This past weekend, my significant other and I were admiring the effects that the autumn weather has on the pantone permutations of the leaves in Prospect Park when I mentioned to our friends from England that I--really we--had made a chocolate layer cake. Since cake and mid-afternoon are as inextricably linked for the Brits as fall and foliage are for residents of American East Coast, I had no trouble at all convincing them to come over to try it. The awkward part was in coming up with a convincing explanation for why, though I identify as a chocolate blogger, it has been years since I've made such a cake and even more years (ten years, in fact: difference recipes, different significant other, different expat story) since I've written about one.
The explanation is this: the work is messy, and so I avoid it. I have a fear of flour (I'm sure I've said this somewhere, sometime, before). It gets all over everything, leaving behind what looks like concrete dust and globs of cement. And my endlessly associative mind means the story takes on a life of its own--the walk in the park, the history of sugar maples, an overheard snipped of conversation in between the trees. But this chocolate layer cake was a very rare and celebration-worthy thing: it cleaned up my life.
Let me explain. I know way more about chocolate than I know what to do with. Years ago, around the time of that previous chocolate layer cake iteration, I embarked on this voyage of cacao discovery by printing out every article about every interesting bar or maker or study of chocolate anywhere in the world. I eventually narrowed my search terms and switched to digital record-keeping but to this day I'm still trying to make sense of that data dump, to create searchable links to endlessly updating resources. Even in the few years since I moved back to New York, I have accumulated origin and heirloom chocolates, bars and chunks and pastilles, one-off samples as well as seconds from production lines and leftovers from publicity events that I have meticulously saved in a giant ziplock bag; this treasure trove has succumbed to changes in heat and moisture that has made the bits and pieces crumbly with white bloomy patches instead of smooth and to the touch and the tongue, all so that I might later continue some undefined research project that has became harder and harder to imagine the more unwieldy this storage project has became. And this is where the alchemical act of melting chocolate saves the day...
Yet another irony of chocolate is that those changes in appearance and texture aren't indications of spoilage but just changes in state: you can indefinitely remelt chocolate that has already been tempered and molded--chocolatiers do this all the time--and start over. It's more like a digital than an analog remix--you can remove imperfections in each iteration without sacrificing the quality. And while it's fascinating to taste the subtle differences in chocolates made with beans of different origins (or with beans of the same origin processed differently by different companies), there's also no reason why you can't discover interesting flavors by combining them--chocolatiers do that all the time too (albeit not always quite so haphazardly). So into the melting pot went the 100% Guatemalan chocolate from both Danta and Fernando's that are part of the ongoing story to bring chocolate's history back to the future, plus a chunk of Colombian Santander which might be easier to find these days in some observable ratio to the difficulty of obtaining Venezuelan El Rey, a tiny and expensive Hana Gold bar from Maui which is part of Hawaii's very-differently-developing indigenous chocolate industry, and the last bit of a Congolese chocolate bar made by Blanxart in Spain whose origins take in five hundred years of political economics. And my process from bar to cake was also steeped in all of that messy and diffuse reading, with origins that can be traced back to San Francisco, an accidental pairing on my part of Emily Luchetti's fairly unfussy recipe with the dainty cake pans of Miette's Meg Rey (who calls for a kind of precision in construction that I wouldn't have been able to achieve without the help of my aforementioned significant other, who is a builder by trade). I garnished the cake simply and just a little bit painstakingly with evenly spaced candied violet petals, a souvenir from La Fromagerie in London.
If you need some inspiration for your own global chocolate samplings, the new documentary project Setting the Bar maps out some of the options. The movie's Kickstarter campaign is a worthy cause and can get you started with care packages from featured characters and sponsors, including Raaka here in Brooklyn and San Francisco-based Dandelion.
The Accidental Tourist Chocolate Cake:
To put this cake together, you will need two 8-inch round cake pans plus extra butter and cocoa powder to prep them, as well as a stand mixer with a whisk attachment or a handheld electric mixer. The following items are optional but a big help: a cooling rack, a rotating cake-decorating stand, a bread knife, and straight and offset cake-decorating spatulas. This recipe yields two frosted cakes, and it's easy to finish one now and store the layers and the extra frosting to assemble the second one later. The assembly is simple but requires a deft hand and focus, especially if you're doing this for the first time. Aim to space the baking and frosting steps out over two days, but if you're in a rush you could probably go from beginning to end in under 6 hours (with about an hour of active time and the rest for baking and cooling the cake).
3/4 cup (90 grams) cocoa powder
3/4 cup (180 ml) water
14 ounces (350 grams) assorted dark chocolate, 4 ounces (100g) for the cake and the remaining 10 ounces (250g) for the frosting, broken, chopped, or grated into small pieces (they should be small enough that you can comfortably pop one in your mouth--they don't have to be tiny)
2 cups (300g) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons (10.5 grams) baking soda
1/4 teaspoon (3.5 grams) kosher salt
3 sticks (340 grams) butter at room temperature, divided in two parts, half for the cake and half for the frosting
2 2/3 cups (535 grams) regular white granulated sugar, 2 cups (400g) for the cake and the remaining 2/3 (135) for the frosting
5 eggs (assuming they're large eggs: try 6 if they're small, 4 if they're really extra-large)
1 cup (240 ml) whole milk
1 cup (240 ml) heavy cream
Optional: Candied violet petals or any other cake decoration
Preheat the oven (with a rack ready at the middle level) to 350F/175C.
