Monday, January 28, 2008


Professor's Chocolate Cake and Victoria Sponge with Ganache

It is evident that I have to make a New Year's Resolution, even though we are already nearing the end of the new year's first month. You see, I have made a terrible mistake twice...and on the same day. I acted recklessly and baked cakes either by ignoring instructions or by not questioning them. Today's post is a lesson in rebellion and how wilful obliteration of time-honoured and tested principles will not yield light and fluffy cakes. Because you are infinitely more intelligent than I am, you will not do as I did and buck against your nature, which, for me, is to act with restraint and consideration - practically virtues in the world of baking.

The Resolution: just do as baking instructions say - no questions!

I wanted to surprise a beloved aunt with a birthday cake. I know, I'm terribly sweet. If only I could have lived out my day's goal of being nephew par excellence. I was in a bit of a tizz deciding what to bake...definitely something rich but also something unexpected. I am not really an online recipe-searcher, preferring instead to reach into my trove of cookery books and food magazines. I pulled out the magazines several days before the birthday celebration and got side-tracked re-reading articles and creating lists of restaurants to go to when I am next in the US. I decided looking through them was not a good idea and turned to the index of every cookery book I could get my hands on.

I chanced upon a previously unnoticed recipe for the Professor's Chocolate Cake in Beatrice Ojakangas' Scandinavian Feasts. Known as Professorin Suklaakakku in Finland and Professorns Chokladkaka in Sweden, Professor's Chocolate Cake is so-named because it is meant to appeal to "educated tastes." I suppose this comes from the density and gooey interior of the cake, different to traditional sponge-based cakes, which I turn to later in this post.

The first error rests with not clicking to the facts of the low amount of flour and the lack of baking powder. Somehow I had it in my mind that I would produce a generous-looking cake, overflowing with chocolate goodness - the properties of any respectful birthday cake. Alas, it was squat and more like a brownie than a cake. And this is how it was meant to turn out, I suppose. Perhaps directly translating it as a "cake" was a bit misleading, but I really should have thought about the ingredients and what they would produce before launching head-first (without brain) into it.

The Professor's Chocolate Cake (or Chocolate and Walnut Brownie)
(from Beatrice Ojakangas' Scandinavian Feasts)

180g/6oz 70% dark chocolate (recipe specifies semisweet)
170g/6oz unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
3 eggs, separated
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 chopped walnuts (filberts or pecans will also do)
1 tablespoon instant coffee
icing sugar, for garnish (optional)

1) Preheat oven to 180 C/350 F and prepare (butter and flour) a 23cm/9" springform cake pan.
2) In a small saucepan, melt chocolate, butter and sugar together, then set aside to cool.
3) In a stainless steel bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff (drier than soft peaks).
4) Stir egg yolks into the melted chocolate mixture.
5) Add flour, walnuts and coffee before folding in the egg whites.
6) Pour into the cake pan and bake for 35-40 minutes. This will be slightly gooey in the centre, so it will not completely pass the toothpick test, but you don't want the toothpick to come out all wet.
7) Once cooled, sift icing sugar over the "cake," if so desired.

In my mind I had concocted a gorgeous chocolate cake over which I was going to further celebrate with a ganache. You can imagine my surprise when a low-lying excuse of a cake came out of the oven. And after it had cooled down, it collapsed further. Bugger. Then the wheels turned and I realised I had been foolish to not look at the ratio of ingredients. Furthermore, the walnuts should have been more chopped, though not finely, for the "cake" did not easily cut into uniform wedges. If I had known that this would be a brownie, I would have been ecstatic with the result. The richness of the chocolate fills every mouthful; it is all things a brownie should be.

However, Professor's Chocolate Cake was not the birthday cake of my imagination, so, with some time still to spare, I set about baking something traditional: Victoria Sponge. These are the birthday cakes of my childhood. Soft, fluffy cakes with billowy cream and generous spoonfuls of delectable jam. I always preferred it to chocolate cake as a kid, a jam-connoisseur from way back. (Making jam is on my list of things "to do," but at the rate I'm going - disavowing conventional wisdom, the subject of this post - that should not happen until I have my sensible head back on again.)

A Victoria Sponge is a breeze to make providing you divide the batter into two pans, although Nigella Lawson does not say why this must be. This is no excuse, however, to put the batter into one pan. I have now been reminded that what happens with all cakes is that they collapse a bit as they cool down. Why this oft-witnessed act was effaced from memory at the time of my laziness, I do not know. I was acting as though I knew what I was doing, like I'd seen it all before. I also made a blunder with the flour, which is supposed to be self-rising flour. I just used all-purpose flour without adding 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 tablespoon of salt per cup of all-purpose flour to create a likeness. Finally, it seems that the idea of dividing the batter is so that it can rise as high as is possible given the little placed into each pan. The objective is to create a fluffy-as-can-be sponge. Not a cake.

