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Chocolate Cake with Coffee Frosting (and a Secret)

25 May

There seem to be as many chocolate cake recipes in existence as there are people who enjoy chocolate cake.  There also seem to be as many names for chocolate cake (devil’s food cake, dark chocolate cake, chocolate layer cake) as there are people who are willing to taste all those chocolate cakes in order to officially prove whether or not those differently named cakes actually taste any different from one another.  You’ve never heard of these official cake-tasters, you say?  You think I just made all that up, you say?  Or did I just create a new job for myself—Official Chocolate Cake Taster—all in the name of finally getting to the bottom of this great chocolate cake mystery, thusly making my new job a selfless and totally essential function aimed at bettering the chocolate cake eating habits of all of humanity?  Think about that for a minute.

Though it seems unlikely, it’s not difficult to make a bad chocolate cake.  Cakes lacking moisture will never be able to taste good enough to allow anyone to forget their sawdust-like texture, but, conversely, cakes suffering from a shortage of true chocolate flavor will never be able to shine to their utmost greatness, no matter how moist and toothsome a morsel may be.  The other side of that coin, however, is the realization that it’s not all that hard to make a really, really good chocolate cake either.  In fact, the most difficult step in making a great chocolate cake starts not with one’s prowess in the kitchen, but rather in finding a standout recipe.  Which is where my new job comes in.

Some recipes stress a particular mixing technique, while others insist on using only oil, not butter, in their chocolate cake, arguing that the neutral flavor of vegetable oil allows the true taste of the chocolate in a chocolate cake to really take center stage.  Some recipes favor buttermilk for achieving an optimal texture, but others prefer that you amend the batter with a simple chocolate pudding made from milk and chocolate heated together on the stove.  Though there are endless tricks and techniques by which people will swear, in my new capacity as Official Chocolate Cake Tester, I feel as though I would be remiss in my newfound duties if I did not reveal to you a bit of a secret: Sometimes the secret to making a flawless chocolate cake comes from the most unlikely source, and that source just so happens to grow underground.

While also welcoming in a not insubstantial amount of both butter and buttermilk, this particular cake recipe utilizes a little-known helper in the world of baked goods.  In an effort to turn out a cake with maximum moistness, the recipe calls for the inclusion of a simple handful of shredded raw beets, an ingredient that is undetectable in taste, but very much evident when it comes to texture.  The shredded beets melt into the cake during baking, resulting in a cake with incomparable moistness and richness.  While I won’t pretend that adding beets to a cake magically transforms it into a healthy and wholesome snack (see: butter, chocolate, and sugar), I will wholeheartedly admit that this cake can be deemed magical in an entirely different, indulgent, deliciously chocolaty way.

I’ve mentioned before my propensity to punch up chocolate baked goods with a bit of coffee.  Rather than adding a dose of coffee directly into the cake batter, I took my love of the chocolate/coffee combination a bit further by covering this cake with a completely immodest amount of coffee frosting.  Even if you happen to be a lukewarm fan of coffee on its own, I cannot recommend enough that you go ahead and put these two elements together.

The two flavors go together like a dream, and they were a perfect pairing for celebrating the birthday of a 33 year-old brother who loves both coffee and chocolate with equal affection.  Just add in some friendly dinosaurs and your consummate chocolate cake is complete.  (Note: Dinosaurs are for decoration only and are not meant to enhance the flavor of the cake in any way.)

Chocolate Cake with Coffee Frosting (and a Secret)

Chocolate Cake

From Cooking School Secrets for Real-World Cooks, by Linda Carucci 

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 large eggs, room temperature

2 cups buttermilk

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2/3 cup packed finely shredded raw beets

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Position a rack in the lower middle position.

Butter and flour the sides and bottom of 2 8-inch round cake pans with 2-inch sides.  Line the bottoms with parchment paper.

Sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl.  Stir to combine, then make a well in the center and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs to combine.  Whisk in the buttermilk.  Add to the dry ingredients all at once, and stir to combine completely.  Slowly whisk in the butter.  Add the vanilla and stir to combine.  Stir in the beets.  Transfer to the prepared cake pans and spread evenly, using a rubber spatula to pull the batter away from the center of the pans and out along the sides.  (The recipe claimed that this act would ensure flat, rather than domed, tops, and, I’ll admit, I was dubious, but still did it.  To my complete surprise, it totally worked.  I didn’t have to slice off the tops of either of the cakes whilst in the pursuit of non-crooked layers!  Who knew?)

Bake until the center of each cake springs back when lightly touched and the sides of each cake just begin to pull away from the pan, 30 to 35 minutes.

Allow cakes to cool on a wire rack, still in their pans, for 10 minutes.  Invert each cake onto another rack and remove pans.  Carefully peel off the parchment paper and cool the cake completely, upside down.  Make sure your cake layers are completely and totally cooled before frosting, lest your frosted cake end up a dripping, melted mess.

Coffee Frosting

From The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book 

3 sticks unsalted butter, cut into chunks and softened

2 tablespoons instant espresso

3 tablespoons milk or heavy cream

2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 cups confectioners’ sugar

Beat the butter, espresso powder, milk or cream, vanilla, and salt together in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium high speed until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.

Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low, slowly add the confectioners’ sugar, and beat until incorporated and smooth, 4 to 6 minutes.  Increase the mixer speed to medium high and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy, 5 to 10 minutes.

Perfect French Press Coffee

22 Mar

While on a short vacation recently, it dawned upon me that the thing I miss the most about being at home is not the fact that my mattress does not list to one side, or that my neighborhood grocery store does not charge $5 for 6 ounces of blueberries (both of those being things that I encountered while vacationing), but that when I am at home, I know that I will always drink really, really good coffee.  Perhaps living in the Pacific Northwest has done irreparable damage to my ability to tolerate subpar coffee, but I know for a fact that when I was served yet another watery, limp, and tasteless cup of coffee last weekend, it made me more homesick than that saggy mattress made me stiff and creaky.  (And that’s saying a lot.)

Though I can claim no allegiance to a single coffee roaster or type, it’s no secret that when it comes to the quality of coffee, Stumptown Coffee has set a very high standard of excellence.  Such is the strength of Stumptown’s dedication, they have taken the time to print out a tiny little instruction manual detailing the precise steps one should follow in order to produce the most delicious cup of coffee possible.

This “coffee zine,” as they call it, covers the basics of home brewing, from using a simple stovetop Moka Pot to mastering the challenge of making good quality espresso on a home machine (a delicate and intricate effort that is nearly tantamount to performing at-home vascular surgery on oneself—you may give it a go, but chances are things won’t turn out so well).

Considering how much I respect and adore coffee, combined with the fact that I was a barista 15 years ago (and took the job very, very seriously), it is somewhat embarrassing for me to admit that, up until last summer, when it was required of me by a camping trip, I had very little experience making French press (also called press pot) coffee.  I knew the basic principles of using a French press, and I even owned one, but I hadn’t utilized the thing for nearly a decade.

It took only a brief sit-down with the Stumptown manual to familiarize myself with the proper process of using a French press, and I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing all those years I spent chained to my drip machine.  Don’t get me wrong—the drip machine is fine, and it produces good, tasty coffee, but the French press is incredible, producing a rich, velvety cup of coffee with intensely pronounced flavors.

It’s the difference between a strawberry purchased at the grocery store in February and a strawberry grown in your backyard and then eaten straight from the garden on a hot June afternoon.  You can appreciate both, but only one of them will offer a net result that is good enough to write home (or on your website) about.

How to Prepare the Perfect Press Pot at Home

From the Stumptown Coffee Roasters Brewing Guide

If you follow the link above, you’ll get a more in-depth explanation of Stumptown’s preferences when it comes to why they want you to use certain tools and methods.  I have, in the interest in brevity, chosen to eliminate those details here, but I do encourage you to read up on Stumptown’s wealth of information concerning coffee and its preferred preparation.  If nothing else, it’s fascinating to read such in-depth information about coffee (well, at least I think so).

What you’ll need:

press pot (French press)

coffee

grinder

spoon

timer

cups (and thermal carafe if preparing more than fits in the cups)

Step One: Grind Coffee

It is important that the coffee be ground coarse and that it be ground with a quality burr (rather than blade grinder).

Step Two: Add Coffee to Pot

You’ll need 1 tablespoon of coffee for every 4 oz of water.  In other words, if you have a 16 oz press pot, you’ll want to use 4 tablespoons of coffee.  Feel free to adjust the amount based on your own personal tastes.  Make sure the pot is clean and dry.

Step Three: Add Water

You should bring the water just to a boil and then let it cool for about 45 seconds.  Then pour it aggressively into the pot so that it saturates the grounds.  The key is to saturate all the grounds evenly.  Do not fill the pot entirely, as you will see significant expansion of the coffee in a sort of “foam” at the top of the liquid once you add water.  Adding too much water can result in a very messy countertop.

Step Four: Start Timer

You’re going to want to have a timer that counts down from 4 minutes and has an alarm at 4 minutes (I generally just watch the clock like a hawk).  It’s very important that you use a timer to guarantee high quality coffee.

Step Five: Stir Pot

After 1 minute, you should stir the grounds in the pot.  If you need to add water to top off the pot, make sure it is again right below boiling.

Step Six: Put Press/Top on Pot

Make sure you line up the spout and the corresponding exit in the lid.

Step Seven: Press the Pot

At exactly four minutes, you should push the press (slowly) into the pot to force all grounds to the bottom.  You might have to press and then release and repeat to do this.  Do not crush it with all your might–use some finesse.

Step Eight: Pour the Coffee

You need to do this as soon as you’ve pressed the pot.  If you’re making more coffee than you can fit into a cup and want to hold some for later, pour the coffee into a thermal carafe.  Do not simply leave the coffee in the press pot–it will get nasty quickly.  If you want to avoid any stray grounds and sediment, you can pour the coffee through a mesh basket filter.

Step Nine: Drink the Coffee

I drink my coffee with a small amount of warmed milk (I pour the coffee directly into the milk in my cup) and it is heavenly.

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