Thanks to Niko from Damn Cute Bunnies (I love that) for sending in her particular Mona Lisa, Double Chocolate Layer Cake. Apparently, some have claimed it to be the Best Cake in the Hinternet. Not that she’s mystified necessarily, but she wants to know if this will turn out to be a good cake–if it is balanced and all the ratios are correct and all the other Cakey Scientific things.
Well, I am quite a fan of Cake, so I thought I would Go the Distance and check out this Storied Gateau. I won’t print the recipe here, mainly because the link is up there. See it? I clicked on the link Niko sent and printed the recipe off, the better to Look at it. And we’re off. First, I’m gonna split up the ingredients this way (the ingredients in parentheses don’t really count for this part, since their measurements are so small):
- Liquids=1 1/2 cups coffee + 1 1/2 cups buttermilk + (3/4 tsp vanilla) + 3 egg whites
- Dry=3 cups sugar (sometimes sugar is considered a liquid, but not in the mixing method this cake prescribes) + 1 1/2 cups unsweetened, not Dutch process cocoa powder + chocolate liquor from the 3 oz. of chocolate + 2 1/2 cups flour + (2 tsp baking soda) + (3/4 tsp baking powder) + (1 1/4 tsp. salt)
- Fat=3/4 cups vegetable oil + 3 egg yolks + cocoa butter in the 3 oz. of chocolate
- Chocolate (dry + fat)= 3 oz. semisweet
My first thought when I looked at the leavening was, “Whoa, 2 teaspoons of baking soda?!” Friends, in a “normal” cake, it takes 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda to leaven 1 cup of flour. Baking soda is Powerful. Since I don’t see 8 cups of flour, and even when I add in the 1 1/2 cups of cocoa powder I only get 4 cups, there has to be another reason for that much soda. There is. Baking soda is a base–it’s probably one of the most basic ingredients in your kitchen, unless you have some lye ly(e)ing around. It has a pH of about 9 (7 is neutral, if you are far away from your chemistry class in space and/or time and/or care). And look at all those acidic ingredients: coffee, chocolate, buttermilk and non-Dutch processed (non-alkalyzed) cocoa powder! Heavens. So, the extra 1 teaspoon of soda is basically in there to neutralize the acidity of all of those ingredients, bringing everything nicely more-or-less in balance again. Then, the baking powder does its leavening thing, but not by much–there’s only 3/4 teaspoon, and baking powder is generally used 1 tsp to 1 cup of flour. In this cake, the soda is definitely doing most of the leavening work. By the way, slightly acidic batters will set more quickly, so trying to substitute Dutch process cocoa (neutral pH) for the regular (acidic) will only result in a cake pan of hot pudding and despair. Unless you want to eat your cake with a spoon. Which probably wouldn’t suck, unless you wanted to actually slice it.
Now, I’m going to split them up between tougheners/driers and tenderizers/moisteners. Watch this:
- Tougheners/Driers=2 1/2 cups flour + 1 1/2 cups cocoa powder + 3 egg whites + chocolate liquor in the 3 oz. of chocolate
- Tenderizers/Moisteners=1 1/2 cups coffee + 3 cups sugar + 3 egg yolks + 3/4 cups vegetable oil + 1 1/2 cups buttermilk + cocoa butter in the 3 oz. of chocolate
If you take a look at the two types of ingredients, you’ll see that there are waaay more tenderizers than there are tougheners. So, right away you know that this is going to be an ooey, gooey cake. Since it is decidedly heavier on the tenderizers, it is not technically “in balance.” Think of traditional pound cake as truly balanced: one pound each of flour, sugar, eggs and butter. Most of us haven’t really had a traditional pound cake. Neither have I, but Shirley tells me that they aren’t very sweet and are kind of dry with a very tight crumb. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t want even a pretender to the throne of the Best Cake in the Hinternet to fit that description. I’m all for moist and sweet when it comes to chocolate cake.
So, after I split up the ingredients and Looked at them, I broke down the mixing method. I Distilled it. Here it is:
Step Zero: Combine hot coffee and chocolate. Stir until smooth. Roger that.
- Whisk dry ingredients, including sugar together. This sounds like the start of the two-stage method. Let’s see what comes next.
- Whip eggs until pale and light. This is kind of like the egg foam method. What is going on?
- Slowly add all the wet ingredients, including the coffee mixture, to the eggs. Beat well to combine. Huh. My first thought was, “Why am I taking the trouble to whip the three eggs when I’m just going to be deflating them by pouring in almost 4 cups of liquid?” Maybe the answer is “because they told me to,” but that is an answer that will just keep us in the Dark.
- Beat in the dry ingredients, including the sugar. Wow, that’s 7-ish cups of stuff to beat in.
- Bake at 300F for an hour or so until done. Low oven=gentle heat. Maybe because this cake is baked in 10″ pans the heat is lower so the outside doesn’t get hard and crusty/burny before the insides have had a chance to set.
So, what they want you to do is whip the eggs, slowly add in all the liquid and then add in the dry ingredients. Pretty much it’s just three steps. Honestly, the only reason I can think of that they’d do it this way is to distribute the emulsifiers (lecithin) in the egg evenly. Since they want us to add liquid next, perhaps even distribution of the lecithin helps to maintain an emulsion when you add in all that liquid. It’s a thought, but I don’t really know the answer.
Let’s go with the emulsion theory; I rather like it–but if anyone would like to put forth an Alternate Reason, please do so. Once we have our emulsion of liquidy/fatty items, we’ll beat in the dry ingredients until well combined. In a weird sort of way, this is like the Muffin Method, but with more mixing of the dry ingredients. Interesting. But does that mean we can’t use a different method? Probably not.
Step Zero from above
- cream oil and sugar (it won’t get light and fluffy because the oil isn’t plastic)
- whisk all dry together
- whisk all wet together
- alternate, beginning and ending with dry
Step Zero from above
- whisk all dry, including sugar, together really, really well.
- whisk together oil, eggs and chocolate mixture. Beat into dry for 2 minutes or so.
- add the buttermilk in 3 additions, mixing for about 20 seconds between each addition
If I have left you confused by all of this blithering, just know that you can apply 3 different mixing methods to the same list of ingredients. The method you choose depends on the results you’re looking for. I am hoping that that is a liberating Thing to Know. I’d go with the creaming method for a sturdier cake (more gluten formation because the flour isn’t coated with the fat at the beginning), the two-stage method for a more tender cake (dry ingredients get coated with the oil at the beginning, limiting gluten production) or the hybrid muffin method that came with the recipe to achieve, and I quote, “…[a] chocolate cake [that] made our staff swoon!”–Epicurious
I’m tired now. I apologize to those of you whose eyes crossed halfway through. I apologize to those of you who wanted more complete science. And to those of you who are beaming right now, you’re welcome.
PS If anyone would like me to break down their own Mona Lisa, keep those cards and letters coming.