Chocolate Cake for a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

FullSizeRender-2

“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!”

Darn sticklers.

“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!”

Exactly.

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.”

“Sauerkraut?!”

“It’s a thing! But the most popular all-chocolate cake was devil’s food.”

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.

fullsizeoutput_cf4

They were excited by the idea of using coffee in the batter.

fullsizeoutput_cf9

Dry ingredients were sifted together.

fullsizeoutput_cfb

Creaming the butter and sugar together creates pockets of air that increase in size when baking soda reacts with cocoa powder.

fullsizeoutput_d1d

They took turns adding the eggs.

fullsizeoutput_d1f

Our experienced bowl scraper made sure that there were no bits of unmixed batter stuck to the bottom of the bowl.

fullsizeoutput_d21

Dry ingredients were added alternately with the liquid.

fullsizeoutput_d23

Finally, we finished off mixing the batter by hand.

fullsizeoutput_d25

We divided the batter into the prepared pans and loaded the cakes into the oven.

fullsizeoutput_d28

“Do you guys want to help me make ganache for frosting the cake?”

“No, we’ve done that before.”

Alrighty then.

fullsizeoutput_d31fullsizeoutput_d33

Chocolate cake fresh from the oven is just about one of the best smells ever.

fullsizeoutput_d2a

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.

fullsizeoutput_d2b

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.

fullsizeoutput_d36

These were promptly eaten.

fullsizeoutput_d39

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.

fullsizeoutput_d50

Especially when the slightly warm and melty chocolate cake was paired with ice cold milk.

fullsizeoutput_d46

“Should we have made it with sauerkraut?”

“Noooooo!”

It was perfect just as it was.

fullsizeoutput_d4f

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.

Chocolate Ganache

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:

Cake As a Lens

I Vote For Cake

The Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

 

 

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

fullsizeoutput_b56

Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready fourteen ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon–mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,–a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

— Eliza Leslie, The Lady’s Receipt-Book, 1847

“This is the first chocolate cake recipe ever published in America.”

I don’t know if the kids were more intrigued by the novelty of the recipe or by the main ingredient, but I did notice that at least one of them recognized Miss Leslie’s name from our last baking project.

They also knew, from a previous session, that by 1847, chocolate had been around for a very long time.

“I wonder why it took them so long to work it into a cake?”

It turns out that the method of chocolate consumption hadn’t changed much from the 16th century, when the Spaniards brought it from Mesoamerica to Spain and, by extension, to the rest of Europe.

Two hundred years later, people still drank their chocolate — hot, with milk and sugar. It was considered healthful and they drank it as often as possible despite it being very labor intensive:

A portion of one of the cakes must be scraped fine, added to a sufficient quantity of water, and simmered for a quarter of an hour; but milling is necessary to make it completely smooth. For this purposes [chocolate pots have] a circular wheel of wood or metal within, fixed to a stem that passes through the lid, and which, being whirled about rapidly by the palms of the hand, bruises and mixes the chocolate with the water. The chocolate must be milled off the fire, then put on again to simmer some time, then milled again until it is quite smooth. From the fineness there should be no sediment, and the whole should be drunk; cream is generally used with it … Sugar may be put in with the scraped chocolate, or added afterward.

— Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy, 1845

We checked out some pictures of these special chocolate pots and mills.

“They had to use the stirring rods in order to keep the chocolate from separating. Cocoa beans are 53% cocoa butter, so that fat will want to rise to the surface unless you keep mixing it. Otherwise, you’d have a bit of an oil slick on top of your hot cocoa.”

The kids remembered trying cocoa nibs and happily dug right in.

fullsizeoutput_b2c

“People could buy ‘prepared cocoa’ which meant cocoa nibs that had been ground into a powder, or they could purchase chocolate in tablets, where the nibs had been ground into a paste and let harden. Even Ben Franklin sold chocolate tablets in his print shop.”

I explained that the process of manufacturing chocolate was even more labor intensive than the lengthy preparation of hot cocoa — many chocolate makers still ground their beans by hand, though some used rudimentary machines or even grist mills.

“Like the Indian corn?”

“Yeah, just like that. Then, factories started popping up. The first was Hannon’s Best Chocolate in Massachusetts in 1765.”

None of the kids had heard of Baker’s Chocolate, so my story of how Hannon’s became Baker’s, which is still in business to this very day (!), was met with blank stares.

Moving on.

“So all this industrialization made chocolate that much more available and affordable.”

A Dutch chocolate maker’s patent of a press that removed the cocoa butter from ground cocoa nibs was the next major development in the chocolate world. Casparus van Houten’s hydraulic press removed the cocoa butter from the ground chocolate mass to create a “cake” that could then be pulverized into what we now call cocoa powder.

Then, van Houten’s son, Coenraad Johannes, developed a process  in which cocoa is treated with alkaline salts to reduce its natural acidity. This “dutch process” results in a product that is much darker than natural cocoa due to the chemical reaction of the salts and the cocoa.

