Food & Drink | September 2017

By Abby & Kevin Tankersley

Birthday Cake

IIn our family, we have birthdays three months in a row. Abby, Brazos, Sophie. July, August, September. Boom, boom, boom. That means we have cake at least once a month during that time because, as the saying goes, “A party without a cake is just a meeting.” And nobody wants to go to a meeting when it’s their birthday, so — cake!

Actually, we’ve kind of outgrown birthday parties. For the grown-ups’ special days, we’ll invite a few friends over for dinner. For the kids, we gather some friends for a movie or trip to the skate park.

Regardless of how we celebrate, cake is always on the menu for the July and September birthdays, and it’s usually of the chocolate variety. There’s no telling what the August birthday boy will request for his dessert. One year he wanted a cake made from ice cream sandwiches, so Abby created that for him. This year, he wants donuts instead of a cake. Go figure.

In his book “Wedding Cakes and Cultural History,” Scottish writer and anthropologist Simon R. Charsley, in dry textbook prose, explores the history of cake itself before delving into explanations of how cakes came to be used in celebrations such as weddings and birthdays.

In medieval times, he writes, “neither cakes in the usual modern sense nor icing had yet appeared,” though “medieval feasting is … one of the roots from which cakes and their use in weddings were to grow.”

Early cakes were more bread-like and were flavored with honey, nuts and dried fruit (which kind of sounds like a precursor to today’s fruitcake). In the 17th century, advances in baking technology led to the development of cakes and icing that were getting closer to something that we would recognize. In the mid-1800s, cakes were being made with white flour and baking powder instead of yeast. And the “Cassell’s New Universal Cookery Book,” published in London in 1894, contains one of the first recipes for a layer cake. That leads us to this month’s recipes.

The Custard Devil’s Food Layer Cake is similar to one that Abby remembers from a job she held in high school at The Koffee Klatch in College Station. Among the coffees, teas and coffee accessories that owner Mary Newton kept in stock, the shop also sold slices of Black Forest Inn Chocolate Torte, which Newton bought from the German owners of the Black Forest Inn, located in Bedias, near Madisonville. The torte was a three-layer cake with each layer consisting of a different variety of chocolate and the layers separated by a thick chocolate mousse. The entire thing was then covered with chocolate ganache. The cake was so good that Abby admits to eating a slice of it every shift she worked at The Koffee Klatch.

The recipe below calls for a simple chocolate filling between layers instead of an actual mousse. And while the layers of the Black Forest Inn’s torte were different types of chocolate, this recipe uses just one cake recipe and calls for only two layers.

If you have a craving for chocolate cake and this recipe is too time-consuming, search online for Texas Chocolate Sheet Cake with Pecans. Most of the recipes that pop up are pretty close to one we use from the “La Piñata” cookbook that was originally published by the Junior League of McAllen in 1976. It’s been updated and reprinted through the years, and our copy, from 1994, has numerous cocoa powder stains on pages 90 and 91, which contain the recipe for Chocolate Sheet Cake.

And if you’re having a slice of rich, decadent chocolate cake, you need a cold glass of milk as well. Or in our case today, a cold glass of Milk Punch, a potent mixture of ice cream, milk and bourbon.

The Recipes

Custard Devil’s Food Cake Layers

  • 1 cup milk, divided
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
  • 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 cups cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 2 large eggs

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine 1/2 cup of the milk and 1/2 cup of the sugar and, while stirring, bring to a simmer. Add the chocolate and bring back to a simmer, while stirring. Remove pan from the heat and add the egg yolk. Stir for a few seconds until the mixture thickens a bit. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and cool to room temperature. Stir in the vanilla.

Place a rack in the center of the oven and heat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease and flour two 9-inch, round cake pans and tap out the excess flour. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment or greased, floured wax paper circles.

Sift the flour with the baking powder, baking soda and salt, twice. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer on low speed, or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, beat the butter for 1 minute, or until light and fluffy. Slowly add the remaining 1 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time. After all the sugar has been added, continue to beat on medium speed for 3-4 minutes, scraping down the beaters and sides of the bowl as necessary.

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for 10 seconds between additions. Add the cooled chocolate custard and beat for 1 minute on low speed, or until the mixture is smooth and blended.

