Monday, March 2, 2009

End of Winter Indulgence #1: Chocolate (Birthday) Cake

Happy Birthday Matt!

The cold is, unbelievably enough, waning. I never thought it would happen, but it slowly and surely has. Despite my almost irrepressible joy at the miniature-but-present flower buds on the trees, and the fact that I no longer
have to wear three layers and a scarf everywhere I go, a tiny, itty-bitty little part of me is clinging on to the last vestiges of winter as an opportunity to indulge a little.

After all, winter is a time of hearty meals by the fireside, roaring ovens, and off-set lighting with
goodly-crumbly odds and ends and thick-gruely type feastings that make you comfortable, lethargic, and happily sated. While here in London it is cold or cold-ish (for my Texan blood) for about 85-90% of the year, there is a certain nostalgic sense of loss every time the cold breaks.

In honor of my true contrary nature in my tendency to cling to even things I profess to hate, here's a week of "End of Winter Indulgences" just for your reading pleasure.

Let's start off with one of my favorite things in the world, which, though it can be eaten at any time of year, never tastes better than on a cold wintery day: Chocolate Cake.

* * *

It was Matt's birthday yesterday (he's now officially in his late-twenties :) ), and to celebrate went went out to dinner with some friends on Saturday night to one of the few places in London that serves good BBQ. BBQ being somewhat of a comfort food for me, I was really pretty excited when Matt named Bodean's his birthday dinner location of choice. But in a moment of pregnancy-induced madness, I became even MORE excited, when Matt requested I make him a Chocolate Cake.

From the start I felt armed with the appropriate theoretical expertise to make a damn good one too.

* * *

Why, In Theory, Making a Chocolate Cake Should Be, For Me, Well, a Piece of Cake
illustrative of the same attitude that has caused me to fail at baking in previous attempts

3. I'd seen it all before. Sort of.
Having worked in a
bakery (albeit in a non
-baking capacity), I had, in theory, made chocolate cakes about a million times over in my head. I knew the basic ingredients of a good cake as well as what makes them good (good dark chocolate), what makes them bad (cheap sugary chocolate), and what makes them ugly (fondant, or any other non-butter cream icing).

watching my friends bake chocolate cakes at a professional kitchen

Even if my chocolate cake was a disaster, which was unlikely of course, I could, in a pinch, call my friends at Primrose Bakery and get them to send over a couple of really cute, really yummy chocolate cupcakes (Matt's favorite!). It wouldn't be the same, but he'd soon forgive me after the first bite...

2. I knew what Matt wanted. Sort of.

In addition to understanding the food-related needs, I also understood the finicky demands of my super-taster husband who'd grown up on homemade chocolate cake all his life.
His discriminating palate has been developed by years of spoilage at the hands of his mother who is an excellent chocolate-cake maker and indulged the kids with whatever cake they wanted every year for their birthdays. He's not a picky eater, but by the time he chews the first bite, you know if Matt likes something or not. Usually his face will say it all, but if I happen to miss the subtle cringe, the rest is made plain by the utterance of two possible statements:

A. "Yeah, it's good." or "Yeah, it's really good." (depending on how much he LIKES it)

B. "It's alright." or cricket-noise-filled-silence (depending on how much he DISlikes it)

He wanted a traditional, chocolate sponge with traditional hand-made chocolate icing. Not too
sweet, not too bitter. Not too fudgy, not molten or ganachey. Not like a souffle, but not like a dried out scone. Not stale but not overly moist. There are so many nuanced permutations of this traditional but often-bastardized western staple that I really had my work cut-out for me.

1. I had planned ahead. Sort of.

I spent the week or so leading up to Matt's birthday researching the perfect Chocolate Cake recipe. This cake could NOT come from a box (Matt claims he can tell when it does) and it couldn't just be any old recipe I dredged up on the internet either. I hit up a couple of places before deciding on my final choice:

- Olive Magazine included one of their mini-recipe booklets with the issue this month which
included their "easiest ever fudge cake." It looked delicious, but had the word "fudge" in it, so that was out.

- I went back to my pastry-idol's Simply Sensational Desserts and looked through only to find an entire chapter devoted to the homebaking of (numerous types of) Chocolate Cakes (something Payard calls a "noble dream" - a dream nonetheless apparently). All of them were either way too complicated, added fruit to the mix (which is a big Matt no-no as far as chocolate cake goes), or looked like funny animals (see Hedgehog cake on the cover below). Not gonna work.

- Finally, desperately, I turned to the internet and other foody blogs. I had never considered looking for a British recipe for chocolate cake because chocolate cake just doesn't really scream "British" to me. It conjures up pictures of American housewives using handmixers and palette knives while wearing frilly aprons. That's what I was hoping to evoke with my cake, and I'd even planned to wear the frilly apron my sister gave me for Christmas while making it.