“So when you bake with cocoa you need to pay attention to the recipe and whether it calls for dutched or natural cocoa — that tells you which leavening to use: baking soda for the acidic natural cocoa, or baking powder for alkalized cocoa.”

They examined the two powders, smelling and sampling each.

“Yuck.”

I promised that, once we got our cake mixed and in the oven, I would make sweetened pastes with both kinds of cocoa so they could have a more pleasant tasting experience.

fullsizeoutput_b2b

While Miss Leslie’s original recipe called for either prepared cocoa or “scraped” chocolate, the updated recipe we were using called for grinding unsweetened chocolate in a food processor — because now we have electricity and modern appliances, and for that I am thankful.

“Can we taste the chocolate?”

Sour faces.

I warned them it wasn’t sweetened!

fullsizeoutput_b2a

“So, Miss Leslie would have grated her chocolate by hand. She would have also mixed this cake by hand. Notice there is no chemical leavening in the recipe.”

We discussed how a cake of this kind gets its loftiness, and how much muscle would have gone into mixing it without a machine: first beating the butter and the sugar, then whipping the yolks, and finally, whipping the egg whites. Whew.

“I bet you’d have one arm a lot bigger than the other!”

Ah, but we did have a machine. And we were more than happy to use it.

fullsizeoutput_b2e

The kids took turns gradually adding sugar to the creamed butter and chocolate mixture.

“We are trying to create as many air bubbles in the butter as possible. The edges of those sugar crystals rubbing against the butter will do that.”

fullsizeoutput_b2ffullsizeoutput_b30fullsizeoutput_b33

Once all the sugar was added, we continued beating the mixture for several more minutes to aerate it even further.

fullsizeoutput_b34

Then, they added the eggs.

“That’s a lot of eggs!”

I explained that the original recipe called for even more eggs because, when whipped, they act as additional leavening; since our electric mixer had the ability to incorporate a lot more air into the batter than mixing by hand, we could use fewer eggs.

fullsizeoutput_b37

And finally, they added the flour.

fullsizeoutput_b3afullsizeoutput_b38fullsizeoutput_b3cfullsizeoutput_b3e

We popped the cake into the oven and the kids made short work of the mixing bowl.

fullsizeoutput_b3f

While the cake was baking, I kept my promise to provide the crew with a better taste comparison of the two cocoas by mixing up a bit of each with sugar and hot water.

They were unanimous in their preference for the natural cocoa.

“It tastes more chocolatey!”

fullsizeoutput_b40

And we were all unanimous in our approval of Miss Leslie’s cake.

img_0416

Whatever it was that prompted Eliza Leslie to incorporate chocolate into a pound cake recipe, we approved wholeheartedly.

fullsizeoutput_b42

Eliza Leslie’s Chocolate Cake, 1847

Adapted slightly from Greg Patent’s recipe in Baking in America

Makes one 10-inch bundt cake, about 12 servings

3 cups sifted cake flour

3/4 tsp sea salt

2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

3 oz unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter at cool room temperature, (about 70 degrees)

1 T vanilla extract

8 large eggs at room temperature

2 T whole milk

Adjust the oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and 10-inch (12 cup) bundt pan and flour it, set aside.

Place the cake flour, salt, and nutmeg in a bowl and whisk to combine.

Process the chocolate with 1/4 cup of the sugar in a food processor until the chocolate is chopped into very small granules and set aside.

Beat the butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Add the ground chocolate mixture and vanilla and beat for 1 minute on med-high speed. Beat in the remaining 1 3/4 c sugar about 1/4 cup at a time, beating for 20 to 30 seconds after each addition.

When all the sugar has been incorporated, beat for 5 minutes.

Beat in the eggs two at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition; stop to scrape the bowl and beaters occasionally.

On low speed, gradually add half the flour mixture, beating only until incorporated. Beat in the milk, then the remaining flour. Use a rubber spatula to finish folding the mixture together.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and gently shake it to level the top.

Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the thickest part comes out clean. Cool the cake in its pan for 20 minutes.

Gently loosen the edge of the cake from the pan and cover it with a wire rack. Invert the two and carefully lift the pan from the cake. Let cool.

 

For more on this historical cake series:

Cake As a Lens

I Vote For Cake

Redemption of a Sad Paste

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

 

A Log By Any Other Name


“Boosh uh noelll!”

“Actually, it’s Bûche de Noël, honey.”

“BOOOSH UH NOELLLLL!”

Aww, never mind. My son was having the grandest time with the name.

“A Bûche de Noël is a traditional French cake made to resemble a yule log.”

“A log?”

They looked incredulous; it did seem a bit silly. Even the sound of the word — log, lawwg, l-o-g — is heavy to the ear, and the opposite of what one would presumably want in a cake. But once I showed them some photos, and gave them a little historical context, they were on board.

(Before we go any further, I’ve got to point out that this project was our most ambitious yet. Meringue mushrooms and a cake in the shape of a log? Thus, we took an hour or so to make the meringues, then two days later we spent the afternoon baking and assembling the cake.)

