Sunday, February 5, 2012

When You Absolutely, Positively, Need a Chocolate Birthday Cake by Tomorrow

Last Sunday evening, I set out to make a chocolate birthday cake.

Not just any chocolate cake.  It was a recipe for the signature three layer chocolate cake from Gibson's Restaurant.  It was published in a magazine in which my dear friend had several articles published in the same issue.  So I thought, "Wouldn't it be THE chocolate cake to brag about at his birthday?"

I studied the recipe, and the only part that worried me slightly was the last two phrases, which said, "pan and bake at 350 for about 25-30 minutes.  Frost with chocolate butter cream and serve."  The magazine did not include a recipe for chocolate butter cream.  But I have a kick-ass Hershey's frosting recipe, so that would do.  But there was the "pan and bake" part.  The photo clearly showed three luscious layers, so I used three 8-inch cake pans.  (I only have two 9-inch pans, so....  I improvised).

My son loves to act as my sous chef, and he knows his way around my KitchenAid mixer.  One pound of butter, five eggs, a whole heap of cocoa powder and cake flour later, I realized this recipe was probably meant for a restaurant kitchen with an industrial-sized mixer -- not a home kitchen like mine.  When adding the wet ingredients alternately with the dry ingredients, let's just say..... spatterage happens.  My son ducked and ran for cover.

The pans, admittedly, were filled a little more than I would normally feel comfortable with, but I was in the mood to just go for it.  I put the three layers in the oven and placed cookie sheets strategically on the rack underneath the layers, just in case there would be drips.

I watched periodically through the oven door.

The cake layers puffed up high on the sides like souffles, at first.  I was alright with this.  What happened next I was not prepared for.  I witnessed the mostly-crusted, cooked side of one of the layers break away under a flow of cake batter that took it over the side.  It flowed like lava pouring out of a volcano.  It kept going, and going, and going.  I watched in dismay as this process continued with the second, then the third cake pan.  It must have been 10 minutes or longer that I watched my science experiment unfold.  My son, who was passing by the kitchen, asked, "Mom, how long are you going to sit there and look through the oven door?"

"I've just never seen anything like this happen before," I replied.  (Please note that I am not what I consider to be a baking novice.)

The cake batter created stalagmites on the "drip pans" I had placed under them.  But the first drops had now started to burn -- and smoke -- so I had to switch them out before my smoke alarm was alerted.  All I could do now was hope the lava mudslide would end, and the layers could continue cooking through without the bottoms burning and becoming one with the pans.

What if the chocolate cake tasted horrid?

I cut a chunk off one of the stalagmites and offered it to my son.  He has watched too many cooking shows on TV, by the way.  As he tasted the sample, he said, "Chewy,.... sugary,....... tastes good."  I exhaled.  Then he said, "It's just not as..... TALL as I thought."  He was referring to the three layer, towering cake in the photo along with the recipe.

The layers eventually cooked to what I thought was the right consistency.  After some cooling time, I began the process of prying the cake layers out of the pans.  The first two were manageable with only a slight amount of damage that could be rescued by frosting.  The third layer didn't bake all the way through and about a third of it stuck to the pan.

My kitchen looked destroyed.  It looked like I somehow shredded the cake.  There were crumbs all over just about every surface.

The next morning I put together the surviving layers and produced what I think was a pretty darn good chocolate cake.

My plans for the remaining layer was a recipe from my Southern Living at Home days.  I used to make this Brownie Trifle for "death by chocolate" parties.  It involved soaking a pan of brownies in Kahlua, then crumbling them for a layer in the trifle.  Since I already had a chocolate cake layer in shambles, what did I have to lose?

Don't you just want to dive into those pillowy layers of pudding, whipped topping, and toffee bits?  Yep, I almost did.  For breakfast.

All is well that ends well.  For me, chocolate cake is good when it's moist, pure, and has just the right amount of crumb.  I like it to be firm, but not dry.  I have to say that the Gibson's recipe taught me several new lessons in baking.  But I'd say the recipe is a keeper.

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