Bon Appétit (September 2011)
Cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen can be a challenge.
You're not sure where things are, or what equipment is on hand. When it's time to buy ingredients, you don't know what staples may already be in the kitchen. There are odd utensils, leftover spices and wondrously unusual cooking tools.
But there's also something amazingly fun about this experience, which often includes the need to improvise and often to just make do with what you've got.
Each Labor Day, we retreat to the North Carolina coast with a big group of friends, to our friend Drew's family's beach house. It sits in a beautiful spot right on the water. There's absolutely nothing to do there, and that's why we all love it. We play Scrabble, read and stare at the water. It makes for a wonderful and relaxing vacation.
And we eat, and eat, and eat, taking turns cooking dinner each night. There were tacos and enchiladas, and some of the best shrimp we can remember eating in a long time. This year, there was also a surprise wedding (!), but that's a story for another time.
On our night to cook, we went simple with the main event: pork tenderloin with an orange-oregano gravy, sautéed corn off the cob and fresh green beans. But we decided to go fancy with dessert, opting to make this Devil's Food Cake with Black Pepper Boiled Icing.
Choosing to make a cake like this at a beach house is probably not the smartest move. It's a bit complicated, requires some special equipment, takes several days, and also needs a fair amount of refrigerator space, which can be hard to come by in a crowded beach house.
Most of the ingredients are easy to find, even at the Food Lion in Atlantic Beach, NC. But two ingredients proved problematic. The first was cocao nibs, described by Bon Appétit as "bits of shell-roasted cacao beans." They were nowhere to be found at the supermarket. In their place, we substituted some miniature chocolate morsels (which we couldn't detect in the cake). If you want cocao nibs, you can order them online from places like Amazon.com ($8.55).
The other hard-to-find ingredient was crème fraîche, which we have trouble finding even at home. It's easy enough to make (just put 2 tablespoons of buttermilk into 1 cup of heavy cream and let it sit overnight at room temperature), but that adds time. Luckily, at the beach, we had plenty of that.
Then there are other matters of timing. The filling (which requires the crème fraîche) must be made and then chilled overnight. And the cakes need to bake and then cool completely. We made our cakes at the same time we made the filling. Once the cakes had cooled, we wrapped them tightly in plastic wrap and tucked them away.
The day that we planned to serve the cake, we made the black pepper icing. The first step is to create a hot syrup by boiling sugar and water until it reaches 240 degrees (about ten minutes, according to the recipe). At the beach, we didn't have a candy thermometer (2012's must-have travel accessory: the candy thermometer?), so we went about this step blindly.
Our first attempt proved unsuccessful. There was a moment when we were certain the syrup was ready, almost exactly at the 10-minute mark. But then it turned on us, going from deep amber to black-as-night in a matter of seconds. It wasn't quite disastrous, but it did fill the beach house with smoke (nothing to see here!) and create quite a mess. We quickly started over, stopped cooking the syrup at about 8 minutes, and it seemed to work just fine.
There was another error we made (all that beach time and cocktails had us distracted). We forgot to add the baking powder and baking soda to the cake batter. This didn't seem to be much of a problem in the end. Our cake was denser and flatter than we suspect it otherwise would have been, but it still had a good texture.
Honestly, if we had included these ingredients, we wonder whether the cake layers might have fallen apart. Made in 9-inch pans, these cakes are very thin. Our inadvertent error made them easy to remove from the pans, stack and add the icing. We fear a crumbier cake would have been problematic. But then again, maybe not.
And the reaction?
Resoundingly, we all thought that the cake is, well, not so great. The cake itself is fine, as is the filling. (Was the crème fraîche worth it? We don't think so. We think you could easily sub in sour cream.)
There was no "wow!" No "Holy cow this is great!" There were polite nods and a smattering of "mmm"s.
