I were the sort to use the caps lock key, the next sentence would be in all caps. Cakes made with chocolate are much better than cakes made with cocoa; you should not call a cake a chocolate cake if it is made with cocoa and not chocolate. I'm sure that I've had cocoa cakes that I've enjoyed, but whenever I've tried to make one, it has been a disappointment to me.

In the end, it was easiest just to look at a few chocolate cake recipes, figure out which elements from each were best suited to the cake I wanted, and write my own.

This cake has a very intense chocolate flavor. Accordingly, you will want to fill and frost it with an equally intense dark chocolate buttercream or ganache and serve it to people who appreciate dark chocolate. People who don't appreciate dark chocolate can't be trusted anyway, so while you're enjoying my cake, they can go through the drive-thru for McFlurries. Alternatively, I suppose that you could serve a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side, and that would be very good indeed.

Gâteau Mephisto
(Mephistopholes Cake)

2 cups sugar
125 g unsweetened chocolate*
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 T. cinnamon*****
1/2 c. butter at room temperature
3 eggs, separated
1 t. vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup water
3 T. chili paste**

Dark Chocolate Buttercream (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare your pan(s)***.

Put the sugar in the bowl of your food processor. Chop the chocolate with a knife, add it to the food processor, and process until fine. Set the sugar and chocolate mixture aside.

Put the egg yolks, vanilla, buttermilk, water, and chili paste in a bowl and mix together with a fork or whisk.

Put the flour, soda, salt, and cinnamon in the bowl of your stand mixer and fit it with the whisk attachment. Add the sugar and chocolate mixture. Mix on low for two minutes. Then add the butter a tablespoon at a time until it is well incorporated.
With the mixer running, add the liquid ingredients until they are well mixed in and the batter is smooth.

Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks****, then fold them into the batter. Turn the batter into the prepared pan(s). Put the pan(s) into the oven. Bake at 350 for ten minutes, then turn the oven to 325 and bake until done. Remove the pan(s) from the oven and let sit for ten minutes, then invert onto a rack and let cool completely.

Fill and frost the cake(s) with the dark chocolate buttercream.

*You can use whatever sort of chocolate you like best, but since there was some Mexican chocolate in the international foods section (I grew up maybe fifteen miles from where I live now, and it was then such a Wonder Bread area [though I hasten to add, lest Mom go after me for libel, that we ate whole wheat bread at home from the time I was about ten] that I never saw a bagel until I went off to college, so I feel very fortunate that many of the local supermarkets have excellent selections of international foods; I can always count on being able to find the ingredients for a mole), I went ahead and picked it up. I am not especially enamored of the usual American brands of baking chocolate, so if I hadn't found the Luker chocolate, I would likely have used an increased amount of extra bittersweet chocolate and reduced the sugar accordingly.

**I cannot help but think that chili paste is widely available in most places, but I didn't see any at the store when I went shopping, so I just bought some dried pasilla chiles. I broke the pods open, discarded the seeds and some of the ribs, put them in a metal bowl, covered them with a small amount of boiling water, let them sit for a half hour or so, tossed them in the food processor, processed them until they were as smooth as possible, and pushed the mixture through a sieve. Probably a little more more water and/or a longer soaking time would make sieving (ick) unnecessary.

***Posting recipes generally involves the fiction that everything has been carefully planned before the cooking begins. I had nearly completed my mise en place when I realized that I couldn't find the extra-long loaf pan that I wanted for this cake. I wanted the extra-long loaf pan because I was flying by the seat of my pants on this recipe, and I wanted to be able to sample the cake to make sure it wasn't dreadful and then refrost it so that it looked like a cake that hasn't been partially eaten in order to determine that it wasn't dreadful. (Even though chocolate is a necessary ingredient in mole, it doesn't follow that chilis are a good idea in chocolate cake, and there was always the potential for unmitigated disaster, in which case, I suppose that one large round cake is easiest to dispose of. Frisbee.) As has happened with so much of my cooking equipment over the past year, however, the extra-long loaf pan had disappeared into the abyss. I also didn't know where either my good layer pans or my Magicake strips were, so I had gone so far as to grease and flour a bundt pan before deciding that I really, really wanted to fill and frost the cake, so I got out my 12-inch non-stick springform pan, greased it, and lined the bottom with a round of parchment paper. That large a cake has the potential for being overbaked at the edges and underbaked in the middle all at the same time, so I did my best to push the batter out towards the edge of the pan to counteract the normal swell in the center. I would perhaps have had more luck with this had I not added the 1/4 cup of water to the batter, but before I added the extra water, the batter seemed so stiff that I worried I would not be able to fold the egg whites into it. I also turned the oven down from 350 to 325 ten minutes into the cooking so as not to overcook the edges before the center was done, but really, I think that two nine-inch layers and a shorter cooking time is the way to go. I also think that I need to spend a Saturday morning in May going through the whole house and organizing the cooking equipment. Hopefully, that will obviate the need to waterboard V. to determine the whereabouts of my missing stuff.

