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Counter Intelligence: Wake up that tired chocolate cake

By April Hamilton

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Looks like chocolate cake, tastes like The Greenbrier." These words tumbled out of my friend's mouth when she tasted the first forkful of standard-looking chocolate cake that I made for her daughter's birthday. Her eyes told her one thing, her taste buds another.

Chocolate cake is rather ordinary. The Greenbrier is reputably extraordinary. Making the extraordinary chocolate cake is so easy there's no need to use a boxed cake mix, and you don't have to travel far for a taste of decadence.

Melt some butter, add brown sugar, whisk in a couple of eggs, some flour and cocoa. The magical transformation occurs with the addition of a secret ingredient: coffee.

Coffee enhances the subtle richness of the cocoa and makes the cake incredibly moist.

This is not difficult. On the contrary, it's so simple, it's a go-to for last-minute parties, bake sales or even after-dinner cravings. The countless variations of this super-easy ultra-delicious recipe will keep you happily occupied at the oven for all upcoming occasions.

Keep some basic baking staples on hand and you're moments from chocolate luxury. Don't just take my word for it. Dust off those cake pans and brace yourself for the onslaught of praise.

Fantastic Fudge Cake and Fast Fudge Frosting

     1    cup all-purpose flour

     1/4  cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder

     1/2     teaspoon baking soda

     1/4     teaspoon salt

     1/2  cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and warm

     1 1/4     cups packed brown sugar

     2     large eggs

     1     teaspoon vanilla extract

     1/2  cup hot coffee

POSITION a rack in the lower third of the oven. Heat the oven to 350°. Lightly spray the inside of a 9-inch round cake pan with Baker's Joy and spread evenly with a paper towel.

COMBINE in a medium bowl the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Whisk to blend. Sift only if the cocoa remains lumpy. Set aside.

COMBINE in a large bowl the melted butter and brown sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until well blended. Add all of the flour mixture at once. Using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir just until all the flour mixture is moistened. Pour the hot coffee over the batter all at once. Stir just until the water is incorporated and the batter is smooth.

SCRAPE the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let the cake cool for about 10 minutes. To un-mold, slide a slim knife around the edges of the cake to release it from the pan. Invert the cake. Turn the cake right side up onto a wire rack and let cool completely.

Fast Fudge Frosting

     5     tablespoons unsalted butter

     3/4  cup granulated sugar

     2/3  cup unsweetened cocoa powder

     Pinch of salt

     3/4  cup heavy cream

     1     teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the frosting:

MELT the butter in a medium saucepan. Stir in the granulated sugar, cocoa and salt. Gradually stir in the cream.

HEAT, stirring constantly, until the mixture is smooth and hot but not boiling. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Let cool until thickened to spreading consistency, or use warm for a glaze or a sauce.

FROST the top and sides of the cake. Store any leftover frosting in the refrigerator for up to one week. Re-warm gently over a pan of barely simmering water or in a microwave before using.

Chocolate-Strawberry Cupcakes

     1     recipe Fantastic Fudge cake batter

     Fresh strawberries, rinsed, dried and hulled (cut large berries in half)

     Quick chocolate mousse (recipe follows)

HEAT oven to 350°. Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners.

PREPARE the cake batter, as for fantastic fudge cake, and divide the batter into the cups.

BAKE for about 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean.

COOL on a rack for 5 minutes. Turn the cupcakes out of the pan, then let them cool right side up.

USE a melon baller to scoop out a small cavity in the center of each cupcake when the cupcakes are completely cool. Place a small, hulled berry into the cavity. Repeat with remaining cupcakes (the little melon ball scoops of cake make a fun treat on their own).

USING a large star tip and a piping bag, pipe a decorative swirl of "mousse" on top of each cupcake (a zip-top bag works well in a pinch; scoop the "mousse" into the bag and snip off one corner, then pipe away). Top each cupcake with a strawberry slice or tiny berry with the hull on, if desired.

Quick Chocolate Mousse

Use to fill or frost your favorite cake. Can also be piped into glass dishes for a quick and delicious mousse.

     1/4  cup powdered sugar

     3     tablespoons cocoa powder

     1    cup heavy cream

     1/2     teaspoon vanilla

COMBINE sugar and cocoa in a mixing bowl and whisk to combine. Gradually whisk in cream.

CHILL for 30 minutes. Using an electric mixer or hand beater, whip cream mixture with vanilla until stiff peaks form.

Mississippi Mud Cake

Perfect for a potluck! Bake in a disposable foil pan for picnic-ease.

     1     recipe Fantastic Fudge cake batter

     1/2  cup mini marshmallows

     1/2  cup chopped pecans

     1/2  cup chocolate chips

HEAT oven to 350°. Lightly spray the inside of a 9-inch square cake pan with Baker's Joy and spread evenly with a paper towel.

PREPARE cake batter and scrape into pan. Bake for 20 minutes, or until top is just barely set.

TOSS marshmallows, pecans and chocolate chips together in a small bowl. Sprinkle evenly over cake and continue to bake 10 more minutes. Cool in pan on rack and serve directly from pan.

Your baking pantry

Butter: I usually bake with Land O'Lakes. Occasionally I will splurge on European butters.

Chocolate: Imported bittersweet is my favorite for baking (and eating). Recently I have been using Holl's -- available locally!

Cocoa: Hershey's

Eggs: Most recipes use large eggs, unless otherwise specified. I like organic eggs.

Flour: My baking cupboard is stocked with many types of flour: all-purpose unbleached; bread flour, for breads and pizza dough; cake flour (Softasilk or Swans Down) for cakes or recipes where a lighter texture is desired; whole-wheat flour, to supplement white flour in breads, pizza dough, pancakes.

Salt

Baking powder

Baking soda

Sugar: granulated; light brown and dark brown; confectioner's/powdered; Turbinado

Vanilla extract: I always use pure vanilla extract; never imitation.

Pan-prep techniques

I almost always line my cookie sheets with parchment paper. It keeps cookies from sticking, and makes cleanup a little easier.

For cake pans, I spray with Baker's Joy, a spray that is oil combined with flour -- found in the baking aisle.

For cupcakes and muffins, I use paper or foil liners.

For brownie pans, I line the pan with foil, first shaping the foil to fit the pan with excess for overhang.

April Hamilton has always said, "Cooking is fun!" She shares her easy, practical recipes for delicious food through her cooking classes for kids and families. April's husband and three daughters help with testing and tasting in their Charleston kitchen. April would love to hear from you: Email aprilskitchencounter@gmail.com.


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