It’s been said that sooner or later we’re all going to replaced by robots. Looks like for all us cooks, it’s going to be sooner.
Monthly Archives: February 2010
…and you’ve got one darn delicious piece of double-chocolate cake, my friends. And while I don’t mean to brag about this, it went over huge with the little one for her birthday. This despite the fact that on the afternoon of her party she asked to change her cake order to something pink with an icing illustration of Tinkerbell riding on a horse with wings (over a rainbow, obviously). Happily, the disappointment that I wasn’t able to deliver on her new fantasy melted away with the first chocolaty bite. Whew! Let’s hope she doesn’t try to put my awful piping skills to that sort of test next year, or my daughters’ image of me as SuperDad will be blown forever.
This preparation occupies a sort of middle ground between a coating and a frosting. Whatever you call it, it’s good. Begin by putting your chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl. This is mostly milk chocolate chips, though since I had a handful (about an ounce) of bittersweet chips in a mostly-empty bag, I threw those in too.
Apply ten seconds of full power, then stir. Apply another ten seconds. Stir. Continue like this until your chocolate looks about like so, then stop. Stir it the rest of the way until it’s completely smooth. It’ll take a few minutes.
When the chocolate is completely melted, let it cool until it’s barely warm to the touch. Which is to say, about as cool as you can get it while still having it flow. Put it in a bowl with the soft butter…
…and beat about a minute until smooth, scraping once or twice. Now here I should mention that since I had no heat in my house this weekend, my implements and bowl were very cold. The upshot was that some of the chocolate solidified the instant it hit the metal, creating chunks of solid chocolate in the frosting. What did I do? I soaked a small kitchen towel in hot tap water and applied it to the sides of the bowl as the machine ran. The small amount of heat warmed the mixture enough that the lumps melted out. Since that action also warmed (and thinned) the frosting, I beat it an extra minute to cool it down.
Then I promptly applied to the cake. It firmed immediately in my 50-degree house.
Normally I like to work with frozen cake layers. However for reasons that should be fairly obvious right now, you can’t do that with this kind of frosting. Have the layers at or close to room temperature as you build the cake, and apply the frosting quickly since it will set up fast…especially in a house with a broken furnace.
This is based on a simple chocolate frosting that appears in the Cake Bible. The ingredients are essentially just chocolate and butter. What’s nice about this approach, aside from its amazing simplicity, is it’s texture which is quite rigid, much like having a chocolate bar draped over a chocolate cake. It’s the perfect thing for little 6-year-old Josephine, who loves chocolate in solid form but is suspicious of creamy frostings. Don’t ask me why, kids are like that.
For all those tempted to turn this frosting into a chocolate epicure’s delight, I’ll warn you now that while you can substitute a proportion of darker, higher quality chocolates for the cheaper milk chocolate chips, the effect will be an even harder, more rigid exterior once it firms. Too much dark chocolate and you won’t be able cut the cake without having half the coating shatter, especially if you lay it on thick. The pedestrian approach, trust me, is the way to go. The formula is:
8 ounces (two sticks) softened butter
24 ounces (two bags) milk chocolate chips
To prepare the frosting, pour the chips into a microwave-safe bowl and melt by zapping the frosting for 10 seconds, stirring, and applying another 10-second zap until the chocolate is mostly melted. Stir it for several minutes, using the residual heat to completely melt the chips. Allow the chocolate to cool until it is barely warm to the touch. Combine both the butter and the melted chocolate in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat together for about a minute or more until the frosting is smooth. Apply to a cake before it starts to firm. The recipe may well make more than you need. Cupcakes anyone?
Rose Levy Beranbaum has done a great deal to popularize the so-called “one bowl” mixing method. She employs it in virtually all her cake recipes, and these chocolate layers are no different. Start by combining the boiling water and cocoa powder:
Whisk until smooth and set aside to cool completely.
Once that’s done, prepare your pans and set the oven to 350. Next, sift your flour into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle.
Add the rest of the dry ingredients and stir on low to combine.
The last step before mixing is to prepare your egg mixture. Combine 1/4 of the cooled cocoa mixture with your room-temperature eggs…
Now it’s time to mix. Add the butter and the rest of the cocoa mixture to the dry ingredients.
Stir on low for perhaps 30 seconds to moisten everything. Then turn the mixer up to medium and beat for 1 1/2 minutes until the batter is creamy and light in color. Scrape the bowl, then start adding the egg mixer in three additions.
Beating the batter on medium for 20 seconds after each addition of egg, scraping the bowl well afterward. When all the egg mixture is incorporated, scrap the batter into your layer pans. You’ll be putting about 1 lb. 5 ounces of batter in each. Spread it even with a spatula.
