As anyone who has ever attempted to follow a recipe will know only too well, your ability to do so depends largely on the dietary restrictions of those you are cooking for, and the availability of ingredients. The trick to making something worth eating is flexibility; a recipe, like the pirate code, is more of a general guideline.
This weekend I set out to make a thank you cake for three most excellent individuals, because I am the kind of person who likes to express gratitude via baked goods; call it a character flaw. When I asked about my limitations- and I do urge you to ask, especially when cooking for someone for the first time- I was informed that one of the recipients did not eat eggs. Now some of you are thinking this is an insurmountable obstacle in baking, whereas the vegans and vegan-friendly cooks are probably saying, “Pfft, amateur.” Eggless baking is a fairly straightforward affair, and allows you to use your flavors creatively, picking a substitute that will complement the other ingredients you are using. Normally I substitute eggs with either banana or applesauce, as those fit better with my usual menu, but on this occasion I had decided to make a chocolate rum cake (a first for me), and I did not want to risk the possibility of tainting the chocolate flavor with anything fruity, mild though it would be. Instead, I planned to use some fat-free yogurt (not because I think fat-free is necessarily better for cake, but because that is what happened to be in my refrigerator), and sour cream (also fat-free because full fat sour cream makes me feel as though I am licking a cow) for volume and fluffiness. The conversion advice I came across suggested 1/4 of a cup yogurt per egg; I used roughly 3 tbsp of yogurt and 3-1/2-4-1/2 tbsp sour cream in lieu of four eggs. If you prefer to avoid dairy altogether, you can use tofu or soy yogurt; I’ve found this to be a pretty comprehensive list.
Now the attentive reader will have noticed that not only do I deviate from the standard recipe for dietary and availability reasons, but also I appear to have a near-pathological inability to actually follow one. The reasons for this are many and varied, but the short of it is that (a) I find strict recipes boring, and (b) I’ve had many a baking adventure go wrong because I was unwilling or unable to modify what was on the page to what was happening in front of me. Unlike most cooking, baking is particularly susceptible to external forces; what holds true in my kitchen may not for yours, and what works in my kitchen on a dry and sunny day may not yield the same results when it’s humid and raining. I usually have a recipe in mind, but I almost never follow it to the letter.
On this occasion, the recipe I was not following was grandpa’s chocolate-rum cake. Before I even took the mixing bowl out of the cupboard I already had a problem: butter. The local supermarket was clean out, and was not expecting the next shipment until the end of the month- a bit longer than I was willing to wait. Now the American readers who have never lived or traveled outside the country will have no idea what I’m talking about, but those of you who have experiences elsewhere, especially the former USSR, will understand. So, no butter, but I had a wide array of margarine to choose from. Not being particularly knowledgeable about whether some brand or type was better suited to baking rather than, say, making an omelet, I sought the advice of one of the lovely salespeople, who kindly pointed out one of the more solid looking blocks and sent me on my way.
Next obstacle: an electric mixer- I don’t have one. Rather, I don’t have one here, whilst I am away at school. I debated, briefly, investing a bit more into appliances, but ultimately decided against spending time and resources on a kitchen I will likely leave at the end of my lease. But you can bet I was rethinking that decision now. I suppose I could have asked my neighbors if they had a mixer I could borrow, but being a stereotypical New Yorker, I had no particular desire to meet my neighbors, have, in fact, spent the last three months avoiding just that, and saw no reason to do so now just because my arm was getting tired. That being said, an electric mixer certainly would have made things easier, and quicker. And if I were actually using butter, as is my preference, hand-beating would not have worked nearly as well, since margarine has a softer and airier consistency to begin with. But if, like me, you will be doing this by hand, may I suggest you use a fork rather than a whisk, as the latter will, depending on the size of your whisk, result in all the margarine (or butter) becoming trapped inside the bulb, turning into a sort of margarine (butter) club, which might be useful for warding off goblins, but not so much for the actual whisking.
So the liquid portion of my recipe looked something like this:
1 cup (~227 grams) of margarine
2 cups white sugar
3-4 tbsp of plain yogurt
3-1/2-4-1/2 tbsp sour cream
1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Now, the original recipe calls for 1/2 cup of dark rum- roughly 118 mL. Here’s where you have to know your audience: I was baking for a bunch of grad students at the end of the semester- the weekend before final exams. I used about half of a fifth (fifth of a liter bottle)- about 190 mL, on the batter alone- that’s not taking into account the mousse or the ganache. Be as heavy-handed with the rum as you like- most of the alcohol is going to evaporate out in the oven anyway, but you will still have the tangy flavor.
