Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mocha Birthday Cake

As I'm sitting here writing this column, I have before me a great big wedge of birthday cake on a nice plate and I also have an icy cold glass of milk.  For my birthday I like to bake my own cake because I enjoy it so much.  I love variety and I love experimenting with cake recipes each & every year.  How do I choose?  Well, sometimes it comes to me from reading a recipe, going through an old cookbook or from a simple craving I can't shake off.  I'm always willing to try a different cake and there isn't a type that, if served to me, I will push away.  Last year I made myself a chocolate marble chiffon cake that was covered in a rich ganache.  We all loved it. 

This year I was absolutely craving the flavor of mocha.  After choosing my moist chocolate cake layers, I thought of all the different fillings and frostings that would complement the cake itself.  In my mind I envisioned and tasted a good cup of cafe au lait, along with the very best piece of rich chocolate.  What I created is perhaps one of the tastiest cakes I've ever had to date.  My Mocha Birthday Cake is now yours!

The tall, regal birthday cake sitting on a nice cake stand.
I baked 6" layers for my birthday cake & trimmed the domes to make them level; the cakes should be completely cool before you begin this project.  Since it is a very tall, three layer cake, I thought it best to give them a solid footing.  One layer gets placed and centered on an 8" jadeite cake stand from my collection of Martha by Mail.

One cup of heavy cream gets turned into whipped cream and is beaten to just under firm peaks.  I then fold in about 4 tablespoons of finely chopped, chocolate covered espresso beans.  Not only does it give the whipped cream a bit of crunch, it also gives it a nice mocha flavor.  A perfect filling.


Spread half of your espresso bean-whipped cream on top of the first layer.

A small blunder on my part.  I forgot to put strips of wax paper (parchment also works) under my first layer!  You, the reader, should do this before you begin.  It's going to save your cake stand from buttercream smudges when you spread the frosting.

Add your second layer and spread the remaining whipped cream.  I spread the cream just a bit shy of the edges.  I don't want it oozing down the layers.

Place the last & prettiest layer on top.  If there is any whipped cream oozing out the sides, simply use a small offset spatula and smooth it out.  By the way, these dark, fudgy layers were made with Valrhona cocoa powder.

It's time to begin icing the cake.  This is my delicious chocolate frosting that was freshly made.  A medium-sized offset metal spatula is all you need to complete the cake.

Note: I inserted a bamboo skewer down the middle of the entire cake before icing it.  This prevents the layers from shifting as I spread my frosting.  A very Good Thing.

Place a large amount of icing on top of the cake & begin spreading it down the sides of the layers.  The frosting behaves & applies beautifully.

Rotate your cake stand as you go.  Do you see why it's important to put those strips of parchment or wax paper underneath?  Otherwise, the base of my cake stand would be a chocolate mess.  By the way, snip off the protruding skewer with some kitchen shears when you're done. 

The finished cake.

You can leave the icing on the cake any which way; large swoops are nice.  I was inspired a bit by the guys at Baked Bakery in Brooklyn, N.Y. who love to spread a ring pattern around some of their cakes.  All you need to do is place the tip of the metal offset spatula along the base of your cake & begin turning the cake stand.  Repeat this process all the way to the top.  The crown of the cake gets decorated with concentric circles in the same manner.  Voila, you're done! 

The first slice of Mocha Birthday Cake.

The cake should be refrigerated if you're not planning on serving it in the next hour or so.  Otherwise it can sit in a cool place for about one hour.  If you have any leftovers, (lucky you!) they can be kept in the refrigerator, well covered, for about 2 days.

This makes 8-10 servings.

A tall wedge awaiting a lucky individual. 

