Sourdough Soft Pretzels

I think it took me a little longer to fall into the sourdough-everything craze than it did some people, but that could be because I’ve been nurturing a little starter for some time now. Left with a bit of discard, though, from a (semi)weekly bake of my standard sourdough loaves, I decided to branch out from pancakes, and revisited the humble-but-stellar pretzel. Thus although I don’t have a clever or nostalgia-laced story to offer today, in an effort to get myself back into this blog-thing I supposedly have and considering that we mowed through the first batch of these in about twenty minutes and were already planning a second, they certainly seemed worth sharing!

I’m adapting two recipes here: one from King Arthur Baking Company (have you seen they’ve updated their name?!), and one from Smitten Kitchen, which she in turn adapted from Martha Stewart. The KAF (or, I guess, KABC?) recipe doesn’t include the traditional boiling step, moving their shaped dough straight into the oven after a single rise. I wanted the extra browning and chewy texture the baking soda boil offers (I have neither the materials nor the courage to use food grade lye… at least not yet…), so I used SK’s procedure for that part.

We had our half dozen chewy, slightly tangy results dunked in a beer cheese sauce – a simple, roux-thickened mix of stout, milk, mustard, and cheddar whisked into a smooth, thick cheese gravy,* and, in an attempt to be slightly virtuous, a side of sautéed cabbage.

Enjoy the sequence of pretzel-shaping shots below, featuring N. as my arm-and-hand model (he was also very keen to perfect his technique, so even though I told him he only needed to shape one pretzel while I photographed, he did three of the half dozen we made that night before I pushed him aside – I wanted to play with dough ropes too!).

* cheese gravy sounds weird, I know. But this had more body than just a sauce; it clung thickly to the pretzels and could have made a great macaroni and cheese base. It didn’t have the right ingredients or flavors to be a queso (Tex-Mex) or a fondue (Swiss), so I’m going to embrace the weirdness. Cheese gravy it is.

 

Sourdough Soft Pretzels
Adapted from King Arthur Baking Company and Smitten Kitchen
Makes 12 (but easily halved; I’ve included quantities for both below)
2-3 hours (it will take longer to twist and boil 12 pretzels than it does for 6)

 

For 12:
¾ cup + 2 TB water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 TB honey
1 cup sourdough starter, unfed / discard
3-3½ cups bread flour
¼ cup milk
1 TB butter
1½ teaspoons salt

 

For 6:
⅜ cup + 1 TB warm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
½ TB honey
½ cup sourdough starter, unfed / discard
1½-1¾ cups bread flour
2 TB milk
½ TB butter
¾ teaspoons salt

 

For the boil:
water to fill a 12-inch skillet
¼ cup baking soda
2 TB brown sugar

 

To bake:
Coarse salt or pretzel salt

 

