My bakery is called “Sticky.”
You’ll find this establishment in a transitional neighborhood of a large American City. The location takes advantage of ample foot traffic and a dense, modestly diverse cluster of nearby housing. A well-regarded university is no more than four (but no fewer than two– F*$#ing Hipsters) miles away. Inside, framed photographs of distressed Italianate architecture dot the exposed-brick walls, and an area behind the display counter painted a bright, earthy blue.
There is plenty of seating- members of the creative class take advantage of the free wi-fi to do Very Important Things on their laptop computers. Grumpy old men from the neighborhood hunch over the large table in the corner and play chess all afternoon, bathed in the lazy sunlight streaming through the ancient bay windows. The dining area smells vaguely of coffee, wheat, and lemon.
And, inside the display cases, the baked goods will stop you cold. Brownies the size of wallets, pitch-black from the too-expensive French cocoa I stubbornly insist upon, much to the chagrin of my accountant. Cupcake frosting colored by a madman and applied by a bomb-diffuser-brain-surgeon-architect who freebases Adderall. Ciabatta that’s still slightly sandy from the floured towel used it to hoist it into the steamy oven. Muffins that look like muffins, replete with tops and perfect blueberry distribution. Chocolate chip cookies that are ever-slightly pale. Cinnamon sticky buns that singe your nose hairs before coating your soul in gently frosted goo.
And exactly one cake.
This, clearly, is where the fantasy breaks down.
I seldom fantasize about how my food tastes. It’s good. If I actually measure and set the timer, it’s VERY good. Use high-quality ingredients and not rush things, very VERY good, within striking distance of phenomenal if my oven is clean and the humidity is just right. I mean, it’s sugar and cocoa and butter and flour and eggs. If you can follow a recipe, it’s almost more difficult to make something that doesn’t taste fantastic
But what I do wish, and what I’ve really been working on, is making my baked goods more visually appealing. I’ve been trying to make sure muffins are perfectly leavened, cake layers evenly cut and frostings that don’t contain bits of errant crumb. I now try present these baked goods in something less bootleg than a piece of a Dewey’s box wrapped in aluminum foil. Not that, um, I would ever do that.
This is more than simple aesthetics. It’s about details and process. As I find myself taking my baking more seriously, I start to notice how seemingly meaningless imperfections compound themselves into glaring flaws within the end result. And I notice how training myself to be more careful always brings with it a hidden benefit I hadn’t even considered. (eg obeying a recipe’s instruction to the to make sure that ingredients are at room temperature) Even when I drift into “Sticky” fantasies and start to think about the “Big Picture” – things like consistency and food waste -my mind drifts back to eliminating volatility and variability.
In other words, I’m starting to realize that making things “pretty” is more about making your entire process pretty, not just haphazardly applying a crumb coat.
I’ve said this before, but it bares repeating: I have a profound respect for people who have taken the time to learn their craft. I appreciate it when people learn to think systematically about each step of the process and know how to execute flawlessly down to the last detail because their instincts have been honed and nurtured over time.
I’m not there yet. Not even close. Still, I like to test my progress against what has become my test case: The one I imagine under glass at Sticky.
Anyway, This is my new chocolate cake. I have a fluffier one if this chocolate cake cannot perform its chocolate cakely duties, a flourless if I’m ever displaying withdrawl symptoms, and a torte if I’m trying to impress someone or if I’m due to report to the penitentiary. Occasional dalliances aside, though, I’m relatively sure that this will be the chocolate cake I’ll be making for the rest of my life.
Like any good cake, it’s rich and sweet, but the strong chocolate flavor stands up to both, so that nuances in the cocoa can still shine. And I like the counterpoint of buttermilk here, too, it adds a nice dimension without distracting you.
And then there’s the frosting. I’ve honestly never tried to make an Italian buttercream and after tasting it, I’m reasonably sure I’ve never tasted one. It is a revelation. It is soft and airy and luscious and sooo gently buttery. The flavor is a bit understated, but this is fixable. Grand Marnier would be my choice for a white cake, but a bold chocolate cake only requires frosting to sort of… be there. Anyway…
Jackie, OH! Cake
(Dark Chocolate Fudge Cake with Italian Buttercream)
source: Sugar Baby by Gesine Bullock Prado
FOR THE CAKE:
3 oz bittersweet chocolate – chopped fine
1 1/2 C borderline tortious-ly hot coffee
2 1/2 C AP flour
1 1/2 C Cocoa (she doesn’t specifically specify in the recipe, but I used Dutch processed-JM)
2 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
1 t salt (kosher)
3/4 C vegetable oil
1 t vanilla extract
1 1/2 C nonfat buttermilk (I used ‘lowfat’ – JM)
Oven to 350
Add the chocolate to the coffee. stir until melted and set aside
Combine flour, cocoa, bp, bs, salt. Whisk and set aside.
In another bowl combine buttermilk and the coffee mixture. Stir. Do not drink.
In the bowl of your stand mixer, beat the sugar, eggs, oil, and vanilla until fluffy.
Slowly add the dry mix and the wet mix, alternately, in thirds.
Divide the batter evenly among three 10 -inch round cake pans. Should be about 3 cups. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the pan, and it passes the toothpick test.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely. Repeat with other two layers.
FOR THE BUTTERCREAM
Do not start the buttercream until you have a four sticks of softened butter. Just DON’T.
1 C sugar
1/3 C water
pinch of salt
5 egg whites
2 t vanilla extract
4 sticks of butter (don’t freak out) cut into small chunks
Place the egg whites in your stand mixture with the whisk attachment, and begin whipping on medium.
In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and the water, and heat on medium until the sugar dissolves and the temperature of the syrup reaches 240 degrees.
When the egg whites have reached “soft peaks” (you can dip the whisk into the mixture and the white foam barely holds its shape), being SLOWLY SLOWLY pouring the sugar syrup along the side of the bowl. Pouring slowly will prevent the eggs from curdling.
Begin adding the butter, again, slowly, paying attention to the texture of the frosting. If you see that the mixture is beginning to curdle (the frosting will always seem a bit soft and wet at first, but if it becomes truly squishy…), you may have already added enough butter.
Once all of the butter has been added, run the mixer for another five minutes or so (maybe a bit longer) – your “wet” frosting will firm up nicely. Stir in the vanilla.
TO ASSEMBLE THE CAKE:
Ha! Don’t look at me. you might want to consult a REAL baker, like Stephanie, but this is what I did:
1. Level the cake as best you can. I just eyeballed it,trimming the very top off with a serrated knife to make sure all three layers were the same height.
2. More critically, make sure that the cake layers have the same diameter. I placed a bowl atop each layer and trimmed off the extra inch or so.
3. Sequester about half of your frosting in a separate bowl, so as not to cross-contaminate with the crumb coat.
4. Crumb Coat! Apply a thin layer of frosting to the top and sides of each layer of cake. Add more frosting than you think you’ll need, then work via subtraction.
5. Refrigerate the cake layers for at least two hours before applying final layer.
6. Stack the layers. This is a leap of faith.
6. Apply a VERY neat and very even final coat. Use your bench scraper to spread the cake evenly along the sides, and an offset spatula to the top.
7. Garnish with caramel sauce or something.
But like most Americans who occasionally have to sit in a cubicle and have to endure email full of buzzwords and clip art, there are always escape fantasies. And it’s fun to see them take shape, even for a moment or two. Until then, I’ll just worry about keeping the kitchen clean.
The Wrath of Cake: