Before I left for Europe, I thought that a vacation would do me good. With ten days to recharge away from the usual stresses of work and home, I thought I would come back and be ready to hit the ground running.
But boy, how wrong I was!
It's almost as if my vacation had the opposite effect. Instead of being ready and motivated to go, I find myself still daydreaming of sleeping in, eating unabashedly, and aimlessly wandering around European cities without any obligations to meet or errands to run. And it certainly didn't help that when I got home, I had over 300 emails in my work inbox and a nasty letter from my insurance company stating that my home insurance was denied because of moss on the roof.
As for baking and my blog, I'm not going to lie: I am completely and utterly unmotivated to bake. Perhaps it's because I consider baking and blogging a bit of a respite from my everyday stresses and, when it comes down to it, baking doesn't really hold a candle to a European vacation. In any case, this week, I've been treating baking and blogging as more of a chore — that is, another thing I had to do in addition to clearing out my inbox, wrangling with my insurance company on the phone, etc.
In my defense, this recipe wasn't the most helpful in terms of reintroducing me into the world of baking. Eager to relive some of the fun times during my holiday (specifically, the moment in which I had THIS cupcake), I opted to make the Hummingbird Bakery's Brooklyn Blackout cake. However, I had ignored the cookbook's warning that it was for advanced bakers — rolling my eyes at the disclaimer, I cockily thought to myself that, of course I was an "advanced baker". I mean, I have a baking blog, for goodness's sake! If that's not "advanced baking", I don't know what is.
But unfortunately, despite my initial confidence, this recipe ultimately defeated me. The recipe has several finnicky steps and really strange quantities of ingredients. My first batch of the cake's frosting — a deep, fudge chocolate fudge that's too thick to be a ganache but too thin to be a custard — came out with the texture of clay. Thinking that I had missed a step or made a mistake along the way, I remade the frosting the following day, only to have the exact same results. It was only on my third try (along with some personal tweaks to the ingredient quantities and recipe steps) that I was able to get the consistency I wanted. Of course, by that point, since I had made the cake base in advance, it had gone stale and I needed to remake the cake.
See why this cake was a chore? What a disaster.
Finally, after about three days of remaking this elements of this cake over and over again, I had the final product in front of me. I was admittedly already a little skeptical. The final step of the recipe had instructed me to slice a thin layer off of one of the chocolate cake bases, grind it up into crumbs, and sprinkle it all over the cake for a textured look. While these crumbs had looked great on the cupcake, the crumbs on the cake made the cake appear like a small, wooly animal. Or, if I'm being an even harsher critic, the crumbs made the cake look like it had gone moldy... right?
But then I took a bite.
Instantly, my cynicism disappeared. Fluffy, chocolate cake layered between rich chocolate frosting so thick, I'm convinced that it's actually fudge. With each bite, all my frustrations with the recipe (and everything else in my life) melted away until I was left with a clean plate, wanting another slice. And sure enough, after slice number two, I was ready to take on my work inbox and insurance company head-on.
This, guys, is why I bake.
Some baker's notes:
- I didn't get a chance to talk about the history of Brooklyn Blackout cake up top, but wanted to make a point of discussing it since it has a bit of an interesting story (which I gathered from this Capital article and this New York Times article). Brooklyn Blackout cake is a type of Devil's Food chocolate cake that was popularized in 1989 by Ebinger's, a baking company in Brooklyn, New York. It differs from regular chocolate cake in that, instead of using a frosting made from butter or cream cheese, it uses a "custard" frosting. The custard is actually more of a halfway point between a thin ganache and a thick custard — in my post above, I liken it to a spreadable fudge. Brooklyn Blackout cake was a popular recipe in the 60s and 70s, but faded from fashion around the 80s when Ebinger's went out of business. Today, there are only a handful of bakeries in New York that sell the cake.
- This recipe, adapted from my beloved The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, was one of the trickiest I've used in some time. Making the cake is the easy part — it's really the custard frosting that you have to worry about. But let me begin with the warning that I am the world's worst custard maker. Often times, I'm too impatient and almost always undercook/underthicken the custard, leaving me with a custard that is too thin. But for this recipe, it is incredibly important that you cook and allow things to boil exactly as it's stated in the recipe — or, you'll end up with custard that has the texture of clay. Trust me on this one.