Bake for 25-35 minutes until the layers are springy to the touch. Cool the pans on a rack for 10 minutes…
…then turn them out onto a greased rack for ten minutes. I’ll give you a word of warning: these layers can be a bit sticky on their surfaces. As you can see, I lost some of the skin of the layers when I peeled off the parchment. This is not a big deal, just don’t leave the turned-out layers on the rack much more than 10 minutes, or you may have a more serious sticking problem on your hands.
Once cool, wrap the layers in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator.
UPDATE: Reader Chana says:
One bowl? I count three for that chocolate cake (cocoa, flour, eggs), and then there’s the measuring cup for the hot water, and the sifter. It’s par for the course (of course), but a one-bowl cake it ain’t. Just saying.
Very true, Chana, the terminology isn’t especially apt in this particular case, but that’s just what it’s called. Broadly, the “one bowl” method applies to a mixing method that incorporates the butter directly into the dry ingredients before the wet ingredients are added. So OK, this recipe adds more than just the butter to the dry ingredients. You’ve got me there too. But you know, this mixing strategy is also known as “quick method”, though I’ll grant you it isn’t especially quick in this case, either. But then it’s also called the “blending method.” Happy now? Sheesh!
…asks Theresa R.. Yes I did know that, Theresa. Duncan Hines was from right here in Kentucky as a matter of fact, a small city by the name of Bowling Green, about two hours south of where I live in Louisville. Most of us today only know Duncan Hines from cake mix boxes (and, occasionally, my ad banner). However there was a time when his name appeared on everything from books to jars of pickles to kitchen appliances.
Duncan Hines’ life is actually quite an interesting story. Born in 1885, he worked as a traveling salesman for most of his life, from the early years of the 20th century through roughly 1935. There weren’t any interstate highways then, or chain hotels or convenience stores, which meant the life of a professional traveler was one of constant adaptation and improvisation — particularly when it came to food.
People love to complain about the existence of fast food chains nowadays, yet not many know the need that they once served. That need was for safety. For you see, in the early part of the 20th century there wasn’t much “dining out.” People ate at home. If you were unlucky enough to be away from home at dinnertime (if you were a salesperson, say, or perhaps a construction worker or truck driver) your options were few. If you were fortunate you might encounter a guesthouse where you could get a decent meal. Most of the time, however, you were at the mercy of so-called “lunch counters”, cheap diner-like establishments where the food was of variable quality to say the least. Often it was prepared so poorly as to be outright dangerous.
Thus, for reasons of health — and sometimes pure survival — professional travelers kept lists of trustworthy eateries along their travel routes. Duncan Hines kept just such a list, one he was wont to copy from time to time for friends who were planning to take cross-country car trips. In time this list developed into a best-selling book called Adventures in Good Eating, a sort of food-focused travel guide which he published in 1935 at the age of 55. In time, Hines published other guides and cookbooks, and because his name came to be so trusted, it was eventually applied to the wide range of products that I mentioned above. By the mid-1950’s, Hines was a millionaire
Hines died in 1957, and his company was eventually sold to Procter & Gamble. The guidebooks fell out of publication in the early 1960’s as fast food chains, which offered consistent, safe food and welcoming environments for traveling families, proliferated across the nation. Today the cake mixes are the only evidence that the once-mighty Duncan Hines empire ever existed.
UPDATE: Reader Marissa from the Bowling Green Area Convention & Visitors Bureau adds:
I just came across your post from a couple of weeks ago about Duncan Hines being a real person… that was great! However, there is more remaining from his legacy than simply the cake mix boxes you mention! Down the road in Bowling Green, we have a 1,000 sq. ft. “Recommended by Duncan Hines” exhibit inside the Kentucky Museum, an 80-mile National Scenic Byway named the Duncan Hines Byway in his honor, and an annual Duncan Hines Festival, named a Top 20 August event this year by the Southeast Tourism Society. Visitors can also see his former home/office on Louisville Road (US 31W Bypass), now a funeral home but with a virtually unchanged kitchen remaining.
The exhibit is chock full of memorabilia from establishments worthy of being in his guidebooks like matchbooks, menus, soaps and postcards. The supermarket gallery displays shelves upon shelves with nothing but historic baking-mix boxes among other items, plus a freezer section showcasing his very first product- ice cream. In the kitchen gallery, visitors can see a full-size replica of Hines’ kitchen featuring his actual ice bucket, stove and other decorative items. All the china, cutlery, spices, and cookbooks in the cabinets are Duncan Hines-endorsed products, as well as the grill and salad dressings in the Outdoor Living Gallery. This educational yet entertaining exhibit has a colorful and retro vibe that all ages can enjoy. More information is available at www.duncanhinesmuseum.com.
