Browsing articles in "Cakes & Cupcakes"
Aug 11, 2007

Classic Sponge Cake

Okay, so maybe the sponge cake isn’t literally an American invention (most food historians agree that the sponge cake as we now know it was probably a European recipe created in the early 19th century), but it feels American to me: sturdy, dependable, versatile, basic. An egg-and-sugar canvas for a multitude of flavorings and cultural influences. I also hear that sponge cake opposes the war. But that’s another post.

Sponge cake is basically an angel food cake made with whole eggs instead of egg whites. There are a few variations, but sponge cake recipes are always low on ingredients and high on technique. When done right it tastes of fresh, pillowy, just-eggy-enough French toast, and the interior looks delightfully like its namesake.

When done wrong, it looks like flat, day-old French toast and tastes like its namesake. You see what I’m saying here.

Remember that sponge cake batter does best when it’s like Santa Monica summer: warm and breezy. With a sponge cake, it’s really all about the eggs. They provide the sturdy structure, effervescent interior, and most of the lift in this cake. In general, all baking goes much smoother with room temperature eggs, but in a cake like this, air will find it’s way much more swiftly and certainly into both the whites and the yolks when they have had a chance to warm up out of the fridge. Since my baking urges hit suddenly and strongly, and are rarely premeditated, I’ve discovered that bathing the eggs in warm water while I set everything else up does a nice job of bringing them up to a more batter-friendly temperature quickly.

I also opted to turn the following recipe into a hot-milk sponge cake, which was recommended in several recipes I found, and heated the milk in the microwave for one minute (opting to add some good vanilla to it) to keep the Santa Monica summer thing happening in the batter (I haven’t been to culinary school, but I’m sure this isn’t a technical term).

This recipe calls for baking all of the batter in one glorious, thick layer in a 9-inch springform pan, which I also think makes it so versatile. Among other things, you can tear the finished sponge cake into chunks for a berry trifle, douse it with something delicious to celebrate its literal sponginess (more on that in the coming days), or slice it into two or three layers to fill it (Boston Cream Pie, anyone?). However, you can easily divide the batter into two cake pans–just reduce the cooking time to 16-20 minutes. This cake also freezes beautifully for future endeavors, like when you unexpectedly find yourself with some really good ice cream…or something.

You can avoid the depressing, sinking center that sponge cakes tend to have by working quickly when it comes out of the oven, loosening the edges with a thin knife and immediately turning it out of the hot pan and cooling it right side up on a rack. This one cooled as tall and as proud as it first looked coming out of the oven.

For this sponge cake go around, I opted to simply slice it across, fill it with homemade strawberry jam, and have a hunk out on the porch with a glass of ice-cold milk. I am, of course, an American girl.

Classic Sponge Cake

Serves 8-10

Enjoy plain or with various fruits, glazed, soaked, filled with ice cream, mousse, jam…you have the right to freedom of sponge cake. And that’s just straight up American.

1 cup granulated sugar
5 egg yolks
5 egg whites
1/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wrap the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment then lock it into place, and butter the pan and the parchment.

Heat 1/3 cup milk in the microwave for one minute, stir in vanilla, set aside.

Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt, set aside.

In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or with an electric hand mixer, beat the egg yolks with 3/4 cup sugar until light in color and doubled in volume. They will be a beautiful, creamy pale yellow color, like the walls of my apartment.

Set the mixer on low and stir in the milk mixture first and then the flour mixture, scraping the bowl as necessary, and then set aside.

In a small, grease-free bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric hand mixer or in a clean stand mixer bowl with a whisk attachment. When soft peaks form, gradually rain in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Beat until firm but not dry.

Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the yolk mixture first, to lighten it up. When mostly combined, add the remaining 2/3 of the whites and continue to fold carefully, through the center of the batter, under it and back over to keep as much air in the mixture as possible. When the egg mixtures are fully incorporated, pour batter into the prepared pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. It will be a gorgeous, light brown color. Immediately place the cake on a rack, remove the springform ring and remove the cake from the pan bottom by lifting off the parchment paper. Cool the cake completely on a rack, then remove the paper before placing on a serving platter.

Aug 7, 2007

Molly Wizenberg’s Chocolate Fondant Cake

Sometimes it’s hard to be away from my mom. I’ve gotten used to the distance over the past four-plus years I’ve been in LA and she’s been back home in Chicagoland, and we talk on the phone all the time, but every once in a while I will experience something so great that I know she would love, but there’s no way I can possibly communicate such splendor over the phone. The following cake is one of those things. My mom is known for the dramatic quote, “If it’s not chocolate, it’s just not worth it!”. And I just know she would deem this dessert So Worth It.