So, we have — Day 1: Mushrooming

They had made meringue before, so we just jumped right in.

IMG_7964

Once the meringue was silky smooth and held a stiff peak, we loaded it into pastry bags fitted with piping tips.

IMG_8327

The kids took turns piping the mushroom stems by making small cone shapes, squeezing the meringue out onto the parchment while gently pulling up on the bag.  They were tickled by this whole process. Some stems drooped or fell over, but the kids kept going. And going. And going.

IMG_5688

“Guys, we still have to pipe out the mushroom caps.”

IMG_5694

The caps were a little easier; they were just like piping cream puffs.

IMG_8339

Little points on the caps were smoothed over with a barely damp finger.

IMG_5709

While the meringues baked, the kids played, and the moms chatted. All was right with the world.

Day 2: Zee bûche

Oh look, we’re making meringue again!

IMG_5868

The other ingredients for the cake were mixed and sat waiting for the egg whites and sugar to whip to a stiff peak.

We folded a third of the billowy meringue into the cake batter to lighten it.

IMG_8390

Then we quickly incorporated the rest.

IMG_8395

The resulting mixture was placed into a half-sheetpan and we popped it into the oven.

IMG_8401

Making filling and frosting with this crew, on top of everything else, sounded impossible, so I opted to have a batch of plain buttercream and a batch of ganache ready to go.

We wanted to flavor the buttercream though. I suggested a little melted chocolate, (just enough to contrast with the cake), and to build on our last lesson, some caramel powder. Gilding the lily? Maybe. But we wanted this to be an epic log. Also, tasty.

“I made caramel, just like we did for our apple crêpes, but instead of adding butter and cream, I just poured the cooked sugar out onto a piece of foil where it hardened.”

“It’s like glass!”

They picked it up and gazed through it.

IMG_8409

Then squealed as I smashed it to pieces.

IMG_5877

We used a food processor to grind the pieces into a fine powder.

“It’s like sand!”

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure.”

This would be the start of sampling sugar in several different forms.

IMG_8417

We mixed the chocolate and caramel powder into the buttercream and turned our attention to assembling the meringue mushrooms.

IMG_8451

They trimmed the pointy tips off the stems and dipped the bottoms of the caps in melted chocolate before attaching the two pieces.

IMG_8438

“They’re so cute!”

“Can we taste them?”

“Sure.”

IMG_5880

We were still waiting for the cake to bake, so we decided to make some woodland creatures for the log.

Marzipan is the traditional medium for log decor, but I had some fondant leftover from a birthday cake, so that’s what we used.

“It looks like clay!”

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure?”

I was beginning to worry about answering to one of the dads, a dentist.

IMG_8475

But oh my! They dove right in.

IMG_8481

So much focus and creativity.

IMG_5883

Flora and fauna.

IMG_8502

And proud artists.

IMG_5888

The cake was done. It was time to fill.

IMG_5890

I showed them how to spread an even layer of buttercream over the cooled cake, leaving about an inch, at the topmost long edge, bare.

IMG_8505

Starting from that place, I began rolling the cake onto itself.

IMG_8512

I reassured them that any cracks on the roulade would be covered with frosting and hidden from view.

Using the parchment to help keep the cake from sticking to my hands, I continued rolling the buttercream covered chiffon sheet.

IMG_8516

“Eventually it becomes easy to use the parchment to pull the cake toward you.”

IMG_8520

“It looks like a log already!”

“Yeah, you could leave it as is, but we are going to make some stumpy parts and attach them with frosting.”

IMG_8527

I cut the ends off the roll on a slight diagonal.

IMG_8528

“Where shall we put them?”

They each offered an opinion on placement before we came to a consensus.

IMG_8538

Now for the chocolate “bark.”

IMG_5900

They used an icing spatula to fill in cracks and crevices with the soft ganache.

IMG_5902

The point where the pieces met proved the most challenging, but I assured them that it was supposed to look rough, like a knobby old piece of wood.

IMG_5906

When everyone had had a turn, they used a fork to add texture to the wood.

IMG_5908

“Time to add the decorations!”

They didn’t need to be told twice. The kids pounced on the cake, decorations in hand. They were so excited to bring it to life.

IMG_5910

They encouraged each other and moved things around to accommodate another child’s favorite piece.

IMG_5911

When they had placed the last figure on the cake, we stood back to take a look.

IMG_5931

There were gnomes, and insects, and birds, and foliage.

IMG_5924

We spied colorful flowers and several rocks. There was even a mini-log on the log.

IMG_8576

They were so pleased and proud.

IMG_5916

“Can we eat it?!”

“Sure.”

Just like that, without hesitation or concern for all the work they had put into it, they happily devoured the cake, creatures and all.

IMG_5942

And yes, it was sweet, but not only because of the sugar.

 

Bûche de Noël      (serves about 16 – 18)

You could make this as elaborate a production as you want, or as minimal. Either way, there are several components, but they can all be made in advance so that the actual assembly moves a lot quicker.