  • Combine the yeast, warm water, and honey in a medium bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer). Let them sit for 5-10 minutes, until the mixture is bubbly and smells like bread. Add 1½ cups of the flour, and all of the sourdough starter, milk, butter, and salt.
  • Using the dough hook, knead into a smooth but slightly sticky dough; for me this took about 5 minutes on medium speed. If it really seems like it is too wet (too sticky), add the remaining ¼ cup of flour and knead at least 2 minutes longer.
  • Cover the dough and leave it to rest for 45 minutes, ideally in a warm place. It will only rise a little bit, so don’t be alarmed.
  • Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, then dump and pull your risen dough out onto a lightly floured board. Using a knife or a bench scraper, divide the dough into 12 even lumps (or 6 if you are making a half recipe).
  • Now the part that can seem intimidating: shaping the pretzels. Working with one piece of dough at a time, use your fingers and the palms of your hands to roll the lump or ball of dough into a long, even rope about 18 inches long. Above you can see N. measuring the one he’s working on. Note: too much flour on your board here is not a good thing. You don’t want the rope to stick (as you can see some of ours did), but you do need some friction or the dough will just slide around on the board instead of rolling and elongating.
  • Drape the 18-inch rope into a U shape on your board. Holding each end between your thumb and forefinger, but leaving the bottom of the U on the board, gently cross the left side over the right side about 2 inches from each end. Repeat, again crossing the (new) left side over the (new) right side so you have two twists in your pretzel. Now, again holding one end in each thumb and forefinger, flip the ends down to the bottom of the U shape to form a pretzel. Pinch the points where they intersect with the U a little bit to keep them in place. Gently but quickly, relocate your shaped pretzel to one of the lined baking sheets. Repeat with the remaining dough.
  • When you have twisted all 12 (or all 6) pretzels into shape, stow them in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This is a pretty soft dough, so plunging them right into the boil might result in disintegration.
  • While the pretzels chill, fill a 12-inch skillet about ¾ of the way with water and bring it to a boil. This is also a good time to preheat the oven to 350F, and to line an additional baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • After at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator, remove the tray(s) of pretzels and set them near the stovetop. Carefully, (carefully!), add the baking soda and brown sugar to the boiling water. There will be a lot of abrupt bubbling and fizzing! Stir gently to disperse and dissolve, then carefully add the pretzels 2 or 3 at a time. I find this should be done gently but with speed, to prevent the dough from stretching out of shape.
  • Let the pretzels boil in the bath for about 30 seconds, then use a strainer or spatula to flip. Boil another 30 seconds on the second side, then carefully, again using the strainer or spatula, remove the pretzels from the water and arrange them with space in between on the empty parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pretzels, letting the water come back to a boil between each batch. They won’t grow too much in the oven, but you don’t want to overcrowd them; I would suggest no more than 4 on each baking sheet unless they are very compact.
  • While the pretzels are still wet from the baking soda bath, sprinkle on some coarse salt or pretzel salt, then slide into the preheated oven and bake 25-30 minutes, until they are deeply golden and have a slightly crisp crust.
  • Remove from the oven and consume, with glee, as soon as they are cool enough to handle (or, if you’re me, a few minutes before that…).

Watermelon Gin Slushies

As I’m sure is true for many of you, over these past couple of weeks I’ve been discovering hidden treasures (and also “treasures”) in corners of my pantry, fridge, and freezer. One of the latter was a jar of apple butter I don’t want to talk about that I uncovered while cleaning up a spill on the top shelf of my refrigerator. One of the former was a small jar of instant coffee granules that allowed me to experiment with the recent “Dalgona coffee” trend various parts of the internet are extolling. Short story: you need equal parts of each component, it really does whip up like that, and it really is delicious (I’ve heard some people complain that “it still tastes like instant coffee, though.” So it’s only fair, I guess that I confess I’m not a coffee connoisseur). Next time I’m adding in some cocoa powder for a mocha version.

As I’m also sure is true for many of you, I’ve been very careful lately – much more careful than normal – about not letting food go to waste. If it’s in the fridge, it needs to be eaten. Even if I’m tired of it or it wasn’t my favorite. This has led to some creative triumphs – potatoes and lentils cooked with warm Indian-inspired spices, chard from the backyard stirred in to wilt, and topped with a scoop of yogurt and some of the char stems, thinly sliced and pickled – and some creative… well… one-time-only (features) – a pot pie with overly herbed filling and under-salted crust.

Most recently, I combined these two truths in a cocktail: it emptied the remaining few swallows in the bottle of gin I discovered unceremoniously jammed under several bags of almonds at the back of the freezer, and it allowed me to use up some chunks of watermelon from a pre-cut fruit medley N. really wanted but that wasn’t particularly ripe or flavorful.

This is not the most original, or seasonal, or precise of recipes. How’s that for a convincing argument? But honestly, I’m sure the internet has gushed widely about combining watermelon, some sort of alcohol, and ice in a blender and piling it into a tall, frosty glass for a perfect summer afternoon. I did the same (except it’s April, and my watermelon was on the edge). And I’d encourage you to do the same as well! These were bright, they were tasty (at first I wasn’t convinced, but then I realized that even though I knew they were gin and watermelon, I really wanted them to taste like strawberry margarita), and best of all, they are easily adaptable, and offer one small, boozy way to ensure you aren’t letting a single precious (or not-so-precious) item in your well-stocked fridge go unused.

