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By the Book: Cooking with Chocolate’s Basic Cake Batter

May 22nd 02:05pm, 2012

To say that I’m “not much of a baker” would be an enormous understatement. I like to stray, just a leeeetle, from a recipe – adding a dash of this, subbing in a little of that. Unlike cooking, baking doesn’t stand for such shenanigans. It prefers precision – things like exacts measurements, extra steps and a great big (perfectly sifted) amount of patience. That last one is particularly hard for me. Hey, I never said I didn’t understand why I was a bad baker.

So I’m never going to make a macaron or a perfectly set souffle. I know this. I’ve accepted it. I have other skills. Yet somehow, despite all of my well-voiced warnings, I’ve landed, time and time again, with several of the baking books during our By the Book columns. To my credit, they haven’t been a complete disaster. This cobbler was an easy, rustic way to cook up summer berries. And I’ve been dreaming of this pie ever since I cut the last slice. So I had an itsy-bitsy amount of confidence when this next book fell into my hands. I had done it twice. I could do it again.

Cooking with Chocolate: Essential Recipes and Techniques is the next book in our series of cookbooks that garnered acclaim at this year James Beard Foundation Awards, which were announced earlier this month. Cooking with Chocolate was nominated in the General Cooking category, though it didn’t take home the top prize.

As I flipped through the book to decide what I was going to screw up, er, bake, the pressure began to build. Bittersweet Chocolate Panna Cotta with Thai-style Lemongrass Foam. Pear and Milk Chocolate Petits Fours. I was swimming in a world of high-technique French desserts. How on earth had I gotten here? Which member of the Sauce editorial staff could I blame? Instead, I flipped back to the beginning of the book and found a recipe that wouldn’t require me to buy $200 worth of immersion blenders, thermometers, scales and pans. A recipe that wouldn’t take me three days and four molds and six different types of cocoa to make. Something called Basic Cake Batter.

Finally, I was back in my comfort zone. Melt the butter. Sift the flour and baking powder. Whisk the sugar, eggs, salt and whipping cream. Then fold it all together and bake until moist and beautiful. Even I couldn’t screw this one up.

And screw it up I didn’t. Though I worried that the batter was too thick, that a dense, dry brick was sure to be pulled from the oven, I was happily proven wrong. The cake came out spongy and moist with a nice crust. Wrapped in plastic, it even stayed moist the next day, just as the book promised.

The recipe recommended adding flavor to this basic batter with vanilla beans or fresh citrus zest, though it didn’t offer up any measurements. I added just a teaspoon of fresh lemon zest to my batter. Though there was the slight hint of lemon in each piece, next time, I’d at least double the amount of zest I use.

But don’t be fooled. This is not a book for the weak of, well, patience. This is a book for those who already comfortable with a piping bag and a chocolate mold and can temper chocolate in their sleep. If that’s you, then be sure to answer this week’s question at the bottom of this recipe. Because if you have the patience, this book has some pretty great recipes — those that are far beyond basic cake batter, I promise.

Basic Cake Batter
This is a classic recipe for a loaf cake that gives a nice, airy result and can be flavored as you wish. Just how moist or crisp it is depends on how you store it. Wrapped in plastic film, it will be moist; unwrapped, it will have a slight crunch when you bite into the crust.

5 Tbsp. butter
2¼ cups cake flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1¼ cups sugar
4 eggs
¼ tsp. salt
½ cup minus 1 Tbsp. whipping cream
To flavor, your choice of vanilla, citrus zest, etc.

1 loaf pan, 10 in.
Parchment paper
1 whisk

• Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line the loaf pan with parchment paper.
• Melt the butter and set it aside.
• Sift the flour with the baking powder.
• Whisk the sugar, eggs, salt and cream together in a mixing bowl.
• Stir in the sifted flour and baking powder until the mixture is thoroughly combined.
• Stir in the melted butter.
• Add the flavor of your choice, if using.
• Pour the batter into the lined pan and bake for about 45 minutes. Check for doneness with a cake tester or the tip of a knife, which should come out dry.