It was the icing, however, that was the most divisive of the components. The boiled icing is fine, with a very silky texture (some of us prefer more of a buttercream-type icing on our cakes, which is of course a matter of taste). But the pepper seems superfluous and out of place. Whereas salt can give chocolate desserts a lovely salty/sweet contrast (see Chocolate Sabayon with Sea Salt), pepper is, well, peppery, and doesn't stand up well against the chocolate.
Not to worry -- the cake didn't go uneaten. Every crumb was devoured that night.
Let's face it, even lackluster chocolate cake can be pretty good.
Makes 8–10 servings
- 3 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate (60%–64% cacao), chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup heavy cream, divided
- 1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
- 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup crème fraîche
- Nonstick vegetable oil spray
- 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 large egg
- 1 large egg white
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon cake flour
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 1/2 cups (packed) dark brown sugar
- 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste or vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
- 2 tablespoons cocoa nibs
- 1 tablespoon finely ground espresso beans
Black Pepper Icing
- 1 cup sugar, divided
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 large egg whites, room temperature
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Three 9"-diameter cake pans, a candy thermometer, and (if you'd like to brûlée the icing) a kitchen torch.
- Combine chocolate and salt in a large bowl; place a fine-mesh strainer over bowl and set aside. Pour 1 tablespoon cream into a small bowl. Sprinkle gelatin over and let stand until softened, about 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, bring remaining cream and 1 tablespoon sugar to a simmer in a small saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar. Whisk yolks and remaining 1 tablespoon sugar in a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in hot cream mixture; return to saucepan. Cook over medium heat until mixture thickens slightly and your finger leaves a path on the back of a spoon when drawn across, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Add gelatin mixture to cream mixture; stir to dissolve. Pour through prepared strainer into chocolate. Let stand for 1 minute; whisk until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Whisk in crème fraîche. Using an electric mixer, beat filling until well blended, about 2 minutes. Press a sheet of plastic wrap onto surface of filling; chill overnight.
- Preheat oven to 350°. Coat the bottom and sides of three 9" cake pans with nonstick spray. Line bottom of pans with parchment-paper rounds.
- Sift cocoa powder into a medium bowl. Whisk in egg and egg white. Gradually whisk in 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons lukewarm water; whisk until smooth. In a separate medium bowl, whisk both flours and next 2 ingredients.
- Using an electric mixer, beat brown sugar, butter, vanilla, and salt in a large bowl, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl, until smooth, about 2 minutes. Gradually beat cocoa mixture into butter mixture. Beat in flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with buttermilk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Fold in cocoa nibs and ground espresso. Divide batter among pans; smooth tops.
- Bake cakes until a tester comes out clean when inserted into center, about 17 minutes. Let cakes cool in pans set on wire racks for 5 minutes. Invert cakes onto racks; remove pans and let cakes cool completely. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Wrap cakes individually in plastic wrap and store at room temperature.
- Place 1 cake layer on a plate. Stir filling to loosen. Spread half of filling (about 1 cup) over cake in an even layer. Place second cake layer on top of filling. Spread remaining filling over in an even layer. Place remaining cake layer on top. Chill cake for 1 hour.
Black Pepper Icing
- Mix 1 tablespoon sugar and salt in a small bowl; set aside. Attach a candy thermometer to side of a small saucepan; add remaining sugar and 1/2 cup water to pan. Stir over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil without stirring, occasionally swirling pan and brushing down side with a wet pastry brush, until thermometer registers 240°, about 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, place egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat at medium speed until frothy. With machine running, gradually add reserved sugar and salt from small bowl.
- Gradually add hot syrup from saucepan to egg whites, beating at medium-high speed and allowing syrup to drizzle down sides of bowl. Continue beating whites until stiff and cool, about 20 minutes. Add pepper; beat until well blended.
- Immediately spoon topping onto cake. Smooth over top and sides. Working quickly, swirl icing decoratively. DO AHEAD: Cake can be iced 1 day ahead. Cover with a cake dome; chill. Let stand at room temperature for 1 hour before serving. To brûlée the icing, use a kitchen torch to toast icing in spots.