Believe it or not, this is the least suggestive picture of Nigella I could find.
Check google images if you don't believe me. And I thought Giada was bad.

Well, the closest thing I could find to a recipe that conjures up the TLC of a traditional American chocolate cake recipe was the recipe I'm about to share which comes from none other than the queen of British cooking sensuality: Nigella Lawson. (In my defense, the recipe does actually include the words "old fashioned" which I think mitigates the fact that it has sour cream in it and is made by the not-so-old and hardly old-fashioned sex symbol of British cooking.)

So without further ado...

* * *

Brenda's attempt at Nigella Lawson's
'Old Fashioned' Chocolate Cake

Serves 8-10 adults

Chocolate wintery indulgence at its best.

As you will see over time, I love baked goods, savory or sweet, that include sour cream. I have to admit the unorthodox inclusion of that ingredient is what eventually sold me on making this particular recipe for Matt's birthday cake. In the end, I'm not sure it actually made a huge difference, although I did find the icing slightly less sickly-sweet than I usually would on a chocolate cake, and that is a good thing, but the sponge could have been moister...I'll have to work on that.

I beat my icing too long which made it thicker and lighter in color - but I like being able to give my cake the porcupine look. If you don't, then don't beat it as long or add some boiling water to the mixture to make it

gathering ingredients



2 8-inch round cake pans, buttered

1 1/2 cup plain flour
1 cup caster sugar or extra fine sugar

1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/3 cup best-quality cocoa

1 1/2 sticks (6oz) soft unsalted butter
2 large eggs

2 tsp vanilla extract

2/3 cup sour cream


3/4 stick (3 oz) unsalted butter

175g (6 oz) best-quality dark chocolate, broken into pieces

2 1/2 cups icing sugar
1 tbsp golden syrup

1/2 cup sour cream

1 tsp vanilla extract

  1. Take everything out of the fridge so all the ingredients can come to room temperature. Heat the oven to 180°C/ 350°F and butter two 8-inch (20cm) cake pans with removable bases.

  2. Mix all the cake ingredients in a large bowl with a hand mixer, or blitz in the food processor until combined. Divide the batter, using a rubber spatula, into the prepared cake pans and bake until a skewer or toothpick, comes out clean (about 30 minutes depending on your oven).

  3. Remove the cakes, in their pans, to a wire rack and let cool for 10 minutes before taking them out of the pans.

  4. To make the icing, melt the butter and chocolate using a baine marie or double boiler. Use as little heat as possible - chocolate burns quickly and irreversably and will sieze. Once completely melted, allow the chocolate and butter to cool a little before adding the golden syrup, vanilla, and sour cream.

    Chocolate before and after the baine marie.

    Lyle's Golden Syrup; somehow highly aesthetically pleasing...

  5. Meanwhile, sift the icing sugar into another bowl to remove any lumps. Whisk in the sieved icing sugar to the chocolate mixture, and mix with a hand-mixer. Note: You may need to add a little boiling water (a teaspoon or so), or some more icing sugar depending on the consistency you want. It should be liquid enough to coat easily, but thick enough not to drip off.

  6. Ice the cake on the cake stand or plate you have chosen by spooning about a third of the icing onto the center of the cake half and spreading with a knife or spatula until you cover the top of it evenly. Sit the other cake on top, normal way up, pressing gently to sandwich the two together. Spoon another third of the icing onto the top of the cake and spread it in a swirly, textured way. Spread the sides of the cake with the remaining icing and leave a few minutes till set.

ice the middle, make a sandwich...

...and then swirl, twirl or porcupine away!

I served this cake with a nice, big, cold glass of milk. What can I say? It takes me back. And the birthday boy liked it, which is all that matters. :)
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  1. I really enjoyed the post, and can belive that was the least suggestive picture of Nigella, I am only surprised she was not bathing in the chocolate. I don't know about your husband, but with mine everything is better if you mention Nigella in the same sentance.

    The chocolate cake looked delicious, as I sit here on an early Monday morning, I wish I had a slice to enjoy with my coffee.


  2. Love love love chocolate cake.
    I find icing a cake is nearly a ZEN experience. So meditative. Lovely cake dahhhling!

  3. Keep them coming, these wintery indulgences are now my evening ones. I miss our morning chats already. I hope you and matt enjoyed his birthday, have a big piece for me. Miss you!

  4. Ah! Those peaks and valleys of chocolate icing: imagine skiing a chocolate slope and triggering a chocolate avalanche. Don't bother to send the ski patrol - I'll eat my way out.

  5. I had a cake made with the inclusion of grated courgette the other day. Someone from a community garden made it for a cake sale to raise funds for the garden. It was left over after the sale so she brought it in for our choir to devour in the tea break. Everyone agreed it was the best cake they'd had for ages. It was so moist in a really good way. She had filled it with lemon curd which was fabulous. So maybe add some courgette or beetroot to your cake recipe to make it moist.