Dalgona Experimentation

I hope you are well and finding ways to keep yourself and your loved ones – perhaps not joyful or fulfilled – but safe and satisfied – during this strange time. I have not yet – and the “yet” is important – succumbed to the siren call of quaran-baking, but I have, thanks to a friend and former colleague, been introduced to the fluffy, caffeine-laced clouds that are Dalgona coffee. Basically equal parts instant coffee, sugar, and hot water, whipped together until they froth and then fluff into a mound of something like meringue, this confection is then scooped over very cold milk, and your tongue gets a play of temperatures and textures, not to mention an intense hit of sugar and caffeine.

I tried the original first, and, as I mentioned previously, I’m a fan. But immediately I had questions: why settle for instant coffee? Why not a strong brew of something high quality? Why water, when you could get extra creaminess from scalded milk? What about adding cocoa powder or vanilla or almond extract? Where would chai spices fit in? To what other application could this be put, aside from a float atop a glass of milk (or, as my siblings have discovered, iced irish cream liqueur)? With raw materials at hand and plenty of time, this would require experimentation.

My first thought was how this could work as cake frosting or filling. To get everything in there together, I would replace the water with hot milk, and following a suggestion I saw here, I would use twice as much milk “for a creamy texture.” What I can tell you today is that if you use 2 parts very hot milk to one part each instant coffee and sugar, it takes a very long time to whip up. It might become marshmallow-y clouds eventually, but I wasn’t quite patient enough for that.

The lightly thickened, foamy concoction I ended up with wasn’t nearly thick enough to serve as a filling or a frosting for anything – it just wasn’t spreadable. But it was certainly capable of draping itself thickly over a slice of still warm chocolate cake. And when shaken up thoroughly the next morning and stirred into to a glass of milk with a little bit of chocolate syrup, it was an intense – and intensely satisfying – replacement for an iced mocha.

Contrarian Chewy Not-Chocolate-Chip Cookies

As I’ve noted here before, I can be a bit contrarian about food. I like my risotto with anything but rice, somehow I always find myself frying food in the most disgusting heat of summer, and I’m that person who, instead of making something practiced and reliable for a dinner party, always somehow ends up trying something untested.

But perhaps my most blasphemous contrarian food tendency is this: sometimes I don’t want chocolate chips in chocolate chip cookies. I love the cookie part – the depth of the brown sugar, the butter, the just-crisp edges – and then that chocolate gets in the way. Don’t get me wrong: I do like chocolate. I’m not a total monster. But in a cookie, especially after it cools and the chunks or chips or boulders of chocolate solidify again, I could do without. I sometimes find myself looking forward to the cookie that comes from the very last scrapings of batter from the bowl, since it probably won’t have much chocolate in it.

Last month N. ran a half marathon and I, following what is becoming a tradition, decided to have cookies waiting for him when he came home. Not so contrarian as me, N. loves a good chocolate chip cookie (and a mediocre chocolate chip cookie too – in fact, let’s be honest: he’ll take just about any chocolate chip cookie). Inspired by a recent trip to Le Grande Orange Café in Pasadena, I decided I wanted to do a batch of thin, crisp-but-chewy cookies with a sprinkling of salt on top. Good for helping my runner rehydrate a little. I started with a Bon Appetit recipe, but played a little: almond meal replaced some of the flour, I was out of chocolate chips, so I chopped up some dark chocolate covered pretzels and, just for fun, couldn’t resist a little instant espresso powder to the dough as well. A little buzz of extra caffeine wouldn’t hurt N. as he unwound from a thirteen mile morning.

We both loved the cookies. But again, I found myself thinking how good they would be if they just… didn’t have chocolate in them. So I did another batch here, retaining the almond meal, but eliminating all hints of chocolate. These are designed to be crisp at the edges and chewy at the middle, and several elements of the recipe contribute to that: the almond meal is always going to add some pleasant texture, as is brown sugar. The powdered sugar allows for a denser final result, which contributes to chew in that not as much air is trapped in the dough. And using egg yolks instead of just whole eggs seems to help too, though opinions seem divided on this.

My contrarian cookies were simple. As I was mixing them up, I found myself thinking, “could I add anything? What about dried cherries? What about lemon zest? Could I put in some cardamom or cinnamon, or maybe chopped nuts?” And of course the answer is yes. I could. You could too. Toss in a teaspoon or so of some warm spice. Toast and chop and fold in about a cup of nuts or dried fruit. If you’re feeling particularly contrary with me, you could even reverse hack all the way into putting the chocolate back in; you’ll want about 8 ounces.

But when I chewed my way through the first, and then the second, of these simple, too-spread-out, just bendable,* still warm offerings, I wanted none of that. The texture was right: crisp around the edge, a chew similar to a good snickerdoodle in the middle, and the occasional delightful crunch from the sea salt. And nothing, nothing at all, disrupting that deep, lovely, buttery brown sugar taste.

 

* because these cookies spread so much while they bake, and because they are so soft when they first come out of the oven, I’d wager you could successfully cool them over the back of a muffin tin or ramekin for little cookie bowls to fill with ice cream or custard or fruit, or maybe even a deep, rich mousse to get the chocolate back in there…

 

Contrarian Chewy Not Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Makes about 18 cookies
½ cup (1 stick, or 4 ounces) room temperature unsalted butter
¾ cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup powdered sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1½ tsp vanilla
1 cup all purpose flour
½ cup almond meal
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp kosher salt + more for sprinkling

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or nonstick spray
  • In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter with the paddle attachment or with an electric mixer until it is soft and the big pieces have broken down. Add all three varieties of sugar and continue mixing until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg yolks, the whole egg, and the vanilla. Beat again, stopping once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl, until the whole mixture is pale and fluffy, about 4 minutes. This seems like a long time, but it does make a difference. It will look like buttercream frosting when it’s ready, and really, it basically is.
  • If you want to, whisk the dry ingredients (flour, almond meal, baking powder, baking soda, salt) together in a smaller bowl, then slowly add to the wet mix in three additions, mixing just to blend in between. If you don’t want to bother with the whisking, just add in stages: ½ cup flour, mix to blend, ½ cup almond meal, mix to blend, then remaining ½ cup flour with leavening and salt, mix just to blend.
  • Spoon tablespoonfuls of dough onto your prepared cookie sheets, spacing them at least 1 inch apart. They will spread. I wouldn’t do more than about 6 dough blobs on each sheet. Sprinkle the tops sparingly with kosher salt or flaky sea salt.
  • Bake in the preheated 375F oven, rotating the sheets halfway through, until golden around the edges, 12-13 minutes. The middles will seem very soft, but will firm as they cool. Let sit on baking sheets 3-5 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely (unless you want to mold them – see * above).

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.