Saturday, February 04, 2006

Heart of Darkness Cake

Good bakers are well-advised to make their own birthday cakes, and I have just finished making mine. (I was born exactly fifty years after Ronald Reagan; this fact is not something that brings me joy.) Birthdays have not been an especially big deal for me since I was a child, and they have been less big a deal since the girls were born, especially since both of them were also born in February. A. will be seventeen (How did I get to be old enough to have a seventeen-year-old daughter? The other day she asked me what a movie was rated, and I told her it was R, but that I'd take her to see it, and she reminded me that she could see it herself pretty soon. Egad.) next week, and L. will be ten two weeks later. Understandably, they expect a fuss to be made over their birthdays. I neither want nor expect a fuss (I do want the occasional present, but I am happy to use the birthday as an excuse to buy things for myself), but I do want a good cake, and I shall have it.

Fifteen or so years ago, the ex had acquired a cookbook of desserts that were meant to be reinterpretations of classic desserts with much or all of the fat removed. I am not opposed to the notion of a fat-free dessert so long as it is a locally grown, ripe peach, but this cookbook was a good deal more ambitious, and the dessert that the ex settled upon for my birthday was something that dared call itself a Black Forest cake (Schwarzwaldkirschetorte, I believe, is the German term, but my German is highly suspect, so make allowances). It was made with egg whites and cocoa and God knows what all, but no egg yolks or butter. In place of whipped cream, the recipe instructed you to melt gelatin in evaporated milk and then to whip that mixture when it was cool enough to whip but before it was cool enough to be solid. Alas, it was cool enough to be solid long before it was really cool enough to be whipped.

I would not have made such a dessert for myself nor, certainly, for anyone else, but I saw this monstrosity being concocted, and I tasted fear. Which was, I suppose, a good thing because there certainly wasn't much taste to the cake. The lack of any fat in the cake made it so tough that when we tried to cut it with a cake server, the cake server bounced. We switched to a sharp knife and managed to cut slices, but it is difficult to imagine a situation in which anyone could be either so happy to mark the anniversary of his birth that he would have enjoyed that cake, or so despondent about turning a year older that that cake would not have exacerbated his despair.

I have, though not recently, made very good versions of what I have called Black Forest cake. I used a rich chocolate cake and syrup flavored with kirsch and whipped heavy cream, and I topped it off with cherries. I did not bother looking for an authentic recipe, but the result was delicious. I had been thinking lately that I would like many of the same flavors in a different formulation. I have also been thinking that my black walnuts would go well in such a cake.

I love whipped cream (real heavy cream whipped properly with not too much sugar) with a passion that transcends time and space, but I did not want any whipped cream on this cake. This cake embraces darkness. Dark chocolate, dark dried cherries, dark rum, black walnuts. The cake is rich, moist, and dense. And delicious. But not light.

Light is a good thing, of course, but darkness gets an undeservedly bad name. We need to celebrate it more, and this cake is a good start. Enjoy it by candlelight with a cup of coffee or a very deep Port. The appropriate musical accompaniment is something like The Decemberists' "The Mariner's Revenge Song," which is very dark indeed and nearly nine minutes long so that you'll have ample time to enjoy your cake. When the accordion and tuba interlude comes, laugh ruefully, so that anyone watching you will think that you are mocking the absurdity of life. They don't need to know that you're just enjoying really good cake and really good music, or pretty soon everyone will want some, and there's only so much cake and darkness to go around.

Heart of Darkness Cake

1 cup black walnuts
2 cups sugar
125 g unsweetened chocolate, broken up or chopped
4 ounces dried unsweetened cherries
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 t. salt*
1 T. cinnamon
1/2 c. butter at room temperature*
3 eggs, separated
1 t. vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
2 T. chili paste

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Grease two nine-inch layer pans, line the bottoms with parchment paper, grease the parchment paper, and flour the pans.

Put the black walnuts on a baking sheet and put them in the oven for eight minutes. Remove and let cool.

Increase oven temperature to 350 degrees.

In the bowl of your food processor, put the sugar and chocolate. Process until the chocolate is very finely ground. Add the dried cherries and process until the cherries are finely ground. Add the cooled walnuts and process until the walnuts are well chopped and incorporated. You will still be able to see tiny pieces of walnuts in the mixture.

Put the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt* in the bowl of your stand mixer. Put the whisk attachment on, and mix for one minute. Add the mixture from the processor and whisk for two minutes more. With the mixer running, add the butter, a tablespoon at a time, until it is all incorporated. Scrape down the side of the bowl if necessary. Add the egg yolks, chili paste, and vanilla, and mix until incorporated. Add the buttermilk and mix again. Scrape down the side of the bowl as necessary.

Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks, then fold into the batter until just incorporated. The batter will be fairly stiff.

Turn the batter into the pans. Smooth it out and push the batter towards the edge of the pan so that it is slightly thicker at the perimeter than at the center.

Bake at 350 for 30 - 35 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out nearly clean. Let the cake cool in the pans for fifteen minutes, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.

* Use the salt if you use unsalted butter; if you don't, don't.

** I meant to put 2 or 3 tablespoons of a really good dark rum into the cake at this point. I forgot. I am a yutz.

I am not convinced that either the chili paste or the cinnamon adds a lot to this cake, but neither am I convinced that they don't. I could do a side-by-side comparison, but the cake is awfully good with the ingredients I used, so I don't see any need to mess with it (until I want to make it sometime when I don't have any chili paste around). I do think that the flavor of the black walnuts goes very well with this blend of ingredients, but I think the English walnuts would also be good here, especially if you don't forget the rum.