A ganache was made with semisweet chocolate, as I had envisioned it for the Professor's Chocolate Cake, when in hindsight it should have been made of dark chocolate in order to create a greater and richer contrast to the "sponge." Also, I played with the ganache too much when I should have just let it melt without my help. I should only have whisked it once it had cooled and set up a bit (per Linda Carucci). Nigella was a bit vague there, probably because she had made it a million times with great success, although mine looks like hers does in the photo for her Boston Cream Pie. I have seen ganache made a million times with great success but had not made it myself...All I had witnessed, again, went out the window as I merrily went on with my whisk-happy self. I think the reason for leaving the ganache alone is to prevent the appearance of little air pockets that will get trapped and create an effect resembling a chip in a windscreen...As you see below, I had many a chip in the glass screen of my ganache.

Victoria Sponge
(from Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess)

125g/8oz unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 eggs
1 1/3 cups self-rising cake flour (see above note if you only have all-purpose), sifted
2 tablespoons cornflour
(1 teaspoon baking powder, do not add this if you are making this with a food processor)
3-4 tablespoons milk
4 heaped tablespoons of jam (I used black cherry jam)
1/2 cup cream/heavy cream

1) Preheat oven to 180 C/350 F and prepare two 20cm/8" cake pans (best done, in this case, with the aid of parchment or wax paper).
2) Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, then add the vanilla extract.
3) Add one egg at a time, but between each egg add one tablespoon of flour.
4) Fold in the remainder of the flour and the cornflour until fully incorporated.
5) Add as much milk as necessary to bind to a dropping consistency.
6) Pour into prepared cake pans and level with a butter knife or palette knife/offset spatula.
7) Bake for approximately 25 minutes, when the cakes should be pulling away from the edges. The sponge will pass the "toothpick/skewer test."
8) Turn out of pans after sponges have rested on a wire rack for about ten minutes, then leave them to cool completely.
9) Once cooled, put the jam on the top of one of the sponges.
10) Whip the heavy cream until voluptuous and billowy, then scrape it out on top of the jam.
11) Top with the other sponge. You can sprinkle sugar on top, if you so please, or make a ganache.

(from Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess)

1/2 cup cream/heavy cream
1 teaspooon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
150g/5oz semisweet chocolate (Ms. Lawson actually recommends dark/bittersweet), chopped into little pieces

1) Warm all of the ingredients in a saucepan over low heat.
2) Bring to the boil (bubbling around the edges; the chocolate should have melted by this point), then remove from the heat.
3) Whisk until smooth and thick.
4) Leave to cool before spooning over the Victoria Sponge. Don't let it set entirely because you need to pour it over the cake, but once it has been spooned over the cake you can let it set properly.

As you can see, my sponge did not fluff up (for lack of a better expression). This is not as I had hoped, but all fault rests on my unbalanced shoulders, tipping too much under the weight of my fallibility. Though delicious (what could not be with such glorious ingredients...especially the divine French black cherry jam), I am not content and vow to you that I will not act without reservation again. There is something to be said about thought and consideration, especially when it comes to baking. You really cannot just do as you please unless you understand the principles behind the methods of preparation. If an author does not give all the information, don't do as I did and just make it up. Stop and do some cross-referencing, or follow the recipes exactly.

Lessons learned.

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Oh Shaun, you sound exactly like me when it comes to baking. I always say to myself, who do I think I am Julia Child? For instance, a month or so ago I did a no knead bread - OK, Cooks Illustrated held your hand step by step - I followed to the tee, so I thought. My dough was so runny my first go round that there was no way it was going to work. Long story short, I forgot 1/2 of the flour!!!! OK, so I was sipping a glass of wine and booging down to Dave Mathews Band while having fun in the kitchen - ah, there lies the rub! Pay attention Deb! I have a friend who bakes very well and he say in cooking you can forget, alter, substitute...but in baking you have to be precise. He is absolutely correct. That is why I am a cook, not a baker...but you my friend, I think these cakes look terrific, especially the first one! And the second one..I would be very proud to recieve it as my birthday cake! Don't be too hard on yourself, live, learn and most of all, have fun doing it!
My mother always taught me - recipes are only a guide EXCEPT when it comes to baking. As a student I learnt to skim read the main bit of articles for study and I have transposed that into my daily life. I think I make up half the articles I retell from the newspaper as I don't always follow the detail. Same with baking. I vow to do better next time but do I ever learn? No. Will I ever learn? Probably not :-( I'm sure your aunt enjoyed your work, though. Did I mention I LOVE chocolate cake as a birthday cake. PS - My birthday is in May :-)
Dear Shaun,
Two cakes in one day is considered a good day for me, even if they didn't quite turn out the way you anticipated. I am sure that your aunt enjoyed her birthday cake(s). I do agree with all the lessons you've learnt. It's a delicious way to learn a few lessons :-)

