Friday, May 29, 2009

Mother's Day Cake: Devil's Food Cake with Swiss-Meringue Buttercream

I come from a great family of unofficial cookers and bakers (meaning that is not anyone's profession).  I grew up with a home-cooked meal pretty much every night, and have fond memories of baking with my mom for holidays, and indulging in delicious treats made by grandparents.  I'm now the unofficial dessert maker for family occasions, and I love finding great recipes or making up new ones as I go.

For Mother's Day, my aunt asked for 2 desserts, and requested that at least one of them be chocolate.  There were a lot of options, but I was itching to practice frosting and decorating again, so I decided to make a cake.  It was going to be a relatively small group, and I knew that cake-eating would be a tad limited (people watching their weight, grandparents watching their sugar intake), so I stuck with a basic 9" round cake, but I cut each cake round in half, to make a 4-layer cake.

You don't need any fancy equipment for this one, but let me say that if you're going to "splurge" on cake pans, I recommend Chicago Metallic pans for just about anything, and even these are not too expensive.  (I've picked some up for less than $10).  I also recommend getting the non-nonstick ones (lighter and shinier pans).  Even though these pans require more work (what with the buttering and flouring and parchment-papering), these cakes are much less prone to burning or hard edges.  As for the pans themselves, they are a nice, deep pan with more defined edges, that will lend themselves to crisper, more defined cake shapes. 

At a minimum, you will need the following equipment if you want to replicate the cake, including design:
  • Stand or hand mixer, with both beater and whisk attachments
  • Double boiler (either a two-pan double boiler, or a heatproof bowl and a large pan)
  • Offset or frosting/icing spatula [you can use a knife for this, but it will not look as clean]
  • Cake stand (preferably one that turns)
  • Shell, flower, and round frosting tips and connectors
  • Piping bags
The recipe for both the cake and the frosting comes from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook.  The recipe for the cake is meant to be frosted with mint-chocolate ganache, but I went with a more traditional frosting, a Swiss-meringue buttercream.  I'll probably try this cake with the ganache at some point though.  If you can't find or don't have Dutch-process cocoa handy, you can go ahead and use regular cocoa powder; your cake will end up a bit lighter in color.  I did a straight substitution in my cake (even though there are some other generally recommended changes if you substitute), and didn't notice much difference, except in the color.

Please note that I doubled the frosting recipe for this cake, but only gave you the recipe for one batch, which makes approximately 4 cups.

For the Cake
3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, room temperature + more for pans
3/4 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted + more for pans
3/4 cup hot water
3/4 cup sour cream
3 cups cake flour (not self-rising), sifted
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 1/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2.  Butter two 9x2 inch round cake pans, and then line the bottoms with parchment paper.  Butter the parchment, and then dust with cocoa powder, tapping out the excess.

3.  In a medium bowl, whisk the cocoa with the hot water until smooth.  Whisk in sour cream, and let mixture cool.

4.  In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, and salt.  Set aside.

5.  In the bowl of the mixur, beat butter and sugar together on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 - 4 minutes.

6.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating to combine after each addition.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.

7.  Beat in vanilla.

8.  With mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture in two parts, alternating with the cocoa mixture, and beginning and ending with the flour.  So basically: add half the flour, then the entire cocoa mixture, then the remaining half of the flour mixture.  Beat until combined.

9.  Divide the batter between the prepared pans, and rap the pans on the counter to level and release any trapped air.  Smooth the top of the batter with a spatual.

10.  Bake until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, approximately 45 to 50 minutes.

11.  Transfer the pans to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes.  Invert the cakes onto the rack, and peel of the parchment paper.  Reinvert the cakes, and let them cool completely, with the top sides up.  [I just left the top sides down, and they came out fine.]

For the Frosting
4 large egg whites
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into tablespoons
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

1.  Either in a double boiler or in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, combine the egg whites and sugar.  Cook, whisking constantly, until the sugar has dissolved the mixture is warm to the touch (about 160 degrees F).  [Enjoy this step.  You won't have to do any arm workouts for a couple days after this one.]

2.  If using a stand mixer, add the mixture to the bowl of the stand mixer; otherwise, you can just use the same bowl.  Using the whisk attachment, beat the egg-white mixture on high speed until stiff (but not dry) peaks hold.  Continue beating until the mixture is fluffy and cooled, for about 6 minutes.

3.  Switch to the paddle or beater attachment, and with the mixer on medium-low speed, add the butter several tablespoons at a time, beating well after each addition.  If the frosting starts to separate after all of the butter has been added, beat on medium-high speed until smooth again, 3 to 5 minutes more.

4.  Beat in the vanilla.  Beat on the lowest speed to eliminate any air bubbles, for about 2 minutes.  Stir with a rubber spatula until the frosting is smooth.

Note on Storing the Frosting
If you'll be using the frosting within several hours, cover it with plastic wrap and keep it at room temperature.  You can also refrigerate frosting in an airtight container for up to 3 days, or freeze it for up to 1 month.  Before using, bring the frosting to room temperature, and beat with an electric mixer on the lowest speed until smooth.

Assembling and Frosting
I can't really give you many tips for frosting and assembling the cake, as it's fairly straightforward: cut the top off each round, cut each round in half, frost in between the layers, frost, and then decorate.

Some tips for a well-frosted cake:
Use simple syrup.  Apply simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water) with a pastry brush to each layer to help seal in or add moisture.  [Sadly, I never remember to do this.]

Do a crumb coat.  A crumb coat is a very light layer of frosting that you put on the cake, which helps to avoid getting crumbs in the final frost.  Then you put the cake in the refrigerator for about an hour or so to let the crumb coat set, and then put another layer of frosting on top.  This layer would be much fuller and heavier, and is what you will see in the finished product.

Work from the inside out, and the top down.  Add a huge dollop of frosting to the top of the cake, and use an offset or frosting spatula with a cake turntable to push the frosting out to the sides, and then push the frosting down the sides.

A cake turntable + offset spatula are the best tools.  These two tools used together will give you a very nice looking frost, and are very easy to use once you get the technique down.  The key is just to let the tools do the work.


AppGal May 29, 2009 at 2:24 PM  

oh my gosh, this looks soooo yummy! I am really impressed with your baking skills. Baking is NOT my strong suit in cooking--no siree. I just watch, admire, and taste :) This cake is gorgeous and I bet it tasted even better!

Cate May 29, 2009 at 3:35 PM  

that looks delicious! very impressive decorating, it looks professional!

KatyO. May 29, 2009 at 3:42 PM  



Jordyn May 30, 2009 at 9:51 AM  

YUM, YUM, YUM!!! NOw I'm totally fixated on getting a cupcake or something today:) Cake is beautiful!

JTS May 30, 2009 at 10:51 PM  

Hi everyone - thank you, thank you so much!! You are all too kind :)

@Jordyn - Did you end up getting a cupcake today? :)