Chocolate Chiffon Sheet

Have ready a half-sheetpan (11″ x 17″), ungreased and lined with parchment

Preheat oven to 325 degrees

2 1/3 c  (8 1/4 oz) cake flour

2/3 c (2 3/4 oz) cocoa powder

2 c (14 oz) granulated sugar, reserve 1/2 c (3 1/2 oz)

1 T baking powder

3/4 t fine sea salt

6 large eggs, separated

3/4 c water

1/4 c neutral flavored cooking oil

1 t vanilla

Sift all the dry ingredients, except the reserved sugar, together and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the egg yolks with the water, oil, and vanilla. Whisk the dry ingredients into the yolk mixture until combined. Whip egg whites with the reserved sugar until stiff peaks form. Fold 1/3 of the meringue into the cocoa mixture to lighten it, then fold in the remaining meringue, until completely combined. Pour into prepared sheet pan and smooth with a spatula. Bake until the cake springs back to the touch, about 15 minutes. Let cake cool on a rack for 5 minutes before loosening the edges with a knife. Invert on to a cooling rack and remove parchment. Let cool completely before filling.

Buttercream Filling

You will need about 2 1/2 cups, flavored as you like. We used melted chocolate to taste and caramel powder (see above and here).

I like this recipe for Swiss Meringue Buttercream. Make just 1/2 of a batch for this cake.

You can make this several days in advance. Refrigerate and let come to room temperature before re-whipping.

Ganache Frosting

You will need about  1 1/2 times this ganache recipe. You probably won’t use it all, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Use leftovers for hot chocolate!

This can also be made in advance, (see above recipe for softening cold ganache), but it’s so quick and easy to make as needed, I prefer to do that.

Meringue Mushrooms

Here is a good recipe for the mushrooms. You don’t need superfine sugar, regular works fine, just make sure you add it slowly and that you whip it until it is no longer gritty. The mushroom caps and stems can be made in advance, and stored in an airtight container in a dry spot for several days. Attach the caps to the stems with chocolate just before you assemble the cake.

Other items you might want:

Marzipan to mold into figures, leaves, etc. This can be tinted with food coloring.

If you are going for a more natural looking log, (not ours), rosemary branches or other unsprayed foliage.

Sugared cranberries. So pretty!

Google some examples. The sky is the limit. Have fun. And have a happy and peaceful holiday season!

 

 

 

 

Building Blocks, Pastry-Style

IMG_3889

“I remember making those!”

I had a tray of pâte à choux shells resting on top of the stove; the kids were immediately reminded of the lesson in which we made cream puffs.

“Do you guys also remember when I told you that pâte à choux is kind of like a Lego brick in the pastry kitchen? That it can be used to make lots of other things?”

We gathered around the iPad to take a look at examples of some of those things.

IMG_3729

“What’s a Lady’s Navel?!”

“Or a Moooor kop?”

They were intrigued by the funny sounding pastries, and even more excited about the one we would be making that day — the Religiuese.

I’ve heard a couple of different explanations of the pastry, whose name means “Nun.” The first theory is that it is supposed to represent the papal mitre; the other interpretation describes the similarity in the pastry’s appearance to a nun’s habit. I’ll let you be the judge.

I had baked the choux cases that morning so that we could have plenty of time to focus on making the filling, the chocolate glaze, and assembling the pastries.

Traditionally religiuese are filled with mocha pastry cream, but I thought it would be better if we went with vanilla. While us moms can always use the coffee, the kids definitely didn’t need any caffeine.

“Pastry cream is another building block in the kitchen. You can use it as a filling for cakes, tarts, and all kinds of different pastries. You can thin it and use it as a sauce. You can even turn it into a soufflé.”

IMG_3882

They measured the milk and salt into a heavy-bottomed pot, then placed the cornstarch and sugar into a bowl.

IMG_3739

Finally, they whisked the eggs into the dry ingredients to make a slurry.

Vocabulary word for the day — slurry.

I explained that pastry cream is a custard, which means it is a liquid that has been cooked and thickened or set by eggs. They considered other things that might be custards: pudding, cheesecake, pumpkin pie filling, and ice cream.

“What happens when you heat up eggs?” I asked.

“They get clumpy?”

“Right! They cook and become solid. But too high or too long a heat will overcook them. We don’t want clumpy, lumpy custard, so we have to treat them gently. Otherwise you get scrambled eggs.”

We checked our mise en place for making pastry cream: we had a mesh strainer suspended over a bowl that would hold the finished custard, a ladle, and a damp towel that we wrapped around the base of our mixing bowl to keep it in place.

“Like a little nest?”

“Right!” I agreed. A little nest to hold our bowl of egg-slurry.

We moved over to the stove and began heating the milk.

“Milk can scorch, or burn, really easily. And once you scorch it, the whole pot will taste burnt. So we’ll use a spatula to gently stir the milk as it’s heating.”

I also advised that they keep a close eye on any dairy heating on the stove, as it has a tendency to boil-over pretty quickly. I cranked up the heat for a minute to demonstrate and they watched the milk race towards the top of the pot.

