Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Devil's Food Duel

For a long time now, I've been wanting to make a chocolate cake from scratch. I have a bit of an aversion to baking cakes, pies and other "one piece" desserts, because I can't test them before serving them to friends and family. Sometimes things go well, but then again, sometimes they don't.
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The excuse for this baking frenzy was not this just month's Sugar High Friday #27 (theme: Chocolate by Brand) but a meeting of my monthly supper club. It's supposed to be a Cooking Light supper club, but nobody seems to mind too much if the dessert isn't exactly low fat. After looking online and poring over several of the cookbooks on my shelves, I came up with two radically different recipes, one from a fun little cookbook I picked up last week called "Birthday Cakes" by Kathryn Kleinman, and one from Epicurious. Though they both claimed to make devil's food cakes, the Epicurious recipe used butter, semisweet chocolate and cocoa powder and called for far less baking soda and baking powder. The "cookbook" recipe called for twice as much cocoa powder, double the amount of baking powder and soda, but only half a cup of oil and half as many eggs.

I could hardly believe that two dissimilar formulas would lead to the same result, but I couldn't tell from the recipes exactly what I would get from each one. As you may have already figured out, I decided to try them both. I stuck with the flavors called for in the original recipes, since I figured they would be compatible, but I added a ganache filling to the Epicurious cake, and I used a different frosting recipe from the Birthday Cakes cookbook - the one on the cover to be exact - I really wanted those thick swirls of fudgy buttercream!

"Birthday Cakes" is a cute book with lots of pictures and a wide variety of recipes from the "who's who" of pastry-chefdom, including Maida Heatter, James Beard, Alice Medrich, Alice Waters, Emily Luchetti, Julia Child, Lindsay Shere, Flo Braker and our very own David Lebovitz (who also happens to be the host of this month's Sugar High Friday!) I like that it includes pictures of all of the cakes and gives you a recipe for a finished product, rather than forcing you to guess what will go with what. As a bonus, most recipes include a little story from the chefs as to why the cake is special to them.

On the downside, the recipes aren't quite detailed or specific enough about methods and times - for example, not telling you what attachment to use with the standing mixer, or how long to beat the frosting to get it to thicken properly - but a moderately experienced baker would probably be able to cope with these shortcomings.
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To comply with the Sugar High Friday theme, I must tell you a bit about the brands of chocolate that I used and why. I used two different cocoa powders, Valrhona and Scharffenberger, in an effort to test their properties in finished baked goods. The difference between them in their raw form is strikingly apparent. The Scharffenberger (pictured above in the front) is much lighter and reddish in color, and smells good, like actual chocolate. The Valrhona, which is "dutched" is deep brown and smells a bit bitter. It turns out that the "dutching" process involves washing the cocoa with an alkaline, which raises its' pH level and affects both the flavor and how it behaves when added to baked goods. What I have read online indicates that you are not supposed to substitute one for the other. Apparently it can affect whether the cake rises properly, becasue the cocoa interacts with the baking soda and baking powder. Dutched cocoa will not react with baking soda, and requires that baking powder be added in order for the cake to rise. I used the natural Scharffenberger cocoa in the cake that called for more baking soda and powder, and dutched cocoa in the other cake (along with melted chocolate), which would seem counterintuitive. Both of them rose just fine, but the cooking methods were dissimilar which may account for the difference. One (the Scharffenberger) was dissolved in water first, and the other was simply whisked into the flour.

I was really impressed with the color and flavor of the Scharffenberger cocoa. It wasn't cheap - I found it at Vons for $9.50 for a six ounce can - but it just smells and looks better than ordinary cocoa. To help offset the expense I used Ghirardelli 60% Cacao bars for the semisweet chocolate, which cost 1/4 as much as the comparable amount of Scharffenberger (except in the ganache, where I used Valrhona 55% that I had on hand.) I find that the Ghirardelli 60% chocolate bars and chocolate chips are widely available, always fresh in the store and far less expensive than Scharffenberger or Valrhona.