Watermelon Gin Slushies
For 2 small cocktails
About 1 cup frozen watermelon chunks (or other fruit of your choice)
About 1 cup ice cubes
2 shots gin (or other alcohol of your choice)
2 TB simple syrup, or to taste *
juice of half a lime, or to taste
lime wedges, to serve

 

  • Once the watermelon has frozen quite solid, add it, along with everything else except the lime wedges, to a blender. Blend to combine using about 3-second pulses. My blender has a smoothie setting, which does effectively the same thing: short, high-speed pulses until the mixture has become an even-textured, pale pink slush.
  • Taste and adjust quantities of lime juice and sugar syrup to your liking. Blend again briefly to combine if needed, then pour into glasses, garnish with a thin lime wedge, and serve. We had ours with lemon and pepper spiced popcorn and wouldn’t change a thing.

* If you don’t have simple syrup, you can easily make up a batch while the watermelon freezes: just combine equal parts sugar and water in a small pot, bring to a simmer, stir briefly, and when all of the sugar has dissolved and the liquid is clear and just barely thickened, you’re done, and need only cool it down and find a suitable storage container.

On Unfrosted Cake

Growing up, we had one cake. This one. I mean, of course we ate other cakes: coffee cake was a breakfast time treat, and Mom made other recipes (plus there was that one boxed coconut cake from Sara Lee that came out of the freezer every so often), but this simple chocolate cake, a variant of the Depression era wacky cake or crazy cake, was the standby for celebrations. And though the original recipe called for a thick, sweet buttercream, we always frosted it with lightly sweetened whipped cream instead, artfully (or sometimes something less than artfully) swirled on with a knife or a rubber spatula or, if someone was feeling really fancy, an offset metal spatula that got just so close to the bakery-smooth finish I, at least, was always after.

So as you might expect, as I “leveled up” in the kitchen I tried some fancier finishes (though for THE cake I always went back to the whipped cream). I found the perfect cream cheese frosting recipe. I flirted with buttercreams of various kinds, and with varying success.

Lately, though, I’ve been appreciating the simple pleasure of unfrosted cakes. I don’t know if this is a result of binge-watching so much Great British Baking Show, on which the Victoria sandwiches are simply dusted with sugar, but there is something satisfying about plonking down a cake that you haven’t spent time fussing over.

I’ve made three unfrosted cakes of note recently. The first is an almond cake recipe from King Arthur Flour. I did this almost exactly as the site required, subbing in some almond meal for some of the almond flour, a move that I think was a good one, and now has me looking for places to add almond meal for flavor and texture (stay tuned on this for cookies…). The recipe also taught me an interesting twist on pan preparation, requiring a dusting of sugar instead of flour atop the butter or non-stick spray layer. This results in a lovely, crunchy sugar coating on the bottom and sides of the cake (though the bottom usually ends up not noticeable) and, if you have the presence of mind to add it 15 minutes or so before the baking time ends, on the top as well.

The second unfrosted cake I’ve made recently was a recipe from Tara Jensen’s cookbook/journal/mini-memoir A Baker’s Year. She calls it “groomsman cake,” celebrating the man she met at a friend’s wedding who entered her life with curiosity and bourbon. I may have overbaked mine a tad, since the resulting bundt was a bit less tender than I was expecting, but it was nothing a tumble of raspberries and a heaping scoop of whipped cream – my current favorite combination for cakes without frosting – couldn’t amend.

Finally, in a major blast from the past, I made a rum cake from deep in my mom’s recipe archives for a viewing party last weekend. “Why rum cake?” Mom asked, and the answer was more about linguistic cleverness than anything else: because if you make the cake using Bacardi, then you can call it “lightly thematic” because the brand name so resembles that of a certain former Starfleet captain now back on screen and invested in returning to the galaxy out there… This was not only nostalgic in the sense that I pulled it forward into the 21st century (or 24th?), but in its composition: boxed yellow cake mix. Instant vanilla pudding. A boiled sugar glaze. For the second time in recent cakery, a bundt pan. And Rum Cake? This cake means it. A full cup of dark rum, half baked into the tender sponge itself (which emerges a shocking dandelion yellow topped with toasty chopped pecans), and the other half stirred into that boiled glaze and drizzled slowly over the cake until it has all absorbed. When show-and-cake-time arrived, I pulled off the layer of aluminum foil I’d dressed the cake in for travel and was caught off guard by the heady fumes that rushed out. Fortunately we had a full hour of show to enjoy before anyone drove home.