“That went fast!”

We turned off the heat and let the milk settle.

“What do you think would happen if we poured the eggs directly into this really hot pot?”

“Would they scramble?”

They remembered!

“So,” I continued, “we use a method called tempering, where we introduce a little bit of the hot liquid into the eggs to heat them gradually. Once we’ve added about half of the milk to the bowl, we’ll pour everything back into the pot to finish cooking.”

IMG_3752

They took turns adding the milk to the eggs, using one hand to ladle, the other to whisk.

“It’s kind of like rubbing your head and patting your tummy at the same time.”

IMG_3888

The kids traded off whisking the mixture over medium heat.

I showed them how to work the whisk around the pot, making sure to scrape the entire bottom surface, including the edges.

IMG_3661

We watched for big bubbles, a sign that the custard had come to a boil.

“The starch and sugar will keep the eggs from overcooking, to a point, but if we let it go too long the custard can become grainy.”

When we were sure the cream had come to a boil, we immediately strained it into a clean bowl.

IMG_3762

They added vanilla and butter, one tablespoon at a time, to the pastry cream.

IMG_3667

“Can we taste it?!”

They all promised not to double-dip, so…

IMG_3671

“So good!”

I beat back the advancing spoons, placed a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the remaining pastry cream, and popped it into the fridge to cool.

Now for the chocolate.

“Ganache is another good thing to have in your baking ‘tool box’. You can use it to fill, frost, and glaze cakes or pastries, but you can also let it cool completely and make truffles.”

“What else is in it besides chocolate?” someone asked.

“Cream. That’s it. The only thing you need to worry about is having the proper chocolate to cream ratio for whatever you will be using the ganache for.”

Another vocabulary word — ratio.

“If we have 4 ounces of chocolate and need a ratio of 1 part chocolate to 1 part cream, how much cream would we need?”

“4 ounces?”

“Right! And if we needed a ratio of 1 part chocolate to 2 parts cream, we would need…”

“8!”

IMG_3788

I showed them how to use a serrated knife to cut small, uniform pieces of chocolate. It had been awhile since we worked on knife skills, but they quickly caught on.

IMG_3678

We brought our cream to a bare simmer, poured it over the chopped chocolate, waited a few minutes, then stirred it together. Easy peasy.

IMG_3482

It was time to assemble the religuese.

I pulled out a batch of pastry cream that I had made the night before, and we filled up a piping bag.

IMG_3822

“Remember, don’t squeeze it from the middle!”

They each filled two choux shells, one large and one small.

IMG_3695

We took turns dunking the tops in the glossy ganache.

IMG_3829

IMG_3845

Finally, they piped circles of whipped cream on top of the larger puffs, then set the smaller puffs on top.

IMG_3710

“Can I pipe a little hat?”

“They look like snowmen!”

IMG_3713

I wasn’t sure about a papal mitre or a nun, but I did see a happy little clown. Sadly, we had to eat him.

IMG_3890

All of the components for the religuese, except the whipped cream, can be made in advance.

Pâté  à Choux recipe (Bake two sizes)

IMG_3645

Ganache recipe  (We used equal parts of 60% chocolate and heavy cream, see recipe link for alternate percentages)

Pastry Cream

Yield 2 1/2 cups

2 c (16 oz)     Whole milk

1/4 t               Salt

4 T                 Cornstarch

1/2 c (4 oz)    Sugar

2                    Large eggs

4 T (2 oz)       Unsalted butter, cut into 1 T pieces

1 t                  Vanilla extract

Have a bowl ready for the finished pastry cream, with a mesh sieve resting on top. Place the milk and salt in a heavy saucepan and heat to just under a boil, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, whisk the cornstarch and sugar together, then add the eggs and whisk until smooth. Wrap a damp kitchen towel around the base of the bowl to keep it from sliding around. When the milk is ready, begin ladling the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. When about half of the milk has been incorporated, pour the egg-milk mixture back into the pot and continue whisking over medium heat until it just comes to a boil, (you will see some slow bubbles that do not stop after whisking). Immediately remove from heat and pour through the strainer into the bowl. If at this point the cream looks slightly curdled, an immersion blender or countertop blender can be used to smooth the texture. Let cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Whisk the butter into the pastry cream one tablespoon at a time, always whisking until smooth before the next addition. Whisk in the vanilla. Cover the custard with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap directly onto the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Cool completely before using. Do not whisk the cream once it has set to avoid breaking down the starch and thinning the custard. Pastry cream will keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

A Cake of Their Own

IMG_3515

“Mommy, daddy’s birthday is coming up! What are we going to make him?”

She said “we”, but that usually means me.

“Do you guys want to make it this year? Just a little cake for the three of us to share with dad?”

“Yes! Can we get sprinkles?!”

“Of course.” I would come to regret these words later.

We decided on a sour cream butter cake with dark chocolate frosting. And sprinkles.