Whether you bake this utterly scrumptious cake for a birthday, family gathering or just because you feel like it, I think you're going to love each and every bite.  The layers are downy & light, the filling is familiar, yet different because of the espresso beans, and the frosting is out of this world!  It's the perfect cake for those coffee lovers in your life (you know who they are).  I really ought to stop writing now because there's a giant slice that has my name written all over it and I must finish it.  From my kitchen to yours, I hope you enjoy my Mocha Birthday Cake.  Cheers! 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Whipped Cream Chocolate Cake

One of the things that I love about this cake is its simplicity.  Not only is it a quick cake to bake, it's also an easy cake to make.  Start with those beautiful moist chocolate cake layers that I showed you in a previous post and add some whipped cream to sandwich and crown the cake.  That's all there is to it!  Just because there are only a few components to this cake doesn't mean that you get to skimp on the ingredients.  Find the best quality dutch-process cocoa powder you can find to make the cake, and use the freshest farmstand cream you can find to top it.  When you want to make an honest-to-goodness chocolate cake for friends or family and you don't have a lot of time, why not make my Whipped Cream Chocolate Cake? 

I made 8" layers for this particular cake.  Here is one layer sitting on a vintage cake stand.  There is no need to trim the domed tops because it is a homey cake.

Spread half of your whipped cream on top of the first layer.  Place the second layer over it, either dome side up or dome side down.  You decide.  Spread the remaining cream over the top.

As a final garnish, I placed chocolate covered espresso beans around the top.  Delicious!

A generous wedge served on a white bone china plate and a fork from the 1940s.

Note: this cake can be made a few hours in advance, but should be covered in plastic wrap and refrigerated.  The cake makes approximately 10 servings.

Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

Anyone can make this cake.  Whether you're a beginner or a professional, you're going to find this such a quick cake to put together.  You don't have to limit yourself to using chocolate covered espresso beans for the garnish.  It would be just as delicious being topped with chocolate covered sunflower seeds, sprinkles, non pareils, malt balls, or even some fresh berries if you like.  I personally know people who don't like chocolate anything, but I guarantee that if you place a slice of this cake under their noses, it will be inhaled in seconds.  Bon Appetit! 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Moist Chocolate Cake Layers

We all love homemade cakes.  Some of my favorite types include those made with delicious chocolate layers.  For me, a good chocolate layer cake has to be exceedingly moist and fudgy.  While it may seem easier to use a prepackaged cake mix for most people, there really is no need to when you have a good, simple, workable recipe.  The one I'm about to show you makes layers with a velvety, well-formed crumb and a lot of chocolate flavor.  After one bite of this cake, you're going to want to bookmark the recipe, because you'll be returning to it again and again.  What's more, preparing the cake requires a minimum of fuss in the kitchen!     

The Ingredients
  • 3 large eggs, room temperature
  • 3/4 cups buttermilk, room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (canola or safflower)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cups strong black coffee, cooled to room temperature
  • 1 3/4 cups cake flour (not self-rising), spooned & leveled
  • 3/4 cups dutch-process cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar (vanilla sugar is perfect!)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine salt (I use sea salt)
Preheat your oven to 350°F 
The oven rack should be placed in the lower middle tier.

Butter your cake pans well and line them with parchment paper.  Instead of adding flour to my pans, I sprinkle the same type of cocoa powder.  A Good Thing I learned from Martha.
Cake Pans
  • three 6" round cake pans
  • two 8" round cake pans
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until they are broken up.  Add your buttermilk, vegetable oil & extract.  Mix this well.

Note: You can prepare all of this with a handheld or stand mixer.

Add the cooled coffee and blend this thoroughly.

I measure my cake flour by scooping it into a measuring cup and leveling it off with a straight edge.  This gets placed into a bowl. 

Measure all of your dry ingredients into a medium-sized bowl (foreground). 

Carefully pour the dry ingredients a little at a time, through a fine mesh sieve, and sift into the bowl with your liquid ingredients.  

It's always important to sift cocoa powder as well as cake flour, because they do tend to clump.  Do this carefully or you will have a snowfall of cocoa if you are too vigorous.


Gradually begin to stir the dry and wet ingredients together.


I like to switch to a whisk.  This will get rid of any lumps in the batter; whisk until smooth, about one minute.


Divide your batter evenly into your prepared pans. 
  • Bake the 6" layers for approximately 25-30 minutes.
  • Bake the 8" layers for approximately 30-35 minutes.

The layers will begin to pull away from the sides of the  pan when they are done.

