Black and White Cake
There are few things that denote time spent in the kitchen and special celebration better than a multi-layered, immaculately frosted cake. Next to tart dough, this was probably one of the most intimidating hurdles I faced in pastry school. The challenges in mastering this genre of dessert are manifold: to bake up nice even cake layers, and then to split them into perfect halves, so that all the layers are of equal thickness; to assemble the cake with the filling without the layers tilting off or one side rising higher than the other; to frost the cake without getting crumbs tangled in the frosting and without those unsightly ridges and edges in the finish from haphazard spatula-wielding. My teacher, who has a successful wedding cake business, of course split her cake layers with a few quick turns of the knife, assembled cake and filling layers with the ease of a toddler stacking rings on a post, and had the cake frosted with nary a stray lick of icing in the time it took to spin the cake stand around. Meanwhile, we students laboriously squinted at cake layers as we tried to saw through them evenly or worked the spatula over the cake again and again, trying to eliminate the last few errant swirls of frosting but never quite succeeding.
Creating an elaborate layer cake is a an exercise in patience, technique, and judgment: there's no way to make one in a hurry; you'll definitely see if you, like me, have not been keeping up on your frosting skills; and you also have to be able to step away and realize, after the umpteenth pass with your spatula, when to stop messing with your cake.
A few other lessons I took away from class?
A rotating cake stand is nice but not essential. Sure, it makes you feel all fancy and professional to have the spinny stand, and it does help in applying frosting, but you can do pretty well by putting your cake on any platter or stand that you can rotate by hand. If you're super talented like my teacher, you can balance and rotate the cake on one hand and frost with the other - not for the faint of heart!
Use a cardboard cake round under your cake. A cake round will provide a nice solid base and will make moving the cake much easier. It will also allow you to balance the cake on your hand if you want to do the frost-the-cake-in-the-air trick. If you need to transport the cake, placing a dab of frosting between the cake round and the serving stand/platter will help anchor the cake securely. Be sure you choose a cake round that is the same diameter as your cake so it will line up properly and the frosting will hide it.
Level your cake layers with a serrated knife and a circular sawing motion. If your cake layers have domed, trim them level first, then cut the layers horizontally into even layers. Don't try to slice straight across as you will most likely tear through the cake crumb and end up cutting unevenly. Instead, place the knife edge against the cake, cut in just slightly, and then start turning the cake while working the knife in a slow sawing motion. Once you make a complete circle and you're sure the cake is being evenly split, you can continue this turning, sawing the knife deeper and deeper until you finish splitting the cake layer.
Do a crumb coat first. Apply a very thin layer of frosting to the top and sides of the cake; this is to help seal in crumbs so they won't get mixed into the top application of frosting. After applying the crumb coat, put the cake in the refrigerator for a bit to let it set before you do the top layer. It's also a good idea to have a separate bowl for wiping off excess frosting from your spatula that has been contaminated with crumbs. Keeping your main bowl of frosting crumb-free is key to a clean application and finish.
Finish frosting the sides, then do the top. Some people like to put a gob of frosting in the center of the top of the cake, while others like to just start on the sides. Regardless, it's best to smooth and finish the sides first, holding the spatula vertical and parallel to the cake, letting any excess frosting at the top edge spill over onto the cake top. When you move onto the top of the cake, you can smooth this excess into the rest of the frosting with the spatula. And really, know when to stop. If you're really unhappy with how the frosting is turning out, you can scrape it all off and try again; if you've applied a good crumb coat that set it should remain after you get rid of the rest of the frosting so you can have another go. But it's best to keep stepping back to get an overall view of your cake, and realize at some point that you'll only make things worse if you keep messing with the frosting. Honestly, most everybody will be in awe when they see your creation and not even notice a single flaw. That's the magic of these cakes.
Of course, when an occasion comes up that demands a fancy dessert, I get super excited. The celebration in question this last weekend was a picnic reception in the Berkeley hills for the wedding of a dear friend. The recipe I'd been itching to try was the Black and White Chocolate Cake from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours. Layers of moist buttermilk cake are sandwiched between dark chocolate ganache and white chocolate whipped cream, then finished off with more white chocolate whipped cream. The cake is light and fluffy, the fillings smooth and rich, all the flavors blending together into a harmonious whole. I was quite pleased with the cake: it is surprisingly light in texture but satisfyingly substantial - you can taste the richness of the chocolate, the delicate crumb of the cake, the weightless give of the frosting beneath your bite. This is really a cake where using good ingredients will make it shine.
