Sunday, August 14, 2011

Reviving the Passion - Sour Cream Chocolate Cake

I don't know quite what drove me to do it.  One moment I was reading food blogs, another I was tearing maniacally through the dusty stored belongings under my bed, searching furiously.  Usually such searches bring such nostalgia that I stumble my way down memory lane and am instantly lost in the past.  Today, though, today I kept my head and kept searching.  The object of my desire?  Three vanilla beans that my best friend gave me for a birthday present.  

Why were they under my bed?  Why didn't I use them when they were a little fresher?  They're fine as far as I can tell-vanilla beans stay fresh for a long time and they've been in the same beautiful glass container since she first gave them to me.  Why did I save them?  I don't know.  All I know is that beginning today, I vow to give as much away as possible.  I will start with what I bake.

At school, what I make is mostly sustenance food.  I make biscuits and cornbread, banana bread and scones using milk instead of cream because it's quick, easy and cheap.  And I can live on it all weekend.  I am lazy when I don't have classes.  I don't need to venture off my little plastic chair in front of my desk and find cooked, savory food from the campus food stores.  I don't even have to leave my building if I have stocked enough food for the weekend. 

But what kind of life is that?  I want to make something worth savoring, something sweet and delicious and not too much.  Too many people are on diets and refuse my sweet items.  It hurts when they do.  It shouldn't, it's nothing personal, but I usually over-analyze and take things too personally, anyway.  I want others to enjoy food as much as I do.  I want to find small cookie cutters and small muffin tins.  I want to make small items that are easily sampled and savored and make enough of them that one isn't sated immediately.  Most of all, I want to make enough that I can give one to everyone, not just the people within my vicinity or lucky (I hope, I mean, if they hate my food...) enough to pass by.  I first read the book Pure Chocolate by Fran Bigelow a couple summers back.  She mentions sweets that are pure, intense, beautiful.  My dad said something about presentation when I made those hot chocolates.  I will take care in every step of my baking to ensure that my desserts are beautiful as well as delicious.  Although this blog was intended to be a chronicle of making food when there are few bowls, no mixer and limited space available, I want that food to be good.  You don't have to eat a lot of it.  You can enjoy a little, and be satisfied but not overly full.  With a little creativity, I think that can happen.  

It was very clear to me one of the first times that anyone really complimented my food.  My wonderful roommate last year, and one of my dearest friends, loves chocolate.  She ate a simple cupcake that I had made after the Organic Chemistry final exam.  Note:  I didn't take the Orgo exam.  But most of my friends did.  I had swapped out for Solid Mechanics instead, at a delightful 8:20am.  But the Orgo exam.  The final had been brutal, the last couple of weeks a miserable grind.  But when she bit into the marbled vanilla and chocolate cupcake, her face lit up and she could not stop raving.  I believe she said the words "Oh, my God" from when she first tasted the cupcake until late that night with an occasional scattered phrase in between.  Another one of my very good friends even videotaped that reaction.  The ingredients were not top-notch and I had done a great deal of batter-shuffling to make the cupcakes happen.  But the cupcake was fresh out of the oven, made with love.  I think I made over 75 cupcakes that day, just working off the stress from the semester.  But that one was my very favorite cupcake of them all.

That day I also introduced someone to green tea baked goods, the same friend who taped my chocolate-loving roommate.  She had one of those same cupcakes, but green tea instead of marbled.  And I will never forget the incredible look in his eyes when my boyfriend told me that the chocolate chip cookies I mailed him for his birthday sang for him.  This is why I bake.  I love food and am probably obsessed with it, but I want to share the incredible pleasure of a beautiful and delicious pastry.  The metaphorical icing on the cake is that this particular recipe is easy to make.  I've messed it up, mixed it around, and it still turned out edible.  Heck, one vanilla version of the cake traveled halfway to Michigan from Long Island New York by car and it was still edible.  And that one was for a professor! 0.o  It's always moist and light, delicious and satisfying even when I alter this recipe, usually just reducing the sugar.  I love this cake recipe!

Sour Cream Chocolate Cake Layers barely tweaked from The Cake Book by Tish Boyle
Makes 2 9" round cake layers, or about 26 cupcakes 

2⅔ cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar 
 ½ cup cocoa powder
1½ teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, room temperature   
 ⅔ cup sour cream, room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
⅔ cup oil (safflower or corn oil, but I use an inexpensive olive oil we buy in bulk)
1¼ cups cold water 

2 medium bowls
1 large bowl
1 balloon whisk
2-cup liquid measure
1 cup dry measure
½ cup dry measure
⅓ cup dry measure 
1 teaspoon measure
 ½ teaspoon measure
¼ teaspoon measure
At least 1 (preferably 2) cupcake pan(s) 
Cupcake liners! Or extra butter and flour
     Or, if you desire to make 2 cakes instead, 
     2 9" round cake pans
     Extra butter for greasing
     Extra flour for dusting
     Parchment paper for lining the bottoms of the pans


1. Prepare your cake or cupcake pans.  If using 2 9" cake pans, grease the bottoms and sides of the pans and line with parchment paper, greasing the paper.  Dust flour over the sides of the pans and parchment.  If using the cupcake pans, simply line with paper cupcake liners.  

2. In one medium bowl, sift together the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt), then whisk to blend thoroughly.  Set aside.

3. In the other medium bowl, beat the eggs with the sour cream and vanilla.  Set aside.

4. In the large bowl, combine the butter, oil and water.  Preheat the oven to 350°F.

5. Add all the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix until blended.  Add the egg mixture and mix until blended, about another 2 minutes.  The batter should be a smooth, somewhat thick liquid batter.  

Thick consistency, like a soft pudding.
6. Divide the batter evenly between the 2 9" round cake pans or the cupcake pans.  Fill the cupcake liners a little more than ⅔ full.

Very useful to have a large spoon or small ladle to help distribute batter evenly.
7.  Bake the cakes for about 40-45 minutes, or the cupcakes for about 20 minutes.  A toothpick will come out clean when the cakes are done.  Cool the cakes or cupcakes on wire racks.  Please note that the tops are somewhat sticky until the cakes are completely cooled, so do any layer-stacking then.  Share and enjoy!

This whole natural lighting thing can get difficult with a digital point-and-shoot...

Postscript:  The metaphorical buttercream roses piped atop this cake is that this is the base layer for my dad's Black Forest Cake that he has asked for two years in a row. And both my parents are very truthful and sparing with praise.

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