Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Chocolate Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

I have a very sneaky strategy for how to improve my baking and have cakes to write about. I look in my church newsletter for upcoming birthdays. Next I pick someone I know (I'm pretty new to the church), then I ask if I can bake him or her a birthday cake. It's working pretty well so far.

I asked Leah what kind of cake she likes, and her answer was "It's all about the frosting . . . cream cheese frosting!" There was a brief mention of Red Velvet Cake, but I ignored that. I'm from Maryland, where Red Velvet has always been a regional specialty, and I KNOW that you only use boiled milk frosting on Red Velvet. The rest of the country just has it wrong.

I mentioned some other kinds of cake I would be willing to put cream cheese frosting on, and Leah decided on chocolate. I can definitely live with that :-)

I planned to bake the cake late at night when it wouldn't be so hot, then decorate it the next day. Alas, I discovered Lost on Netflix, and the cake did not get baked when I'd planned. I did have a full day left to bake and decorate though, and had a lot of fun in the process.

I used recipes from King Arthur Flour for the cake and cream cheese frosting. I used an adapted Wilton American buttercream recipe for the decorations, as I was concerned with piping the cream cheese frosting.

King Arthur Flour (KAF) has a recipe section on their website, and within that a collection of recipes called Favorite Classics. These recipes are described as "KAF Guaranteed", and they are rock solid. KAF is not the only source of exhaustively tested recipes. America's Test Kitchen (which publishes Cooks Illustrated and Cooks Country) is an obsessive tester, and I have also found very well tested recipes in Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible and Shirley Corriher's BakeWise.

What appeals to me in the KAF Guaranteed recipes is the predictability of their taste. Cooks Illustrated expects one to grind peanuts for the most peanuty Peanut Butter Cookies you can imagine, which are very good. KAF uses peanut butter alone, and you end up with cookies that taste as you expect them to, but better. I guess I'm saying that KAF recipes have a very broad appeal, which is exactly what I want as a starting point.

I made the simple Chocolate Cake. This recipe uses the paste or reverse creaming method, where the fat is mixed with the flour instead of being creamed with the sugar. I find it more predictable than creaming.

I used my digital scale to weigh the dry ingredients, which I highly recommend. I learned to measure like this in a bakery where I worked.

I put my mixer bowl on the scale and pressed the Tare button to set the weight to zero. This can also be called zeroing. I added the specified weight of flour, then pressed Tare again, and the scale was again reset to zero. I then measured the sugar right over the flour, and the scale only measured the amount of sugar I've added. I Tared the scale one more time, then added the cocoa.

I made a mistake here, and didn't sift my cocoa. My sifter is not really a sifter, but a fine mesh strainer, and my strainer was dirty. Cocoa, being a fine solid and a fat, clumps easily and persistent. It ended up being a lot of work to break up the cocoa with a whisk and my fingers, and I still would have done a better job with the sifter.

I added the leavening and salt and started the mixer with the whisk attachment to mix the dry ingredients. I then switched to the paddle and mixed in my very soft butter and oil.

I'd forgotten set my eggs out, so I put them in a bowl of hot water at this point. I put the bowl under a trickle of hot water from the tap to add some circulation.

I microwaved the milk for 60 seconds, which made it pretty hot, then added cold water from the refrigerator to bring the average temperature to lukewarm. Then I added the vanilla. I generally use artificial vanilla in baked goods and real vanilla extract in uncooked applications. All the liquid went in the mixer at once and was mixed. The eggs were then warm, so I added them as directed. Like many reverse-creamed cakes, the batter was very thin.

I prepared the pans with flour-oil spray and parchment rounds. The precut rounds are really handy if you're going to bake a lot of cakes.

The KAF recipe specifies the weight of the batter that goes in each pan, and it came out perfectly :-)

My father is very excited about the blog, so he bought me some Cake Strips (as well as the parchment rounds, and loaned me the cake pans. Thanks, Dad!). You can see how well they worked.

While the cakes cooled I made a double recipe of Cream Cheese Frosting. I learned in cake decorating class to always make more frosting than you think you will need. I mixed the room-temperature cream cheese to soften it, then mixed in the butter and real vanilla extract.

Based on my experience, I added the powdered sugar all at once. In my class we were told to buy 2 pound bags of Dominos pure powdered sugar, the amount needed for a double recipe of frosting, so we wouldn't have to measure. I started the mixer at the lowest speed to avoid recreating the set of Scarface (not that I've seen it), then increased the speed just a bit.

At this point the frosting looks terrible and my mixer is straining. I added milk, a tablespoon at a time, until it smoothed out.

I also made a buttercream, a recipe I will write about at another time.

To turn the cakes out of the pans, I put parchment circles on top of each cake, sandwiched the pan between two wire racks, and flipped them. I flipped them again and leveled the cakes. As noted before, they were already pretty level, but I wanted to be extra careful. Plus, the cake tops with some leftover frosting make a wonderful treat for the baker :-)

I spread some frosting on a 10-inch cake round to anchor the cake, and placed the first layer, cut side down. I frosted generously (it's all about the icing, remember?) then placed the second layer, again cut side down. I did this because it is almost impossible to frost the cut side of a cake without a lot of crumbs in the icing. After frosting the whole cake generously, I put it in the refrigerator to set.

I worked on the decorations next. I was planning to make some daffodils (thus the yellow), but I quickly learned that one should not try to make ambitious buttercream flowers in the dead of summer. So I went to my favorite and most successful flower, the rosette.

After I finished the rosettes I pulled the cake from the fridge and made handwriting guide lines with a pizza cutter, as well as a center line. I already knew from playing around that the middle of Happy Birthday falls in the middle of the first P and between the T and the H., so I started with those letters and worked out. Leah is a pretty easy name to center :-)

I placed the rosettes as evenly as I could and connected them with squiggles, then piped a simple line-and-dots bottom border.

Leah was happy with the cake AND she picked it up, so I didn't have to worry about delivering it without sliding!


  1. Best cake ever! The cake was so good,I (who am primarily a frosting fan) actually noticed it! Thank you so much for making me a yummy, cream cheese frosting, homemade cake for my birthday!