****This note is really not necessary, except that I wanted to be sure to say that, because the Kitchenaid was full of batter, I beat the egg whites by hand. (I would also like to say: ouch!) Yes, I am a god in the kitchen, and the gods must be crazy.

*****I wish (because wishing that I were not too lazy to look it up myself is clearly unrealistic) that someone would explain what the real deal with cinnamon is. Alton Brown says that what gets sold as cinnamon sticks here is not true cinnamon but something either from a different tree or from the less desirable part of the same tree as true cinnamon. For that reason, it's the only spice that he recommends buying ground, so that you get the real stuff and not its less attractive sister. (Which puts me in mind of Rachel and Leah, but let's not go there because that story really, really bugs me: oops, wrong sister, but you can have more chattel the second sister for just seven more years. Also, take my handmaiden. Please.) But a couple of weeks ago, I was in the market, and I saw these really thick cinnamon sticks -- see the picture and note that the whatever stick is next to a stick of butter to indicate scale -- that may have been labeled only canela and not labeled at all in English (I'm not sure, and I lost the label), so I bought them, thinking that they were probably real cinnamon, and when I ground one up it was so much more fragrant than the ground cinnamon and so much more fragrant than whatever you get when you grind up the other stuff, that I decided to use only two tablespoons of it, instead of the four tablespoons that Faustus recommended. A lot of the online recipes recommend half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, but I wanted the cinnamon to have a real presence, otherwise, I would have just made the devil's food cake from Joy of Cooking, and half a teaspoon of cinnamon seems like you're just putting it there to say that it's in there. Of course, those are the same recipes that wanted me to use cocoa. Anyway, I think it's cinnamon. It smells great, whatever it is. It looks a little bit like mace, but can you imagine the nutmeg that thing would have had to have come off of? ("Would have had to have come off of." Savor the contorted English, mes amis.)

Dark Chocolate Buttercream

1/3 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
2 extra large eggs
1 pound butter, at room temperature
500 g bittersweet chocolate
1 T. dark rum

Break the chocolate into small pieces and melt using your favorite method. Let cool.

Break the eggs into the bowl of your stand mixer. Beat the eggs on medium for two minutes.

Put the water in the bottom of a saucepan. Add the sugar and, without stirring, put a tight fitting lid on and place the saucepan over medium heat. When the mixture comes to a boil and the sugar is all dissolved, remove the lid. When the mixture reaches 230 degrees, turn the stand mixer with the eggs back on, on low speed. When the syrup reaches 240 degrees remove it from the heat.

With the mixer running on medium, slowly pour a stream of the hot syrup down the side of the bowl until it is all added. Continue beating until the egg and sugar mixture is warm but not hot to the touch.

With the mixer running on medium high, add the softened butter a tablespoon at a time. Do not add the next tablespoon until the current one has been fully incorporated. If the buttercream ever starts to look curdled, keep the mixer running but stop adding butter until the buttercream is smooth again.

When all the butter is incorporated, add the melted chocolate and mix again until it is smooth. Add the rum and mix again.

This buttercream is relatively light in color, but it is very dark in flavor. If you prefer a darker frosting, you can use the buttercream between the layers and cover the cake in ganache. If you used two 9" layer pans, you will want to split each layer in two, so that you will need enough frosting for three layers inside the cake as well as the outer frosting. This recipe should provide enough frosting to do the whole cake, but with that many layers, you'll want to go easy on the filling, so you should have plenty regardless. If you baked the cake in one larger springform pan as I did, you will want to split that cake into three layers. There are various devices to help you achieve this task, but I generally just pick up a bread knife and have at it. It is the sort of thing that gets easy with practice, and if one of your layers happens to split when you're cutting it or moving it, you can easily repair the appearance with buttercream.


Anonymous redfox said...

I was under the impression that both the stuff labeled "cinnamon sticks" and the stuff labeled "ground cinnamon" are usually made from bark from the cassia tree. You can get both cassia cinnamon and true cinnamon from Penzey's, along with an overview of the whole subject, here.

12:09 PM  
Anonymous redfox said...

Part two: the above-linked page says that the cassia used in cinnamon sticks are indeed less flavorful that the cassia that gets ground up. It comes from a different part of the tree, apparently.

12:13 PM  
Blogger s.j.simon said...

lol. did you know that chocolate was banned in switzerland for many years. read this

12:54 PM  

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