IMG_3440

They proudly cracked open eight eggs in order to get a total of four whole yolks. I fished out the shells from the rejected mix of broken yolks and whites and put the blended eggs into a jar to save for breakfast the next day.

IMG_3448

A bit of sour cream and some vanilla were added to the egg yolks, then the kids took turns weighing the cake flour and sugar.

IMG_3452

They measured the remaining dry ingredients and everything was sifted together into the bowl of my KitchenAid.

IMG_3456

Sifting became a two-person job, slightly messier than one, but pretty efficient.

IMG_3458

Finally, they each buttered and floured a six-inch cake pan.

This is another two-stage cake recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum. I really like using this mixing method because a) it results in a very tender cake, b) it’s fast and nearly foolproof, (the most time consuming part is measuring the ingredients), and c) kids, (see b).

IMG_3460

Softened butter and more sour cream went into the bowl with the dry ingredients and mixed together until just moistened.

IMG_3461

We cranked the speed up to medium for a bit, then began adding the egg mixture in three additions.

IMG_3463

The kids really enjoyed seeing the transformation from yolky soup to fluffy cake batter in a process that took barely minutes.

IMG_3466

I helped them portion the silky batter into the pans, then we popped the cakes into the oven.

IMG_3467

While the cakes baked, we turned our attention to the chocolate filling and frosting.

Ganache, while fancy-sounding, is actually pretty simple; it is just a combination of chocolate and heavy cream. The trick with ganache is to use the proper ratio of chocolate to cream — more cream will result in a more fluid product, (for glazing or to use as a sauce), slightly less cream will produce something firm enough to use as a frosting, while an even greater ratio of chocolate to cream will become firm enough to scoop and roll into truffles. The method is the same for any variation.

IMG_3474

I chopped the chocolate while my daughter heated the cream to simmering. She poured the hot cream over the finely chopped chocolate and we let it stand for a few minutes before she whisked it until it was shiny and smooth.

IMG_3480

IMG_3481

IMG_3482

The keys to baking and pastry? Timing and temperature. We now had a still warm cake from the oven, and a ganache that needed to firm up a bit. Lunch break.

IMG_3483

After everything was close to optimal temperature, we started assembling the cake. I like to cut the tops off my cakes to make them as level as possible. Also, you get to eat the scraps.

IMG_3487

We placed one cake, cut-side up, on the turntable, then topped that with a dollop of ganache. We smoothed the chocolate out to the edges of the cake with an offset spatula and added the second cake, cut-side down.

IMG_3489

Then the real mess-making began.

IMG_3493

I showed the kids how to hold a flat icing spatula in their dominant hand and dip it into the bowl of ganache resting on the opposite side.

IMG_3500

Using their other hand to rotate the turntable, they scooped up small amounts of ganache with the tip of the spatula and pressed it against the sides of the cake, sliding the spatula back and forth to spread the ganache evenly, (sort of). I resisted every instinct I had to jump in and smooth it out, or at least mitigate the flinging of chocolate, but they stayed on task and did a very fine job. When they had had enough, I tidied up the sides and evened out the top.

IMG_3505

Another key to pastry work? Decorate to hide mistakes! We had some crumbs mixed in with the frosting, so the kids opted to cover the entire cake with sprinkles.

They also covered the table, the floor, the dog…

But they were so happy with the results! And they were beyond excited to present it to their father, who was just as happy to eat it.

IMG_3516

Sour Cream Butter Cake, adapted just slightly from The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

Makes one tall 6-inch cake, (two layers), serving 8, or a 9-inch springform pan (one layer)

4 large egg yolks

2/3 cup (5.5 oz) sour cream at room temperature

1 1/2 t vanilla

2 cups (7 oz) sifted cake flour

1 cup (7 oz) sugar

1/2 t baking powder

1/2 t baking soda

3/4 t salt

12 T (6 oz) unsalted butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour the cake pans. In a medium bowl combine the yolks, 1/4 of the sour cream, and the vanilla. In the bowl of a standing mixer combine the dry ingredients. Add the butter and the remaining sour cream and mix on low until everything is just moistened. Increase to medium speed and beat for 90 seconds to develop the cake’s structure. Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the egg mixture in 3 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides and place the batter into the prepared pans. Smooth the tops of the cakes with a spatula. Bake for about 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the cakes spring back when pressed lightly in the center. Let the cakes cool in the pans on a rack for 10 minutes before removing. Let cool completely before frosting.

Ganache 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.

Fluffy White (and One Chocolate!) Clouds

IMG_0953

“Is that it?”

My son was concerned about the minimal ingredients I had placed on the table to use for our baking project.

IMG_0001

Butter, chocolate, sugar, eggs. Do you ever really need more than that?

I pointed to the photo of a Chocolate Cloud Cake.

“Ooooh!”

All concerns went right out the window.

We made sure the oven was heating and cut out a circle of parchment for the bottom of our cake pan.

The next step was to separate the egg yolks from the whites.

“Does anyone remember what ‘leaven’ means?”

I could see the wheels turning. And finally…

“To put air into something?”