Despite that leftovers of this cake need to be enjoyed more in the 3:30pm hour than in the 10:30 snack slot (and despite my snobby concerns about its less-than-from-scratch ingredient list), it is delicious. Tender. Moist (how could it not be?). Beautiful flavors, and the aggressiveness of the rum somehow mellowed overnight, though the kick lingers. And that makes it even better as a party option: you can – you should – make it the afternoon before, giving you less to fret about on the day of whatever gathering it’s invited to.

Of course, an unfrosted cake requires less dressy fuss in terms of presentation, too. No fancy cake pedestals necessary. A large plate, a simple platter, even a wooden cutting board will do, especially if you can add a stack of plates, forks, and a knife to it, so the moment you bring the cake to the table is the only one needed to get everyone eating.

Tell me. Are you a frosted or unfrosted fan? What’s your current favorite flavor combination, or serving vessel, or cake variety, that makes the buttercream and the fondant and the cream cheese feel unneeded? Leave a comment here and let’s talk cake!

Project Cook: Seeded Pumpkin Biscotti

A few weeks ago, Irvin from Eat the Love posted on his instagram feed that he wasn’t seeing many pumpkin recipes from the bloggers he follows, and both politely and in fun, essentially told everyone to step it up! Instantly (although I’m definitely not one of his favorites – I doubt he knows I exist!) I knew I wanted to make pumpkin biscotti, using one of his tricks (more on that later). I would stud them generously with pumpkin seeds since I’d had that bag of pepitas in the pantry forever,* and maybe some other nuts, and top them with coarse, crunchy sugar or a criss-crossed shiny glaze, and I’d be right on trend.

And then, of course, I didn’t. Instead we had friends over, and I graded papers, and the kitchen was too warm, and I lost track of my biscotti for a while, but this past weekend, in between setting out Halloween decorations (and, of course, more grading), I finally got down to it. Supplies bought, I went looking for the rest of the ingredients, and after tearing through my pantry shelves, realized the wellspring inspiration for the whole recipes – the pumpkin seeds – were nowhere to be found.

Cut to me, grumbling and grouchy, on an emergency trip to the nearest grocery store, scouring what felt like every aisle until I finally found some, in measly little 2 ounce packages, next to the cocktail peanuts. Project back on track.

For the base dough, I turned to the gurus at King Arthur Flour. While their recipe looks delicious, I knew I wanted to raise the stakes a bit with various sources of crunch, and – here’s where Irvin becomes important for this recipe again – I wanted to use his pumpkin trick of drying the puree out on the stove before integrating it into the recipe. The problem with pumpkin, as I’ve noted previously, is its massive moisture content. The KAF recipe contains only ½ cup pumpkin puree, likely because it’s so wet that adding much more would not allow for crunchy cookies. I figured since I was going to reduce the moisture so much I could increase that quantity by half. This would give me a dryer ingredient with a more intense pumpkin flavor.

But making my mixture less wet entailed potential recipe problems. Biscotti should be crunchy, but reducing moisture content too much could lead to stale-tasting cookies, or a mix that didn’t hold together properly. Time to do some research. My favorite biscotti recipe, from the very first issue of Bon Appétit I ever bought, is flavored with lemon and walnut and has become a family Christmas standard. It differs considerably from the KAF recipe for pumpkin biscotti, with more egg, a good bit more butter, and of course a staggering 3 cups of chopped walnuts I was not planning to come even close to. The recipe creation then became guesswork, which involved a series of texts between me and my sister to try and figure out how to proceed.

I settled on increasing the amount of egg and butter, but not quite as much as my old reliable standby. Since I’d be adding nuts and seeds, I also opted to change up KAF’s procedure a bit to match the one I was used to: rather than putting the shaped, sticky batter straight into the oven, I wrapped mine in plastic wrap (which also helps shape it – more below…), chucked it into the fridge for a few hours, and then unwrapped and baked it once it had firmed up.

My go-to lemon and walnut biscotti recipe advocates cooling the flattened dough logs completely after their first bake, then slicing, lying the cookies down on their cut sides, and baking again at low heat. The KAF recipe I was half-following suggests cutting while still hot, then baking again with the cookies standing up on their flat bottom edges. I was intrigued and tried this new way, and I might never go back. Yes, the slicing requires delicacy, especially because the pumpkin seeds and pistachio pieces are harder than the surrounding dough, but cooking them standing up means first: the coarse sugar you press into the top stays put, and second: they brown evenly on both sides. Even browning, sugar-crunch layer, and you can even fit more on the baking tray at once. Say no more. I’m sold.