Beat the margarine, or butter, until it’s fluffy and light. If you have an electric mixer, this can take a couple of minutes; if you’re doing this by hand, I hope you have some good music on. Once I had the margarine in a more or less whippy state, I added the sugar, blending as best I could, and then the yogurt and sour cream; you will want the whisk back for this (or, again, your electric mixer). At this point, the consistency should be on the creamy liquid side. Add the rum, and don’t freak out when your dairy curdles a bit- you still haven’t added any of the powder ingredients, and this will not affect the taste or safety of your ingredients.
Set this alcoholic soup aside for a minute, and get your solids together:
2 cups flour
1 cup cocoa
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
The original recipe calls for 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg. I find this depends entirely on your love of nutmeg. My love is pretty great, so I tend to double, triple, and then add another pinch depending on my mood. To this particular mixture, I think I added about 1-1/2 tsp, but since I wasn’t using a strict measuring system, that’s largely approximation. Mix all these together thoroughly.
As you are adding your solid mix into your liquid concoction, you will want some hot water to make sure it stirs in well. Original recipe calls for 1 cup of hot water- I used maybe 1/2-3/4. But have the whole cup on hand and see what you need- remember, my mixture was more liquidy than yours might be, since I used yogurt and sour cream instead of eggs, and considerably more rum than was suggested. Add the flour mixture gradually- you want time to stir it in and make sure it’s blended, rather than dump everything at once and struggle with clumps. I added mine in 4-5 batches- powder, hot water, powder, stir, repeat. Once you’re done, you should have a good cake batter consistency. I had to add extra flour and cocoa powder, since my mixture had much more liquid to start off with (yogurt, sour cream, rum). Gauge where you are, and add solid or liquid accordingly- ultimately, you want something viscous that will neither run off your spoon, nor cling on for dear life.
Grease and flour your cake pans- I used two 12-inch rectangular pans. Depending on your personal preference, or the size of your party, you might wish to use something smaller, or rounder, or square. I planned to cut the cakes in half and make one 4-layered cake, so two 12-inch pans yielded four 6-inch cakes. Pre-heat your oven to 350 F, and bake for roughly half an hour. The cake will not be quite done, which is fine because you want to keep it moist and heavy.
A word on leavening- I currently reside in a much more tropical climate than I, and my baking, are accustomed to, and I have had trouble getting my cakes to rise to the same degree they usually do in my kitchen in New York. In my three months here, this is maybe my third of fourth cake, and I’ve not yet figured it out; that the leavening ingredients (baking soda, baking powder) are the issue there is no doubt, but I have found no consensus as to whether the problem is too much or too little. This was no exception- the cakes themselves came out rather thinner than I intended. Since I had already decided on 4 layers, this was not as big a problem as it could have been; if I had stuck to the original 2-layer recipe, mine would have been a sad looking cake indeed- not a very good thank you at all. If this is a problem you are also experiencing, I would suggest using square or rectangular pans, since you can always increase the number of layers rather easily. Unless, of course, you are a fan of the half-moon cake, in which case, by all means, use the round.
While your cake is in the oven is a good time to make your mousse. Once again, I modified the original recipe. As I have no heavy or whipping cream, I used another mix of yogurt and sour cream. At this point, I’d given up on any pretense of actual measurements. A bit less than half of a 16 oz (453 gram) container of sour cream and maybe 3-4 tbsp of yogurt. Mix that up; add your sugar, cocoa, and vanilla extract. I started with a cup each of sugar and cocoa, and a tsp of vanilla extract. I also added flour, because the mousse was too watery. Do keep in mind that it will thicken, to a certain degree, when you put it in the refrigerator, but know that if it’s too runny, it will absorb into the cake rather than be a creamy frosting in between your layers. Add as much flour as you need to prevent this; you will have to eyeball it and judge for yourself when to stop; if you dip your finger into the mousse, it should cling. Add rum to taste; I definitely used more than the recommended half cup- my personal preference is that if the cake is going to be sweet, I want the frosting to be less so, and vice versa. Try the mousse- if it tastes like something you would like to eat, leave it. Again, be aware of your consistency; if it’s too watery, add more flour. Put the mousse in the fridge until you’re ready to use it. It should look something like this-
Once you take it out of the oven, cool the cake in the pans for 10-15 min. Then remove it from the pans and cool on wire racks. I do not have wire racks, so I used plates. Most people of my acquaintance do not own 12” plates, and neither do I. However, as I planned to make a 4-layer 6” cake rather than a 2-layer 12” cake, this worked out rather well for me, since I just cut my cakes in half. Know what your plan is and choose your pans accordingly. Now, when you take the cakes from the oven, you might notice they are a bit cracked on the surface. Since you are going to frost them with the chocolate mousse, this will not an issue. However, be very careful, and very gentle when transferring your cakes to the wire racks- remember, they are not cooked all the way through and are therefore very fragile, and as I have discovered, and you will shortly see, if you break the cake, it will be MUCH more difficult for you to sort that out using only frosting.
