With all resolutions already broken (is lasting until April/May admirable or shameful?) and all high-flying expectations for weekly updates dashed (how does Pioneer Woman do it?), all I can do is shamefully offer you a guilt, chocolate, and liqueur laced update.
More than twenty years ago, my mom acquired this cookbook. Simple, humble, kid-friendly instructions (“stir real hard”), bright pictures of anthropomorphized food, and one recipe for each letter of the alphabet. This was a cookbook intended to get kids into the kitchen with their parents. This was a cookbook intended to make kids interested in cooking. We tried out a few of the recipes, and my dad even became an expert in P: Pocket Pizzas, but then we got stuck on the X page and never looked back.
X is for eXtra Special Chocolate Celebration Cake.
This cake is good. I mean, this cake is GOOOOOD. Since finding it, with very few exceptions, this has been the cake my family makes for every birthday, every celebration, every party. I’ve made it for Academy Awards parties, I’ve made it for my husband, my mom and I made it for my Rehearsal Dinner, and most recently I made a gluten-free, Ph-Ph version. But then our friend S. invited us over for dinner, and through luck of the draw we were assigned to bring dessert. I asked N. what I should bring, and he said “chocolate cake.” I said, “well, the dinner is sort of Italian themed.” N. said “chocolate cake.” I told him that wasn’t really Italian, and he said “that’s their fault, isn’t it?!” This was not a question, it was a proclamation. I resigned myself to making chocolate cake. It’s not that I don’t like it (in fact I love it; see list of occasions above!), it’s just that I’ve made it so many times, and it’s so easy, and it always comes out perfect, and I guess I was looking for a challenge.
Then I had a revelation. I adore tiramisu. N. wanted chocolate cake. Why not blasphemously, worshipfully, impossibly, combine the two? Chocolate tiramisu cake surrounded (just for fun) by chocolate-covered strawberries. Yes.
Here’s the basic recipe, and below are my additions:
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp white vinegar
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups cold water
Preheat the oven to 350F, grease and flour 2 9-inch round cake pans (I use cocoa powder instead of flour, which doesn’t leave white residue on the outside of this dark brown cake).
In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients well, whisking or stirring until it looks a little pink from the cocoa powder.
In a small bowl (I just use my 2-cup glass measuring cup), combine the oil, vinegar, and vanilla.
Add the oil mixture and the water to the dry ingredients. As the Alpha-Bakery cookbook advises, “stir real hard” for 2 minutes or so. The cocoa sometimes clumps up, and you want a smooth, lump-less batter.
When batter is smooth, dark, richly delicious, pour even amounts into the two pans, tapping the bottoms gently on the counter once they are full to pop little air bubbles. Then enclose them in the oven for about 35 minutes, or until a tester comes out just clean. The tops will be springy and moist, and I have found that just the barest crumb clinging to the tester is fine, as they continue to cook while you let them cool for at least twenty minutes in their pans.
When the cakes were cool enough to liberate, breakage free, from the pans, I turned them upside down on my cooling rack and drizzled Kahlua onto the spongy, porous bottoms until it pooled a little rather than being instantly drunk in. I continued to do this at intervals while the cakes cooled completely. I probably used at least a ¼ cup all together.
While the drunken cakes continued to cool, I washed and dried a dozen or so strawberries and started some semi-sweet chocolate squares melting in a glass bowl over barely simmering water, which I robed the strawberries in.
My trusty stand mixer stood ready to receive:
an 8-oz. container of mascarpone cheese,
¼ cup of sugar,
a few tablespoons of amaretto
I whipped these into a light, creamy frosting. I tasted some and swooned just a little. With the bottom layer of cake gently centered on my cake stand (with parchment paper lining the edges, of course, to keep the stand clean while I iced the cake), I spread about ¾ of the cheese mixture on the bottom cake layer. Since there was a little bit of chocolate left in my makeshift double boiler, even after receiving and coating all of the strawberries, I waited for it to cool off just a little, then drizzled it on top of the cheese filling layer, figuring a little extra chocolate wouldn’t hurt. Then I added a pint of heavy whipping cream, a little more sugar, and a little more amaretto to my stand mixer and started it whipping while I carefully positioned the top cake layer atop the mascarpone and chocolate.
I iced the whole thing, top and sides, with light clouds of almond scented cream. I probably added an inch of frosting atop and on all sides, then sifted a few teaspoons of cocoa powder around the top of the cake.
N. and I agreed (as did S. and her other guests) that this was the best incarnation of this cake I had ever made. The Kahlua added the coffee flavor and liqueur touch that tiramisu seems to require, but it didn’t overwhelm the cake with sweetness. One of the best things about this cake is that it has solid cocoa flavor without being tooth-tinglingly sweet. The Kahlua was a buzz-suggesting addition and kept the already moist layers almost fragile-tender.
The chocolate in the middle hardened as it cooled and made a crunchy layer on top of the creamy cheese. The amaretto lent aroma and a warmth that was almost flavor to the whipped cream, and the mascarpone made it creamier without weighing it down. We ate large, thick slices, tempering the richness with the fresh sweet punch of chocolate-covered strawberries, letting the juice trickle onto the whipped cream and add yet another dimension of flavor.