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.

Mocha Ganache Shortbread

In thinking about baking lately, I’ve been attracted to layers. This could have been inspired by an outrageously good bar style dessert I had at, of all places, a training workshop on my campus. We changed catering companies in the last year or so, and the new service is unexpectedly good. The last day of this workshop, they brought in not only lemon bars, but a three layer concoction that, if memory serves, involved a thick chocolate layer on the bottom, a cream cheese layer reminiscent of cheesecake in the middle, and then a thin topper that might have been red velvet cake on top. All this with cherries dotted through. Immediately upon getting home that day, I emailed the catering service asking for more info. I have yet to hear an answer…

But anyway, layers: of course I instantly think of cake, but because I’m now back in school and am thinking about what treats I can leave in the mailroom, I need something smaller and more portable. Cake can be messy. As I was trawling my way around Pinterest I saw something that reminded me of that old classic the peanut butter blossom: Hershey’s kisses pressed into a soft cookie. Instead of the traditional peanut butter, I thought about shortbread: crisp, tender, crumbly, enhanced by browning the butter. The milk chocolate drop became a rich ganache layer spread over the top, not just chocolate but espresso too, for a mocha-like kick-in-the-pants to perk us up for a morning – or an afternoon, for that matter – in the classroom.

For shortbread, I borrowed from both Ruhlman’s bare bones ratio in, well, Ratio, and from Martha Stewart’s version, formulated for brown butter. A little milk gets added in to compensate for the water lost from the butter during the melting and browning process. I wanted some salt and some vanilla too, and then had to stop myself from adding all kinds of other ingredients: roughly chopped almonds, orange zest, a spritz of garam masala – because I wanted to focus on the buttery shortbread and its rich, caffeine-infused topping. But do feel free to experiment if you want; any of these would, I suspect, be delicious. I’ve used weight here to measure my ingredients, following Ruhlman’s formula: shortbread requires 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat (butter, in this case), 3 parts flour. This is more precise and, in a lot of ways, easier: you can pour directly into your mixing bowl, which means no one has to wash a stack of measuring cups.

A note on the ganache: this combination of semi-sweet chocolate and heavy cream can vary in thickness anywhere from a drizzling glaze to the dense squelch of a truffle. This one is fudge-like straight from the refrigerator, but it softens slightly as it warms and becomes more like a very thick frosting. It’s rich, but not overwhelmingly so because it is not overly sweet. The coffee flavor and the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate keep it away from toothache territory.

It took a while before we got to taste this; between the need to re-solidify the butter after browning, a friend in town, cooling the shortbread after baking, and time for the ganache to harden, 48 hours passed before N. and I finally stood anxiously over these little squares as I sliced. Yours needn’t take that long, obviously, but do be aware of the cooling time it requires.

Nevertheless, the wait was worth it. At first bite you taste sweetness, but it quickly develops into that deep, almost fruity taste coffee lends to chocolate. Then, as you crunch through the shortbread layer, you start to pick up on the buttery richness there. And then, while you are savoring all that goodness, you are somewhat surprised to see another piece already in your hand, ready for a repeat.

I’m delivering a tray of these to the mailroom at work tomorrow. N. and I are taking bets about how long they will last. He says 10 minutes. I’m thinking, given how early I get to work, that they may last an hour or two, but I’m certain none will make it into the afternoon.

