Ultimate Chocolate Birthday Cake

(For the blog post below, a close foodie friend of mine, Laura, has a delicious and decadent recipe to share. Laura is an academic based in Canada, who inspires me with her scratch-made recipes for family and friends, from hummus to sweet buns. Until she has a blog of her own, she can be reached by email at letthiel@gmail.com)

Chocolate is known as a Food of the Gods. In my family, birthday cake is always chocolate. Also, one of my “deal-breaker” questions for my future spouse was: chocolate or vanilla? (Yes, there is a correct answer). Lucky for him, he said chocolate!

I like to think that my German-Dutch heritage plays a role in my family’s obsession with chocolate. While consumption of the fruit of cocoa tree traces back to the Aztecs who drank the unsweetened xocolatl in rituals, cocoa became a Colonial addition to the European diet through the Spanish in the 15th century. In the tumultuous years to follow of European exploration, appropriation of lands in the Americas and the enslaving of inhabitants, and the race to find the fastest spice routes, the port city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands grew to be the European hub of the cocoa industry. According to ECOM Dutch Cocoa, the Dutch not only controlled the sale of cocoa beans by the 18th century, but innovatively developed the cocoa press and utilized alkalization to process the cocoa mass…leading to the modern “Dutch process” cocoa we use today.

In the 1700s, wealthy Europeans could afford to consume the beverage at chocolate houses in Paris and London, as well as in private homes. The porcelain market responded to the new trend. Famous factories, such as Meissen (founded 1710 in present-day Germany), crafted elaborately painted chocolate pots and sets of chocolate cups. This lidded chocolate cup with saucer is a Dutch example, created in 1785 in The Hague.
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Chocolate Cup and Saucer, porcelain, anonymous, Porseleinfabriek Den Haag, 1785. Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, BK-1968-109-B.

By the 19th century, cocoa was sold as a wholesome, if not medicinal, product to upper and middle-class European consumers when it was more readily available. As two contemporary Dutch advertisements suggest, a fashionable woman could enjoy a warming cup of chocolate after the fun of skating, but it could also serve as a restorative beverage for a wounded soldier on the battlefield. Themes of family, nutrition, and palliative care commonly intertwine in the early years of Dutch cocoa advertising. Personally, I’m convinced of the health benefits of chocolate.


Left: Dutch Skate Cocoa. Designed by Johann Georg van Caspel and printed by Steendrukkerij v/h Amand, 514 x 381 mm, paper, 1897. Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1912-2469. Right: Blooker’s Cacao. Nederland-Lombok, designed by Frederik Willhelm Schottelndreier and printed by Elsevier, Rotterdam, 390 x 285 mm, paper, Oct. 1894. Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-0B-89.752-2.

My mother’s birthday was last week, so I decided to one-up my traditional recipe and try out the Ultimate Chocolate Birthday Cake recipe below. Not only does this cake call for two types of chocolate—cocoa powder and baking chocolate—but the frosting is a silky ganache, instead of a typical buttercream. Decoration is optional because it is so wonderful.
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The result was amazing: a very moist cake thanks the buttermilk, a ridiculously indulgent ganache, and overall the dessert was not too sweet. This recipe is also not difficult to make (don’t be intimidated by the number of steps) and is best served to people you love, for any occasion.

But be warned; the chocolatey power of this dessert is not for the faint of heart.

ULTIMATE CHOCOLATE BIRTHDAY CAKE
Serves 12-14, depending on cake tin size. See note below.

For Layer Cake:
3 ounces (about 1/2 c. chopped) best-quality-you-can-afford semisweet chocolate,
preferably 65% cocoa & Belgian
1 1/2 c. hot brewed coffee
3 c. white sugar
2 1/2 c. A/P flour
1 1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Dutch process, but regular would work too)
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
3 large eggs, brought to room temperature in a bowl of warm tap water
3/4 c. canola or vegetable oil
1 1/2c. buttermilk
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

For Ganache Frosting:
1 pound best-quality-you-can-afford semisweet chocolate
1 c. heavy cream
2 tbs. white sugar
2 tbsp. corn syrup
¼ c. unsalted butter

Note on equipment, preparation, and storage:
*This recipe requires parchment paper or waxed paper, and two 10” by 2” round cake tins.
If you only have smaller tins (mine were 9 1/2” by 1”) you will get an additional layer OR about 9 cupcakes. I decided to make cupcakes, which was great because the chef gets to taste, along with a few other lucky people.

*Layer cakes can be made up to a week in advance. Remove from pan when fully cool, wrap each layer tightly in plastic wrap and then in a plastic bag. Freeze. Defrost on the counter on the day you will frost and eat the cake.

*The frosted cake keeps well for around 3-5 days, refrigerated. But really, will you have leftovers?

Directions:

MAKE CAKE LAYERS
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F and brew some coffee. Put whole eggs in a bowl of warm tap water and set aside.

2. Line cake tins with parchment and butter them VERY well, on the parchment bottom and on the sides…you want your lovely cakes to release from the tins and not crumble!

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3. Chop the chocolate (3 oz. portion) and combine in a bowl with hot coffee. Let the mix stand, stirring occasionally, until fully melted and smooth.

4. In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or another large bowl), beat the eggs until thickened slightly and lemon coloured (about 3 minutes with a stand mixer, or 5 minutes with handheld mixer).

