photo by Anthony Palatta
For a while now, I've been trying to find a go-to chocolate cake recipe. Most of my attempts have come out like the one I tried a couple of weeks ago, from a recipe in The Joy of Cooking: burnt edges, mushy middle, and dry spongy cake in between.
Maybe these disasters have been my fault, for paying close enough attention to the cake while it was in the oven. Then again, the oven I've got currently is little better than an open-pit fire. There's a temperature dial, but I trust the readings on it about as much as I do the experts cited by George Bush in who claimed there were WMD's in Iraq. In short, not the ideal tool to bake something as sensitive as a cake.
Another culprit might be the recipes I've chosen. The directions in the Joy of Cooking can be rather complex as well as vague. For example, in their chocolate cake, they use "2-4 ounces" of chocolate cake. Does that mean 2, 3, or 4? After all, this is a difference of 50%! And how do I choose?
I finally decided that I needed to go back to school, which is to say, Martha Stewart's Cooking School Cookbook. I figured that if anyone had developed a foolproof recipe, it had to be Martha.
(By the way, there's a great blog about a guy who did the entire cookbook and has notes about the recipes. It's called Jeff and Martha, and he has an entry about this recipe, if you're interested.)
What I love about this chocolate cake recipe is that not only is it delicious but also even an idiot like me can make it. You simply take all the ingredients, throw them all in a very big bowl, and whisk them together to combine. No need to cream butter and sugar, since the butter is melted.
I was a bit suspicious, but the results were inarguable: a moist fluffy cake with a rich chocolate flavor. I tried it both as cupcakes and as a layer cake, and had success both ways.
I did make a couple of modifications. The recipe called for buttermilk, but I substituted sour cream, as I once took a class where the instructor swore by sour cream rather than buttermilk for chocolate cakes. Also, sour cream's easier to find.
I also tried a couple of tricks, which I found online, to solve the problem of unreliable ovens. First, I preheated the oven to the temperature called for in the recipe. Then, before putting in my cake, I turned the oven down by 25 degrees. Better to bake low and slow than burn a cake in too high a fire.
The other thing I did was after I poured my cake batter into an 8-inch round pan, I then placed the pan inside an empty 9-inch round pan, to create an extra layer of insulation. I'm not sure whether it was the sour cream, the lower fire, or double panning technique that did it, but I'm sticking with all three from now on when it comes to chocolate cake.
In the battle of Man Vs. Chocolate Cake, this Man has finally won.
P.S. I'm teaching another cooking class at Whole Foods: Holiday Cookies Made Easy. On the Menu: Lemon, Lime, & Pink Grapefruit Mini-Tarts; Chocolate Snowfall Cookies; Jam-Filled Cookie Windows; Mom’s Iced Sugar Cookies. Click here to register.