Ultimately, I found that the cookbook recipe - flavored only with cocoa and containing no butter - produced what I think of as a true devils' food cake. The Epicurious cake had more of a brownie-like flavor and texture. It certainly wasn't bad, but wasn't quite what I was going for. It also had a lighter color and though moist, was a bit crumbly. If I do make this recipe again I would consider using some unsweetened chocolate to deepen the flavor, and I would moisten the layers with simple syrup.

The fillings turned out great. The orange ganache and the fudgy buttercream frosting on the Epicurious cake were spot on - and the whipped cream, banana and peanut butter with the devils' food cake was quick, simple and tasty. They were both popular at the supper club and it was interesting to hear which version people preferred and why. It was about evenly split, with some people preferring the dark moist crumb of the devil's food, and others preferring the dense richness of the Epicurious cake. Either would make a spectacular birthday cake.

Without further ado, here are the recipes:
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The "Epicurious" Cake:
Chocolate Orange Ganache Torte with Espresso Crunch and Buttercream Frosting

(adapted from Epicurious):
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I'd recommend 70% cacao or over)
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cups (packed) golden brown sugar
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
4 large eggs

4 oz good quality semisweet chocolate (I used Valrhona Equatoriale 55%)
8 oz heavy whipping cream
1 tbsp Grand Marnier or other orange liquer
1 tbsp brandy
4 drops of orange oil, or 1 tsp of finely grated fresh orange zest

Crushed espresso crunch candy (I bought mine at a baking supply store - you could also just crush some hard coffee candies)

Buttercream Frosting:
(adapted from Emily Luchetti's recipe for Bittersweet Chocolate Frosting appearing in Kathryn Kleiman's "Birthday Cakes")
4 oz bittersweet chocolate (I used Ghirardelli 60%)
8 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped (I used Scharffenberger)
1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
3 cups confectioners sugar
pinch of salt
2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp milk

Chopped candied orange peel

For the cakes:
Preheat to 325°F. Butter and flour two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides. Line bottoms of pans with parchment paper rounds. Stir chocolate in top of double boiler set over simmering water until smooth. Remove from over water. Cool to barely lukewarm.

Sift flour and next 4 ingredients into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat brown sugar and butter in large bowl until smooth. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time. Beat in melted chocolate until smooth. Mix in dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk in 3 additions each. Divide batter evenly between prepared pans (if you have one, a scale is great for this).

Bake cakes until tester inserted into centers comes out nearly clean, about 30 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on racks 15 minutes. Turn cakes out onto racks; remove parchment and cool completely.

At this point, Cakes can be refrigerated overnight, well wrapped in plastic.

If desired, you can brush the cakes with a bit of simple syrup before using. It will help keep them fresh longer and make the cake a bit easier to cut and serve. To make, boil equal parts sugar and water (about a half cup of each) and cool - add a bit of liquer or extract for flavor. Flip the cakes upside down and brush liberally with the syrup before filling with ganache.

For the Ganache:
When you are ready to assemble the cake, finely chop the chocolate and place in a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan and strain into the chocolate through a wire mesh sieve. Allow to stand for a few seconds and gently whisk by hand to blend. Add the orange oil or zest and liquers and whisk just to blend. Place the ganache in the refrigerator and allow to cool for about forty minutes, stirring once or twice during the chilling (don't allow it to harden).When it is cooled, place it in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and beat just until thickened and fluffy. Be sure not to overbeat it, or it will become grainy. Do not chill it again before putting it on the cake (like I did, and had to heat it over a double boiler to bring it back to spreadable consistency!)

Immediately spread the ganache over the bottom layer of the cake and sprinkle with the espresso crunch. (I flipped the cakes upside down so that the flat side was facing up.) Add the top layer of the cake and press down firmly - using plastic wrap to keep the cake from sticking to your hands.