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5. Slowly add the oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate/coffee mix to the eggs, beating until combined well. Add the sugar mixture and beat on medium until just combined. Don’t be tempted to overbeat, or your cakes will be tough! If extra batter, set aside in refrigerator until you have time to make cupcakes.

6. Divide batter between the pans, filling a little more than half-way. Tap them on the counter to release air bubbles. Bake in the middle of the oven until a toothpick comes out clean: 1 hour to about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Cool layers completely in tins on a rack. Bake your cupcakes now, if desired.

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7.Run a knife around the edges of the pan and invert the layers onto racks. Carefully peel off parchment and allow layers to cool completely before frosting. (Same with cupcakes: cool completely).

MAKE FROSTING
1. Finely chop the pound of chocolate. In a 1 or 2 quart saucepan, bring cream, sugar, and corn syrup to a boil over moderately low heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat and add chocolate, whisking until melted. Cut in the butter and whisk until smooth and glossy. If needed, transfer frosting to a bowl and cool until spreading consistency. You may choose to refrigerate it for a few minutes. Place cake layer on cake plate, spread frosting between the layers and then over the top and sides, covering completely. Use remainder on cupcakes, or place in air-tight jar and it will keep up to a week in the refrigerator.

Curry for a Crowd

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Spring is a busy time at my office. Many people put in a number of overtime hours, and because of this, we have Saturday lunch provided to those clocking time on the weekend. Usually, Saturday lunches involve catered sandwiches, or perhaps chain Mexican food.

However, over the past few months, my coworkers have realized that I like to cook. So, for a change, I decided that for the Saturday lunch I was in charge of organizing, I would cook something. It is still fairly cold in Canada, and a hot lunch on a grotty day is always appreciated.

Because I would be cooking for close to two dozen people, and because our kitchen facilities are limited, I needed to make something that was crockpot-friendly. I decided on curry. It is filling. Fairly straightforward. And budget-friendly. Curry is an ideal entertaining food. It can sit on the stove and bubble away, flavours melding, as the host mingles with guests. Similarly, it can bubble away all morning while staff are busy working and don’t have time to stir every few minutes.

I made two curries for Saturday lunch. We have a gluten-free employee, so I easily adapted the recipes to accomodate that simply by swapping out standard vegetable and chicken stock to gluten-free stocks.

For inspiration, I looked to a Lentil and Sweet Potato Curry recipe on the BBC Good Food Guide website, and a new favourite of mine: Chicken Korma, which I have previously adapted to make just two servings for myself! I cut back on the heat of the recipes because we had some curry newbies at work that I did not want to scare away. In fact, one of the nicest compliments that I received from the lunch was from a co-worker who had never tried curry, convinced it was too “spicy,” yet she tried the lunch and enjoyed it immensely!

Both recipes below make enough for about 20 servings each, depending on the crowd and how hungry they are. Serve with basmati rice and naan bread.


Lunch in action, and the final result.

Lentil and Sweet Potato Curry

2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tbsp butter
3 large onions, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped finely
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
2 tbsp garam masala
1-2 tbsp mild curry paste (or more, to taste)
1 cup green lentils (dried)
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
1 L vegetable stock
1 can coconut milk
400g can chopped tomatoes
400g can chickpeas, drained

1. Heat the oil and butter in a large pot, add the onion and cook for a few mins until softened. Add the garlic and continue to cook for a couple minutes.
2. Add the spices to the onion mixture and cook for 1 min more, stirring constantly to avoid sticking.
3. Stir in the lentils, sweet potatoes, stock and chopped tomatoes.
4. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 20-30 mins until the lentils and sweet potatoes are tender. Add the chickpeas, then heat through.
5. Season, sprinkle with cilantro, if you like. Curry is easy to heat up the next day in a crockpot to serve a large group.

Chicken Curry

2 kg chicken breasts, cut into 1 inch cubes
4 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
1/4 cup butter
3 large onions, chopped finely
6 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
4 tsp ginger paste
6 garlic cloves, chopped finely
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 tsp mild chilli powder
2 tbsp garam masala
1/2 cup mango chutney (i.e. Patak’s)
2 fresh mangos, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 L hot chicken stock
2 cans coconut milk
2 cups frozen cut green beans

1. Heat 3 tbsp oil in a large dutch oven or pot, and brown the chicken over a medium-high heat for 5-6 mins, turning occasionally. Avoid crowding the pot by browning chicken in batches. Transfer the chicken to a plate using a slotted spoon or spatula and return the pot to the heat. Keep the chicken warm by covering in foil or placing in the oven on a low heat.
2. Add the remaining oil, butter and onions to the pot and cook over a medium heat, stirring often, for 10 mins, or until the onions are soft and lightly browned. Stir in the ginger and garlic paste and ground spices and cook, stirring continuously, for a further 1 min.
3. Add the mango chutney, stock, and coconut milk to the spiced onions and bring to a simmer. Add carrots and cook for about 20 minutes, or until sauce has reduced and carrots are tender.
4. Return the chicken to the pot, add frozen green beans, and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 5-6 mins, until the chicken and beans are piping hot and cooked through.
5. Garnish the curry with toasted flaked almonds and scatter with cilantro, if you like.

Note: If you want a thicker gluten-free curry, add a 1/2 cup of red lentils to the pot at the same time that you add the carrots. The lentils will break down as they cook.