Adapted from a recipe from the ever-inspiring Molly Wizenberg from Orangette, this cake really isn’t like a cake at all, it’s some kind of glorious, otherworldy thing teetering on the edge of awesomely underdone brownie and baked pudding. I opted to add half a teaspoon of fleur de sel to the batter for a few reasons: first, I just got a new canister of it and am looking for excuses to scatter it into/onto anything in my path; second, I am really on a “sweet and salty” kick lately; and third, there is nothing like a good salt to take a good chocolate to the next level.

When you’re dealing with a recipe that has so few ingredients like this one, really go for it. Buy a complex dark or bittersweet chocolate you’re really passionate about. If you don’t know what kind of chocolate you’re passionate about, buy a dozen different bars, have a few friends over and take notes. And invite me and we’ll all learn together, an open exchange over chocolate. Life is too short to not know such things about oneself.

Great butter is also key in this recipe. Go for the European-style butter, which is higher in butterfat than our chintzy American butter. And it’s not really more expensive than the brand you usually buy, I promise. This was my first experience with Plugra and honestly, people, I don’t think I can spend my pennies on Land O’ Lakes again. Round out the whole thing with some granulated sugar, five fresh eggs and a nearly-forgettable-but-crucial tablespoon of flour and you’ve got yourself something that only be described as So Worth It.

Chocolate Fondant Cake
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg

7 ounces of your favorite dark or bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
7 ounces unsalted European-style butter (such as Plugra), melted and cooled
1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or other salt
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a springform pan for easier releasing and serving, or use an 8-inch cake pan. Line the base of the pan with parchment, and butter the parchment.

Whisk together the melted chocolate and butter in a medium bowl. Add the sugar and fleur de sel to the chocolate mixture, stirring well to combine. Add the eggs one by one, stirring well after each addition, and then add the flour. Mix until perfectly smooth.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for approximately 25-30 minutes, or until the edges just begin to pull away from the pan and the center of the cake looks only slightly jiggly, if at all. Start checking the cake for doneness after about 22 minutes. Let the cake cool in its pan on a rack for 10 minutes; then carefully remove the springform ring or turn the cake out of the pan and turn it right side up to cool the rest of the way. The cake will deflate slightly as it cools, it is very unassuming that way.

Serve this room temperature with whipped cream and it will be the absolute living end. It actually tastes even better as it sits–I added some fresh raspberries the second day and, oh, well, you can just imagine.

Jul 25, 2007

Vanilla Vanilla Cupcakes

I am a vanillaholic. And when it comes to cupcakes and what I think the classic cupcake ought to be, it’s vanilla all the way. Like I mentioned in my last post, there’s all these cupcake shops popping up everywhere, and the way I judge which ones I would revisit is by the quality of their vanilla cupcake with vanilla frosting. I guess it’s because I feel like a place can cover a lot of mistakes (cheap ingredients, “meh” textures, grainy buttercream) with bolder flavors like chocolate or fruit or whatever. When you’re dealing with vanilla as the flavor, everything needs to be on point, you know?

So this is why I am forever experimenting with vanilla cupcakes and vanilla buttercream. And this time I really think I’ve arrived at my best results yet. Ironically, after all this vanilla grandstanding, I should tell you that a few chocolate frosted cupcakes made their way into the mix, but I’ll get to that in a second.

For this cupcake experiment, I decided to use the recipe loved by baking bloggers everywhere–Billy’s Vanilla Vanilla Cupcakes. It’s a good, basic recipe for both the cakes and the frosting:

Billy’s Vanilla Vanilla Cupcakes
Makes about 30 cupcakes

  • 1 3/4 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
  • 1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup whole milk (I only had skim on hand, so I added 2 teaspoons of melted butter to it–genius!)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 F. Line a muffin pan with paper liners.

  1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt, and mix on low until combined. Add butter, mixing until just coated with flour.
  2. In a large measuring cup, whisk together the eggs, milk and vanilla. With the mixer on medium, add liquid ingredients in three parts, scraping down sides of bowl before each addition. Beat until ingredients are incorporated, but do not overbeat.
  3. Divide batter evenly among the muffin cups, filling them about two-thirds full. Bake, rotating pan halfway through, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 17 to 20 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool. When cool to the touch, remove the cupcakes from the pan and return them to the rack to cool completely before frosting. Repeat process with remaining batter.