It's nice to return to your blog with many posts to catch up with. I've been away on vacation to Tasmania, such a wonderful place! Since I've not been to NZ before, I don't know if it's similar to some parts of NZ since it produces similar cool-climate wines. It did remind me of BC (Canada) though. The downside of Tasmania was the lack of diversity in terms of the cultural influences & cuisine. But it more than makes it up for it with the wonderful mountains, rivers, all that wonderful outdoor activities. And of course the fresh seafood.

Oh, a happy belated birthday!!! I just read your previous post. I would have had more than two martinis ;-) The birthday tart looks incredibly delicious, so it was worth the effort. I've given up making pastry by hand after discovering the food processor produces better pastry than I do (i know when to admit defeat). But I did make pastry by hand a few weeks ago while in Singapore because Mom didn't have a food processor.

i better stop, this is turning out to be a really long "comment"! I'll drop you an e-mail next time. :-)

x Nora
Oh my dearest Shaun...

I feel for you...truly. If I were there I'd come right over to help dispose of the evidence...and help you bake for Auntie...


These are "live & learn" cakes, Shaun. Perhaps not party perfect, but tasty nonetheless. We've all gone through them. It's only b/c we've had our flubs that we earn our skills along the way. In time, it will be second nature to size up a recipe w/out it standing in the way of your enthusiasm. We all want that cake baked and decorated; it's second nature, too. ; )
You are a trooper Shaun and your cakes will get better because you don't give up - you jumped right in and attempted another cake. You get props for that.
Dear Shaun,

Baking is all chemistry... and I never took Chemistry, but I love baking. Everything affects the results, from the ingredients to temperature, even altitude. I have rarely baked the same thing twice with the same results. Fortunately, this rarely "ruins" the dish!

But I understand how exacting standards make even the smallest fete a feat of culinary wizardry. I still aspire... ;)
Deb ~ Drinking and baking is probably a dangerous combination, besides, I don't need to drink to make mistakes! I'm glad that everyone who has commented sounds like they have learned from similar mistakes. I'm glad to have gained a good brownie recipe out of this, though, and I have learned how to improve upon a Victoria sponge, so all is definitely not lost.

Anthony ~ I have taken the hint that you would like a chocolate cake in May. I suppose, then, that you'll be coming to New Zealand to collect it? :-p I don't have a good chocolate cake in my repertoir, so it might be time I did some investigation into that.

Nora B. ~ Thank you for your sweet message. I, too, can get rather babbly, so don't worry about its length - it was a pleasure to read.

I have never been to Tasmania, but I have heard that they have really thriving cherry orchards. The dried sour cherries that are exported are said to be very good.
Haven't seen any during my hunting around...They'd be perfect for a few Georigian recipes I want to try out.

It is great that you are so adaptable and make pastry both by machine and hand. I tend to do it by machine if the pastry calls for cocoa or chocolate because one's hands end up rather messy.

Jasmine, honey ~ It would have been a dream to have had your assistance...I hope you're around for the next baking disaster! Fortunately the Victoria spong turned out alright.

Susan, lovie ~ Indeed, I feel that I have now learned many a lesson and would like a bit of a break. I serves me right for trying something new for an occasion anyway. I tend to be able to get through if I cook something new for a crowd, but baking requires something different altogether. Perhaps that in itself is a lesson enough?

Cynthia ~ Lovely to see you here again. Well, I'm not really much of a quitter, even if the odds are against me. Sometimes I wish I had quit, but I wouldn't be who I am without the "good college try." At least these two recipes won't be too unfamilar now, and I'm already wanting to make my new favourite "brownie" recipe.

Suzanne, sweetheart ~ I miss your baking! How great your breads and cookies are (not that you made cookies that often, actually...). Yes, the baking process is almost completely defined by the environment, and most of the time things do work out. This is just one of those times when I was unwittingly conspiring against myself. I also aspire...
I loved this post - very honest and informative - I have learnt a lot from my mistakes in the kitchen - and they are many! But the important ingredient is love and yours seemed full of it :-)
Johanna ~ This blog has many purposes, not only does it document the myriad ways of using ingredients but is a forum for venting culinary mishaps. I know I'm not the only one, so I'm glad many readers have been down this path before me. At least there were a few lessons gained during the process of making these cakes.





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