- Similarly, this is a recipe where it's absolutely essential to use either a freestanding electric mixer with a whisk attachment or a handheld electric whisk for mixing some ingredients together. Specifically, I'm talking about the step in the custard recipe where you have to whisk in a large quantity of cornstarch with a small quantity of water — do this by hand, and you will either end up with a tired wrist and/or a broken whisk.
- Plan ahead! The custard needs to be chilled for a few hours, preferably overnight.
- After frosting the cake, immediately sprinkle with chocolate cake crumbs — if you wait to do this, the frosting will harden and the crumbs will not stay on the cake.
Brooklyn Blackout Cake
(Adapted from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook)
For the Chocolate Cake Base:
(makes two 8-inch pans, or, four Brooklyn Blackout layers)
- 6 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
- 2 eggs, at room temperature
- 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- a pinch of salt
- 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2/3 cup whole milk
For the Chocolate Custard Frosting:
(makes enough for one 8-inch, 4-layer cake)
- 2 1/2 cups water plus 1/2 cup water, separated
- 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
- 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- a scant 2/3 cup cornstarch
- 5 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the Chocolate Cake Base:
- Preheat the oven to 325. Prepare two 8-inch round baking pans by lining the bottom with parchment paper, and spraying both the parchment paper and the pan liberally with cooking spray
- In a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment (or, use a handheld electric whisk), combine 6 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter and 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar and cream until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add 2 eggs one at a time, only adding the next egg when the first egg has been fully incorporated into the mixture.
- Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Turn the mixer back on to its lowest speed and beat in 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, 3/4 teaspoon baking powder, 3/4 teaspoon baking soda and a pinch of salt. Continue mixing until just combined, then add half of of the 1 1/3 cup flour, then 2/3 cup cup whole milk, and finish with the remainder of the flour. Continue mixing until just combined.
- Divide the batter evenly into 2 pans, using a rubber spatula to spread the batter evenly across its pan. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and the tops of the cakes bounce back when gently poked with your finger. Let the cake layers cool slightly in the pans before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Remove the parchment circles from the tops of the cakes.
For the Chocolate Custard:
- Combine 2 1/2 cups water, 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon light corn syrup, and 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder into a large sauce pot and bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking occasionally.
- In the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment (or, use a handheld whisk), combine 2/3 cup cornstarch with the remaining 1/2 cup water, whisking on medium speed as you add the water to the cornstarch. The mixture should be the consistency of thick glue, and should be relatively lump-free. Keep mixing until all the major lumps have dissolved.
- Once the cornstarch mixture is the appropriate thickness, transfer to a liquid measuring cup and slowly pour into the cocoa mixture in the pan (from the first step), whisking constantly. Keep at medium heat, but bring back to a boil, whisking constantly. Continue cooking until the mixture is quite thick — this should take at least 5 to 10 minutes.
- Once the mixture has thickened, remove from heat and use a rubber spatula to stir in 5 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter and 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract until completely melted and fully incorporated into the mixture.
- At this point, the custard should be thick and shiny, but still pliable and easy to work with. It should have the texture of really soft butter. Transfer the custard to a 9 x 13 inch baking pan or glass casserole dish, spreading the custard out evenly across the pan. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic wrap directly on the custard to prevent a skin from forming. Chill until completely cool, preferably overnight. When the custard is ready to use, it should have the texture of margarine.
Putting It All Together:
- Use a serrated knife to level the 2 chocolate cakes by slicing off the domes off the top of each cake. Save the excess cake (also known as the baker's reward) and set aside. Using your serrated knife, cut each cake into two individual pieces by carefully slicing each cake horizontally through its center. At this point, you should have 4 thin cakes for each layer of the cake.
- Put one layer on a cake stand and spread 1/4 cup of the chocolate custard over it. Place the second layer on top and spread another 1/4 cup of custard over it. Repeat until all layers are used, spreading the remaining custard over the top and sides of the cake.
- Take the excess cake (baker's reward) that you saved from the first step and place them in a food processor, processing into crumbs. Cover the freshly-frosted cake with the crumbs and chill for 2 hours, before bringing back to room temperature and serving.