Earthquake Chocolate Cake

Growing up my mom would make chocolate cake out of a box and we called it “baking.”  That was all I knew until I attended culinary school.  From then on, those Betty Crocker boxes were replaced by cocoa powder and real vanilla extract (not the imitation stuff…).  Since the Napa earthquake that rocked me, my cocoa powder, and the rest of the contents of my well stocked cabinets onto the floor, I refuse to ever purchase the most obnoxiously messy baking ingredient that is cocoa powder.  Seriously, try cleaning up iced tea and vinegar saturated cocoa powder that has seeped into your kitchen floors.  The smell is worse than a three week old dead fish coated in simple syrup and pickle juice.  A dried cocoa powder spill is already hard enough to clean, let alone sticky, acidic chocolate goo, while your nerves are on edge from aftershocks.  So when I saw a recipe for chocolate cake that was made entirely from bar chocolate instead of cocoa powder, I was on it quicker than flies on three week old dead fish.

I got this recipe from Baking by James Peterson.  Its been one of my favorite cookbooks pre- and post-culinary school.  It is his “Chocolate Sponge Cake,” but tweaked slightly.  If you are in the market for a new book to test out, check out this book!

Earthquake Chocolate Cake : Yields two, 8 inch cakes

  • Bittersweet Chocolate  250 g
  • Water                               1 C
  • Eggs, warm*                   8 ea
  • Sugar                                200 g
  • Cake Flour                       210 g

*If your eggs cold, you can submerge them in warm water until they are room temperature.

1.  Preheat the oven to 350˚F.  Cut out parchment circles by tracing the bottom of your cake tin with a sharpie.  Then cut out the circles (does not have to be a work of art, I’m far from a Picasso).  Spray your cake tins down with some cooking spray and press the parchment circle cut out (butchered, roundish parchment in my case) into the bottom of the cake tin and then spray that down too.

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2. Take a small heap of flour and throw it into the bottom of the tin.  Move your tin around over the next tin or over a garbage can to fully coat the tin with flour.  You don’t have to go hogwild here, this is just to make sure that the cake comes out looking pristine.

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3.  Sift your cake flour and place it aside for later.

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4. Now heres a step that I never thought I’d ever be recommending, but combine the water and chocolate in a small saucepan.  Usually, water and chocolate should be NOWHERE near each other due to the fact that water will cause the chocolate to seize, not desirable.  But in this case, I’m asking you all to take a leap of faith and trust me.  Boil the chocolate and water down, stirring continuously until the chocolate looks like pudding.

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5.  Combine the eggs and sugar and beat on high for about 12 minutes with a stand mixer until it reaches ribbon stage.  Ribbon stage is reached when you lift the paddle out of the eggs and the mixture falls down gracefully in a band onto the surface and remains for a good few seconds.

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Action shot

6.  Once you’ve hit ribbon stage, transfer the egg yolk mixture into a large bowl.  Working quickly but gently, fold the chocolate into the yolks.

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7.  Fold in your sifted cake flour.  Be sure to fold it completely into the batter or else you will wind up with lumps of flour in your finished cake.  You want to scrape the bottom of the bowl and jiggle the spatula up the center, trying to break up any pesky lumps.  Once you’re sure that you are lump-free, transfer your batter into your prepared pans.

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8.  Bake for about 20 minutes.  Once the cake is pulling away from the sides of the tin and the top does not jiggle when shaken or touched, your cake should be done.  If you are absolutely unsure, poke a toothpick into the center of the cakes.  If it is dry when pulled out, your cakes are done.

9.  Let the cakes cool completely, then remove from cake tins.  Before icing, be sure to remove the parchment paper.  Serve and enjoy!

Madagascar Vanilla Buttercream

When I first entered culinary school, I was as lost as Alice in Wonderland, but without the rosy outlook and cannabis-puffing cat. I had entered culinary school because I loved food, plain and simple. Throughout undergrad, I thought that one of the subjects I was taking would inevitably light a spark that would lead me towards a career filled with passion and challenge. Unfortunately, that spark only came while I was watching cooking shows, experiencing the foods of other cultures, or reading about the recipes of dishes in classic novels. It wasn’t until my junior year when I decided to go to a weeklong cooking class geared towards career discovery that I realized I was looking for that passion in the wrong places. Less than one year after I graduated from the University of Richmond, I was enrolled at the Greystone campus of the Culinary Institute of America.

Bedecked in my new chef’s coat and my checkered scrub-like pants, I was handed a knife kit and a backbreaking amount of recipe books. After a couple weeks of preliminary classes, we entered the kitchen and were expected to make a plethora of sweet treats. Tons of insane terms were being thrown out at me, and I was expected to make desserts that I had never even heard of before while my classmates were telling stories to the likes of that one time they ate a Mille-Feuille sipping an espresso while chatting up a cute, thick accented Frenchmen under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

I was petrified.

One day we were expected to make Italian Buttercream. Being the amateur, I questioned whether or not this was the only type of buttercream. Answer: its not. While I cannot remember the specifics of that day (only that almost all of my cakes classes were an utter disappointment and disaster), I know that I had successfully withstood the task of boiling sugar, drizzling it into whipping whites, before adding butter in small increments. Not exactly as direly daunting as I originally expected.