When everything is cooled and in the size and shape you want (I ended up cutting the edges off of mine so they would have uniform sides), go ahead and start layering your cake. Now, depending on how successful you were at the not-breaking bit, this could be very easy, or in my case, very problematic, and very messy. I wish I had pictures to show, but at this point I was up to my wrists in mousse and cake crumbs, and not willing to touch anything but what was strictly necessary. Because I had broken not one, not two, but three layers (and the only non-broken one turned out to be the one on the bottom), and because I was working with mousse, not frosting, my layers began sliding apart. Yes, you read right, sliding apart as though they were tectonic plates in fast-forward.
By this point, I had begun seriously questioning my decision to make four layers, this cake, and all of the life choices that had led me to this moment. Times like these, it’s very helpful to have someone nearby who will temper your cake-induced panic with practical questions such as, “Do you have toothpicks?” I did not, as it happens, have toothpicks, or skewers for that matter, not that either would have done much to curb the impending self-destruction of this cake. The question did, however, propel me into action. I had worked hard on this cake, damnit, and I was not going to let an inconsequential detail such as gravity ruin it *thumps table for emphasis*. So, what to do? Well, you will have noticed, I had placed the cake on a serving dish with edges on it- not by design; this just happens to be the only serving dish I had. Nevertheless, this presented the perfect opportunity to prop something against the edges so as to exert pressure on the cake. Something such as a[n empty] water glass, or two.
And this is the state in which I placed the cake- glasses and all- into the refrigerator overnight and endeavored not to think about it until morning.
By daybreak, the mousse on the cake had mostly solidified, and was doing an impeccable job preventing further water park scenarios. I finished frosting the cake, and put it back in the fridge. All that remained to evidence the previous night’s fiasco was a water-glass imprint on the right side.
It may not be pretty, but it certainly has enough rum that appearances won’t matter so much after a few bites.
For the decorative topping, I considered chocolate shavings, chocolate ganache, or using the crumbs from the edges I had cut off. I consulted my ever-practical friend* who said, “No crumbs or shavings; the cake’s ambiance is of molten chocolate rummy cloud.” Ganache it was.
There are a few ways to do this- most call for heavy cream, which we have already established I do not have. Instead, I made a water bath, crushed about 3 1-1/2 inch squares of semi-sweet baker’s chocolate into a sturdy glass, added a splash of milk, and a bit more than that of rum. Make sure that the water level for your bath is WELL BELOW the rim of your chocolate container, or the water will splash into the chocolate when it starts to boil. Stir occasionally; add rum (or milk, or heavy cream, or even water if you prefer) as needed. When you have your ganache at the consistency you want, don’t take it out of the water bath; depending on how long you need for your design, the chocolate might harden well before you are finished. Take the pan off the flame, but keep the glass inside the hot water as you work.
(Your eyesight is not going; the lens was fogged up because of the boiling water)
Now, in baking, as in life, it is important to play to your strengths. If you are planning an intricate design for your cake, you better be able to at least draw it out on paper. This is not one of my strengths. I envisioned a sort of leafy flowery situation, complete with buds and sunshine and all sorts of nonsense which all went to shit rather quickly. So to cover it up, I spread the ganache completely over the entire cake, and used the tined end of the fork to make minute swirly patterns spanning in all directions, allowing some of the lighter-colored mousse underneath to show through.
The end result looked something like a melted chocolate castle-
or, as my delightfully snarky friend* called it, “Hogwarts after Voldemort.”
After you’re done with the ganache, put the cake back in the refrigerator for a few hours, until you are ready to serve. Or, in my case, deliver. The final product, I’m sorry to say, will lose the melted look once the ganache solidifies,
but the taste, I am told, does not suffer for it.
*A special thanks to Chelsea Taylor Hoenes, who listened to me prattle on about this cake for two days straight without a single complaint.