But I guess really there is one more thing to say, and that’s our assessment. These are outstandingly delicious. They are spicy and crunchy and not too sweet, and though the pumpkin flavor is mild it’s definitely there. The sparkling coarse sugar on top is perfect against the earthiness of the nuts and pumpkin seeds inside. It’s a good thing I’m taking a batch in to work tomorrow, because by the time I remembered I should count how many cookies this recipe made to report here, we had already eaten… enough of them… that guesswork was required, and when I realized I was eating what might have been my fourth in an hour or so, I sentenced them all to wait in a hard-to-open Tupperware on top of the fridge with the Halloween candy so they would be harder to access. We will certainly make these again, as should you. And I’ve already plotted out a version with amped up ginger and chopped dried apples for Christmas. Move over, lemon and walnut standard. Or at least be ready to share the plate.

* for a clear explanation of the difference between pepitas and plain old pumpkin seeds, see here.

Seeded Pumpkin Biscotti
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes approximately 3 dozen
About 4 hours (including resting time) or overnight
1 cup pumpkin puree
½ cup pepitas
½ cup roughly chopped pistachios
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
⅔ cups granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
scant ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon flax seeds
2-3 tablespoons coarse sugar, such as turbinado or demerara, for sprinkling

 

  • In a small skillet, cook the pumpkin puree over high or medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the color has deepened and the puree has dried and has a texture something like a thick, crusted frosting. It will be reduced by about half. Set aside to cool.
  • While the pumpkin puree is reducing, if desired, toast the pepitas and chopped pistachios in a 300F oven for about 10 minutes. Set these aside to cool as well.
  • In a large bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer, cream together the butter and granulated sugar. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt, and baking powder, and beat with the paddle attachment until smooth and creamy.
  • Beat in the eggs and the cooled pumpkin puree until well combined. The pumpkin will take a minute or two to fully integrate.
  • With the mixer on low speed, add the flour a ½ cup at a time, then the flax seeds and the cooled pepitas and pistachios. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl once or twice to ensure everything is mixed in. The resulting mixture will be very sticky.
  • Cut two pieces of cling wrap and spread them out on a clean counter. With a determined spatula, scrape half the dough mixture onto each. Using the plastic wrap, push and mold the dough into two long rectangles of about 10 x 2½ inches. Wrap them up in the plastic wrap, put them on a cookie sheet or other flat tray, and stow in the fridge for at least two hours, or overnight.
  • When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Retrieve the dough logs from the refrigerator, unwrap them from the plastic wrap, and position them an inch or two apart from one another on a parchment lined baking sheet. Sprinkle the tops with the 2-3 tablespoons coarse sugar, then use your hand to spread the sugar evenly and gently press it in to the top of the dough a bit so it adheres.
  • Bake the dough logs for 25 minutes; they will be just firm. Remove from the oven and let cool 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, reduce the oven temperature to 325F.
  • After 10-15 minutes, use a sharp serrated knife to cut the logs crosswise into ½ inch slices. Use a gentle sawing motion to avoid breaking up the slices, which will still be very delicate at this point. Some of the nuts and seeds will be harder to cut through. Be sure to cut as straight up and down as possible; if the biscotti are thicker on the top than the bottom, they won’t stand up correctly for their second baking.
  • Stand the biscotti on their bottom edges on the same parchment lined baking sheet you used to bake the flattened logs. They can be fairly close together but should not be touching. Carefully return the pan to the 325F oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, until they are getting golden brown around the edges. They will still be soft in the middle.
  • KAF recommends turning off the oven, cracking the door, and allowing the biscotti to cool completely while inside, likely to ensure the finished cookies are crunchy. I did not do this because I had something else I needed to bake; I cooled them in the oven only 5 or 10 minutes, then removed the pan to a counter top and let them cool completely. Mine were still perfectly crisp all the way through.
  • Serve when completely cooled. Perfect with coffee, chai or other tea, or straight off the pan.