Even a stale chiffon cake that smells, tastes, and feels like wet cardboard can be improved by this basic vanilla buttercream.

Madagascar Vanilla Italian Buttercream:

  • Sugar               200 g + 60 g
  • Water              Enough to make the sugar look like wet sand (I used 50 g)
  • Egg Whites      180 g
  • Butter, SOFT  380 g
  • Vanilla            1/2 tsp

1. Put about 100 g of the sugar into a clean, small pot. Cover this pot with enough water to make the sugar look like wet sand. Don’t worry if you’ve heavy handed the water, this will just take the sugar solution longer to reach the desired temperature.

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I may have put just a tad too much water in this, but like I said, it’ll just take a bit longer to boil out.

2. Place the egg whites in a stand mixer with the whisk attachment.

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3. Begin cooking the sugar, monitoring with a thermometer (candy or NSF approved, obviously not the kind you take your own temperature with unless you want to eat burned, carcinogen plastic confettied buttercream).

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Because you are cooking sugar in the wet method, you want to make sure that you wipe down the sides of the pot with a brush and water, or else you will have crystallized sugar bits, which will not cook out and you will have to start all over.  You really only have to wipe down once or twice just to make sure that all of the sugar bits on the outside of the pot are removed.

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3. When the sugar reaches 230˚F, begin whipping the egg whites. While the whites are whipping, drizzle in the remaining sugar. You want the whites to reach a soft peak. Meaning: when you take out the attachment and hold it up, the tail made by the whites on the attachment is firm enough to stand up on its own but not so firm that it stands up straight.

4. When the sugar reaches 245˚F and you’ve achieved medium peaked whites, turn the mixer down to a medium speed. CAREFULLY drizzle the hot sugar syrup into the whipping whites. You want to pour the syrup near the sides, far enough to avoid hitting the whip and splattering the sugar syrup along the bowl, and far enough from the sides to cause the sugar syrup to sink to the bottom of the bowl.

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This is probably the hardest part of the whole extravaganza, and it isn’t really that difficult….unless you are somehow as inescapably clumsy as I am, in which case I recommend some good burn gel and a whole lot of bandaids.

5.  Allow the meringue to continue to whip until the bowl is room temperature. Don’t begin early or the meringue may break. Once it is room temperature, begin dropping small chunks (about an inch or smaller) into the bowl as the meringue is mixing. Once the previous chunk has emulsified, add the next and repeat until all of the butter is incorporated

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See those scars? Yep, inescapably clumsy. Working in kitchens was probably not my best idea.

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Your buttercream WILL most likely fall apart (meaning it will look like cottage cheesey in consistency).  DO NOT PANIC! Just keep doing what you are doing.  It will come back together again.  WORST CASE SCENARIO! You’ve put too much cold butter into the buttercream too fast and it will not emulsify.  Warm up the bowl using a torch if you have one.  If not, just use the heat from your hands or slightly dampen a towel and put it in the microwave until it is warm-hot to the touch and wrap it around the bowl.  Keep the mixer whipping until it comes back together.

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See- Cottage cheesey

6. Continue mixing the buttercream until it has turned white in color and has a fluffy, airy consistency.

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7. Add in vanilla and mix to incorporate

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Boom- Buttercream.

This buttercream recipe can be placed in an airtight container and left at room temperature overnight or placed in the refrigerator for about a week and a half. It is rather shelf stable due to the amount of sugar. Once you have need for this buttercream (whether it be for your mother’s birthday or for a filling for those macarons you have finally mastered), place in a bowl with either a paddle or a whip and let it aerate for a couple of minutes until you have your desired consistency.

Variations:

Chocolate: melt desired chocolate in microwave or over a water bath (be careful not to burn it). Stir chocolate into a small bowl of Italian buttercream to incorporate. Then stir that into the rest of the buttercream.

Coffee or liquor: Add to finished buttercream in small increments.

Praline paste: add a small amount of praline paste to a bowl with a small amount of Italian buttercream. Mix to incorporate. Add back into the desired amount of the buttercream

Overeducated and Unemployed

     When you first walk across your graduation stage, blushing and beaming in response to the cheers and whistles of the crowd, you feel as if you could do anything.  You see your parents teary eyes and allow them to embrace you in shaky hugs as they tell you how proud they are.  You turn to your supportive boyfriend who has stuck with you through nearly eight years of epic culinary failures, an increased waistband due to your successes, and countless panic attacks and emotional breakdowns (on both of your parts) due to multiple sleepless, stressful nights and your overwhelming lack of confidence.  You expect him to hug you and praise your achievements.  He tells you, “Congratulations! You’re overeducated and unemployed!”

     Thanks, hun.

     Its been three months since my boyfriend told me that, and I’m still unemployed.  My dreams of becoming a food writer have been threatened each and every day by my dwindling bank account and feelings of inadequacy.  While I consider my hours watching cake decorating how-to’s on youtube and marathons of Beat Bobby Flay time well spent, I also feel that it can be time better spent on exercising my own creative outlets of writing, baking, and cooking.

     Much to the misfortune of my gluten-allergic sister, its time for my culinary and baking experiments to begin in all of their flour-y glory.  However, I’m not an entirely horrendous sister, so keep a look out for the gluten-free experiences that will appease her hungry tummy and keep the peace in our shared household.