“Yeah, kinda! It means to lighten something. Like when we lightened our pizza dough with yeast. Or a cake with baking powder and/or baking soda. What else? What about our cream puffs? What did we use to leaven those?”

“Eggs?”

“Yep, we added eggs, which in the hot hot oven, created the steam that provided lift to our cream puff dough. So we’ve used yeast, chemical reactions, steam, and now…foam.”

IMG_0002

They had separated eggs once before, and needed little encouragement to jump in again.

IMG_0003

I recommended that they crack the eggs on the table instead of the side of the bowl, so that any wayward shells would land on the table instead of in their egg whites.

IMG_0004

Each kid separated their egg over a small bowl and then combined that white with the rest of the whites needed for the recipe, thus avoiding ruining a whole batch of egg whites with one broken yolk.

For example…

IMG_0005

“Those are what we call goldfish. We want to keep those bits of yolk out of the whites.”

Fat, as in the case of the egg yolks, would keep our egg whites from foaming. For this reason, we would also make sure our whisks were very clean and would avoid using plastic bowls.

It was a good thing we had plenty of eggs on hand.

But back to this foam-as-leavening idea.

I explained that egg whites are mostly water, 90% to be exact.

“Can we make a foam with just water?”

They each tried whisking a bowl of plain water. We got some bubbles, but as expected, no foam.

IMG_0006

Then we tried whisking one egg white.

IMG_0007

That was more successful.

So besides water, what was in an egg white that could create a foam? We looked at it at and agreed that it was definitely thicker than water. Vocabulary word for the day: viscous.

I pulled out some bits of string and coiled them up to represent the remaining 10% of an egg white: protein.

IMG_0008

“So these protein molecules are usually all wound up. When you guys whisk the egg white, the proteins unfold. One end likes the water, the other likes the air; they continue to open as they are exposed to the air you are incorporating with that whisk, and they trap it like so…”

IMG_0009

“But they also like to stick to each other. So you end up with this network of many little bubbles. The more you whip, the stronger the network gets…to a point.”

IMG_0013

We continued whipping by hand so that they could see the egg white go through the different stages.

IMG_0010

At soft peak the whites will just start to hold shape, but will melt back into themselves after a second…

IMG_0012

At medium peak or firm peak, the whites will form more distinct ridges but the tip will fold back onto itself. I like to think of a soft serve ice cream cone…

IMG_0942

And at stiff peak the point will stand up proudly…

IMG_0946

The trickiest part to whipping egg whites is taking them to the correct stage; too little whipping results in poor volume or collapse of the foam, while too much looks…

IMG_0951

grainy, curdled, not smooth. The whites take on a dry appearance as the network gets tightened up so much that the water is essentially squeezed out.

Now that we were clear on the different stages of whipped egg whites, we could start mixing our cake.

Chopped chocolate was gently melted in a bowl set in a pan of barely simmering water.

IMG_0015

We added soft butter to the chocolate and…

IMG_0017

Well, just trust me that we mixed in the butter.

The kids whisked the whole eggs and yolks together with half of the sugar…

IMG_0018

…some salt…

IMG_0019

and added the chocolate and butter mixture.

IMG_0020

They were pretty much ready to eat it as is, but I convinced them that the cake would be so. much. better.

IMG_0021

The kids had had enough whipping by hand, so we chose to use the mixer to make our meringue. We waited until the egg whites were foamy, then began slowly adding the sugar.

IMG_0022

Once it had thickened and began showing streaky paths from the beater, we pulled the attachment off to check…

IMG_0023

Not quite ready yet. Back on for a sec…

IMG_0024

Bingo.

IMG_0025

They were tickled that, once whipped to a stiff peak, we could turn the whole bowl of egg whites upside down.

I lightened the chocolate mixture by folding in about a quarter of the meringue. They reminded each other how to fold as they took turns mixing in the rest.

IMG_0026

IMG_0027

The batter went into our parchment-lined pan and I slid it into the oven.

IMG_0028

Like sharks I tell you. Sharks.

IMG_0029

About 35 minutes later we had our chocolate cloud.

IMG_0030

Ahh, but we had to wait for it to cool!

We used the time to whip up another cloud, this time with very cold cream, a pinch of sugar, and a splash of vanilla.

IMG_0031

I explained that the stages of whipping cream were similar to those when whipping egg whites.

Me: “What do you think we would get if we over whipped this cream?”

“Butter?”

Yep. Still delicious, but not what we wanted to top our cake.

IMG_0032

After it had cooled a bit, the middle of the cake had sunk in just enough to leave us with the perfect place to cradle some cream.

IMG_0033

A little white cloud of cream on top of slightly warm chocolate. Best thing ever.

IMG_0887

Chocolate Cloud Cake adapted slightly from Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts

Makes one 8-inch single-layer cake; serves 8 to 12

Cake

8 oz best-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (we used 72%)

1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

6 large eggs at room temperature: 2 whole, 4 separated

1 cup sugar

1/4 tsp fine sea salt

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Whipped Cream Topping

1 1/2 cups heavy cream, well chilled

sugar to taste

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom of an 8-inch springform pan with a round of parchment paper; do not butter the pan. Melt the chocolate in a bowl set in a pan of barely simmering water. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter until melted; set aside.