They will also feel springy to the touch.  This is a well made layer.  Let them cool in the pans set over a cooling rack for approximately 15 minutes.

Quickly release the cakes from the pan and invert them top-side up to cool completely.

The finished layers.  Dark, chocolaty & very rich.

This moist chocolate cake can be iced with a number of frostings.  What are among my favorites?  The obvious choice would be my Delicious Chocolate Frosting, but how about a billowy seven minute frosting or a bittersweet ganache?  Any type of buttercream or some simple whipped cream would also be perfect!  Perhaps you don't want the hassle of an icing and prefer to cover it with a bit of confectioner's sugar sifted through a beautiful stencil.  Whatever you decide, you're all going to agree that the cake itself takes center stage.  If I haven't mentioned it yet, these layers can be baked a day in advance and be kept at room temperature (wrap them well).  You don't need to wait for a special celebration to bake this fast, easy & delicious cake.  Why not surprise a friend or family member today?  Have fun making it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Delicious Chocolate Frosting

Chocolate frosting can be used on many types of layer cakes, cupcakes, tortes or even as a filling for sandwich cookies if you so wish.  Whether you bake occasionally or professionally, having a good recipe for an all-purpose chocolate frosting is essential.  What I look for in any chocolate-flavored frosting is the velvety smoothness and sweetness of a good, high-quality piece of chocolate.  If the frosting is made with the finest chocolate or cocoa powder, then it will meet with my standard of goodness.  The original recipe for this frosting comes from cookbook author Lisa Yockelson.  You really ought to visit her blog called Baking Style Diary if you're not familiar with it.  I took the liberty of changing the recipe here and there, making adjustments to quantities, while keeping the structure of the frosting intact.  Take a look and see just how chocolaty this icing really is.   

This is the chocolate frosting. Delicious!

I'm using the finest Belgian chocolate by Callebaut.

Chopping Chocolate the easy way.

I love using big bars of chocolate for baking, especially if they're imported and of the highest quality.  The best way to chop this type of chocolate is with a long serrated knife.  Simply use enough pressure to break up the bar into shards, trying not to leave any large pieces.  Weigh what you need and proceed with the recipe.

The Ingredients

  • 4 oz. unsweetened chocolate (4 squares), chopped
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 4 cups confectioner's sugar, spooned in and leveled
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (I use fine sea salt)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract or double strength vanilla
  • 1/2 cup strong black coffee, room temperature (can substitute milk)

Melt your chocolate in the top of a double boiler or in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water.  The flame should be on low because you don't want the water boiling. 

Note: The bowl should NOT be touching the simmering water.  

With a heatproof spatula or wooden spoon, begin stirring the chocolate.  You will immediately see it melting around the edges of the bowl.  Keep the chocolate moving.

After about one minute or so, the entire bowl should begin to look like this.  Can you see the smoothness & glossy quality of this fine chocolate?  I'm always pleased with Callebaut because they make some of the best chocolate in the entire world.  When you see only a few lumps of chocolate left, turn off your flame and remove the bowl from the heat.  Whatever you do, do not let any water fall into the melted chocolate or it will seize.  Stir the remaining lumps to melt thoroughly and let this entire mixture cool to tepid.  I always set the bowl over a small cake rack.

Cream your butter until it is light and smooth.  This can be done in a stand mixer, but a handheld one works just as well. 

Scrape down your bowl at least once before proceeding. 

Add half of your confectioner's sugar, the salt, vanilla extract and the cooled coffee (or milk).  Blend this well until it is smooth, about one minute.  You should scrape down your bowl once again.

Add the remainder of your confectioner's sugar and whip up on medium speed until it gets glossy and thick, about another minute or two more.  At this point you will observe the billowy texture of the buttercream and the heady aroma of coffee.

Add your cooled, melted chocolate into the bowl.  Make sure you scrape every bit of chocolate! You want the buttercream to be rich and thick.  On medium speed, incorporate the chocolate until it is well blended.  This should only take another minute more.  I recommend using it immediately.  It can, however, be kept at room temperature (provided your kitchen is cool) for about 2 hours if it's well covered.

