We had a very small and relaxed Post Anti-Valentineâ€™s, Valentineâ€™s Dinner last week. We had humongous platters of Wagyu Osso Buco a la Milanese (the meat was surprisingly tough, despite two plus hours in the oven â€“ back to veal next time), a large green salad with a shallot vinaigrette, a superb bottle of 1995 Burgundy brought by our guests and these luscious chocolate cakes served with strawberries. I have always, always struggled to make a decent chocolate cake. When I was much younger, they always turned out too dry, too boring and usually lacking that bakeshop-like chocolate-y flavor. I wonder now if poor quality cocoa was partially to blame for the mediocre cakes of yore. But nevertheless, I NEVER got it right. As the years went on, I decided it was just too much trouble to figure it out so I took to buying our chocolate cakes insteadâ€¦there were tons of great ones on the market from home bakers including the Yulo chocolate cake from Forbes, the cake from the Magallanes gas station, etc. so there was never any reason for me to really learn how to do it myself. And despite whisperings of secret recipes that would result in the ultimate moist chocolate cake, including the addition of vinegar, mayonnaise and other ways to inject fat into the equation, I avoided making my own chocolate cake, period.
That is, until, my daughter called me one afternoon two weeks ago as I was about to board a plane from Cebu to Manila and asked if we could “please, please, please make a chocolate cake” that evening for a despedida party she and her classmates were giving for a teacher at their school. Yikes! By the time I got home, it was about 7 pm and the pressure was on to come up with a decent (my daughter said it â€œmust be really goodâ€) cake by the next morningâ€¦ I searched through several chocolate cookbooks, then dessert books, and most of the recipes either included ingredients I didnâ€™t have on hand or just smacked of potential Marketman failureâ€¦ I first decided on an icing, a simple chocolate and butter ganache like concoction that sounded way easy and yet looked superbâ€¦I figured if the icing was good, the cake quality would matter lessâ€¦ Then I spied a fairly simple sounding Devilâ€™s Food Cake recipe in Maida Heatterâ€™s “Book of Great Desserts,” for which we had almost all the ingredients in the house.
To make, pre-heat oven to 375 F. Butter two 8 to 9 inch cake pans and coat or dust with fine breadcrumbs. Melt 4 ounces (original recipe calls for 3 ounces) of unsweetened chocolate on top of a double boiler and set aside. Sift 2.5 cups of sifted all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons of baking soda and Â½ teaspoon of salt into a bowl. In your mixer bowl, beat Â¼ pound of butter (1 stick, though I used 1.5 sticks) until softened. Add 2 teaspoons of good vanilla and 2.5 cups of dark brown sugar (I used muscovado), packed down and mix for about two minutes at medium speed. Add in three eggs, one at a time until fully blended. Beat another two minutes. Add the melted chocolate and mix. On the lowest speed, add half the flour mixture, then Â¼ cup of buttermilk (I used milk), the other half of flour mixture and another Â¼ cup of buttermilk. Then gradually beat in 1 whole cup of boiling water. Yes, that last step sounds odd. But it works. The batter will be really thin.
Pour the batter into prepared pans and bake on a flat cookie sheet in the middle of the oven for 20-25 minutes until the tops are dryish and spring back when pushed against with your forefinger. Cool the cakes on a wire rack for 5 minutes, use a knife to separate the cakes from the sides of the pan and turn these over onto a plate or rack to cool completely. You may want to cut off any â€œpregnantâ€ or â€œbuntisâ€ effect of the cakes â€“ in other words, if you want a really neat and flat cake, cut off the bulgesâ€¦ Once cool, I covered these with foil and left them out on the kitchen counter until the next morning so I could frost them a few hours before they left for the â€œparty.â€
The icing was SUPER easy to make as well. It is now by far, one of my favorite two-ingredient miracle recipes of the year… I found the recipe in Fran Bigelowâ€™s terrific book â€œPure Chocolateâ€ and since I have a surplus of chocolate, this was the perfect way to use some of itâ€¦ In a double boiler, melt 8 ounces of semisweet chocolate (I used Callebaut 65%) in a double boiler. It’s best to first chop the chocolate finely so it melts more evenly. Then when it is all nearly melted and smooth when stirred, take it off the boiling water and turn off the stove. Slowly mix in 1/2 pound (two sticks) of unsalted butter at room temperature that has been cut up into small blocks. The butter cannot be too cold or the glaze will seize up (if that happens, place it over the hot water very briefly), nor too hot or it will liquefy. Keep stirring until the butter is melted and you have a smooth chocolate glaze. Ideally, the mixture should be at 80-85 degrees F at this point. It is ready to be poured on the cake immediatelyâ€¦
This was, after all, my first home-baked chocolate cake in decades, so I must say I was out of practice. I thought I could wing it and not shave off the pregnant lumps in the cake and just cover the blemishes with icingâ€¦ In other words, I had huge air gaps between the top layer of cake and the bottom layer. I poured the icing on the top of the cake and slowly brought it to the edge and had it flow down the sides. The top looked utterly brilliant. A smoother, silkier and shinier icing I had never made before. But the sides were turning into an utter disasterâ€¦kind of like the burial caves at Sagada where you could see into the sides of the cake. The icing was too thin to cover huge gaps. Quick thinking and a package of jet-fresh broas from Bohol provided the quick solution. I stuck broas all along the edge of the cake and it looked totally hotel-bakeshop-like. Add some squares of thick Lindt dark chocolate impaled into the top of the cake and I was amazed by the resultsâ€¦ totally amazed. And better yet, The Kid said the cake tasted great and no one noticed the â€œcover-upâ€ job!
So a week or so later, when we were trying to come up with a dessert for the Anti-Valentineâ€™s Dinner, we decided to make the same chocolate cake again to see if we had just been extremely lucky. Nope, it work brilliantly again the second time around. And this time I just let the icing drip down the sides and decorated the platters with fresh strawberries and served this all with a heavy cream. Yum. The oval cake with sugar sprinkled on top and berries all over was completely decorated by The Kid as she had her own guests over for Anti-Valentineâ€™s dinner as wellâ€¦ Ah, allâ€™s well that ends well. Super easy cake to make, it was light, chocolatey and moist. The icing was to die for. Oh, and donâ€™t store this cake in the fridge before serving it for the first time as the cold air “dulls” the gloss of the luscious icingâ€¦ And one final tip – if your strawberries are not the finest and sweetest, just put them in a bowl cleaned 9halve the larger ones) and sprinkle a scant one or two teaspoons of sugar on them and store in the fridge for 1-2 hours before eating. That tiny amount of sugar somehow draws liquid out of the berries and intensifies the flavor. The second photo above includes these “treated” strawberries. Don’t OVERDO the sugar, you just want to get the process going with a few grains of it… Perfect with the cream! And yes, the upside down heart straberry in the first photo was intentional…it was an Anti-Valentine’s Valentine’s Dinner after all… :)