Sunday, August 9, 2009

Secret Ingredients

Chocolate cake holds a special place in my heart. Voluptuous, decadent, powerful – the best cakes subtly pull at your taste buds, calling out for just. one. more. bite. Chocolate cake was my first love, and my first personalized recipe. I remember finding a story in the Atlanta paper: Cocoa makes it chocolately. Pulling out the scissors, I carefully dissected a perfect cut-out of the directions, photo intact. I remember gathering the ingredients, measuring, sifting, smelling. And then, an idea: Why follow the recipe exactly? Rustling through the spice cabinet, I found a few things not normally in my thirteen-year-old idea of chocolate cake, pinching, shaking, dusting, melting, concocting my creation.

It’s funny, though: I remember the process more than the actual taste of the cake itself. I know that it tasted good – it had too, since the recipe has stayed in my and my family’s dessert repertoire since. I’ve changed my secret ingredients a bit since that first time, but the process remains the same. The experience of self-discovery and experimentation leading to “Kate’s World Famous, Extra-Specially Good Chocolate Cake” with SECRET INGREDIENT! was vastly more influential to my growth in the kitchen than any specific recipe. I learned to trust my instincts and not to shy from creativity and improvisation.

But I still feel a bit unfaithful when I bake a different cake. Anything else is strange, not mine. Many times these new cakes are better, more mature creations, with ganache instead of butter cream, and coffee instead of water. My newest such infidelity was a giant chocolate cake pulled from Gourmet.

At once pure and mature, this cake was as chocolate as you can get without ditching the flour. I used the best cocoa and bar chocolate I could find, and coated it with a rich, thick ganache. Matt, my housemates, and I have been enjoying the cake for about a week now (true to form, this is a beast of a cake – make sure to keep it in the fridge so it lasts). And I’ve been doing my best to savor the moist interior and slick topping, but it’s not quite doing it for me. With every bite, I imagine my other cake, the cake, in all its unrefined glory.

So here, as my gift to you, reader, is my personal chocolate cake recipe, printed for all eyes to see for the very first time. I encourage you to experiment with it for yourself.

Kate’s World Famous, Extra-Specially Good Chocolate Cake
(adapted from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

2 cups sugar
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1½ teaspoon baking powder
1½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
½ cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup boiling water

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
powdered sugar, somewhere around 2-3 cups
cocoa, about 1-1½ cups
about ¼ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350º. Grease and flour 2 9-inch round baking pans. In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, salt, cocoa, baking powder, and baking soda. Add the eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla and beat on the medium speed of an electric mixer for two minutes. Add the butter and mix in completely. Stir in boiling water, carefully (the batter will start to smell a little bit cooked, and will be very thin – don’t worry, this is normal and good). Pour the batter into prepared pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean. Be careful not to over bake – no one likes dry cake! Cool for 10 minutes in the pans and then carefully flip out onto wire cooling racks. Cool completely.

While the cake is cooling, make the frosting. I always eyeball my frosting and probably make it differently every time. The process is very simple, though, so feel free to experiment. First, cream the butter with an electric mixer until it is smooth and fluffy. Add about ½ cup of powdered sugar and mix until it begins to lighten. Add a similar amount of cocoa and mix to blend. Continue alternating between sugar and cocoa until it tastes the way you like it, and it looks like you have enough to frost the cake. If the mixture gets too stiff, add milk until it returns to the correct consistency. At the end, add the vanilla and mix until blended.

Once the cakes are cooled, place the less-pretty cake (one is always less pretty) on a plate and spread a generous layer of frosting on top. Carefully flip the other cake – rounded side up – on top of the frosted piece. Generously coat the cake with the remainder of the icing and serve to all of your friends.

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