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I'm a runner with a baking habit.  I'm constantly on the lookout for awesome desserts, freezer friendly recipes to pack in the lunchbox, and quick dinner ideas.  New posts coming in September 2014 after I finish grad school.

Friday, January 17, 2014

German Chocolate Cake

Last fall, a good friend threw a party to celebrate his 25th and his sister's 35th birthdays.  He mentioned that he wanted to bake a German Chocolate Cake, but a few days later, he said that he wouldn't have time.  It wasn't a surprise since he has a busy work and school schedule.  And it wasn't a surprise that I offered to pick up the slack since we all know I love to bake.

The first challenge with this project was time.  This friend is a fellow grad student, so his busy schedule is similar to my busy schedule.  The party was on Friday night, and Thursday night was class night, leaving no time to bake.  The plan for Thursday: bake the cake before work, and come home over lunch to make the filling and frosting.  The Friday plan: come home at lunch to fill the cake and apply the first layer of frosting.  Friday evening before the party: finish the frosting.

The second challenge was that I've never made a German Chocolate Cake before (BTW, they're not German.  The recipe was developed by an American whose last name was German).  The solution was to pick a recipe from a trustworthy source.  I used David Lebovitz's recipe, which was also posted on Brown Eyed Baker.  With two such fine endorsements, what could go wrong?  Well, as you will soon learn, two things went wrong.

And the final challenge was that I really cared about the outcome.   Grad school is no fun, and this person is on the team of fellow sufferers who have helped me make it all the way to the last semester without medication.  He's on the "friends help you move, real friends help you move bodies" list.

This post is less of a tutorial on how to bake the perfect German chocolate cake than a real world example of how to bake with limited time and how to cope when things go wrong. If you follow along on my journey, I guarantee that you will end up with a delicious cake, hopefully without my particular disasters.  And hopefully you have wonderful friends to share it with, which is really what this is all about.

(Adapted from David Lebovitz)
  • Cake:
    • 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate (I used 6 tablespoons cocoa powder mixed with 2 tablespoons vegetable oil)    
    • 6 tablespoons water
    • 2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate    
    • 2 sticks room temperature unsalted butter
    • 1 ¼ cup + ¼ cup sugar
    • 4 large eggs, separated
    • 2 cups all-purpose flour
    • 1 teaspoon baking powder
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda
    • ½ teaspoon salt
    • 1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Filling:
    • 1 cup cream
    • 1 cup sugar
    • 3 large egg yolks
    • 6 tablespoons butter
    • ½ teaspoon salt
    • 1 cup pecans
    • 1⅓ cups coconut
  • Syrup:
    • 1 cup water
    • ¾ cup sugar
    • 2 tablespoons rum
  • Frosting:
    • 8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
    • 2 tablespoons corn syrup
    • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
    • 1 cup heavy cream


On Wednesday night, I measured everything out.  I mixed the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt) together, separated the eggs, and cut out parchment paper to line the cake pans.  At 6:00AM on Thursday morning, I started brewing coffee and pulled the cold ingredients out of the refrigerator.  Everything was ready to go.

The original recipe called for baking chocolate, which I don't keep around the house.  As a substitute, I mixed  unsweetened cocoa with vegetable oil.

Add water.

Stir to combine.

Add semi-sweet chocolate.  Heat in the microwave until the chocolate is melted, stir, and let it come down to room temperature.

Pour four egg whites into the mixer.

And beat them until they held soft peaks.

Add ¼ cup of sugar and beat until stiff.

Set egg whites and sugar aside.

Beat the butter and 1¼ cups sugar for five minutes.

Add the chocolate and beat until combined.

Mix in the egg yolks one at a time.

Lightly mix in half of the flour mixture.  Mix in the buttermilk and vanilla.  Add the remaining half of the flour mixture.

Stir in the egg whites until just combined.

Butter the cake pans and line them with parchment paper (I cut out the parchment paper the night before).