This yields enough for:
  • 8" or 9" two layer cake (fill & frost)
  • 6" triple layer cake (frost)
  • 24 cupcakes (frosted tops)
This is the texture you want.  Perfectly smooth.

How easy was it to make this frosting?  Pretty quick if I do say so myself.  Whenever I think of chocolate frosting, I go back to my childhood and call to mind the many birthday cakes and school sale cupcakes that mother always made for me and my siblings.  Mom was always willing to teach me the ins and outs of baking while growing up.  I learned a lot being by her side as an apt kitchen helper and pupil.  As I observed and took mental notes, I always eagerly awaited the removal of the mixer beaters for me to enjoy.  This chocolate frosting reminds me so much of what mother was to me then and what she is to me now.  Wonderfully perfect! 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Whipped Cream

Freshly whipped cream is ultra delicious.  As a topping or filling, whipped cream can be used to enhance or accompany many desserts.  What would a warm cobbler, a well made shortcake or a slice of pie be without a dollop of whipped cream?  While it's tempting to pick up a can of those ready to squeeze containers at the store, avoid them because they contain syrups & other stabilizers.  Look in the refrigerated dairy case of your local supermarket or farmer's market and pick up a container of heavy cream instead. 

Since you have a few options at the supermarket, there are two types of cream that you should be aware of if you want to whip it for desserts.  The readily available whipping cream is made up of 30% butterfat and is always ultra-pasteurized; this process heats the milk up to a certain temperature in order to kill any bacteria (good and bad) and is then cooled, thus extending its shelf life.  Although it will whip up, it doesn't hold it's shape very well.  If you have a well-stocked supermarket, they will also offer heavy cream or heavy whipping cream which is made up of 36%-38% butterfat.  This whips up beautifully and holds it shape quite firmly.  It is the cream of choice at my house if I want to dollop a dessert with it or if I want to fill a cake for a special occasion.  The technique for whipping cream is fast, simple & doesn't require much effort.


All you need is a stainless steel bowl, a balloon whisk, the cream & a bit of sugar.  Your bowl & whisk should be thoroughly chilled.  I put them in the freezer for at least 15 minutes before getting started.  I prefer whipping cream by hand rather than using my stand mixer or handheld mixer, because I have more control.

For every 1 cup of cream:
  •  1-2 tablespoons superfine sugar, granulated sugar or  vanilla sugar  
  • 1-4 tablespoons 10x/confectioner's sugar: this type of sugar will make the whipped cream a bit more stable because of the cornstarch.  It will prevent it from weeping.

Place the cold heavy cream in your chilled bowl & begin whipping vigorously with a balloon whisk.  Add the sugar in a steady stream as it starts to thicken.

Softly Whipped Cream
You get to this stage in a matter of seconds.

Note: if you want to hold your whipped cream for a few hours in the refrigerator, you should stop whipping at this point.  You can always continue with the steps below when you're ready to serve the whipped cream.  
Medium Soft Peaks

In just under one minute or so you reach this stage.  It is perfect for dolloping onto a cobbler or pie.  If you're going to use it as a filling for a cake or jelly roll, you should stop whipping at this point.   

Stiff Peaks

Stiff peaks also work for slices of pie, a helping of cobbler or crisp, a bit of jello or for that summer shortcake.

You really ought to be careful and stop whipping by now.  Stiff peaks are achieved in about one minute, so it's important for you to pay special attention.  If you overwhip, the cream will begin to separate, get grainy & will start turning into butter.  Any further handling of the whipped cream (like spreading on cake layers or forcing it through a piping bag) at this point, will break it down even more.  My advice is to stop whipping just before you get to stiff peaks.


If you're going to take the time to bake a pie for your family and friends or are perhaps thinking of making shortcakes with the summer's bounty, why not provide some freshly whipped cream?  You can see that it takes no time at all and the results are well worth it.  Although I don't indulge in whipped cream regularly, it is something I like to have when I want to make a dessert even more special.  If you're lucky enough to have a farmer's market nearby that provides fresh dairy products, take a closer look at what they have to offer. 

Enjoy it and cheers!