I am also fond of the elegant look of the interior, with its alternating dark and light stripes. With a crown of chocolate shavings, this makes for a very photogenic cake! I was determined to document the weekend of labor for my blog, although I did feel a little self-conscious explaining to the groom that I needed to take some pictures of the cake before the gathering crowd could eat it, and that, yes, I would have to cut into it, but rest assured that besides that the cake would be unharmed.
The skies may have been slightly overcast and the winds a bit nippy, but the barbecue was delicious, the guests merry, the happy couple glowing, and we had cake for dessert. Does it get any better than that?
Black and White Chocolate Cake
2 cups cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 (10 Tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temp
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk
Dark chocolate cream
2 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
6 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp corstarch, sifted
1/4 tsp salt
7 oz. bittersweet chocolate, melted
2 1/2 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 5 pieces, at room temp
White chocolate whipped cream
6 oz. premium quality white chocolate
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9X2 inch round cake pans, dust the insides with flour, tap out the excess and line the bottoms of the pans with parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.
For the cake: Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Working with a stand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy.
Add the sugar and beat for another 3 minutes.
Add the eggs one by one, and then the yolk, beating for 1 minute after each addition.
Beat in the vanilla; don’t be concerned if the mixture looks curdled.
Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk, adding the dry ingredients in 3 additions and the milk in 2 (begin and end with the dry ingredients); scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed and mix only until the ingredients disappear into the batter.
Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.
Bake for 28-30 minutes, rotating the pans at the midway point. When fully baked, the cakes will be golden and springy to the touch and a thin knife inserted into the centers will come out clean. Transfer the cakes to a rack and cool for about 5 minutes, then unmmold, remove the paper and invert to cool to room temperature right side up on the rack.
For the dark chocolate cream: Bring the milk to a boil.
Meanwhile, in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk the egg yolk with the sugar, cornstarch and salt until thick and well blended.
Whisking without stopping, drizzle in about 1/4 cup of the hot milk-this will temper, or warm, the yolks so they won’t curdle-then, still whisking, add the remainder of the milk in a steady stream.
Put the pan over medium heat and, whisking vigorously, constantly and thoroughly (make sure to get into the edges of the pan), bring the mixture to a boil. Keep at a boil, still whisking, for 1-2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.
Whisk in the melted chocolate, and let stand for 5 minutes.
Then whisk in the pieces of butter, stirring until they are fully incorporated and the chocolate cream is smooth and silky.
Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the cream to create and airtight seal and refrigerate the cream until chilled, or for up to 3 days. Or, if you want to cool the cream quickly, put the bowl with a cream into a larger bowl filled with ice cubes and cold water and stir the cream occasionally until it is thoroughly chilled, about 20 minutes.
For the white chocolate whipped cream: Put the white chocolate in a heat proof bowl and put the bowl over a saucepan of gently simmering water. Stir frequently to melt the chocolate evenly.
Meanwhile, bring 1/2 cup of the heavy cream to a boil.
When the white chocolate is melted, remove the bowl from the pan. Pour the hot cream into the melted chocolate and let it sit for a minute.
Using a small spatula, stir the chocolate gently until it is smooth. Let it sit on the counter until it reaches room temperature-it can’t be the least warm when you add it to the whipped cream.
Working with the stand mixer with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the remaining 1 cup of heavy cream only until it holds the softest peaks.
Turn the machine to high, add the cooled white chocolate all at once and continue to beat until the whipped cream holds firm peaks. Turn the whipped cream into a bowl, press a piece of plastic wrap gently against the surface to create an airtight seal and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 6 hours.
To assemble the cake: If the tops of the cake layers have crowned, use a long serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to even them. Slice each layer horizontally in half. Place on layer cut side down on a cardboard cake round or on a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment.
Remove the dark and white chocolate creams from the refrigerator and whisk each of them vigorously to loosen and smooth them.
With a long metal icing spatula, spread enough dark chocolate cream (about 1 cup) over the cake layer to cover it completely.
Top the cream with another cake layer, cut side up, and cover this layer with white chocolate whipped cream, making the white layer about the same thickness as the dark layer.
Cover with a third layer, cut side up, and cover with another cup or so of the dark chocolate cream. (You’ll have some dark chocolate cream left over)
Top with the final layer of cake, cut side down, and frost the sides and top with the remaining white chocolate whipped cream. Decorate with chocolate shaving or curls, if you wish.
Refrigerate for at least 3 hours, or overnight.