Saturday, October 31, 2009


Chocolate: Cookies & Cake

Last month I shared with you my enjoyment for baking, which is often curbed by not having softened butter at the exact moment I want to bake. Twice this month, I was smart enough to leave unsalted butter out on the kitchen island over night, preparing me for baking in the morning.

I'm not really a baker, though. Sure, I can knock out pastry shells in a breeze (mostly) and cakes are generally problem-free, but I lack finesse when it comes to decorating cakes or dealing with small baked goods. Most cakes I make are not frosted or decorated in any other way, and I have never really handled cookie dough - why go to so much trouble when they are so cheap to buy? I suppose with making them yourself, you can design your own cookies, for not every cookie is available at the supermarket or your local bakery. Also, one cannot have a true appreciation for such things without understanding the process.

Like most human beings, my angelheart Eric and I favour chocolate cookies. If all cookie manufacturers were to go out of business, the last cookie off the production line in the western world would probably be a variety of chocolate cookie. It must not come, therefore, as a surprise to anyone that my second ever attempt at making cookies (the first were vanilla shortbread made 4 or 5 years ago!) is a chocolate cookie, one that was presented by Martha Stewart in a recent publication of her peerless lifestyle magazine, Martha Stewart Living. The recipe was not especially highlighted, but it captured my attention because I could sense that behind its apparent simplicity was a depth of flavour.

Dark-Chocolate Cookies from Martha Stewart Living, July 2009. (Click on the link to take you to the recipe.)

I did not divert from the recipe, really, but as I am not a cookie maker, I had to improvise with utensils to stand in for cookie cutters (which would have made life easy because they are sharp and cut through dough without any issues), and I let the cookies cook 30 seconds longer than I should have - the nose knows, after all. I was impatient with the filling and whipped it for volume, but it still ran, as you can see in the photo above. All of this in mind, the only things I would think of doing next time around are:
1) Add a tablespoon of finely ground coffee or instant coffee granules to the dough;
2) Roll the dough out thicker (Martha did give instructions, but it is hard to work this out by sight); and
3) Add brandy to the filling.

Like cookie dough, I'm a bit stumped when it comes to icings and glazes for cake decorating. Try as I may to follow recipes, I never seem to be able to pull off a great icing. It could be to do with lack of aesthetic instinct when it comes to applying icing, and it could also be that the recipes themselves are not the best, but it is probably because I have no real experience yet that lends to reading and handling icing. I found that the relationship between the recipes below and above rest in the icing, so attempting the mere variations twice in one month has certainly educated me...

All-in-One Chocolate Cake
(from Diana Henry's Cook Simple)

For the Cake:

125g/4.5oz self-raising flour, sifted
pinch of salt
55g/2oz cocoa powder
3 eggs, lightly beaten
175g/6oz caster sugar
175g/6oz unsalted butter, softened and diced
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons warm water

1) Pre-heat oven to 190 C/375 F.
2) Put all ingredients but warm water into a bowl or food processor and beat until combined.
3) Add water slowly and combine again.
4) Pour cake batter into a greased cake tin, preferably 20cm/8" springform, though I used 22cm/9" and it worked out well, but the cooking time was shorter, for the cake was not as thick.
5) Place cake on the middle rack in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes or until done.
6) Turn out of springform and leave to cool on wire rack.

For the Icing:

150g/5.5oz chocolate, broken into pieces
75ml/2oz sour cream
75ml/2oz heavy cream
5 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1) Put all ingredients in a bowl that is to be suspended over summering water (the water should never touch the bowl and should not bee too hot) and allow ingredients to melt.
2) Stir ingredients together and take off the heat.
3) Leave icing to cool and thicken.

In terms of presentation, I slathered the icing all over the cake and coated it with toasted slivered almonds - hazelnuts might have been better, but chocolate pairs pretty well with all nuts.

This is the perfect cake to whip up at a moment's notice - but for the softened butter. Even the most baking-averse person could achieve this, a simple though flavourful chocolate cake. As always, you could substitute one-third of the flour with a nut flour (such as almond or hazelnuts) for added sophistication in the general flavour profile, but this cake can stand well on its own - so much so that I might go so far to consider it my stand-by when I'm in a pinch.

What special cake recipe do you rely on for social gatherings?

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