February and March are birthday season around here, and it seemed like every time I turned around I was making someone or other a chocolate cake.
One thing I noticed is that, whichever recipe I used, it said to alternate adding in the dry and wet ingredients. This is a frequent instruction, and one I sometimes ignore (don’t you?), but I found myself wondering why we were being instructed to do so. So after a quick search I found this on the Charlotte Baking Examiner’s site:
Why not just add everything at once? Why not mix quickly? Introducing water (as water or milk) can start to activate the gluten in the flour. We want some gluten activation so the cake doesn’t fall apart, but we don’t want so much that we end up with a chewy cake. Mixing half the dry ingredients in first, when there is very little water in the batter (only from the egg whites) allows you to mix thoroughly and have only minimal gluten development. Adding the liquid in two stages and mixing in between allows a little more gluten to develop without ruining the emulsion that you took pains to make [… ] Adding the last of the flour at the end smooths the batter out, and since you’re adding it at the end, you won’t have to mix very much, so you end up limiting gluten formation that way, too.
Ah. This is a very geekily satisfying piece of information to get. But also a bummer, because now I won’t be able to ignore that instruction as readily. At least when it comes to Cakes That Matter.
So two of the cakes were the 1995 Joy of Cooking’s Devil Food Cake Cockaigne, which is reliable and very good. But then I had a cohousing-sized birthday cake to make, and I turned to my very favorite dessert cookbook: Abigail Johnson Dodge’s The Weekend Baker for her Chocolate Cake for a Crowd.
Chocolate Cake for a Crowd
reprinted from Abigail Johnson Dodge’s The Weekend Baker
Makes one 2-layer chocolate sheet cake, or 16 to 24 servings.
I made this for 40, so I did 1.5 times the recipe, cooked part in a bundt pan, and the rest in a half-sheet pan, which I kept as a one-layer cake in the pan and then frosted. This made it possible to bring a proper birthday cake to our table for our friend, before slicing the sheet cake for everyone else at that cohousing meal. It was the momos dinner, by the way, so you can imagine how food-giddy we ended up.
I usually abbreviate everything possible when I’m reprinting a recipe, but I can’t bear to do that with something from Abby Dodge. Her recipes are just so thorough and thoughtful and practical that I’m faithfully transcribing as is.
- The cake layers can be prepared through step 3, wrapped in plastic wrap, and stored at room temperature for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 1 month before proceeding with the recipe.
- The frosting can be prepared as directed in step 4, covered, and stored at room temperature for up to 1 day or refrigerated for up to 3 days (bring to room temperature before using) before proceeding with the recipe.
- The cake can be prepared through step 5, covered loosely with plastic wrap so as not to mar the frosting, and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days before proceeding with the recipe. [If you can imagine having a refrigerator in which you could store a giant iced cake for 3 days, your home is very different from mine.]
- The cake can be garnished as directed in step 6, covered loosely with plastic wrap so as not to mar the garnish, and refrigerated for up to 6 hours. Bring to room temperature before serving.
For the cake:
3 c. cake flour [I used all-purpose, and felt ultra-justified in doing so since I now know how to limit gluten formation]
1 c. unsweetened natural cocoa powder (not Dutch process), sift if lumpy
2 1/4 t. baking soda
3/4 t. salt
12 T. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 2/3 c. granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 t. pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 c. sour cream [I used plain, low-fat yogurt]
1 c. boiling water
[I’m including Dodge’s frosting and garnish here, though I’ve transcribed the easy, delicious, and flexible Bittersweet Chocolate Glaze/Frosting from the JoC after, which is what I used and is pictured.]
For the frosting:
15 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
20 T. (2 1/2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
3 1/4 c. confectioners’ sugar
2 1/2 t. pure vanilla extract
3/4 t. salt
For the (optional) garnish:
[Though she doesn’t say it, I’m sure Dodge would want us to wait until right before serving to wash, dry, slice and decorate with the fruit so it can be as perfect as possible for serving.]
