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I suspect I can speak for most people, certainly most women, when I tell you that I can’t imagine life without chocolate cake. A good chocolate cake is, simply put, a joy. Although there are numerous varieties of chocolate cakes (angel food, pound, and flourless, to name a few), for this article we’ll concentrate on that childhood favorite of mine: the classic chocolate cake. This cake graces tables as stacked layers, in a rectangular 13 by 9 pan, in a sheet pan, as cupcakes, etc. But I’m talking about a butter- or oil-based cake here, baked in a shallower pan (as opposed to a tube pan or springform), containing a significant amount of either all-purpose or cake flour.
While it’s true that various forms of cakes have been around for many centuries, the classic chocolate cake is a much more recent invention. Unsweetened chocolate was introduced to America around 1765, and unsweetened cocoa powder, not before 1828. But baking a chocolate cake involves more than just choosing chocolate or cocoa powder as a flavoring agent. Many of the ingredients we take for granted today were out of reach of home bakers, either in price or availability or both, until more modern times.
In A Piece of Cake, Susan G. Purdy discusses the history of cakes and typical cake ingredients, equipment, and techniques. Sugar was an expensive luxury until after the Napoleonic era. Chemical leavenings, such as baking powder and baking soda, were not sold commercially until the mid-1800’s. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that wheat flour became widely available and economical enough for home bakers. Standardized and precise measurements, which we deem so necessary for successful baking, were not used before Fanny Farmer published The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book in 1896 (at her own expense, no less). Heat-regulating thermostats in ovens were not common, if they were available at all, into the 1920’s; oven temperature was gauged by how long the baker could leave her hand in the oven. Truly, for those who love their chocolates cakes (and any other baked goods), there is much to be grateful for today.
I have had people ask me whether unsweetened chocolate or unsweetened cocoa powder makes a better chocolate cake. I never know how to answer that question, because, as with so many other issues involving chocolate, I believe it all comes down to taste preferences. I enjoy chocolate cakes made with either flavoring agent, but I think they might be even better in combination. I haven’t tried this for myself with a cake, but I know that my favorite brownie recipe uses unsweetened chocolate, semisweet chocolate, and unsweetened cocoa powder. All of those forms of Theobroma cacao offer different flavor notes, and I find the combination of the three hard to beat. In addition, I have had chocolate sorbets and ice creams made with both unsweetened chocolate and unsweetened cocoa powder, and I find them superior to those made with just one chocolate flavor source.
Speaking of unsweetened cocoa powder, you’ll find both non-alkalized and alkalized available (alkalized cocoa powder is sometimes called “Dutch process”). If you’re not familiar with Dutch process cocoa powder, it’s been treated with alkaline. That sounds terrible, I know, but it really isn’t. The treatment changes the cocoa’s color somewhat, and it also changes the way it incorporates into a batter (more easily, as a rule); in addition, “Dutching”, as it’s called, alters the cocoa powder’s pH. Don’t worry---I’m not going to get too technical on you here, but I will tell you that, in cake recipes containing chemical leavening, substituting alkalized cocoa powder for non-alkalized, or vice versa, will change your cake, and you might not be thrilled with the results. If a recipe with baking powder or baking soda (or both) calls for one type of cocoa powder or the other, it’s better not to substitute unless you really know your way around ingredients.
Dutch process cocoa powder has fallen out of favor in recent years. Some celebrity chefs have scoffed that Dutching is done to cover up inferior quality cocoa beans, and, typically, such remarks have been treated as gospel. Too bad. I happen to like alkalized cocoa powder. I like the way it incorporates into food systems more readily, I think it brings a more chocolatey taste to baked goods, and I like the flavor better than that of non-alkalized cocoa powder. But a decent Dutch process cocoa can be difficult to find in a supermarket. The most famous chocolate-maker in the state of Pennsylvania offers such a cocoa powder, or used to, but unfortunately they elevated the sodium level in it to a ridiculous degree a few years ago, so I have to work with other brands. However, a little looking around in specialty catalogs or websites will yield several sources with minimal effort. Again, this is all a matter of what you like; just take care to buy a brand with a very low sodium content.
Water or milk? No, that’s not a question regarding what you like to drink with your chocolate cake. Rather, it’s about the liquid you use in making a cake. Rose Levy Beranbaum, in The Cake Bible, states that, “…in a chocolate layer cake, milk protein brings out the bitterness in chocolate and ties up flavor---whereas water allows for quick release of full chocolate flavor.” Note that this does not hold true for sour cream, as the increased fat content in sour cream (as opposed to that in milk, even whole milk) acts as an excellent flavor carrier. I have never heard anyone else espouse this theory, and I don’t know if it’s true or not. Over time, however, I have come to prefer chocolate cakes made with water, sour cream, or buttermilk, rather than milk, as the chief liquid source.