Using a large rubber spatula, fold the sifted ingredients into the batter in three additions, alternating with the remaining 1/2 cup milk in two additions. Use the electric mixer to beat on low speed for 1 minute, or until smooth.

Pour half the batter into each of the two prepared pans and smooth the top using an offset or rubber spatula. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove the cakes from the oven and immediately run a knife around the cakes to loosen them. Place the pans on a wire rack and cool to room temperature.

When the cakes are at room temperature, turn them out onto a plate and remove the parchment. [Editor’s Note: The cakes can be made a day or two ahead and frozen, if necessary.] ­­

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Chocolate Filling

  • 2 cups heavy cream, chilled
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1 pound bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled

In a chilled bowl, begin to whip the cream on low, then increase the mixer speed to medium until the cream begins to hold soft peaks and is 3/4 whipped. Sift the powdered sugar over the cream and beat for a few more seconds, or until it holds stiff peaks.

Fold the whipped cream into the melted chocolate, working quickly so the chocolate doesn’t seize up or clump together. [Editor’s Note: The chocolate filling needs to be made the day it’s going to be used.] ­­

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Chocolate Ganache

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 12 ounces good-quality bittersweet chocolate, at least 60 percent cacao, coarsely chopped

Place the cream and chocolate in a microwave-safe glass bowl. Heat on half-power for 30 seconds, then stir. Repeat until the cream is hot and most of the chocolate is melted. This should take two or three 30-second cycles.

After most of the chocolate has melted, remove the dish from the microwave and stir until the mixture is smooth. [Editor’s Note: Do not continue heating the chocolate and cream until all the chocolate has melted, as the mixture will take on an unpleasant grainy texture.] ­­­­

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Custard Devil’s Food Layer Cake

To assemble the cake: Place 1 cake layer on a serving plate. Cut the tip off a plastic piping bag and spoon the filling into the bag. [Editor’s Note: You don’t need to use a metal tip. You want the filling to be pretty thick out of the bag.]

Pipe a thick layer of filling — almost as thick as the cake itself — onto the cake. Use a warmed offset spatula to smooth the top of the filling.

Place the second cake layer on top of the filling and use your hand to gently press it into place. Pipe a thin layer of chocolate filling on top of the second cake. Again, using a warmed offset spatula, smooth the filling.

Pour room-temperature chocolate ganache over the top of the cake. Allow the ganache to drizzle down the side of the cake, if desired, or use a spatula to spread the ganache to cover the entire cake.

Makes 1 cake, about 12 servings.
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Chocolate Truffles

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 12 ounces good-quality bittersweet chocolate, at least 60 percent cacao, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon bourbon (or use vanilla, to taste; or rum or other liqueur of choice)
  • Powdered sugar, unsweetened cocoa powder or toasted coconut

Place the cream and chocolate in a microwave-safe glass bowl. Heat on half-power for 30 seconds, then stir. Repeat until the cream is hot and most of the chocolate is melted. This should take two or three 30-second cycles. After most of the chocolate has melted, remove the dish from the microwave and stir until the mixture is smooth. [Editor’s Note: Do not continue heating the chocolate and cream until all the chocolate has melted, as the mixture will take on an unpleasant grainy texture.]

Stir in the bourbon, vanilla or other liqueur.

Line a baking sheet with parchment or plastic wrap and pour the chocolate over it, but don’t spread it out. Cover the pan and refrigerate for 60-90 minutes, until the mixture is thick.

When the mixture is cool enough to hold its shape, scoop small balls of the chocolate onto a baking sheet that’s been lightly dusted with cocoa. For perfectly round truffles, quickly roll each one between the palms of your hands. You have to do this quickly or the chocolate will become too soft. Refrigerate the centers, rolled or just scooped, for about 30 minutes, covered, until they’ve firmed up a bit.

Remove from the refrigerator and roll the chocolate in your choice of powdered sugar, unsweetened cocoa powder or toasted coconut.

Serve the truffles the day they’re made, or they can keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.

Makes about 36 truffles.
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Milk Punch

  • 1 scoop vanilla ice cream
  • 1 ounce bourbon
  • 2 ounces milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Dash of nutmeg, for garnish

Stir together the ice cream, bourbon, milk and vanilla. Pour over ice and garnish with nutmeg. Makes 1 drink.
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