For the Frosting:
Melt chocolates and butter together in a double boiler, remove from heat and cool to lukewarm. Sift the confectioners' sugar and salt together into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. In a small bowl, combine the vanilla and milk. Whisk the milk mixture into the confections sugar to form a paste. With the mixer running on low speed, drizzle the melted chocolate and butter mixture into the bowl. Turn the mixer up to medium speed, and whisk at high speed just until thickened to the desired consistency. Do not overbeat the mixture, or it might "break" or start to separate. Use immediately to frost the cake.

To make candied orange peel, boil thin strips of orange peel (the orange part only - remove the pith) in simple syrup (1/2 cup of water and 1/2 of sugar) for thirty to forty five minutes, until most of the bitterness is cooked out. Lay the strips on a paper towel in the refrigerator to cool and dry, then chop finely and sprinkle on the cake.

The finished cake will keep for a day or two unrefrigerated - if refrigerated, bring to room temperature before serving and protect any cut edges from drying out with saran wrap or parchment. Cut the cake with a sharp knife dipped in hot water.
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The "Cookbook Cake":
Elvis Cake
Adapted from a recipe by Maria Bruscino Sanchez in Kathryn Kleinman's "Birthday Cakes" in honor of of the King's favorite sandwich - fried peanut butter and banana

(this cake should not be assembled more than a couple of hours before serving because it contains fresh banana and whipped cream - on the plus side, it is really quick and easy to put together.)

Devil's Food Cake:
1 cup boiling water
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups all purpose flour
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup of whipping cream
3 tbsp confectioners sugar

1 jar of smooth, sweetened peanut butter, such as Skippy
2 ripe bananas

For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 325. Grease and flour two nine inch cake pans and line them with parchment paper. Pour the boiling water over the cocoa powder and whisk to dissolve. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt and mix on low speed. Add the eggs and cocoa mixture and blend on low speed for one minute. Scrape down the bowl and add the buttermilk, oil and vanilla. Beat on low speed for one minute. Scrape down the bowl and beat on medium speed for one to two minutes, or until smooth.
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Pour the batter evenly into the pans and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a tester comes out with a moist crumb. Let the cakes cool on wire racks in the pans for ten to fifteen minutes, then turn out onto wire racks to cool. Remove parchment paper and let cool completely before frosting. Cakes can be stored overnight in the refrigerator wrapped in plastic.

To assemble, chill bowl and whisk of electric mixer in the freezer for fifteen minutes. Whip cream to soft peaks in the mixer, then added powdered sugar. Resume beating and whip just until stiff.

Slice banana slightly diagonally and place bottom layer of cake on serving platter. Spread bottom layer with thick layer of whipped cream leaving about 1/2 to 3/4 inch around the edge, and dot liberally with sliced banana and small dollops of peanut butter. Spread with a little more whipped cream and top with second layer of cake. Press down lightly on top of cake, just until whipped cream reaches the edges. Spread top of cake liberally with whipped cream, and garnish around the edges of the cake with slices of banana topped with a dollop of peanut butter so that each slice will have one. Dust the top with cocoa if you have some on hand - I forgot mine. You may also notice that I have only half of a cake pictured above. I lost a layer to breakage. (I probably could have saved it, but I decided to eat it instead!)

Ultimately, I myself preferred the devil's food cake, and I was surprised at how easy and delicious the peanut butter/banana/whipped cream combo was. Then again, I also really liked the orange ganache and buttercream combo. I was also just glad that both cakes turned out well given the experimental nature of the project. It gave me the confidence to sign on to make the cake for my friend Susan's birthday party coming up in a couple of weeks. She has specially requested an almond cake, and I think I have just the thing (the cake part) with a little almond extract to boost the flavor. We'll see how it turns out.

To see the rest of the Sugar High Friday entries, toddle on over to David Lebovitz' blog - it promises to be a doozy!