This year, for each of our kids’ birthdays, I will bake a cake. Not just a cake-in-a-box, with store-bought icing, no, no, no. I must step outside of my comfort zone in the kitchen, and *gasp* actually bake.
Baking, to me, is scary. You have to measure. You have to follow steps. I know that experienced bakers can improvise, but I’m not there yet. I must follow each and every step, which forces me to read, and read again, just to make sure I know what I’m supposed to do. And the worst part? There’s not a lot of places where I can “taste test” and understand what the finished product will be like. I just don’t have the experience. Sure, I can make cookies, banana bread and Angel Food Cake (my Mom made these so much for us when I was little, so I learned) and that kind of stuff, but fancy cakes? Breads? Pastries? Those are foreign to me.
I’ve made a commitment to learn, however. Learn to bake. Bake yummy breads, pretty cakes, and I dream about being able to do so one day with nary a glance at a recipe. I envision myself being able to feel the dough, and know just how much I need to knead it, if it needs more flour, and understand how the bread will bake. I imagine myself relaxing while baking, the way I do when cooking other, more familiar dishes. I will get there. I am determined!
So, for now, I have committed myself to birthday cakes. There will be other experiments, of course, but for me, built-in expectations help me stay on track with my goals. This cake was for Matt’s 14th birthday. He wanted chocolate. (smart boy!) So I found Dorie Greenspan’s Devil’s Food White-Out cake, found in her cookbook Baking: From My Home to Yours. What a delicious cake! It has fudgy, moist chocolate layers, and a fluffy, marshmallow frosting. For someone like me that has little experience decorating cakes, this one’s easy to decorate: simply crumble part of the cake and sprinkle over the frosting. Easy! It’s not the most elegant cake out there, but it is indeed delicious. I opted to go the easy route and made only 2 layers instead of Dorie’s 3, partially because I used 9-inch round pans instead of 8-inch and my cakes were relatively thin, and because it made things easier. Dorie suggested slicing each cake in half, and using one half for the crumbled topping. For my crumbled topping, I simply used the leftovers from when I sliced the domed tops from the cakes off to level them.
All in all, this is the best cake I have baked so far. I was happy with it, so I will chalk that up to a success in the baking department!
For the cake:
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
1/2 cup buttermilk or whole milk, at room temperature
1/2 cup boiling water
4 ounces semisweet or milk chocolate, finely chopped, or 2/3 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips
For the filling and frosting:
1/2 cup egg whites (about 4 large)
1 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup water
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
GETTING READY: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 8-x-2-inch round cake pans (I used 9-inch), dust the insides with flour, tap out the excess and line the bottoms with parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.
TO MAKE THE CAKE: Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the sugars and continue to beat for another 3 minutes. Add the eggs one by one, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in the vanilla; don’t be concerned if the mixture looks curdled. Reduce the mixer speed to low and mix in the melted chocolate. When it is fully incorporated, add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk, adding the dry ingredients in 3 additions and the milk in 2 (begin and end with the dry ingredients); scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed and mix only until the ingredients disappear into the batter. At this point, the batter will be thick, like frosting. Still working on low speed, mix in the boiling water, which will thin the batter considerably. Switch to a rubber spatula, scrape down the bowl and stir in the chopped chocolate. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and smooth the tops with the rubber spatula.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the pans at the midway point. When fully baked, the cakes will be springy to the touch and a thin knife inserted into the centers will come out clean. Don’t worry if the tops have a few small cracks. Transfer the cake pans to a rack and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unmold them and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up. (The cooled cake layers can be wrapped airtight and stored at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to 2 months.)
When you are ready to fill and frost the cake, inspect the layers. If the cakes have crowned, use a long serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to even them. With the same knife, slice each layer horizontally in half. (I did not do this, so I only had 2 layers) Set 3 layers aside and crumble the fourth layer; set the crumbs aside. (I crumbled the crowned tops only)
TO MAKE THE FILLING AND FROSTING: Put the egg whites in a clean, dry mixer bowl or in another large bowl. Have a candy thermometer at hand.
Put the sugar, cream of tartar and water in a small saucepan and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, cover the pan and boil for 3 minutes. Uncover and allow the syrup to boil until it reaches 242 degrees F on the candy thermometer. While the syrup is cooking, start beating the egg whites.
When the syrup is at about 235 degrees F, begin beating the egg whites on medium speed with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer. If the whites form firm, shiny peaks before the syrup reaches temperature, reduce the mixer speed to low and keep mixing the whites until the syrup catches up. With the mixer at medium speed, and standing back slightly, carefully pour in the hot syrup, pouring it between the beater(s) and the side of the bowl. Splatters are inevitable — don’t try to scrape them into the whites, just carry on. Add the vanilla extract and keep beating the whites at medium speed until they reach room temperature, about 5 minutes. You should have a smooth, shiny, marshmallowy frosting. Although you could keep it in the fridge in a pinch, it’s really better to use it right now.
TO ASSEMBLE THE CAKE: Put a bottom layer cut side up on a cardboard cake round or on a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. Using a long metal icing spatula, cover the layer generously with frosting. Top with a second layer, cut side up, and frost it. Finish with the third layer, cut side down, and frost the sides and top of the cake. Don’t worry about smoothing the frosting — it should be swirly. Now, cover the entire cake with the chocolate cake crumbs, gently pressing the crumbs into the filling with your fingers.
Refrigerate the cake for about 1 hour before serving.
SERVING: I think the cake is best at room temperature or just cool, but many people prefer it cold (the texture of the cake becomes fudgier after it has been refrigerated). No matter the temperature, the cake is so pretty it should be cut at the table, so bring it out on a platter and cut it into generous wedges using a serrated knife and a sawing motion.
STORING: The frosted cake can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days; let it stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving, or longer if you have the time.