Friday, July 27, 2012

Chocolate Fudge Cake with Chocolate Fudge Frosting

She's a beauty!
Like many girls who lived through the 1980s, I was the proud owner of an EZ Bake Oven, and I spent many a wholesome Saturday afternoon watching that little light bulb cook my cake for one. I was pleased to see that Hasbro is still pumping out the EZ Bakes, but dear God their marketing had me feeling my age. I am the first to admit that interesting children in cooking can be a challenge, but does the next generation really need an over-the-top music video to entice them to throw on an apron? Check it out: It’s like Legally Blonde meets America’s Test Kitchen (with apologies to both of those fine shows). 

Say what you will about the anti-feminist lollapalooza that is the EZ Bake’s current advertising campaign – their fine mini-appliance got me interested in baking. But by the time I’d run out of refill cake-mix packs, I’d moved onto the real oven, and desserts that served the whole family.

So it’s no wonder I latched onto Family Circle’s impressively thorough “Chocolate Cookbook” – an insert to their May 3, 1977 issue. The mini-issue is crammed full of so many succulent desserts it was hard to pick one to start with.  But, my father-in-law’s 77th birthday provided the perfect opportunity to choose. Though he laughed nervously when I told him of my plan to bake him a "Time Capsule Cake," I assured him that Chocolate Fudge Cake didn’t include Cool Whip, pudding mix or marshmallow fluff (although somewhere in this binder, I’m sure I’ll run across that exact recipe).
Sifting is the name of the game for Chocolate Fudge Cake.

The ice-bath helps the frosting turn glossy and thick.
There were several twists on this straightforward-enough recipe that made me like it all the more: The reliance on brown sugar; an obsession with sifting; a whole cup of dairy sour cream; and the addition of boiling water at the end, which turned a beautiful, fluffy batter into wet sludge.  (Me, nervous? No way!) The frosting was a riot, too: After combining the melted chocolate and butter with the confectioners’ sugar, you’re instructed to beat it over a bowl of ice until it becomes “spreadable.” I was skeptical for all of four minutes. Then the kitchen alchemy transformed my chocolate goo into thick, glossy frosting. As magical as a cake cooked with a light bulb!

The twin layers bloomed beautifully in the oven and, when frosted, looked like a poster child for the late 70s -- big and full of Farrah Fawcett-style swirls. Dense and thick, it was a hit with the birthday boy, who dug in with gusto.

I’m not the same girl who sat in front of her EZ Bake and counted down the interminable minutes until my tiny cake was done. But I’m reassured and heartened, amid so much change, by the sustaining power and simplicity of a luscious, timeless chocolate cake

Chocolate Fudge Cake
A chocolate-lover’s delight – velvety cake with luscious chocolate frosting.
Celebrate the timeless appeal of chocolate cake.

Bake at 350-degrees for 35 minute.
Makes one 9-inch cake.

3 squares unsweetened chocolate
2-1/4 c. sifted cake flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) butter or margarine
2-1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3 large eggs
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup dairy sour cream
1 cup boiling water
Chocolate Fudge Frosting (recipe follows)

1.     Melt chocolate in a small bowl over hot, not boiling water; cool.
2.     Grease and flour two 9x1-1/2-inch layer cake pans; tap out excess flour. (Or, use cocoa powder in place of flour to keep cake dark on outside.)
3.     Sift flour, baking soda and salt onto wax paper.
4.     Beat butter until soft in large bowl. Add brown sugar and eggs; beat with electric mixer at high speed until light and fluffy, 5 minutes. Beat in vanilla and cooled melted chocolate.
5.     Stir in dry ingredients alternately with sour cream, beating well with a wooden spoon after each addition until batter is smooth. Stir in boiling water. (Batter will be thin.) Pour at once into prepared pans.
6.     Bake in moderate over (350-degrees) 35 minutes, or until centers spring back when lightly pressed with fingertip.
7.     Cool layers in pans on wire rack, 10 minutes; loosen around edges with a small knife or spatula; turn out onto wire racks; cool completely.
8.     Make Chocolate Fudge Frosting. Place one cake layer on a serving plate; spread with about one-quarter of frosting; place second layer over. Gently brush off loose crumbs and spread a thin coat of frosting over top and sides; let set. Spread remaining frosting, making swirls with spatula.

·      Since this didn’t specify if the butter should be cold or at room temp, I split the difference and kept it on the counter until just slightly soft. I also used unsalted.
·      My cakes were ready at 33 minutes. Your oven temp may vary.
·      Frequent readers will know that light brown sugar gains no purchase in my kitchen. Dark brown all the way!

You'll be tempted to make off with the first piece, too.
Chocolate Fudge Frosting
Makes enough to fill and frost two 9-inch layers.

