I have been feeling very guilty lately. Like everyone I know, I’m balancing one too many things on a very thin rope. When I’m doing one thing, I feel bad about neglecting another. I tried to explain this to John the other day using examples like the dirty bathroom, and poor Hugo who hasn’t been on enough walks, and my exploding gmail inbox. He smiled and nodded in his patient way and reminded me that in the last 2 weeks we, in addition to you know getting up and going to work everyday, had out of town guests, hosted a dinner for 30 in our back yard, and then went to New York and catered a friend’s wedding for 45. Advil, anyone?
John’s good friend and colleague got married last weekend on what happened to be John’s 30th birthday. Many months earlier she had invited us to come down to her now husband’s family’s home in Brooklyn and cook for the party. I was a little reluctant – cooking for 45 is no small feat especially in someone else’s kitchen. But John, generous soul that he is, pretty much begged me to do it with him. Being his 30th birthday and all, I cautiously stepped on board the wedding train.
We made a beautiful, rustic, Massachusetts produce centered meal – a roasted leg of lamb with homemade lemon aioli, braised short ribs with celeriac puree, wild rice and squash salad, homemade parpadelle with mushroom ragu, beet salad with olives and ricotta salata, pear salad with blue cheese and walnuts, and a big platter of roasted farm vegetables with horseradish crème fraiche.
And then we made cake. Five cakes. And we had maybe the first serious disagreement (aka argument) of our relationship. About the cake.
Cakes make me very anxious. Not the one bowl, put it in pan, eat it all cozy with a mug of tea kind of cake. The fancy kind. The kind you bake, and cut, and fuss, and make 20 filling for, and break, and swear, and sweat, and curse over. That kind.
Me and cake, we go way back; and it’s been a rocky relationship. While I was elbow deep in chocolate cake batter and fretting over the math (if one recipe makes one 2 layer cake, how many recipes do I need for 3 three layer cakes, etc.?), John made the fatal mistake of telling me to “relax, the cake will be easy.” Things digressed from there.
But we survived, and the cake did too. So in case you too want to test the strength of your relationship, or you have one of those dreaded fancy cake occasions coming up, I thought I’d type up the recipe for what turned out to be a very tasty little cake. I also included some tips I’ve learned along the way for making layer cakes slightly less head-ache inducing, though if you plan on making five, I do recommend a bottle of Advil close at hand.
All images in this post are courtesy John Wang, who is thankfully still speaking with me. The cat is Tony, who was very interested in all things cake related.
Chocolate Layer Cake with Frangelico, Raspberries, and Swiss Butter Cream
Makes one 3 layer 9 inch cake which serves 10-12
For the Chocolate Cake Layers
Super Chocolate Cake
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
4 ½ tbsp unsalted butter
¾ cup good quality cocoa powder filled with boiling water to make
1 ½ cup liquid*
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp baking soda
¾ cup boiling water
*place ¾ cup of cocoa powder in a pyrex measuring cup and add boiling water until you have 1 ½ cups of liquid. The cocoa absorbs some of the water, so you’ll need to add more than ¾ cup of water.
This recipe is from my mom, who adapted it from The Best of Bridge cookbook series, which you’ve probably never heard of unless you grew up in Canada. My mom calls is plainly, “Super Chocolate Cake,” and it’s my go-to devil’s food type cake recipe.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.** Butter a 9 inch spring form pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
Cream together the butter and the sugar. Add the egg and beat well. Add the cocoa liquid and mix well. Combine the boiling water and the baking soda and add this to the cocoa mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix well.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour and the baking powder. Slowly whisk the cocoa mixture into the flour mixture, mixing well to ensure no lumps form.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake about 1 hour until set and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
**Baking the cake at a low temperature for a longer period of time will cut down on its doming and help it to bake flatter – which you want for an even layer cake. You can also buy fancy “straps” to prevent it from doming. Or you can not worry about it, trim the cake later, and make your household very happy with chocolate cake scraps.
Once the cake is baked and cooled, trim the top if it has domed and then carefully cut the cake into 3 layers using your best bread knife. Don’t fret if the layers aren’t perfectly even, just do your best. I like to bake the cake at least the day before I assemble it and then wrap each layer very well in plastic wrap and freeze them on a flat surface. Frozen layers make assembling the cake much easier and cut down on both the chance of your layer breaking and all those irksome crumbs.
For the Fillings and Frosting
These should all be made the day you plan to assemble your cake. Thae cake can be fully assembled the day before you serve it.
6 oz bittersweet chocolate (I used Valrhona)
¼ cup heavy cream
Chop the chocolate finely and set aside in a heat proof bowl. Bring the cream just to a boil over medium heat and immediately pour it over the chopped chocolate. Stir until the chocolate is fully melted. You can hold the bowl well above a lit burner to continue heating it if your chocolate does not fully melt. Set aside at room temperature. You’ll need some of the ganache for the chocolate whipped cream (below) and the rest for assembling the cake.