© Clay McLachlan, COOKING WITH CHOCOLATE: Essential Recipes and Techniques, Flammarion, 2011.  Images from COOKING WITH CHOCOLATE may not be reproduced in any way, published, or transmitted digitally, without written permission from the publisher.

Do you master a difficult baking venture you never thought you could? Tell us about it in the comments section below for a chance to win a copy of Cooking with Chocolate: Essential Recipes and Techniques. We’ll announce the winner in next week’s By the Book column.

And now, we’d like to congratulate Cherie, whose comment on last week’s By the Book has won her a copy of A New Turn in the South by Hugh Acheson. Cherie, keep an eye out from the Sauce crew.

By Stacy Schultz

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7 Responses to “By the Book: Cooking with Chocolate’s Basic Cake Batter”

  1. Meena Mathis Says:
    May 22nd, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    I never thought that a single cake would take DAYS to make. Hours – sure, but DAYS!?!?! When I was in culinary school, my teacher asked me to make a certain cake. I looked at the recipe and thought “how hard can this be?”. It ook 3 attempts to make the almond jaconde sponge cake, 2 attempts at the fillings, and i didn’t make enough of anything the first time around. Repeating work, revising technique, carefully constructing this cake by this recipe was torture. Days of torture. Thats the first and last time I made it, but I definitely learned a lot. :)

  2. Matthew Says:
    May 22nd, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    The first adult type dessert I tried to make just to prove I could was eclairs. It took me 3 attempts to get the right consistency, piping tip and recipe before I finally made a glorious version. Now I know I can make it anytime I have the time and ingredients.

  3. Seanan Says:
    May 22nd, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    My biggest challenge was tempering chocolate. I mastered making mousse from water and chocolate before I nailed that. Last year, when I talked a Canadian friend through tempering chocolate, I felt as if the world had changed.

  4. Tamika Carter Says:
    May 22nd, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Last year I made a s’mores cake for my friends Going Away party that I saw featured from Neiman Marcus. I did not have a recipe so I based my cake on the picture I found. It was a three layer chocolate cake with marshmellow buttercream and graham crackers in between the cake. The entire cake was then covered with chocolate ganache, chocolate chips, marshmellows and more graham crackers. Everything was from scratch, including the narshmellows and graham crackers. This was my first attempt at making homamade graham crackers and marshmellows. I admit I did buy the chocolate chips though. I enjoyed making the cake and everyone raved about it.

  5. Heather Says:
    May 22nd, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    I’m working on conquering layer cakes by baking one each month in 2012. I’m definitely learning as I go and wanted to attempt piping (totally scary) on my May cake. Unfortunately the strawberry cream cheese icing was far too runny… totally delicious, but too runny. By the end of the year I hope I’ve masterd at least a few cakes. I figure practice makes perfect :)

  6. Sara Says:
    May 22nd, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    I used to read cookbooks when I was a kid. My mother had a cookbook with a red velvet cake with a 10 minute boiled icing. I dreamed about that cake and read and reread the recipe. It was an old book and the picture was in black and white with sort of a red tinge to the cake. I was about 10 or 11 when I begged my mother to let me make that cake. She finally gave in. I had to stand on a stool to cook on the stove. The icing had to be cooked and the syrup streamed into beaten egg whites. It was a layer cake. My mother was not a baker so really couldn’t help. She couldn’t understand why I couldn’t use a cake mix. I followed what the recipe said exactly and it came out pretty good…and the icing set up …but I never did make that cake again. I think the taste of the red food coloring affected the taste and it was not what I envisioned!

  7. Claire Says:
    May 23rd, 2012 at 8:55 am

    The first few times I attempted to make meringues they tasted ok but I despaired of ever making them beautiful. The ones I had created were lopsided, inconsistent in size and despite the best of efforts and the lowest of temperatures still managed to brown in the oven. I stuck with them, however; whenever I had some extra egg whites would whip up a batch and practice my piping skills. Now the ones I make can be much prettier—although my favorite thing to do now is to deliberately misshape and stick candy eyes in them for Halloween monster meringues.

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