King Arthur Flour (Cherry) Brownies

For several years now, I’ve been pursuing the perfect brownie. Most brownie aficionados battle over fudgy vs. cakey or center vs. edge (speaking of which, are you aware of this piece of kitchen equipment?). My quest, though, is all about the flaky, shiny top. The perfect brownie, for me (aside from being fudgy-but-not-too-fudgy-and-definitely-a-center-piece-thanks-very-much), has a deep chocolate flavor, fairly dense texture, but then a crispy, wafer-like layer that magically forms during baking and, once cool, reflect the light back as you gaze lovingly at it before gobbling it up.

But the recipes I’ve tried don’t always have that result. I’ve definitely accomplished the deep, rich chocolate flavor, but the shiny top crust eludes me. I’ve tried suggestions to beat the eggs a long time, getting them really foamy, and I’ve read several ideas about chocolate chips, rather than unsweetened chocolate, as the source of the flaky shine. I haven’t yet achieved it myself, though.

But as of last weekend, I’ve come really close. There was a hint of a top layer, just barely flaky, and though it wasn’t consistently shiny, I could see the barest shimmer in a few spots. Like the tarte au citron au David Lebovitz a few months ago, this isn’t my recipe. It’s from King Arthur Flour. But I’m offering a suggestion or two and one very worthwhile addition, so that ideally our next pan of brownies comes out perfect.

KAF relies on two sources of chocolate in their mix: unsweetened cocoa powder, and the aforementioned chocolate chips. It seems the chips add just enough additional fat and sugar to the mix to help form that flaky sheen as the brownies bake. KAF also requires you to melt the butter and partially dissolve the sugar before bringing the batter together. It’s a little extra work, but getting the sugar dissolved faster is evidently part of the magic.

The recipe I’m linking to below suggests melting the butter, then stirring in the sugar and bringing it up to 110-120F, mixing that into the egg and cocoa mixture you’ve already created, and then dumping in flour, 2 cups of chocolate chips, and stirring “until smooth.” I surmised this means until the chips have melted into the rest of the mixture, but for me, by the time I was stirring in the chips the rest of the batter had cooled down enough that there wasn’t enough residual heat to melt them, and I didn’t want to keep mixing lest I start developing the gluten in the flour and end up with tough brownies. So next time, and what you might try in the meantime, is to add the chips right into the melted butter and sugar mixture. Stir them up to get them good and melted before combining with the rest of the ingredients. Maybe that, at long last, will produce the shattering shininess I’ve been craving.

One other adjustment to KAF’s already delicious recipe: for added interest and to cut sweetness a bit, I dumped in a heaping cup of tart dried cherries along with the chips and flour. My tasters found this an extremely worthwhile addition; studded with tart little pops, the brownies become more complex in flavor, and the cherries plump a little during baking and stay moist for several days afterward. I considered steeping the cherries in brandy for a half hour or so before mixing them in, but one of my taste testers is pregnant, so this time around I skipped the booze and was perfectly satisfied.

You can find the King Arthur Flour recipe I worked with here.

If you would like to add cherries, as I did, mix 1 heaping cup of tart dried cherries (such as Montmorency) into the batter along with the flour, then proceed as in the KAF recipe.

Project Cook: Espresso Cake with Cardamom Buttercream

Theologically, pride is commonly understood as the most serious of the seven deadly sins. For medieval Christian thinkers, it was the wellspring: the sin from which all other sins derived. Some writers interpreted that Lucifer – the morning star, the best and most beautiful of the angels – was ousted from Heaven because he exhibited pride: in trying to rise above his station, rule over others, or see himself as equal with God, he was guilty of pride and thus cast out. In Paradise Lost Milton famously equates Lucifer with Satan, showing the extremes of pride as a sin: rather than simply being cast out of heaven, he is thrown all the way to Hell.

I think, though, that as dangerous as pride may be, I have a right to feel it about this dish. I’ve been rewatching the first two seasons of The Great British Baking Show with its new cast (quick assessment: I love and miss Mel and Sue dearly, but I think Noel and Sandi are doing a fine job, and I think I might prefer Prue to Mary Berry just a tad – she doesn’t let Paul get away with as much. Happy to hear your thoughts, fellow obsessors…), and I’m certain that was the source of my inspiration. Certainly it was how I came to the combination of coffee and cardamom.