The chocolate buttercream that I made for my Gâteau Mephisto would go splendidly with this cake, but there were only two eggs in the house, and I wanted to leave them for V. for breakfast. Also, I wanted something easy. I am not a big fan, generally, of frostings made with confectioners sugar, but this one came out very well. The combination of very dark chocolate and dark rum completely erased any cornstarch taste that might have come from the confectioners sugar.

Easy Chocolate Frosting

10 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1 cup butter (2 sticks or 1/2 pound) at room temperature
4 cups confectioners sugar
2 T. dark rum
Heavy cream

Melt the chocolate. Let cool.

In the bowl of your mixer, cream the butter well. Turn the mixer off, add a cup of the confectioners sugar, and turn the mixer back on low until it is incorporated. Add a tablespoon of the rum and mix to incorporate. Continue adding the sugar a cup at a time and mixing until it is incorporated, alternating with the rest of the rum and enough heavy cream to make it nicely spreadable.

Add the melted chocolate and mix again. Add more cream as necessary to maintain spreadability.

You can thin the frosting out with a little more rum as well. I added about three tablespoons of rum and four tablespoons of heavy cream in all when I made my frosting. (Skipping the cream entirely and relying on rum alone would likely be too much, though I suppose you could make some interesting and entirely sickening shots that way. This is not a suggestion.)

I like to melt my chocolate in the microwave because I think it gives me the best chance of doing it quickly. I also find it easier to melt just enough of the chocolate so that the rest of the chocolate will melt from the residual heat and then it will all be cool enough to use fairly soon. But you can certainly use a double boiler. You can also less or more chocolate if you prefer. You may not use cocoa, and if you are going to make one of those so-called chocolate buttercreams that use cocoa, please don't put it on my cake. If you find this frosting too much work, then just make some ganache. That would really be embracing the darkness.

The chocolate I used for the frosting was Trader Joe's 71% dark chocolate. A 500g bar (the Pound Plus bar) is $3.99. This is a deal that you cannot beat. You cannot, however, buy the 71% chocolate. TJ's has recently replaced its 70% chocolate with 72% chocolate. I know this happened very recently because the first time I saw it was yesterday, and the sign on the shelf still says 70% chocolate. I used the end of a 70% bar and the beginning of a 72% bar, but I mention this only because it amuses me to think that there are a bunch of (pardon the expression) size queens sitting around at TJ's trying to make their chocolate bars two or three percent more butch. You can use any semisweet or bittersweet chocolate that you like. BUT NO COCOA.

This frosting makes an excellent construction material, as I found out when I foolishly tried to split my cakes. I had baked them in two nine-inch layer pans, and I wanted more than two layers, so I split the cakes in half. Cakes made with half flour and half ground nuts are a good deal more tender than all-flour cakes, and since I had very slightly underbaked the layers to enhance moistness, and since the layers were only about an inch-and-a-half thick to begin with, (and perhaps I just didn't do it well, but I rarely have any problems splitting cake layers) the top half of the first layer sort of fell apart when I split the first layer. Once I put the frosting on top of the bottom half of that layer, though, it was an easy matter to patch together the top half on top of the frosting and then cover it with more frosting. The same thing, to a lesser extent, happened when I split the second layer, and I repaired it similarly. The tenderness of the cake also left a lot of crumbs around from splitting and handling it, but I just ate those, mmmmm. The next time I make the cake, however, I will make three eight-inch layers instead. That will also make for a taller cake, which is a good thing on anyone's birthday.


Anonymous lindy said...

a. Happy Birthday!
b. My birthday is this week also.
c. Compared to moi, you are a mere child, I assure you. You are hardly old enough to be allowed to bake a cake by yourself, alone in the kitchen.
d. I too have made my own cake.I am definitely old enough to be allowed to do so.
e.Nobody else has a really good holiday in February, except dead presidents. (This is perhaps a better way to look at it than thinking of the vile weather we get in our honor(s).)

That cake sounds awfully good. Mine has orange, almonds and lavender-it is less lavish, though.

12:42 PM  
Anonymous leslie said...

It sounds delicious - and happy birthday! My son's birthday was about a week ago and I ended up with some leftover whipping cream so made creme brulee - which of course left me with extra egg whites - which led me to the following variation on Marcella's ugly but good cookies:

beat 3 egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff

combine with 8 oz of toasted nuts ground with 3/4C granulated sugar ( I used pecans and walnuts - your black walnuts would be wonderful I'd bet) Add a teaspoon of vanilla and mix all ingredients.

put tablespoonfuls on a buttered cookie sheet and bake for about 30 minutes in a 300 degree oven.

12:49 PM  
Blogger anapestic said...

Thank you both for the birthday wishes. Happy birthday, lindy!

Those meringues would be terrific with the black walnuts, leslie. Perhaps I'll try it. On the one hand, I only have a little more than a pound left, but on the other hand, black walnuts go rancid more quickly than other nuts, so I should probably use them up sooner than later.

The cake did turn out very well, and the black walnut flavor was more intense the day after it was baked. The only flaw with it is that when you reconstruct a broken cake, you have to use a lot of icing, so it has a high icing-to-cake ratio, so that it's very, very rich and can only be enjoyed in small pieces. But that's a fairly minor flaw, and it's just another reason to go with three layers instead of trying to split two next time. The cake itself is amazing, and when I make it again, I will go to the effort to make a real buttercream. Yum.

2:14 PM  
Blogger Sangroncito said...

Happy Birthday from Brazil!
I'll toast a caipirinha in your honor this evening.

5:06 AM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Happy Birthday you sure make me want some cake!

4:03 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home