Thursday, October 27, 2011

Trying to Perfect “Perfectly Chocolate”™ Cake

On a whim last month, I decided to try the recipe on the back of the Hershey’s Cocoa container for their “Perfectly Chocolate”™ Chocolate Cake.  Much to my own surprise, I followed the recipe as written.  I won’t disagree that it was chocolaty; but I can’t agree that “perfect” is accurate for the cake in general.  The texture was slightly gummy and although moist cake is preferable to dry, this was a bit too moist/oily.  Yes, the recipe used oil – no butter.  The other thing that may have contributed to the texture was the mixing method of essentially dumping all of the wet ingredients into the dry and then mixing.  Since I thought the recipe had potential, I set about determining some revisions for a second attempt.

I knew the revised version had to use butter instead of oil.  However, in baking it’s not a matter of simply substituting one for the other.  The oil is 100% fat; butter is only about 75 – 85% fat (depending on the butter).  Several years ago I had read an interview with Richard Palm, pastry chef at the American Club in Kohler, who only uses butter in his pastries.  He gave a rough formula for substituting butter for another fat:  use the same amount of butter, but decrease the amount of flour in the recipe by 10 – 15%.  I chose to split the difference and use 12.5%.  I also decided that since I was decreasing the flour by 12.5%, I would also consider the water content of the butter and reduce the water in the recipe by the same percentage. 

The other thing I knew I would change was the mixing method.  My version was going to go with creaming the butter and sugar then alternately adding dry and wet ingredients.  The intent of this was to aerate the batter more to lighten the texture of the cake.  The problem with my mixing method was the butter to sugar ratio made creaming just about impossible, and the usual dry/wet additions of a third of the flour; half of the liquid; repeat and end with flour didn’t work out so well either, but it came together in the end.  The batter of the original recipe is very thin; my batter was thicker and more like batters I’m accustomed to working with.

Standard baking time for the recipe from Hershey’s is 30 – 35 minutes.  I pulled my cakes at 37 minutes, and I think they could/should have stayed in awhile longer.  The pans set on a rack to cool for 10 minutes, but I got distracted and it was more like 15.  Did that contribute to the bottoms of the cakes being extremely sticky?  Out of the pans finally, I left the cakes to cool. 

My plan was to cut them into thin layers (like 1/4-inch thin) and put the cake together with alternating layers of mocha and pumpkin buttercream.  Cutting into the first cake, I had a feeling all was not well.  The cake felt seriously dense in the center.  Despite all indications that the cakes were done (tester coming out clean, pulling away from the sides of the pan), it became readily apparent that the cakes had not baked long enough.  The beautiful layered cake I had imagined was not to be from this cake wreck.  Since I already have another chocolate cake recipe I’m happy with, I doubt I’ll give this another go.  I'll probably be busy making cake balls instead.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Tale of Two Cakes

This week I made two different cakes - one good and one evil.  Can you tell the difference?


Let me give you a hint:  much can be hidden under icing.

Let's begin with the evil - and I don't mean evil in the sense that "this cake is so good it's evil".  The cake was inspired by a cake I saw in the August 2011 issue of Martha Stewart Living.  (Yes, I am an unapologetic Martha fan.  Think of me what you will.)  The look of the cake absolutely intrigued me.  It was layers of pastel colored cake covered in creamy white buttercream.  Upon reading the article and recipe, I was less enthusiastic upon learning it was a frozen rainbow chiffon cake made not really of cake, but essentially meringue with fruit puree.  Despite the fact that, at the time, I didn't have sufficient freezer space for such a project anyway, making a frozen cake in August in Southern Illinois is asking for trouble.  But I did come up with another idea.  The result of that is the iced cake on the left, or what I refer to as the antithesis of cake. 

I have very strong convictions about what cake should and shouldn't be.  According to "Dawn's Rules of Cake", this cake is, essentially, everything I think cake should not be.

Dawn's Rules of Cake
  1. Cakes should always be made from scratch.  This one is not.  I used (gasp!) boxed cake mixes.
  2. With the exception of dietary restrictions, cakes should always have butter.  This one has canola oil.
  3. Eggs should be cracked from their shells, not poured from cartons.  Egg whites from a carton were used in this cake.
  4. Cakes should not contain artificial colors and/or flavorings.  These cake layers are colored and flavored with unsweetened Kool-Aid.  It doesn't get any more artificial than that.
  5. Buttercream should not contain confectioner's sugar.  Four pounds of the stuff in and on this bad boy.
So given all of that, why did I even made this cake?  I'm still working on that, but all I can come up with is just for kicks.  To me, it doesn't even taste good.  Yes, I did taste a bite of each layer.  It reminds of of SweeTarts.  Kids would probably like it, but I'd never do that to a child.  And it's still in the refrigerator because I have no idea what I am going to do with it.  It's just not something I'll give to people I like.  I'm not even sure I'd give this to people I don't like.  Plus, I had absolutely no intention of eating the slice I removed for the picture so now it's also a broken and bandaged cake as I put the slice back. 

In summary, this was not a well-thought project and I'm feeling like I wasted time, money and ingredients.  Apparently I think keeping it in the refrigerator for now will temporarily assuage my guilt. 

It's my story; I'll tell it how I want.  Now, on to the good.