This is a glorious play of flavors. Each component of the cake – the sponge, the filling, and the buttercream – has its own star. Together it is a layered, complex combination, but each part is uncrowded. The cake, one of the moistest I’ve ever made, pulls together buttermilk, vegetable oil, and eggs to ensure a tender, luscious crumb. Strong black coffee and instant espresso add flavor, but surprisingly, that flavor is subtle – a suggestion with a sneaky kick of caffeine rather than the bitter slap a cup of the stuff can have.

Cardamom flavors the buttercream, and here I decided I wanted something new. I’ve dabbled in American buttercream before, and though I’ve achieved praiseworthy fluffiness and pipe-able texture, it remains as a product overwhelmingly, tooth achingly sweet. There are other buttercreams out there – French and Swiss and Italian – that rely on eggs, rather than pounds of powdered sugar, for their structure. In part to assuage the sweetness problem but in larger part because I have all this meringue powder left from my royal icing experiment a few weeks ago, I decided to try one out, and I was magnificently rewarded: the Italian buttercream that enrobed the cake was fluffy and rich but surprisingly light, spicy from the cardamom and not overly sweet, and it spread and piped like a dream (the first time I typed cream. Appropriate I’d say, Mr. Freud).

Italian buttercream, for all its advantages, is a bit of a terrifying bother to make. I used a King Arthur Flour recipe, which worked perfectly, but this component is a project in itself as it requires bringing a sugar syrup up beyond boiling temperature, making a meringue, pouring the molten sugar syrup carefully into the bowl of meringue while mixing, and then running your mixer until the whole thing cools by more than 100 degrees. Even then, you aren’t done: you next have to incorporate masses of butter, which can be neither too hot nor too cold, and you have to sit patiently through what looks like certain disaster as the whole bowl you’ve now coddled along for the last half hour suddenly turns into a sloppy, almost curdled-looking mess. But you have to be strong, and keep mixing, and eventually it does start to smooth and fluff and turn into buttery clouds.

With all this richness, the filling in between needed to be sharp and fresh, to provide contrast and keep the dessert from getting sickly. I went with plums: stone fruit of any kind works beautifully with the slight citrus notes of cardamom, but I think plums, with their sometimes surprisingly tart bite that I’m convinced comes from the oh-so-thin layer of bright red in between their skins and flesh, are the best pairing. Simmered down with a bit of sugar and a healthy squeeze of lemon, they made a successful quasi-jam to spread between the layers.

You may have noticed there are no pictures of slices, or of the artful “cake with a section missing” to show off the layers. There’s a very good reason for this: I had no real occasion to make this cake. I just wanted to bake, and with a surprisingly free weekend as a result of – ahem – not very many assignments turned in on time, I launched into the creation of what sounded like a delightful dessert. To avoid, therefore, eating the whole thing ourselves, I took the whole cake to work and left it in the mailroom for my colleagues to enjoy. I left it there in the 7am hour, and when I went to pick up my dish in the early afternoon, only crumbs remained. Don’t feel bad for N. and me, though. I always carve off the rounded tops when I’m going to make a layer cake, and those can’t go to waste… we sampled and then resampled and then decimated them (pride giving way to gluttony?), with a fair sampling of both the jam and the frosting. And let me tell you something: for years, despite my experiments with whisky, with champagne, with fruit, with mousse, N. has demanded only one cake for every birthday, anniversary, or what have you. But after our sampling-turned-gorge, he said it might be okay to sub this in for The Cake once in a while. So sin or not, wellspring or not, I must admit feeling justified in my pride.

Espresso Cake with Cardamom Buttercream
Cake and buttercream adapted from Molly Yeh and King Arthur Flour, respectively
Makes a 4 layer cake from two 8 or 9 inch rounds
For the cake:
1½ cups sugar
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoon baking powder
2-3 teaspoons instant espresso powder
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla
¾ cups strong, cold coffee (I used a cold brew concentrate from Trader Joe’s)
For the filling:
6 plums
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ cup sugar
For the Italian buttercream:
¼ cup water
⅝ cups sugar
¼ cup meringue powder
½ cup water
pinch salt
3 tablespoons sugar
3 sticks butter (24 tablespoons or ¾ of a pound) at a cool room temperature, cut into chunks
1-2 teaspoons ground cardamom

 

