“We started this ‘history through cake series’ at the end of the 18th century.”
They all laughed at me. Then I realized what I’d said.
“No, not literally. The first cake recipe we made in the series was written at the end of the 18th century!”
“We started out with an English-style cake, leavened with yeast, then we baked a couple of cakes that were leavened manually, by beating air into the butter. If we look at the progression of the recipes, it seems like we are moving away from heavy traditional cakes. What are some things that brought about these changes in cake baking?”
We talked about the railroad — new ideas about food spread with travelers, and both ingredients and baking equipment could be shipped across the country.
“You could order a cake pan from the Sears and Roebuck catalog…”
“And three weeks later you could bake a cake!”
What else happened?
Baking powder became commercially available; Worlds Fairs in Philadelphia and Chicago exposed people to new foods, (bananas!), and showcased more modern cookstoves; chocolate manufacturing was a growing industry; and new equipment continued to be introduced.
“So, it was getting much much easier for people to bake. They no longer had to grate their sugar, churn their butter, or make their own chemical leavening agents. Cakes were getting lighter. And because people were spending less time on preparation, cakes were getting fancier.”
We had already made a chocolate cake recipe from 1847.
“But that cake contained just grated chocolate. It took decades for someone to fully incorporate melted chocolate into a cake — the first recipe of that kind was published in 1886. It seems odd considering that chocolate was thought to be somewhat of an energy boosting health food.”
The kids got a kick out of that.
Yet once chocolate became the main ingredient in a cake, the idea took off.
“Bakers mixed in all kinds of spices and odd ingredients like mashed potatoes. Or sauerkraut.”
Perhaps the name devil’s food came about as a reaction to the popularity of angel food cake — it was as dark and rich as angel food was light and airy, or it may have been named after the reddish hue of the baked cake — a result of baking soda, an alkali, reacting with the acidity of the cocoa.
The kids were over talking about it.
We got to baking.
Ingredients were measured.
They were excited by the idea of using coffee in the batter.
Dry ingredients were sifted together.
Creaming the butter and sugar together creates pockets of air that increase in size when baking soda reacts with cocoa powder.
They took turns adding the eggs.
Our experienced bowl scraper made sure that there were no bits of unmixed batter stuck to the bottom of the bowl.
Dry ingredients were added alternately with the liquid.
Finally, we finished off mixing the batter by hand.
We divided the batter into the prepared pans and loaded the cakes into the oven.
“Do you guys want to help me make ganache for frosting the cake?”
“No, we’ve done that before.”
Chocolate cake fresh from the oven is just about one of the best smells ever.
I explained what one should look for when a cake is fully baked:
“You should be able to press the top lightly, right in the center, and it should spring back. The sides will just begin to pull away from the pan. If you are unsure, you can always test it with a toothpick — at most, there should be moist crumbs clinging to the tester, but the toothpick shouldn’t emerge with batter on it.”
I also showed them how to run a thin spatula around the side of the cake, against the pan, so the the top edge doesn’t stick to the pan as the cake cools.
Once the cakes were
sufficiently cooled no longer scorching hot, I demonstrated how to remove the very top of each layer with a serrated knife.
These were promptly eaten.
We place one cake layer right side up and poured ganache on top of it.
We flipped the second cake layer cut side down and sandwiched it together with the first layer and ganache.
Now we had a nice flat surface to work with.
Ideally the cake would have been completely cool and the ganache would have been room temperature, but that doesn’t always happen.
There were no complaints.
Especially when the slightly warm and melty chocolate cake was paired with ice cold milk.
“Should we have made it with sauerkraut?”
It was perfect just as it was.
Devil’s Food Cake, from David Lebovitz
9 tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups cake flour, not self-rising
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup strong coffee
1/2 cup whole milk
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9″ x 2″ cake pans and line the bottoms with circles of parchment paper.
Sift together the cocoa powder, cake flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder in a bowl.
In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, or by hand, beat together the butter and sugar about 5 minutes until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time until fully incorporated. (If using a standing electric mixer, stop the mixer as necessary to scrape down the sides to be sure everything is getting mixed in.)
Mix together the coffee and milk. Stir half of the dry ingredients into the butter mixture, the add the coffee and milk. Finally stir in the other half of the dry ingredients.
Divide the batter into the two prepared cake pans and bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Let cakes cool in the pans for about ten minutes before turning them out onto a rack and removing the parchment. Flip right side up.
Cool completely before frosting.
I used 70% bittersweet chocolate for this recipe. If you choose to use chocolate with a lower percentage of chocolate liquor (cocoa bean solids), you can use slightly more chocolate and less cream. For example, if there is no percentage marked on a standard bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, or anything marked 50 – 60% use 1 cup of cream for 8 oz of chocolate. For 61 – 66%, use 1 1/4 cups for 8 oz of chocolate.
7 oz bittersweet chocolate, (70%), chopped into small pieces
1 cup heavy cream
Place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring the cream to a simmer and pour it over the chopped chocolate. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir until the chocolate is smooth. Let the ganache cool at room temperature, without stirring, until it looks thick enough to spread. If it firms up too much before you can use it, set the bowl in a pan of barely simmering water until the ganache is partially melted, then stir gently to the desired consistency.
To assemble the cake:
Again, it is much much easier to cut and work with a cold cake. Pop them in the freezer if you have time. Otherwise forge ahead, a little crumbs won’t hurt you.
Slice the very top off of each layer.
Place the first layer, cut side up, on a plate. Spread room temperature ganache on top of the layer.
Place the second layer, cut side down, on top of the ganache.
Spread more ganache on the top and sides of the cake as decoratively as you like.
Cake is best served the day it is baked, but can be kept for another day, covered, at room temperature.
For more in this historical cake series: