Tag Archives: Cake

Stout beer gingerbread cake

One day last fall, my spouse came home with five growlers of stout. How he got them is a long and boring story, but suffice it to say fridge space was at a premium for a while. I don’t drink beer, so I couldn’t help make a dent in the stash. Then, during dinner on Christmas Day, a friend mentioned she was craving gingerbread. A bit of quick Googling and easy baking later, and black beer gingerbread entered my life. Now, whenever my husband brings home stout while the weather’s chilly, I make him set aside a bottle for baking.

This is gingerbread the way I like it: plush and cakey, bittersweet and spicy. The beer and molasses make it impenetrably dark brown, and lend a gruff bitterness underneath all the flour and sugar. (If you don’t want to use beer, black coffee makes a reasonable substitute.) I also up the ginger ante by using two types. The ground ginger gets whisked into the dry ingredients; the fresh ginger gets finely grated and gently warmed with the wet ingredients, so that its hot bite mellows and infuses throughout the cake. You could easily omit the fresh stuff and just use ground, though—the cake will still be plenty intense.

The first time I made this gingerbread, I baked it in a bundt pan, as instructed on Epicurious and Smitten Kitchen. But, like many commenters on both sites, I ran into problems: the cake stuck to the pan, and it cracked along the seams when I turned it out. It turns out that this gingerbread’s wonderful qualities—its stickiness and softness—make it tricky to bake in a tall, narrow pan. Fortunately, there’s a much better alternative: a 9×13 pan lined with parchment paper. The parchment eliminates any risk of sticking, and the shallow pan means the cake stays flat and sturdy.

When ready to serve, use the parchment to lift the gingerbread out of the pan, then dust the whole thing with powdered sugar and cut it into squares. And here lies the one caveat of a rectangular cake: you may need to warn people that they’re about to eat gingerbread, not brownies.

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Swedish(ish) sandwich cake

Last week, we were invited to a potluck called “Dinner of Lies.” The directive: bring a dish that looks like something other than what it actually is. I love a good food-challenge, and decided to scale a mountain that had been tempting me for a while. It was time to tackle the Swedish sandwich cake.

For those of you who don’t spend as much time falling down foodie rabbit holes as I do, the Swedish sandwich cake—or Smörgåstårta—is a savory cake where the layers are bread, the fillings are usually fishy, and the frosting is cream cheese. They’re elaborately (some might say garishly) decorated, the kind of thing you might have made for a blowout party in the 1970s. I decided to adapt that idea into a pretty, elegant cake…

sandwich cake finished sam camera

…that’s actually a multi-layered sandwich.

sandwich cake slice action

This was a PROJECT. Here’s how I tackled it, one element at a time (with pictures!):

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Whole orange bundt cake

You read that right. This is a cake that uses an entire orange. Two of them, actually–zest, pith, flesh, and all, blitzed into a chunky puree and folded right into the batter. It’s the orangiest orange cake I’ve ever had, and I’m pretty smitten.

I was introduced to the whole-orange cake idea when a friend texted me a photo of a recipe page in a magazine and challenged me to try it. The resulting cake was a hit: suffused with orange flavor and shot through with flecks of zest. But it was also a pain in the ass to make. It required beating egg whites and yolks separately, thus dirtying three bowls and a food processor by the time I’d finished. After we licked the cake plate clean, I stared at the sink full of dishes and decided to look for a better solution.

This version, which I found on Food52, checks all the boxes. It’s a snap to make, requiring one bowl plus a food processor or blender. It’s got an intensely orangey flavor, fragrant and slightly bitter, with lots of those chewy zest-flecks that I love. The texture is fluffy and moist, but still dense enough to qualify as a classic bundt cake. (I’ve taken to swapping out a bit of the butter for olive oil, both for flavor and to keep the cake from drying out after it’s cut.) It’s simple, attractive, just the kind of thing you want as an after-dinner treat when company’s over. I’ve even served it as a birthday cake, and it was greatly appreciated.

The original recipe calls for an orange juice glaze to top the cake. I use lemon juice instead, so that the crackly surface has some sharpness to contrast with the bittersweet cake underneath. And while I love the plain orange-ness of this cake, you could certainly use this as a canvas for all sorts of flavors. Maybe next time I’ll blitz some fresh rosemary or anise seeds in with the oranges, or swap out the vanilla extract for almond. And I haven’t yet tried this with other citrus–I suspect the recipe will require some tweaking–but will report back if I do.

whole orange bundt cake

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Chocolate sour cream bundt cake

This is my absolute number-one favorite chocolate cake. Hands down. And I say that as someone who usually thinks chocolate cake is a waste of chocolate. Oh, it’s tasty, no doubt, but between the flour and the butter and the sugar and the eggs, it’s often hard to taste the chocolate at all.

This cake is different. It’s a sour cream cake, the softest and plushest kind of cake there is. That means it can support a heaping helping of cocoa powder–amounts that would dry out a lesser cake. (I’ve actually increased the amount of cocoa in this cake since I started making it, and if anything I think the texture is better.) It’s also a hot water cake, which makes the texture even moister and helps draw out flavor, coffee-like, from the cocoa. And instead of a sickly-sweet buttercream frosting, it’s covered with dark chocolate ganache. What’s not to love?

In fact, this cake is so soft that I’ve had trouble with it falling apart if I take it out of the pan too soon. Most bundt cake recipes say you should cool the cake in the pan for exactly 10 minutes–no more, no less–before turning them out. When I do that, the cake slumps into a pile of delicious crumbs. I’ve found it’s best to wait a bit longer, until the sides of the cake pan are warm but not hot to the touch. That’s my cue that the cake has cooled enough to hold together, but not enough to cement itself to the pan.

When my family makes this cake, we use a standard-sized bundt pan and a demure drizzle of ganache over the top. The cake in the picture below was for a friend’s 30th birthday party, so I scaled up the recipe to fill my giant bundt pan and shellacked the entire surface with ganache. Honestly, do as you please–I’ve never seen someone turn up their nose at this cake.

chocolate-sour-cream-bundt-cake

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Pink lady cake with lemon cream cheese frosting

Some time over the past few years, I became the kind of person who likes making layer cakes. I still don’t quite understand it. Considering how scattered and slapdash I am in other parts of my life, it seems odd that I’d derive so much satisfaction from stacking cakes on top of each other and painting them with frosting. But I do. I really do.

I think a big part of it is the love. A layer cake might be the purest edible expression of love I know of. There’s absolutely no reason to make one except out of love for (yourself and) others. Layer cakes are celebration food, the thing you make when it’s time to shower love on someone. Even if you make a layer cake to celebrate yourself, you’ll still end up feeding it to people you love. It’s a project–a messy, multi-hour project–the kind of thing you wouldn’t undertake unless you really cared about the person or people whom you’re making it for. But if you like baking, making a layer cake is also a kind of therapy, a way of showing yourself some love while preparing to spread it to others.

This cake is the perfect example. I made it for Audrey’s birthday party, partly at her request and partly of my own initiative. She wanted Smitten Kitchen’s pink lady cake; I know how much she loves lemon, so I decided to give the frosting a lemon kick. It was the perfect cake for Audrey, who loves berries and lemon and gets impatient with chocolate. As it turned out, the strawberry flavor in the cake was incredibly subtle, so that the puckery lemon frosting stole the show. When she sliced into the cake, the layers revealed themselves to be a delicate purple-pink, the perfect color for a non-girly-girl who likes wearing pink.

But there was also some self-care in it for me. The planning of the cake was elaborate and specific, but creating it was a lazy breeze, a perfect excuse to spend the day indoors. I rolled out of bed in the morning, slapped the batter together and threw it in the oven, then went back to bed and did crossword puzzles until the layers were baked. While they cooled, I showered, ate brunch, and watched a nature documentary. I had a little bit of strawberry puree left over from making the cake layers, so I mixed myself a berryoska and sipped it while I frosted the cake. And then I brought it to the party, covered it in sprinkles, and presented it with great affection to the birthday girl.

pink lady cake slices

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Carrot cake with maple cream cheese frosting

I have found my perfect carrot cake.

Let me explain. Ever since I can remember, I’ve adored carrot cake. If someone were cruel enough to make me choose my favorite kind of cake, carrot cake would come out on top. The combination of cinnamon, carrot, and a rich moist crumb just does something to me. It’s homey, old-fashioned, a little retro, smelling of cool weekend afternoons in a warm kitchen with Mom and a mixing bowl. And, of course, there’s the frosting–cream cheese, always cream cheese, sweet and white and just gooey enough to be fun. A good carrot cake can get my juices going like almost nothing else.

But. As with so many other things I love, I’ve found myself getting picky over the years. There are a lot of mediocre carrot cakes out there. I don’t want a cake that tastes like a muffin, with big floppy crumbs and intermittent airy pockets. I don’t want health food carrot cake, heavy and dense and aggressive with the carrots. I don’t want raisins, or walnuts, or canned pineapple, or coconut flakes (coconut flakes? really?). And I definitely don’t want any of your “it’s just a delivery system for frosting” nonsense. If I wanted frosting, I’d eat frosting.

So what do I want? I want this cake, the one I made for my birthday last week. It’s fluffy and plush and almost melts away on the tongue. At the same time, it’s sturdy and spongy enough to stand up to the tip of a knife or the side of a fork. It’s beautifully fragrant, with cinnamon and orange and just the quietest, shyest whisper of olive oil. It’s that magic medium, sweet-but-not-too-sweet, with just enough brown sugar to make it unmistakably a dessert. It’s unbelievably moist, the kind of dewy moisture that only comes from brown sugar and olive oil working in tandem. And it’s first and foremost a carrot cake, with tiny orange strands threaded delicately through the brown batter.

Oh, and that frosting. That frosting. It’s a cream cheese frosting, all right–not even a slip of butter to fatten up the proceedings. Just cream cheese and powdered sugar, whipped until light and lush. I added a drizzle of dark maple syrup, too, for a boost of resiny sweetness. This is my favorite frosting I’ve ever made: just the right kind of sweet, thicker and tangier than its butter-based cousins, but no less creamy and wonderful when it’s clinging to a mass of cake.

carrot cake with maple cream cheese frosting

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Vanilla pudding cakes

It’s not often that I’m led astray by a recipe. This one was delicious, but misleading as all get-out.

The idea was so neat: for the vanilla-loving boyfriend’s birthday, make him a white version of a chocolate lava cake. The New York Times even had a recipe waiting to be tried–the accompanying article promised “a puddinglike center, weeping white chocolate.” But somewhere along the line, something went cattywompus.

The cake was delicious, all right–wobbling and bourbon-fragrant and almost flan-like in the middle–but it took weird turns at several points down the line. The batter was stretchy–like, bread dough stretchy–and there was way more than would yield the 10 mini-cakes the recipe said I would get. I fit it all into 12 cups in a muffin tin, but just barely, and even then they puffed unattractively over the edge. I suspect the intended effect was for the center to be more goo than flan, but I didn’t end up getting there, and for once I don’t think my incompetence was to blame.

I think I’ve figured out part of what went wrong: the batter was chilled too long, the recipe lied about the number of servings it made, and the baking time overshot the gushy-center sweet spot. I’ve tried to remedy some of this in the written recipe below. Whatever the case, these cakes are tasty: sweet and soft and unmistakably vanilla. Just don’t expect a lava cake, because this (sadly) isn’t one.

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