4 squares unsweetened chocolate
½ cup (1 stick) butter or margarine
1 package (1 pound) 10X (confectioners’) sugar
½ cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla

1.     Combine chocolate and butter in small heavy saucepan. Place over low heat just until melted; remove from heat.
2.     Combine 10X sugar, milk and vanilla in medium-size bowl; stir until smooth; add chocolate mixture. Set bowl in pan of ice and water; beat with wooden spoon until frosting is thick enough to spread and hold its shape.

·      After all the mad sifting I did for the cake, I wasn’t about to let lumps into the party at frosting time. I sifted the 10X for silky smooth results.
·      This frosting is crazy cool. The ice-bath sets it up quickly. Don’t leave it there to answer the phone or sign for a package – it will be too hard by the time you return, and you’ll be forced to do a generous "taste test" with a spoon. You might even decide to take an equal portion of peanut butter and mix it with a spoonful of the frosting to make a really, really awesome homemade peanut-butter cup. You might further decide to question the necessity, really, of frosting the cake at all, as you realize, with some horror, exactly how much has disappeared during your reverie. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Coffee Cake

I love coffee cake – studded with fruit and nuts, beribboned with streusel topping. I love the idea of coffee cake—a cake it’s appropriate to eat in the morning.  I love the way the smell of a coffee cake wraps my home in such a welcoming, warm, vanilla-laced hug. To paraphrase the immortal Cher Horowitz in Clueless: “You should always have something baking when a boy comes over.” But, unlike Cher, I refuse to limit myself. I prefer to have something baking when anyone comes over!
There's nothing like a coffee cake, fresh from the oven.

My dear friend’s sister Sonja was the guest in question, and she has the distinction of becoming the first non-family member guinea pig to eat a Time Capsule creation. She tried the Mrs. Fields’ cookies to great acclaim in her own home, and assured me she was up for the challenge of eating a T.C. offering, face to face, as it were, with the cook in chief.

There are coffee cakes, and then there are coffee cakes. This recipe was so charmingly straightforward and homey -- with its vaguely goofy measurements, and the trustworthy appeal of a typed, copied, hand-me-down recipe. So I ignored the warnings, which shot out from the ingredient list like bullets from a machine gun:  A box of yellow cake mix (bam!). A box of instant vanilla pudding (bam!). A teaspoon of butter extract (bam!).

But, I mean, isn’t coffee cake like pizza? Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good? With true childhood zeal, I pressed on, a bit bemused, but no less enthusiastic, when the instructions called to whip the batter for eight minutes on high. (Bam! Bam! Bam!) Was I making cake or glue?

The gluey, gluey yellow batter.
A dusting of chopped walnuts on the bottom of the pan, and a sprinkle of sugar-cinnamon between the layers of batter, and into the oven it went. The sweet, homespun scent whirled into the summer air, and, 40 minutes later, I slid the cake out, golden and laced with sugar.

It was beautiful, but the proof, they say, is in the (instant?) pudding. The first clue we were in Little Debbie territory may have been how squishy it was to cut – the knife couldn’t get any traction. It was like trying to saw a square of Wonder Bread. Next, even though my toothpick had tested “clean,” the texture made me question if it was still raw. I nibbled a piece from the middle. Nope – it was cooked.  It was just … really, really moist.

After a quick dusting of powdered sugar, I wrestled slices onto plates and laid the offering before my guest. It’s so sweet to watch nice people try to lie. Poor Sonja gamely ate her slice, and concluded, “I like it.” “But?” I prompted, sensing her hesitation. “But, well, it tastes like a cake mix,” she added.

Beautifully marbled, and raising my hopes.
Bingo, Sonja, bingo. And therein lies my problem, as you know, with many of the Time Capsule creations. Here, I was hopeful the addition of vanilla extract would cut the funk, but sadly, even Madagascar’s finest couldn’t compete against the chemical wonder twins of cake mix and instant pudding.

Some things improve with age, and I was hopeful this gift from the Time Capsule would be one of them. I did have, after all, a 13x9-inch dish of it to get through. Strangely, though, what changed was not the taste so much as the texture. It morphed into the kind of unnaturally “fresh," bouncy softness found in goodies at airport coffee shops, or wrapped in plastic and sold in triplicate at Costco.

Still lookin' good, but ...
This recipe won’t diminish my love of coffee cake – good, fresh cake in the morning is still reason enough for me to invite friends over. Next time, though, I’ll ditch the convenience in favor of the tasty.

And I’ll be sure to invite you over, Sonja, when I do.

Coffee Cake
1/4 cup of chopped nuts -- more if you like nuts
1 package Duncan Hines yellow cake mix
1 package vanilla pudding mix
3/4 cup vegetable (or corn) oil
3/4 cup water
4 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. butter extract
1/4 cup white sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon

Grease and flour 13x9-inch pan. Cover bottom of pan with chopped nuts.

