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.

Project Cook: Slow Braised Pork Tacos

A few years ago my sister told me it would be nice if, in addition to number of servings, I included in my blog recipes how long the dish took to prepare. I grumbled inwardly about this, since pausing to take photos and make notations on my scribbled plans made any time span I provided an approximation, but decided it was a good idea and put it into practice. A little later, I started buying cookbooks highlighting Middle Eastern food written by an Israeli chef who works in Britain (by now you probably know who I’m talking about by now) who doesn’t typically provide an estimate of total preparation time for his recipes. More than once, I was caught by unexpected directions like “simmer 40 minutes” or even “let sit overnight” that I hadn’t noticed in my initial skim through the recipe, and suddenly dinner was off the rails. My fault for not reading carefully, but still, a little up front estimate would be helpful.

Especially in the food blog world, in which I know some people read for the reading experience, but some people Google a main ingredient they are hoping to cook in the next hour, this time estimate seems particularly important. But again, especially in this forum in which we seem to have decided a story must precede the recipe, as I tell my students, you want to use your time efficiently. Thus if I promise you a perfectly smooth custard and you think “great, that’s dessert, let’s get started” to see only after reading about how well it went over at my latest dinner party that the custard base needs to chill for two hours, well, you’re back to your search engine and starting over again.

All this to say, I think initial warning is needed, so as you can see above I’m instituting a new label: “Project Cook.” This is to designate a dish that is fairly complicated to make, or takes a long time, or uses multiple cooking methods, and thus you’ll know whether to avoid it or to launch in with a full and lazy afternoon to work your way through. As time and memory permit, I’ll go back and apply the label through the archives.

So as you might expect, to launch this label I’m offering something that takes a long time and uses multiple cooking methods. These slow braised pork tacos are a riff on a recipe by Melissa D’Arabian, and though mine take longer, they are actually a bit pared down in terms of equipment and steps, since instead of braising in the oven, I turn to my slow cooker. That means although the pork needs to simmer away in the slow cooker for 7-8 hours, and then ideally it needs to sit in the fridge overnight (unless you’re starting this thing at 8 in the morning the day you want these tacos), after an initial sear and sweating of vegetables this is mostly hands off, which is perfect if, like me, you have a lot of planning to do for a semester that suddenly, now that it’s February, feels a lot closer than it did last week…

Let’s work through what’s happening here: if possible, salt the pork a day or two before cooking. Everything I’m reading (and watching – have you seen Salt Fat Acid Heat yet??) lately about cooking meat suggests the seasoning process begins, and works best, in advance. It doesn’t get salty, but the seasoning takes a while to penetrate past the surface. The pork gets seared in bacon fat for a beautiful crust and some extra flavor. A medley of vegetables sweats down in the pork fat next, before everything tumbles into the slow cooker together with red wine, beef broth, orange juice, and some herbs. Eight hours later, you have a hunk of pork that practically dissolves at the prod of a fork.

But we aren’t done there. The thing is, a lot of fat rendered out of that meat during its slow braise. Shoving it in the fridge overnight (after straining out the spent veg and herbs) means a.) the fat can be easily scraped off once it solidifies on top, and b.) your dinner prep the day of just got about 85% easier. All that remains to be done is to shred the pork, boil off the remaining liquid to reduce, and then crumble in crisp bacon to simulate the crunchy bits a great hunk of barbecued pulled pork has but a braise loses (alternatively, you can spread the pork out on a tray and broil it for a minute or two until some of the edges get crunchy, but I was too hungry to bother with all that).

Of course you can serve this in any way you want, from the taco suggestion in the title to heaped sandwich filling to just a scoop on a plate, but we settled for mounding it into toasted corn tortillas and topping it with shredded cabbage, crumbled cotija cheese, sliced radishes, and a spoonful of guacamole. Oh, and some strings of pickled onions for that sour tang. Since there’s red wine in the sauce you can enjoy the rest of the bottle with dinner, but we opted for a lovely deep stout with orange and chocolate tones that paired perfectly.

Slow Braised Pork Tacos
Adapted from Melissa D’Arabian
Serves 6
Overnight project; time spans divided in procedure section below
To make:
2 lbs. boneless pork shoulder
Salt and pepper
½ lb. bacon
1 large onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 poblano, stemmed, seeded, and diced
4-6 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
2 TB tomato paste
2 cups dry red wine
1 cup beef broth
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ an orange
optional: guajillo chile, lime juice
To serve:
Corn tortillas, warmed or toasted
Crumbed queso fresco or cotija cheese (I like to add some lime zest to mine)
Thinly sliced cabbage dressed with salt and lime juice
Pickled onions
Thinly sliced radishes
Reserved crumbled bacon

 

Day 0: the day you buy the pork shoulder, salt and pepper it generously, then store it in the fridge until you are ready to cook (no more than 3 days, preferably)

 

Day 1:
Active time: 60-90 minutes
Unattended cooking time: 7-8 hours
Inactive: overnight refrigeration
  • Cook the bacon in a large skillet over medium or medium-low heat until it is crisp. For me this took 15-20 minutes. Drain it on a paper towel and set aside until cool before refrigerating; we won’t be using it until Day 2. Turn the heat up to medium-high and carefully place the pork shoulder fat side down in the rendered bacon grease. It will sizzle aggressively; let it sear until it is golden-brown, at least 5 minutes. Repeat for each side, then remove the browned meat to the slow cooker.
  • Lower the heat to medium and add the diced onion, celery, carrot, poblano, and the smashed garlic. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and sweat the vegetables until they are tender but not browned, around 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, being sure it is well integrated.
  • Transfer the cooked vegetables to the slow cooker with the pork. Add the red wine, the beef broth, the bay leaves and the oregano. Squeeze in the juice from the orange half, then add the spent orange as well. Pop on the lid and set the slow cooker to low. It will cook for 7-8 hours, until the pork is extremely tender.
  • Remove the pork from the slow cooker pot and strain what remains, keeping the liquid and discarding the solids. Return pork and strained liquid to the slow cooker or to a vessel of your choice and refrigerate overnight.

 

Day 2:
Active time: about an hour
  • About an hour before you are ready to serve, remove your storage vessel from the fridge. While everything is still cold, scrape off and discard the layer of fat that should have collected on top.
  • Remove the pork from the storage vessel and place it on a board. Use two forks to shred it into ribbons (this is easiest once the pork has warmed up a little).
  • Place the liquid from the storage vessel into a medium pot on the stove (or just use your slow cooker on high heat, if it has that function). Taste and consider. Of course the flavor will be stronger when it has reduced, but if you feel like it just.. needs something, drop in a guajillo chile and/or a few squeezes of lime juice. Boil the liquid until it has reduced to a scant 1 cup; for me this took about 35 minutes. While the liquid is reducing, prep your accompaniments.
  •  When reduced, season the liquid to taste with salt and pepper, if needed, and more lime juice. Add in the shredded pork and turn the heat down to low, cooking just until the pork is heated through.
  • Just before serving, crumble in the reserved bacon.
  • If you want additional crunch, spread the warmed, sauced pork out on a tray and put it until a preheated broiler for a few minutes, until some of the edges have crisped and a few have charred here and there. Serve with accompaniments listed above, or your own favorites.