  • To make the cake, first preheat the oven to 350F and butter or spray two 8 or 9 inch cake pans with nonstick spray. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and soda, and instant espresso. In another bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients: eggs, buttermilk, oil, vanilla, and coffee. Carefully pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and fold together just until everything is well incorporated. Be sure to scrape down the sides and check the bottom of the bowl for hidden clumps of flour.
  • Pour and scrape the batter into your prepared cake pans so each holds an even amount. Bake in the preheated 350F oven for 30-35 minutes, but begin checking for doneness at around 28 minutes. When done, a cake tester or toothpick inserted should have only a few moist crumbs. Remove from the oven and cool in pans for at least ten minutes, before removing from pans to cool completely on a wire rack.
  • While the cakes are cooling, make the filling. I opted not to peel the plums because I like the color and the texture the skins offer, but you can if you want: cut a small x in the bottom of each whole plum and immerse in boiling water for about 30 seconds. The skin should peel off fairly easily. Slice and pit the plums and dump them into a medium pot.
  • Skins or not, slice and pit the plums and add them, the lemon juice, and the sugar to a medium pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, and cook until the plums have broken down and the mixture has slightly thickened. For me, this took around 20 minutes. Scrape out of the pot and into a bowl (to cool faster) and set aside to cool completely.
  • Once both cakes and jam have completely cooled, you can set to work on the buttercream. Start the ¼ cup water and ⅝ cups sugar cooking in a small pot. Check the temperature occasionally – it needs to come to 240F. While that is heating, make the meringue by whisking together the meringue powder, the ½ cup water, and the pinch of salt in the bowl of a stand mixer on high speed until you can see tracks forming in the fluffy white mixture. With the mixer running, sprinkle in the 3 tablespoons sugar and continue beating until the mixture is stiff.
  • When the sugar syrup has reached 240F, carefully remove it from the heat and even more carefully, with the mixer running on medium-low speed, pour all of the hot syrup slowly down the side of the bowl. Once it is incorporated, turn the mixer speed back up to high or medium high and continue whisking until the meringue mixture cools to at least 80F. KAF suggests you can speed this up by wrapping the bowl in ice packs, and I found this worked well.
  • As soon as the meringue cools the 80F (and no sooner!), turn the mixer speed down to medium and begin incorporating the butter a few pieces at a time, allowing them to fully integrate before adding more. When most of the butter is in the mix, add the cardamom: 1 teaspoon if you want a mild flavor, 2 teaspoons for a more assertive flavor.
  • After all the butter is added, keep on whisking. At a certain point the mixture will collapse on itself and look like a greasy, clumpy mess. Don’t despair. Just keep on mixing. As long as your meringue was no warmer than 80F when you started adding and your butter wasn’t melted, eventually it will start to smooth and get fluffy, and you’ll have frosting.
  • To assemble the whole thing, use a long serrated knife to carefully carve the rounded tops off each cake, then slice each in half for four thin layers. On a cake plate or cardboard round, place the first layer bottom side down (that is, the side that touched the bottom of the cake pan). (Reserve the other bottom for the very top layer; this allows for a flat, less crumb-y layer on the top.) Scoop a generous amount of buttercream into a piping bag fitted with a tip that has a wide opening of any shape. Pipe a circle of buttercream around the top edge of the bottom cake layer to create a border so the filling won’t escape. Inside this border, spoon about ⅓ of the plum jam and use the back of a spoon to carefully spread it out just to the buttercream.
  • Place another layer of cake on top of this buttercream and jam, lining it up carefully so it’s even with the one below. Repeat the border of buttercream and ⅓ of the plum jam.
  • Repeat for the third layer – you should now have used up all of the plum jam.
  • Stack the final cake layer with the bottom side (that is, the side that originally touched the cake pan) facing up.
  • To create a crumb coat, use an offset spatula to smooth a thin layer of frosting all the way around the cake. The idea here is to catch any crumbs that detach from the cake in this thin layer so when you add the rest of the frosting it will not have any tell-tale cake crumbs in the smooth frosting.
  • Scoop and pile all but about 1 cup of frosting onto the top of the cake and use an offset spatula to gently move it toward, down, and around the sides, until you have a smooth, even layer all the way around. Scoop the remaining cup or so of frosting into a piping bag fitted with a tip of your choosing – I used a large star tip – and decorate as desired.