Mocha ganache shortbread
Makes one 9×9 inch tray
About 3 hours including cooling time
For the shortbread:
4 ounces sugar (1/2 cup + 1 TB)
8 ounces butter (2 sticks or 16 tablespoons)
12 ounces flour (2-2½ cups)
2 TB milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ – 1 teaspoon salt, depending on your preference
For the mocha ganache:
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
5-6 ounces heavy cream
3 tablespoons instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
  • First, brown the butter: in a small pot, melt the butter swirling gently on occasion, over medium to medium-low heat. Once melted, the butter will foam up, then clear slightly, and then the magic: the solids will sink to the bottom of the pan and begin to brown slightly. At this point, turn off the heat. You want this beautiful browning, but you don’t want those solids to burn. There is only a small window between browning and burning, so watch carefully as the butter reaches this stage.
  • Pour the melted butter and browned bits (which you may have to scrape off the bottom of the pan) into the bowl you will use to make the shortbread.  I used my stand mixer bowl.  Stow it in the freezer for 10-15 minutes, just until the butter solidifies – you don’t want it to be liquid anymore, but don’t let it harden or freeze.
  • Preheat the oven to 350F and line a 9×9-inch baking dish with parchment paper, letting the paper extend over the edges of the dish to make a sling for easy removal later on.
  • Add the sugar, milk, and vanilla to the cooled brown butter and beat with an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of your stand mixer until well combined.
  • Add in the flour and mix again to incorporate. First the dough will be very crumbly, but then as the flour begins to hydrate it will take on the texture of damp sand. At that point, stop mixing. Yes, it is a crumbly mess rather than a proper dough. That’s okay. The more you mix it, the more the gluten develops and the tougher the end result will be. For maximum tenderness, be brave: dump the crumbs into your lined baking dish and use your hands or a rubber spatula to firmly press it into the baking dish like you would do with a graham cracker crust.
  • Bake at 350F for 30-40 minutes, until the top of the shortbread is golden and has only a very slight give when gently pressed. Allow it to cool completely.
  • To make the ganache, you have two options: you can use a double boiler, or you can use the microwave.
  • For the double boiler, heat water in a small pot to a simmer. Place a glass bowl over the pot but don’t let it touch the water below. Add the chocolate, the instant espresso powder, and the cream to the bowl and stir gently until it melts together smoothly. When the chocolate has completely melted, add the vanilla and stir to combine.
  • To use the microwave, pour the cream into a glass bowl and heat until it is barely simmering; depending on your microwave this may take 1-1½ minutes. When it is just forming tiny bubbles (you don’t want it to boil), stir in the instant espresso and let it dissolve, then add the chocolate and stir gently to combine. Be patient: the heat of the cream will melt the chocolate.
  • If the cream cools down too much and the chocolate doesn’t seem to be melting at all, return the bowl to the microwave and heat for 15-20 seconds, then remove and continue stirring. Repeat if necessary. When the chocolate has completely melted, add the vanilla and stir to combine.
  • Pour the ganache over the cooled shortbread, using a spatula to spread it evenly across the top. Let sit until cool, then refrigerate until the ganache hardens to the texture of cool butter: if pressed hard it will give, but it you gently touch it your fingertip won’t leave a mark.
  • When the ganache has hardened, you can use the parchment paper sling to remove the whole confection from the baking dish, slice into squares of your desired size using a very sharp knife, and try to resist eating them all in one go.

 

Cinnamon Mocha Swirl Bread

Food blog June 2015-0938Around here, we take afternoon snack time very seriously. During the school year, it’s an opportunity to sit down together for a few minutes and work our way through notable moments from the day. During the summer, it’s a good way to reconnect from whatever individual projects we might have lost ourselves in. It feels like a restart, in a lot of ways, which can be important if the day hasn’t gone all that well.

Food blog June 2015-0916More than that, though, we are gluttons, and our mid-afternoon snack, or “teatime” as my wannabe Londoner husband likes to call it, is a sacred few minutes reserved for cramming something delicious into our mouths. Usually this is something quick: chips and salsa, or crackers and cheese; on Fridays it often dovetails into an impromptu happy hour of some sort (stay tuned for snack-y developments on this front, by the way…). But sometimes I like to get fancy.

Food blog June 2015-0911Spurred by this month’s Twelve Loaves theme “A Little Something Sweet,” I decided a special “teatime” loaf was in the works: I wanted a swirled bread, and since N. was working his way through his very last week of school, I decided something with a bit of pick-me-up was called for. Playing with flavors of Mexican chocolate and tiramisu, with a block of cream cheese thrown in for good measure, I ended up with this stunner: a lightly sweet cinnamon spiced loaf, with an unapologetically thick filling of sweetened cream cheese, espresso powder, and chopped semi-sweet chocolate. Yes, please.

Food blog June 2015-0910The production of this loaf is fairly standard: a good knead, two rises, with the application of the filling in between, and the better part of an hour in the oven. The most difficult part, honestly, is waiting for the finished loaf to cool enough to slice into it without making a mess. I waited almost long enough.

Food blog June 2015-0915Oddly, despite the Mexican and Italian dessert inspirations, what this reminded me of more than anything else was mocha chip ice cream. You know, the luscious, rich brown scoops with just the right amount of coffee flavor, studded with chunks of dark chocolate. Except in my version, it’s a soft swirl through a moist slice, and the chocolate pieces melt easily on your tongue (one of my biggest complaints about “chip” anything ice cream: the cold, hard chunks of chocolate. I know, I know, first world problems).