Grease the pans thoroughly with the extra butter and then dust them just as thoroughly with the extra cocoa powder. Try dumping a bunch of cocoa powder into the first greased pan, shaking it to cover the bottom, tilting and rotating it to cover the sides, and them dumping what's left into the second pan to repeat. You can then turn the pans upside down over the sink and tap out any access cocoa.
Stir together the 3/4 cup cocoa and 3/4 cup water in a small bowl until you have a thick paste. Set this aside for later.
Melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water or in a double boiler. The trick is to have the water going on very low heat and to make sure that the bowl or the top pot in the double boiler never touches the water. Once the chocolate is melted, lift the bowl or pot quickly away from the water and place it on a dry dish towel (water and steam are bad for melted chocolate). Let the chocolate cool down a little bit while you go through the next steps.
Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl and just whisk them together (I don't think sifting is necessary).
Add the butter and sugar to the bowl of your stand mixer (or another large bowl if using a handheld mixer). Whisk at medium speed until fluffy (maybe ten minutes?). Add the eggs one at a time, still whisking at medium speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl periodically. Reduce the speed to low and whisk in the cocoa paste and the melted chocolate. Still whisking on low, add half the flour mixture, then half the milk, the remaining flour mixture, and the remaining milk, until just combined.
Pour the batter into the two prepared pans. Use a spatula or any tool you can find to smooth out the tops, then place the pans in the oven. After 35 minutes, start testing for doneness by inserting a toothpick, a cake tester, or a sharp knife into the middle of the cakes. If it doesn't come out clean, bake for another five minutes and test again, and possibly another five minutes after that. (I don't think this is the kind of cake that will fall when you open the oven, though nothing would be lost if it did fall since you ultimately want a flat cake).
Loosen the baked cakes from the pans as soon as you take them out of the oven by running a paring knife around the inside edges of the pans. Then invert each cake onto a plate or a cutting board and then invert again onto a cooling rack (so the cakes should be right-side up now). Allow the cake to cool completely, ideally overnight. You could leave the oven door open until it cools off and then move the rack into the oven and close the door for safekeeping from pests and pets.
About an hour before you're going to frost the cake, start making the frosting. You need the cream plus the remaining 10 ounces of chocolate, 2/3 cup of sugar, and stick and a half of butter. I have a great tool that I inherited from a great-aunt who was a great cook that I use for every step here: it's a wooden spoon with a hole in the middle and so it sort of combines the effects of a regular wooden spoon and a whisk. But you can use any combination of basic tools that works for you. Combine the sugar and cream in a small saucepan and stir regularly over medium heat, trying not to let the cream boil, until the sugar is dissolved. Place your chopped chocolate into a medium-large bowl and pour the hot cream mixture over the top. Stir until the chocolate is completely melted and everything is combined. Divide the butter into twelve pieces (if you're using American sticks of butter this is very easy, just follow the 1-tablespoon markings) and drop the pieces into the chocolate-cream-sugar mixture, whisking or stirring vigorously until the butter is melted and incorporated after each addition. This is your frosting. The butter may have already brought the whole thing down to a lower temperature and more spreadable texture but give it a little extra rest anyway while you turn your attention back to the cakes.
The first step in making the layer cake is making the layers. The goal here is to cut each cake perfectly in half lengthwise. A spinning cake stand (it looks like a mini potter's wheel) is a big help here, but anyone can do it with a minimum of a steady hand, a sharp knife (I like using a good bread knife), and a little patience. Divide both cakes into two equal layers. At this point, you could roll up your sleeves to make two layer cakes right away, or carefully wrap each of two individual layers in plastic, stack them on top of each other, and gently fit them back into one of the cake pans to store in the freezer for later festivities (just let the cake come back to room temperature, frost, and go).
Place the bottom layer of the cake you are frosting on your work surface. Brush off any stray crumbs with a pastry brush or gently with your fingers. Then starting from the middle and working your way to the edge and just over the sides, add dollops of frosting and spread it in concentric circles so that you get an even but not dense coating. Now carefully brush off any crumbs from the second layer and place it on top. Repeat the same frosting technique with the top of the cake and then continue around the sides, adding just enough new frosting to cover the sides (start near the edge on top so that it can gently move down--try to start on the side and the stuff will just fall down in a puddle). If you really want to smooth out the edges, an offset spatula is your friend here--run it around the sides at a 90-degree angle and then at about a 45 degree angle at the crease where the top meets the sides. Finally, pack up the leftover frosting in a plastic container to store in the fridge for up to a month (bring it back to room temperature and stir or whisk it up again before using.)
Decorate the cake by placing individual candied violet petals 2 inches/5 centimeters apart in a circle around the outer edge of the cake--or in any other fashion that suits the occasion.