Combine cake mix, pudding mix, oil and water in mixing bowl. Add the 4 eggs ... one at a time, beating after each addition. Add vanilla and butter extract and beat for 8 minutes on high speed.

Divide mixture into 3 parts. Pour the fist third over the nuts; sprinkle one-half of the sugar/cinnamon mixture over the top; add the second third of the batter; again sprinkle the remaining sugar/cinnamon over that. Add the last 1/3 of batter.

Bake 40-45 minutes at 350-degrees ... cool in pan. Before serving, lightly sift powdered sugar over the top.

  • I do like nuts, and would use more of them in the future. I'd also mix them into the batter. Sprinkling them on the bottom, in such low quantities, didn't harness their flavor or crunch.

Why Don’t You …
·      Send me your favorite coffee cake recipe, preferably one without "pudding in the mix."

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Summer Strawberry Bread Pudding From Colonial America

In Seattle, if we’re lucky, the Fourth is the real summer kick off. After we’ve suffered through the endless rains of June, a sunny sky is as dazzling as the fireworks display that lights up our night.

Summertime perfection -- local strawberries.
To make it even better, local strawberries have finally arrived in these parts. My standard Independence Day dessert is luscious, can’t-be-improved-upon strawberry shortcake. But here, from the dusty Time Capsule, comes a real blast from the past – a colonial blast from the past to be precise – that may give shortcake a run for its money. If nothing else, it’s certainly a charming departure from the ubiquitous “flag cake” running amok this time of year.

Summer Strawberry Bread Pudding From Colonial America is a mouthful, to be sure, and also a bit misleading. When I picture bread pudding, I conjure images of a creamy, custardy classic, usually (and best) served with some kind of bourbon-caramel sauce. This strawberry pudding, however, better falls under the category of “summer pudding” – a luscious mélange of crusty bread soaked overnight in berries and their juice, topped with a dollop (or three) of whipped cream. It’s shortcake’s frugal and sophisticated older sister.

The soaked and sauced bread, awaiting its night in the fridge.
The newspaper article from which SSBPFCA harkens features a veritable round-up of strawberry delights, including “Good Old Strawberry Jam,” “Strawberries Devonshire” and “Strawberry Nut Bread.” But how could I let this historical gem pass me by, especially on the 236th birthday of our great nation?

Like the Southern favorite banana pudding, the magic of this desert likes in the ability of the humble bread to transform into a cake-like layer, smothered with the juicy berries. Laziness is rewarded, as is cheapness – day-old bread is best here, and an overnight stint in the fridge is essential for the best effect.

An American beauty.
And man, it’s a looker. Unmolded, it held its shape, and was easy to slice into thick wedges. Topped with whipped cream and blueberries to gild the patriotic lily, it tasted like summer incarnate. It’s a reminder that a few simple ingredients (no canned pie filling in sight) and some kitchen alchemy are a reason to celebrate any day of the year.

Summer Strawberry Bread Pudding From Colonial America

2 pints fresh strawberries
1 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Dash cloves
2 tablespoons water
12 slices day-old white bread, crusts removed
1/3 cup butter, melted
2 cups sweetened whipped cream
Whole strawberries for garnish

Mix together in saucepan first 5 ingredients. Cook and stir slowly to boiling. Simmer 3 to 4 minutes. Brush bread slices on both sides with butter. Using 1-1/2 quart serving dish, line bottom and sides with bread. Brush edges of bread with syrup from cooked strawberries. In the dish, alternate layers of cooked strawberries with remaining bread. Cover and chill several hours or overnight. To serve, garnish with whipped cream and strawberries. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

The Bunker Hill of berry desserts.
·      I found that softened butter was a little easier to work with than melted.
·      I used an arty-farty artisan sourdough loaf. I doubt the colonials had Wonder Bread at their disposal, so I like to think that mine was the more historically accurate choice. Also, do you know what happens when I have a loaf of Wonder Bread in the house? I eat it. All. In one sitting.
·      After stewing for the recommended 3 to 4 minutes, I let the berries stew, off-heat, for another 10 minutes, then mashed them slightly.
·      Instead of brushing each side with syrup, I simply dipped each slice of buttered bread into the sauce before layering.
·      Use a glass or ceramic dish – aluminum will react with the acid in the fruit in an unappetizing way.

Why Don’t You …
·      Go nuts with the fruit available this time of year? I’m dying to try a blackberry, peach, nectarine or plum version. Maybe rhubarb, too.
·      Try a rounded or shaped bowl for an even more stunning presentation.
·      Try Ina Garten’s Summer Pudding recipe, which features mixed berries and a rum whipped cream. It's in her "Barefoot Contessa Family Style" book -- my personal fave.