The heat went out at stately Pastry manor. I’ve been shopping for furnaces.
This very funny little diatribe comes to us by way of reader Lee in San Francisco:
Help us, Joe! Help save chocolate from certain death at the hands of the FPs….the Food Pedants who turn simple physical pleasures into ostentatious vocabulary exercises. You can’t go two days in some parts of the foodie world without coming upon instructions for a “chocolate tasting” exercise, where you nibble on tiny pieces of the dark stuff and then start trying to one-up the person next to you with talk of the “notes” of “leather” or “tobacco” or “moss.” (By the way, what do you use to cleanse the palate in between chocolate bites….donuts?) We are not amused by their presumption; the only people who should be concerning themselves with this level of choco-linguistic precision are those in the employ of Valrhona or Callebaut. The rest of us should be happy with terms no more technical than “yummy” or “great!”
Helping save chocolate wasn’t exactly on my list of to-do’s for this week, but I’ll just dive on in and say: well said, fellow crank! I couldn’t agree more. I myself have bristled at the way wine terminology has steadily crept into the world of chocolate the last few years. Among them terms like “vintage” and “grand cru” which may be technically descriptive, but when applied to chocolate nevertheless emit an obnoxious odeur of haughtiness. Chocolate, for all its glories, isn’t wine — not that I endorse that sort of high-flautin’ snobbery among wine lovers, either. It reminds me of all the hubbub around olive oils a decade or so ago. Remember that? When all those olive oil “tasting bars” were popping up in gourmet supermarkets? Brother, did that ever get under my skin.
Oopsie…I’m ranting. Why didn’t one of you out there stop me? You know how much hate mail I get when I do that. Even now I can feel it speeding toward me…gotta go!
UPDATE: Cranky Lee adds:
Your forgot to add salt to the list of things that are no longer for “eating” but instead for “tasting.”
Brother, what a mouthful (no wonder they just call it PEA). But this is the so-called “love chemical” that chocolate has become famous for since 1983. How can I be so precise about that? Because that was the year a researcher by the name of Michael Liebowitz published his book, The Chemistry of Love. In the course of his promotional tour, he claimed that chocolate is “loaded” with PEA, a statement that became the basis for a now-famous New York Times article on the subject.
Since those heady days, however, reality has intruded into Lebowitz’s theory like a parent into a parked car with steamed-over windows. It turns out that while quite a lot of biochemists know what PEA is, none of them know for certain what PEA does. It might — stress might — be a neurotransmitter, which is to say a member of a group of chemicals that neurons in the brain use to communicate with one another (serotonin, which I mentioned yesterday, is another one of these). Beyond that it’s a known stimulant, and that’s really the end of the story. Try telling that to your average food writer, though. He or she will likely tell you that PEA is critical to human relationship-forming, and is a factor in every stage of mating from initial attraction to orgasm.
Bunk. First, like tryptophan, PEA is a fairly common chemical, especially in fermented foods like chocolate (yes, cacao beans are fermented) pickles, cheese, sauerkraut, vanilla, kimchi, sausages and bacon. I’ll admit that bacon may be the love drug for me personally, but until I see ham hocks being marketed alongside heart-shaped Whitman’s samplers on Valentine’s day, I’ll take the PEA theory with a grain of salt.
Beside that, according to researchers, as soon as you ingest so much as a molecule of PEA, it’s jumped on and broken down by a digestive enzyme called MAO-B. Which means it never even has a chance to get into the bloodstream, much less the brain. So there!
This is another chemical compound found in chocolate, and it’s one we all hear about every year at Thanksgiving, since it’s said to be the stuff that causes those post pig-out sleepies among your relatives. But what is it really? Tryptophan is an amino acid that’s critical to human health, but one that our bodies can’t make on their own. Good thing there’s plenty of it around: in virtually every dairy product, every meat (especially poultry), as well as in oats, bananas and chickpeas. Our bodies use tryptophan for a variety of functions, among them the manufacture of serotonin, an important neurotransmitter which (again, among other things) regulates mood. This it does by relieving anxiety.
It’s this particular feature of serotonin that gets feature writers speculating about chocolate and mood alteration. The problem is that there’s no evidence that eating higher-than-normal amounts of tryptophan results in higher-than-normal serotonin levels in the body. Some researchers say that perhaps if the eater was suffering from low serotonin levels to begin with, there’s an outside chance the chocolate could help raise it. But when you consider that tryptophan is as common as dirt in a typical diet, it seems highly unlikely that the tiny amount of tryptophan in chocolate would matter, even a little. Nope, nothing here either.