1 pint blueberries, rinsed and well dried
1 pint raspberries, rinsed and well dried
2 nectarines, pitted and thinly sliced
8 – 10 small strawberries, rinsed, well dried, hulled, and cut in half lengthwise
3 or 4 fresh mint sprigs
1. To Make the Cake
Position an oven rack on the middle rung. (For smaller ovens, adjust 2 racks in the center third of the oven and switch the pans halfway through baking.) Heat the oven to 350. Lightly grease the bottom and sides of two 9 x 13 inch baking pans (Dodge says, “I prefer straight sided metal baking pans , rather than glass baking dishes, to give a cleaner look to the finished cake”), and line the bottom of each with parchment. Lightly dust the pan sides with flour, tapping out the excess flour.
2. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt onto a paper plate or medium bowl. In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer (either a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or handheld mixer) on medium speed until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until well blended. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla with the third egg. Add one-third of the flour mixture and mix on low speed just until blended. Stir in half of the sour cream. Add another one-third of the flour mixture and mix just until blended. Stir in the remaining sour cream. Add the remaining flour and mix just until blended. Pour in the boiling water and mix until blended and smooth. Immediately scrape the batter into the prepared pans, dividing and spreading it evenly. Tap the pans gently on the counter to settle the contents.
3. Bake until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center of each layer comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached, about 25 minutes. Transfer the cake pans to racks to cool for 15 minutes. Run a think knife around the sides of the pans to loosen the cakes. Invert each cake onto a large rectangular rack, lift off the pans, and peel away the parchment. Let cool completely.
4. To Make the Frosting
In a large bowl, combine the cream cheese and butter. Beat with the electric mixer (stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or handheld mixer) on medium-high speed until very smooth and creamy. Add the confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, and salt and beat on medium speed until blended and fluffy. Cover the frosting and set aside at room temperature until the cake is completely cool and ready to be frosted.
5. To Assemble the Cake
Using your hands, gently brush away and excess crumbs from the layers. Carefully place 1 layer, top side down, on a large, flat rectangular serving plate or cutting board. To protect the plate or board from smears during frosting, slide small strips of parchment or foil under the cake to cover the plate or board. Using a metal spatula or the blunt edge of a knife, spread about 2 cups of the frosting evenly over the layer. Place the second layer, top side up, on top of the frosting. Be sure the sides are lined up and then press gently on the layer. Apply a very thin layer of frosting over the entire cake to seal in any crumbs. [This, incidentally, is called the “crumb coat” and it’s the secret of good-looking frosted cakes.] Set aside for about 5 minutes (chill in the fridge, if possible). Spread the remaining frosting over the top and sides of the cake.
6. If you are using the garnish, decoratively arrange the fruits on top of the cake. Garnish with the mint sprigs. Serve immediately.
Bittersweet Chocolate Glaze or Frosting
Reprinted from The Joy of Cooking (1995/6th edition)
1 cup [This will frost a 1-layer 8- or 9-inch cake, so I tripled it to accommodate all that cake to cover.]
In the top of a double boiler or in a microwave on medium heat [or if like me you have neither of those, one pan sitting on another that has simmering water in it] stirring often, just until the chocolate is melted and smooth:
6 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped [Please don’t keel right over in a dead faint if you’re a more serious cook than I am, but to me this instruction always equals chocolate chips. Unless I’m out of those and I end up chopping up some random chocolate bar or something.]
6 T. water, coffee, or milk
Pinch of salt (optional)
Continue to stir (do not beat) until perfectly smooth. Stir in:
1 – 2 T. liqueur (optional)
For a pourable glaze [nice over a bundt cake] let stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until the mixture cools to 90. For frosting, let stand until spreadable. If the frosting becomes too stiff, set the pan in a larger pan of hot water and stir gently with a rubber spatula; or remelt and cool to 90 to use as a glaze. Keeps for up to 3 days at room temperature or up to 3 weeks refrigerated. Or freeze for up to 6 months. Soften or melt before using.