Chocolate Whipped Cream
1 pint heavy cream
1 tsp powdered gelatin
1 tbsp warm watter
2 heaping tbsps chocolate ganache (above)
Place the cream in a chilled bowl and whisk until soft peeks form. In a small bowl, combine the water and the gelatin* and mix until the gelatin softens and begins to dissolve. Add this, along with the chocolate ganache to the cream and continue whisking until stiff peeks form.
*Adding gelatin to whipped cream stabilizes it so it will not collapse in a cake that has to sit out at room temperature for a few hours. You can use this trick anytime you want to make your whipped cream ahead of time and have it hold its form until later.
Swiss Butter Cream
4 egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar
3 sticks plus 2 tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
This recipe is from Smitten Kitchen. I’ve used Swiss butter cream quite a lot over the years – it’s a nice tasting, very stable frosting that is beautifully white. Because of the addition of egg whites, Swiss butter cream is much less sweet than traditional American butter cream.
Combine the egg whites and the sugar over a double boiler. (I use a metal bowl on top of a pot with 2-3 inches of simmering water.) Cook over low-medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Make sure you keep the heat low to avoid scrambling your egg whites!
Remove from the heat and transfer to a stand mixer (you really need electric beaters of some kind for this frosting.) Using the whisk attachment, whip on high speed until the mixture doubles in volume.
Add the butter a stick at a time and continue whipping until the frosting comes together and is rich, soft, thick, and white. This will take a few minutes, don’t panic.
Set the frosting aside at room temperature until you are ready to assemble your cake.
For the Assembly
You will need:
3 baked and cut cake layers (above)
1 recipe chocolate ganache (above)
1 recipe chocolate whipped cream (above)
1 recipe Swiss butter cream (above)
½ cup good quality raspberry preserves
1 pint fresh raspberries
½ cup frangelico diluted with 3 tbsp water
Place the raspberry preserves and half of the fresh raspberries in a small sauce pan over medium heat and cook until the raspberries break down – 3-5 minutes.
Combine the frangelico (Italian hazelnut liquor) and the water in a small cup and set aside with a pastry brush.
Fill a piping bag fitted with the widest tip you own with the Swiss butter cream. (Most bags come with a round plastic “thingy” to which you normally attach smaller tips – I use this without any tip.)
Have all of your fillings close at hand and several off set spatulas handy.
Place the bottom layer of your cake (still frozen) on the platter on which it will be served. If you have a cake wheel, place the platter on the wheel, otherwise use the counter!
1. Soak the cake generously with the frangelico mixture. Soaking cake layers with anything from citrus juice to liquor to just water will keep them nice an moist, especially in a cake you plan to make day ahead or has to sit out for a while.
2. Pipe a thick ring of butter cream around the edge of the cake. This acts as a sort of dam to prevent the other, softer fillings from squishing out of the cake as it is stacked.
3. Smear the cake (inside the butter cream ring) with half the raspberry preserves. Top the preserves with half of the ganache and spread it around – it will mix in a bit with the preserves, don’t worry.
4. Top the ganache with half of the chocolate whipped cream, spreading it around gently.
5. Dot the cream with half of the reserved raspberries, poking them into the cream.
Carefully center the next layer of cake on top of the raspberries and repeat steps 1-5.
Set the last layer of cake on top of the raspberries and soak it with the frangelico mixture.
Using a small off set spatula, cover the top and sides of the cake with a thin layer of butter cream. Refrigerate the cake until the butter cream is set. This is what’s called a “crumb coat,” and prevents crumbs from sticking to your final layer of butter cream. It’s especially helpful when you are covering a dark cake with a light frosting and crumbs will be highly visible. (I admit I almost never actually do a crumb coat, I’m just extra careful with my frosting. But it’s a good idea, really.)
Once the “crumb coat” is set, cover the cake with a thicker layer of butter cream. I usually start on the top and then gently push the butter cream down over the sides of the cake. Wetting your spatula slightly will help smooth out the frosting once you have covered the cake.
Once the cake is covered, wipe any stray frosting from the serving plate with a damp paper towels (Or if your frosting skills are like mine, several damp paper towels.)
At this point, fit your piping bag with a small round tip (#4) and pipe pearls around the base of the cake.
Chill until 2 hours before you are ready to serve and then let the cake come up to room temperature. If your cake layers are frozen when you assemble, and you plan to serve the cake that day, make sure you let it sit out for 2-3 hours to defrost before you serve it. Decorate with fresh flowers, and then go get yourself a drink. You deserve it.