Making a classic chocolate cake used to involve many separate steps. You had to cream the butter and sugar together, gradually add the eggs and melted chocolate (if you used it), sift together the dry ingredients (including any cocoa powder used), and add them alternately with a liquid to the batter at low speed. I believe it was in the 1960’s that “one bowl” cakes came into fashion, in which all of the ingredients were placed in one bowl and beaten together for a couple of minutes (many of these cakes used vegetable shortening or oil instead of butter). These “one bowl” cakes are still popular today and are, as you might guess, the guiding principle behind cake mixes.
Ah, yes. Cake mixes. With very few exceptions, I am absolutely opposed to the use of cake mixes. Yes, they’re quick and easy. Unfortunately, the end product never tastes very good, even if the mixes are “doctored”. And the mixes tend to be full of junk ingredients. Trust me; you already ingest enough of those from other sources. If you think you don’t have time to bake a cake from scratch, you might be surprised. Today’s most popular “one bowl” cake is Wacky Cake, sometimes called Crazy Mixed Up Chocolate Cake or something similar. Essentially, you dump the dry ingredients into a bowl, mix the liquid ingredients in a second bowl, add the liquid ingredients to the dry, and mix until blended. The batter is poured into a rectangular pan and baked; you cool it in the pan and serve it from the pan. You don’t even need a handheld electric mixer to make this. Wacky Cake isn’t suitable for every occasion, but it’ll taste better than most cakes made from a mix, and there won’t be any questionable ingredients in it.
Individually-portioned microwave chocolate cakes were introduced a few years back, and my understanding is that they’ve gained great favor in some quarters. Alas, like cake mixes, most of the brands you can find contain junk ingredients. That’s a shame, because mini microwaveable chocolate cakes are even easier to whip up than Wacky Cake. Technically, this isn’t real baking, which you can’t do in the microwave. But for speed and convenience, these are hard to beat. And sometimes, a girl just needs chocolate cake right away! A recipe for these cakes is included below.
How about sources for recipes? I have a disgraceful number of books devoted to baking, but if I need a cake recipe I automatically reach for two of them before any others. The first is Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1977). The second is Susan G. Purdy’s A Piece of Cake (Atheneum: New York, 1989). Both are packed with all kinds of outstanding cake recipes and tips. I also have Tish Boyle’s The Cake Book (John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ, 2006), but, although the recipes look beautiful, I haven’t done much baking from it. Of course, if you have a favorite online source, that’s fine, too.
Frosted or plain, cupcake or layer cake, a classic chocolate cake is sure to make everyone’s day a little brighter. And given the speed with which these cakes can be made, even the busiest people can manage to fit baking a cake into their crowded schedules. Time’s a-wastin’; go bake a cake!
Microwave Mini Wacky Cakes
Serve these after a light meal. You can use either alkalized or non-alkalized cocoa powder, as long as the cocoa powder is unsweetened. When cooking, these rise up to the tops of their containers, then settle back unevenly during the standing period. These are not the prettiest cakes you’ll ever see, but that’s a fine excuse to top them with lightly sweetened whipped cream, good ice cream, or even fresh fruit (raspberries or sliced strawberries would be a great choice).
My microwave is 1100 watts and has a turntable. As is typical for microwaves, your cooking time may vary. I place each cake at opposite ends of the turntable, most of the way out to its edge. If you don’t have a turntable, I’d cook the cakes for about 30 seconds, then carefully and quickly exchange their positions and rotate the dishes before continuing to cook them.
If you want to make these more decadent, drizzle the tops with slightly warmed caramel or chocolate sauce before topping in whipped cream. Or unwrap two to four individual chocolate-covered caramels, chocolate kisses, or mini-sized candy bars (fun size bars are too large). Once the cakes are cooked, drop one or two caramels or kisses or minis into the center and quickly press down into the hot cakes. Make sure you allow the cakes to stand for four or five minutes before consuming them! The chocolate will melt, and you’ll have much less risk of burning your mouth. Top with whipped cream just before serving. You can also drop ten or twelve chocolate chips into the center of each cooked cake, but if you push them down with a fingertip, you’ll risk burning your finger. Be very careful, or use a spoon handle or toothpick.
1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour (whisk or fork-stir to aerate before measuring, then spoon lightly into cup and level off)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder (see Notes)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Few grains of salt (see Notes)
1/3 cup water
3 Tablespoons tasteless vegetable oil (such as canola oil)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon white vinegar
Have ready two microwaveable porcelain or glass ramekins, each of 10 ounce capacity (mine have a top diameter of 4.25 inches, a bottom diameter of 3.75 inches, and a height of 2 inches). You can use clear or white ramekins, but if they are black, the cakes, which are dark, won’t looked as good). Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. With a small whisk, stir well to combine (if you don’t have a whisk, you can use a fork). If your cocoa powder is a bit lumpy, press out the lumps with the back of a spoon.