In a bowl, whisk the 2 whole eggs and the 4 egg yolks with 1/2 cup of the sugar just until blended. Whisk in the salt and vanilla. Whisk in the warm chocolate mixture.

Using a standing mixer with the whip attachment, or in a bowl with an electric mixer, beat the 4 egg whites until foamy. Gradually add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and beat until the whites form firm to stiff but not dry peaks. Fold about 1/4 of the meringue into the chocolate mixture to lighten it; gently fold in the remaining whites. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top.

Bake until the top of the cake is puffed and cracked and the center is no longer wobbly, about 35 – 40 minutes. Do not overbake.

Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack; it will sink as it cools forming a crater with high sides.

At serving time whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla until not quite stiff. Run the tip of a knife around the edges of the cake and carefully remove the sides of the pan. You can choose to fill the crater of the cake with the whipped cream, pushing it gently to the edges; it looks very pretty that way. Or, if you are fighting off a crowd of impatient children, cut it into slices and top each piece with cream as it is running by.

The Food of the Gods

photo-99

(Another activity I meant to write about back in, oh, May.  I never claimed to be efficient.)

We are Story of the World users.  Sometimes we do the suggested activities, sometimes not.  Sometimes we come up with our own.

In Chapter 32 of Volume 2: The Middle Ages, we covered the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan Empires.  The kids were particularly interested in the importance of cocoa to the people of pre-Columbian Meso-America, which lead, of course, to a discussion on chocolate.

We enjoyed this video, where the boy demonstrates how cocoa pods are harvested, and how to roast and grind the dried cocoa beans to make hot chocolate.  My kids thought this would be fun to do themselves.

I envisioned a chocolate tasting session.  I do it for the kids.

One shopping trip and three bars of Mast Brothers Chocolate later, we gathered around the table to examine a small bowl of cocoa nibs, which are pieces of fermented, dried and roasted cocoa bean.

photo-96

The kids checked out the craggy cocoa nibs, rolling them around in their hands.  The deeply aromatic, dark brown bits smelled just like chocolate. They popped the nibs in their mouths.

“Um…oh, that doesn’t taste like chocolate!”

I wish I could have gotten a picture of their collective faces.  If you’ve ever eaten unsweetened chocolate when you were expecting it to be sweet, you’ll understand.

“They’re kinda crunchy.”

“Like nuts.”

They went back for more.

“They taste a little like chocolate…but a little sour.”

Personally, I like the taste of cocoa nibs.  They are crunchy yet tender, and seem buttery in the way that nuts are, (from the cocoa butter). The chocolate flavor is intense, yet not sweet.  The flavor just takes some getting used to.

Apparently they had gotten used to the flavor, as they kept slipping nibs into their mouths throughout the rest of the session.

photo-98

We talked a bit about the cocoa tree, (genus Theobroma, which is Greek for food of the gods), the parts of its pod, and how the Aztec and Mayan people used it to make a cocoa drink, called xocolātl, which means “bitter water”.

photo-94

The kids took turns with the mortar and pestle, grinding up the nibs to steep in hot water.

photo-97

We strained our cocoa water and added a little honey, remembering that the people did not have access to sugar at that time.   We had read earlier about the different flavorings and spices the Mayans and Aztecs may have added to their cocoa and debated which ones might taste best.

“Vanilla!”

“Chili pepper?”

At least one kid liked the cocoa water.  Everybody else was underwhelmed.

We all knew that the chocolate we drink or eat in today’s world was different from what we had just tried.  We discussed how the Spaniards brought cocoa back to Spain and added sugar; eventually it made its way to the rest of Europe, where the process of making our contemporary chocolate was born.

“Let’s try some chocolate!”  Big whoops all around.

We opened up the different bars and tried a little of each.  I had chosen Mast because they are single-origin chocolate bars, meaning cocoa that has been harvested from one variety from one region, with the sole addition of a small amount of sugar.   I wanted the kids to taste just how different the chocolates could be.

We started with Belize since that was from the area we had been studying. The responses were mostly “yum.”

On to Dominican Republic.

“Oooh that tastes different!”

And Madagascar.

“Fruity!”

Of course we went round again because now they could taste the differences and better compare the three.

Everyone offered up their favorites.  I don’t even think there was a clear winner.

We looked up the different growing regions on a map.  I pointed out that they were all fairly close to the equator.

“The trees must grow better in warmer weather.”

“And with rain.”

“Where else do you think they might grow cocoa trees?”

“Hawaii?”

“What about Canada?”

“Noooo!”

Not quite ready to end our sweet session, we whipped up a batch of hot chocolate.  Rich, slightly milky, barely sweet.

We all enjoyed it very much.  Although one of us kept hold of a mug of cocoa water.  She was sticking with both.