Food blog June 2015-0920Food blog June 2015-0921Obviously, this is a rich bread. I’d say it’s more than a “little” something sweet, but let’s indulge anyway. Unless caffeine doesn’t disrupt your sleeping patterns, I’d stay away from it as a bedtime snack. But as a pick-me-up in mid-afternoon, or mid-morning for that matter, it’s solid. I can imagine thick slices on a brunch table as well, maybe even as part of a bridal shower (colors: espresso and vanilla?) since the presentation is so pretty. But then, I’ve got weddings on the brain this summer.

Food blog June 2015-0933Oh, p.s., like my new “studio” set-up next to the window? My Photo Friday post from the other week had such lovely lighting I decided to make it a more regular shoot location. I’m looking forward to playing more with angles and light at different times of day.

Food blog June 2015-0942

Cinnamon Mocha Swirl Bread
Makes 1 large 9×5 inch loaf
For dough:
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
½ cup lukewarm milk (I use whole milk)
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
¼ cup + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, soft or melted and cooled, divided
2-3 cups bread flour
For filling:
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
5 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped or broken into small pieces
  • In a glass measuring cup, combine the lukewarm milk and the yeast, and let sit for 5-10 minutes to allow the yeast to wake up a bit. While you wait, combine the sugar, cinnamon, salt, vanilla, eggs, and ¼ cup of butter in the bowl of a stand mixer (or just a large mixing bowl).
  • When the yeast and milk mixture is bubbly and smells like bread, add it into the egg and butter mixture and stir well to combine. Add 2 cups of the flour, and stir well to combine again.
  • If you are using a stand mixer, fit with the dough hook attachment and begin to knead on medium speed. If you are working by hand, dump the dough out onto a floured board and knead for about 5 minutes. As needed, work in more flour ¼ cup at a time until the dough is easy to handle. I ended up using about 2 ¾ cups total. In the stand mixer bowl, it will start to pull away from and then slap the sides.
  • After you’ve kneaded for about 5 minutes, the dough should feel smooth and stretchy and be texturally reminiscent of play-dough. At this point, lightly oil the inside of a large bowl (I use the stand mixer bowl for this – you don’t even need to clean it out), flip the dough around in it to coat all sides, then cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise until doubled; about 90 minutes.
  • While you wait for the dough, make the filling: in a medium bowl, beat together the cream cheese, espresso powder, and granulated sugar until light and fluffy; 1-2 minutes. Then gently incorporate the chopped chocolate, and set aside.
  • When the dough has doubled, punch it down by depressing your fist gently into its center to release trapped air, then let it rest for 5 minutes to get its breath back. Turn it out onto a floured board and roll into a rectangle of roughly 9×16 inches.
  • Spread the dough rectangle with the filling, leaving a border of about 1 inch on all sides to ensure minimal overflow. Working gently, roll up into a log starting from the short edge (so you’ll end up with a fat log about 9 inches long). Crimp the edges at the end to seal it – be aggressive! The dough might not want to stick to itself at first.
  • Now that you have your fat log, well-sealed, twist it 4 or 5 times to disperse the swirl. This may stretch it out a bit, so when you carefully wedge it into a buttered 9×5 inch loaf pan, just tuck the ends underneath.
  • Once the loaf is settled in the pan, rub the top with the remaining 1 tablespoon of soft or melted butter, then cover lightly with plastic wrap, set aside for another 30 minutes, and preheat the oven to 375F.
  • By the time your loaf has risen for another 30 minutes, it should have come close to doubling in size again, and your oven should be fully preheated. Bake the loaf in the preheated 375F oven for 35-40 minutes, until the exterior is nicely burnished and the interior tests 180-200F (A skewer that comes out clean works too, though be careful, because the cream cheese filling will remain gloopy).
  • Cool loaf in pan for at least 10 minutes, then remove from pan and cool on a wire rack for at least another 10 minutes. The cream cheese and chocolate need time to solidify a bit, or the layers within the loaf will threaten collapse.
  • Enjoy with coffee, or tea, or milk, or your fingers. Keeps well in the fridge for 4 or 5 days (probably more would be fine, but ours didn’t last longer than that). Bring to room temperature before eating for best leftovers.

#TwelveLoaves is a monthly bread baking party created by Lora from Cake Duchess and runs smoothly with the help of Heather of girlichef, and the rest of our fabulous bakers.

Our theme this month is A LITTLE SOMETHING SWEET. For more bread recipes, visit the #TwelveLoaves Pinterest board, or check out last month’s mouthwatering selection of #TwelveLoaves Mexican Breads!

If you’d like to bake along with us this month, share your “A Little Something Sweet” Bread using hashtag #TwelveLoaves!