In another small bowl, beat together the water, oil, vanilla, and vinegar with a fork until well-blended. All at once, add to dry ingredients.
With a small whisk, whisk briskly to combine ingredients well, stopping to scrape down sides and bottom of bowl with a rubber spatula once or twice. If you don’t have a small whisk, a fork will work, too. The batter will be thin, and a few small lumps in it are OK; press out any large lumps with the rubber spatula.
Divide batter evenly between the ramekins. Place each ramekin into the microwave and cook for 1 minute to 1 minute and 10 seconds on High power. The lesser amount of cooking time will leave some uncooked batter around the edges as a sort of sauce. If you like your cake more well done, simply cook it for a few seconds longer.
After the 60 to 70 second cooking time, if you’re going to add mini candy bars, chocolate chips, etc., drop them into the center of the cooked cakes, then quickly and carefully push them down (if you use two mini candy bars, they should be side by side, rather than one atop the other). ALLOW COOKED CAKES TO STAND FOR FOUR TO FIVE MINUTES (whether you add any candy bars or not). Remove from microwave.
Top each cake with desired sauce or topping and serve while warm.
2 mini cakes
---If you like a less sweet cake, use up to 1 Tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cocoa powder. I use 1 Tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon.
---I really mean a few grains here, much less than 1/8 teaspoon. The cakes don’t need any more than that.
Naturally Nora All-Natural Baking Mixes
If you’ve read the article attached to this recommendation, you know I simply won’t use most cake mixes. They’re full of junk ingredients and turn out products that taste phony. There are a couple of brands available that do better with ingredients, but the resulting cakes still don’t taste especially good. Naturally Nora, however, has managed to get both parts of the equation correct. You’ll find no artificial colors or flavors or preservatives in these mixes, no hydrogenated oils. These products are certified kosher; none of the cake mixes or frosting mixes contain dairy or soy. If you or a loved one cannot have certain ingredients with which a cake mix or frosting mix is traditionally made (butter, eggs, or milk), Naturally Nora cake and frosting mixes will still work well with substitutions (see the website).
Best of all, these cakes and their frostings have good, genuine flavors. In a cake mix, that’s an achievement bordering on the miraculous! I’ve tried the Sunny Yellow and Cheerful Chocolate Cake Mixes, frosted with the Extraordinary Vanilla and Cheerful Chocolate Frosting Mixes respectively, and I’m here to tell you that you can’t go wrong with either one (OK, so, all of the frosting didn’t make it onto the cakes. Is there a problem here?). Naturally Nora also offers an
Alot’a Dots Cake Mix (with those little colored sprinkles so popular in cakes these days) and a frosting mix designed to go with it. New additions include two brownie mixes, Spectacular Sugar Cookie Mix, and Marvelous Chocolate Chunk Cookie Mix. Retail distribution is somewhat limited, but you can also find these mixes at Amazon.com. For complete details, head over to www.naturallynora.com.
Kari’s Malva Pudding
Kari’s what, I hear you say? And why am I writing about a pudding when the rest of this article has been about cake? Malva pudding is a traditional South African dessert of Dutch origin. Most people in the US associate pudding with a creamy, milk-based, thickened custard, but Malva pudding is much more like a moist cake in texture, hence its inclusion here. Kari’s Malva Pudding, available in Original and Chocolate, is made from all-natural ingredients (no preservatives or artificial colors or flavors). The eggs used for this dessert are made from local hens who never see the inside of a cage and fresh apricot jam (from the local Farmers’ Market, no less) with nary a drop of corn syrup.
Kari’s Malva Pudding is sold frozen, but it’s child’s play to defrost and reheat. I’ve tried the Chocolate variety cold, at room temperature, and heated, plain and adorned, and I really think the best way to serve this dessert is the one suggested on the website: warm, with a little ice cream on the side. I haven’t tried the Original, but the Chocolate really does taste like chocolate. It’s rich, but not heavy, and there’s definitely a caramel note to it. Incidentally, if a little syrup leaks out during shipping, as sometimes happens, the dessert will still be just fine. I was a bit concerned when my puddings arrived with slightly sticky exterior cartons, but the pudding was absolutely not affected. With the admirable slogan “If you are going to have dessert, really do it!”, Kari’s Malva Pudding is available in limited retail locations in California, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada. If you do not live in one of these states, no fear; the puddings can be shipped to your very door via the wonders of the internet. Surf over to www.malvapudding.com for further information.
Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.