Earlier this month while visiting family and friends back home, I wandered into the newly opened Goodwill store with my friend, Bonnie.  I bought a small suitcase for my dad so he'll no longer have to borrow one when he comes to visit.  I also found a little copper-colored squirrel mold that matches a couple of molds that were my Grandma's, and a vintage egg slicer.  But my coup de grace was a cast aluminum bundt pan for a little under $9.  I've been wanting a bundt pan for awhile, but wasn't excited about shelling out the $$ for one.  My $9 pan has seen better days and I was concerned some of the scratches and flaws would be a problem.  Not so.

I used the pan on Tuesday to bake my favorite apple cake.  This is my go-to fall cake.  I absolutely love it and I don't know why I only make it once a year, other than it makes it seem more elevated in stature when it's an annual thing.  Sort of like only having pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving.  This time I did omit the chocolate chips from the recipe and used two cups of chopped walnuts.  The apples I had on hand were not tart and I didn't want the cake to be cloyingly sweet.  They were barely missed.  I did eat the slice missing from the photo at the top, and even broke the rule of waiting until the cake was cool to cut it.  I guess maybe this week was about breaking rules.

Instead of greasing and flouring the bundt pan, I used Wilton's Cake Release.  While the cake release probably violates the artificial ingredient rule, the stuff just plain works.  The cake came out of the pan beautifully, even from the areas that were severely scratched. 

Since I do like this cake so much, getting rid of it wasn't a problem at all.  Over half of it went to work with the hubs, some went to a friend, and I kept several slices for myself.  I was sad to eat the last slice last night.  Maybe I'll have to go back to the orchard and get some tart apples and make this again with the chocolate chips.  After all, I need to see how the cake will release with the chips in the batter, right?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Butter (Better?) Baking Mix

Last week I finally acknowledged a can of pumpkin pie filling I had mistakenly purchased for the September wedding cupcakes.  I would look at it as I walked by, wondering what I was going to do with it since I knew I wouldn't use it for pie.  When I finally decided to approach and inspect the unwanted can, I discovered it had a recipe for pumpkin muffins on the inside of the label.  I would use it for that.  But in removing the label and reading the recipe, it called for four cups of baking mix.  Baking mix is not something we ordinarily have in our pantry.  And while there is a partial box of unknown age sitting on the shelf right now, it just wasn't something I wanted to use.  So I set about searching for a recipe to make my own baking mix. 

the finished product
My search began on  There were 10 results and I settled on this one as my starting point.  

Since I didn't need 12 cups of baking mix, the first thing I did was cut the recipe in half.  Next I decided that I needed to use butter instead of shortening, and because of that needed to adjust the amount of flour slightly.  It was very simple to make as everything went into the food processor and it did the work.  

Unlike when making pie crust in the food processor, the cold butter cubes should be completely obliterated - this is not the time for "pea-sized" chunks of butter.  The consistency should be such that the mix will hold its shape when you squeeze it in your palm, but then break apart with a little shaking.

For the most part, I followed the recipe for the muffins as given.  I omitted the raisins (the texture of cooked raisins does not appeal to me in the least) and the crumble topping, and added two tablespoons of sour cream to the batter - just because.  I had used old-fashioned oats since that's what I had, but should I make these again, I think quick oats would be the better option.  And I also think they need a bit more spice.  However, I was quite pleased with the performance of my homemade baking mix.

But I did have some mix left over and the question remaining as to whether or not it would work for, say, pancakes.  So this morning, I put it to the test.  

I used the remaining baking mix, which was about 2-1/4 cups, with one egg and a cup of milk.  Depending on how you like your pancakes, you may want to use a little more milk.  Not being a fan of crepe-like pancakes, I made my batter rather thick.  Do let the batter rest for a minute or two as it will thicken a bit on standing.   

Although I had a little too much butter in my pan for the first one, they cooked up quite well.  Make sure you have bubbles on top before flipping!

My pancakes were about six inches in diameter and it made four of them easily.  That's a good looking pancake, if I do say so myself.

I made the first two plain to make sure they were going to work, and dotted the second two with some blueberries I had in the freezer.

What I noticed the most is the texture.  These are definitely more delicate and tender than those made with the commercial baking mix.  I also noticed that they could have used just a pinch of salt.  But - it worked.  And that's what I needed to know.

Butter Baking Mix
Recipe adapted from one at Recipe (, 
which I believe originated from The Cook’s Book of Uncommon Recipes.

3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour    
1 tablespoon baking powder 
1-1/2 teaspoons salt     
1 teaspoon cream of tartar       
1/2 teaspoon baking soda        
1 cup nonfat dry milk 
2 sticks unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes

Add the dry ingredients to the work bowl of a food processor and process a few seconds to combine.  Add one stick of the cold, cubed butter and pulse a couple of times to blend it in.  Add the other stick of cubed butter and process until there are no visible cubes of butter remaining.  The mix will be sort of “mealy” when it’s properly combined.  To test it, put a small amount in the palm of your hand and squeeze.  It should come together, but fall apart into big clumps.

Store in an airtight container in the freezer for up to six months.  Makes about 6-1/4 cups of mix.

To make pancake batter, combine 2-1/4 cups of mix with one beaten egg and 1 to 1-1/4 cups of milk (depending on how thick/thin you like your pancakes).