Billy’s Vanilla Frosting
Makes enough to frost 30 cupcakes, and then some, in my opinion.

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 6 to 8 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter until smooth, about 2 to 3 minutes.
  2. With mixer on low, add 6 cups of the sugar, milk, and vanilla. Mix until light and fluffy. If necessary, gradually add remaining sugar to reach desired consistency.

As I am wont to do, I’ve been playing around with the ingredients of this recipe to see if I could get a lighter, more delicate cake out of it. I got great results this time by sifting all the dry ingredients for the cakes, and throwing the sugar into my clean coffee grinder to make it nice and fine. It’s always important to have room temperature butter for baking, but with this recipe it’s even more crucial because you are using a two-stage method (butter right into all the dry ingredients first, followed by all the liquids together) rather than the creaming method (butter and sugar creamed together first, followed by eggs, then alternating flour and liquids). If your butter isn’t nice and malleable when you add it, you’ll end up with tiny pockets of butter in your cakes and an uneven, rough texture. Blech. But look how lovely and fine textured these turned out:

As for the frosting, I sifted the powdered sugar and used half and half instead of milk. I could definitely taste the difference. I always like to add half the sugar first, then the vanilla and milk, whip it for a while, then add the rest of the sugar. Never underestimate the amount of time you should whip buttercream, taking the extra time makes a big difference in making it smooth and light. Next time I might add a bit of shortening to make the finished buttercream a little more stable and pillowy-looking. I used some of the plain vanilla frosting to fill the cakes, colored some of it pink, and added a few tablespoons of Valhrona cocoa to some to make chocolate frosting. I know, I know, I am a total hypocrite…but the husband loves chocolate frosting, and just look at the lovely resulting cupcake tableau:

Jul 23, 2007

The Best Black-Bottom Cupcakes

I have been on a bit of a cupcake bender as of late. How can one blame me? Cupcakeries are popping up every freakin’ place around here! There are two good ones (Vanilla Bake Shop and Yummy Cupcakes) within a block of each other and minutes from my Santa Monica apartment. The presence of both have inspired me to perfect my own cupcake recipes at home when I’m not stuffing my piehole (cupcakehole?) with specimens from both bakeries. Luckily my other favorite thing to do this year has been spinning class.

Anyway, I have been been doing a lot of cupcake experiments with buttercream frostings or ganache or somesuch. I have become used to the feeling of moving onto the icing step of cupcakes while the cakes themselves are baking. However, it’s nice to have a recipe that’s just sort of, more, oh, self-contained than the cake plus frosting concept. Easy and simplified, less work, but no less of a delicious and delightful final product.

Enter the Black Bottom Cupcake. Deep chocolate cake with a cream cheese and chocolate chip filling. So great with a strong cup of coffee or an ice-cold glass of milk. Chocolatey without feeling like you’re lost in a sea of just one flavor. You dig?

Black-Bottom Cupcakes

Makes 24 cupcakes

Cream Cheese Filling:
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 egg
1/3 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips

Chocolate Cake Part:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup white sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin tins with paper liners or use foil liners and lightly spray them with non-stick cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, make the filling: Beat the cream cheese, egg, 1/3 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1/8 teaspoon salt until light and fluffy. Stir in the chocolate chips and set aside.

In a large bowl, make the cake batter: mix the flour, 1 cup sugar, cocoa, baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Make a well in the center and add the water, oil, vinegar and vanilla. Stir together until well blended. Fill muffin tins 1/3 full with the batter and top with a dollop of the cream cheese mixture.

Bake in preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes.

I mean, can you stand it?!? It’s like an invisible number of steps! I think the most important thing to take note of in this recipe is filling the cups with batter no more than 1/3 of the way full. It almost looks like a sad amount of batter in the cup at first, but then you add in the dollop of filling (my “dollop” is about a heaping tablespoon, by the way). Plus the recipe has a good amount of baking soda and the addition of cider vinegar, the combination of which really give the cakes a nice lift. If you fill the cups too full of batter, the cakes won’t have as much room to rise and the filling sinks and THAT is truly sad looking. So follow the 1/3 full rule and you’ll get this bliss:

Who needs frosting, anyway?? YEAH!

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