The original recipe called for baking at 350° F for 45 minutes.   However, I didn't do that.  My cakes have a tendency to dome, and long ago I'd read that baking them under temperature can fix that.  So I baked them at 300° F for 70 minutes (until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean).  Did I sit around a twiddle my thumbs while they were baking?  No, I did not.  As the smell of chocolate began to waft throughout the house, I took care of my weekly housecleaning and grabbed a quick workout. Grad school teaches you to do routine things at odd times.

So far everything had gone according to plan.  Which meant it was time for disaster to strike.  Problem #1 in this saga: the cake batter overflowed in the oven.  Badly.  My heart sank.  I didn't know if the project could be salvaged, and there was no time to bake another batch of cakes.  I let them sit just long enough to slightly cool, and them dropped them into the refrigerator and went to work.

I picked the project up again when I came home from lunch.  Emboldened by some quick internet research, I grabbed a knife with a serrated blade and hopped for the best.

Sure enough, the best came to pass.  I held my hand over the top of the cake while slicing though to make the cake level with the top of the pan.

With moderate difficulty, I ran a knife around the edge to remove the cake from the pan.  Again, success.

Now the hardest part.  With my history of cake decorating disasters, would I be able to slice the cake into even layers?  I scored small cuts around the base of the cake at the half way point, and then held the top while gradually circling in from the edge into the center. 

Much to my amazement, I came away with four perfectly even layers.  The project was saved.  I wrapped the layers in plastic and returned them to the fridge for safekeeping.

I ran the pecans and coconut through the regular toast setting on my toaster oven. (Try a 350° oven for 5-7 minutes if you don't have a toaster oven or don't want to be that casual in your baking projects.  Watch closely so that the end result is toasted and not burned.)

 Chop the pecans.

Mix the pecans, coconut, and butter in a large bowl, set aside.

Whisk the cream, egg yolks, and sugar in a saucepan on medium heat.

Heat the mixture to 270°, stirring constantly.

Pour the custard over the pecans, coconut, and butter.

Stir until the butter melts and set aside.

To make the syrup, combine the water and sugar in a saucepan on medium heat and stir until fully dissolved.  Remove from heat and stir in the rum (it's about time for alcohol to make an appearance in this project).

Next comes frosting.  Heat the cream to boiling.  Get the chocolate, corn syrup, and butter ready in a bowl.

Pour the boiling cream over the chocolate mixture.  Let stand for a minute and then stir until everything melts.  At this point, I packed up everything in the fridge and went back to work.

Friday at lunch, I came home and unpacked the project.

I placed strips of waxed paper along the sides of the cake plate, and put a dab of frosting in the center to anchor the cake to the plate.

I placed the base layer of the cake on the plate and liberally brushed it with the rum syrup.

I heaped on ¾ cup of filling and spread it out to the sides.

 Next came layer two, with a repeat of brushed syrup and filling.

And then layer three.

And finally layer four.

The next step was to apply the crumb coat of frosting.  I was worried that the frosting would be too stiff to work with after a day in the fridge, but it spread easily (a forewarning of disaster #2).  I covered the cake and packed the project up in the fridge again.

Friday night rolled around and I was ready to finish the project.  I piled on the frosting.

And smoothed it out with a frosting spatula.

Now it was time to pipe a decorative border around the top of the cake.

Cue disaster #2.  The frosting was too soft to hold the shape.  Out of 100+ comments on Brown Eyed Baker, only one other person mentioned this problem, and the advice was to let the frosting chill.  Mine had been in the fridge for a good 6 hours at that point.  I tried freezing it, but the soft consistency returned after a few minutes at room temperature.  It was almost time to leave for the party, so what to do?

I solved the problem the only way I could: by smoothing everything out.  If I had it all to do again, I suppose a better solution would have been to cover the entire top with chocolate.  Ah, hindsight.

The wax paper strips were removed, and the cake was ready to travel.

And we had a wonderful evening.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Pesto Pizza

The first time I made pesto pizza, it was not good.  The pizza part was fine.  Judging by the number of tastes I took from the pesto, that part was just fine, too.  What wasn't successful was the blending of the two.  Instead of a taste of heaven, I ended up with a greasy green mess.  I stuck to my normal summer pizza routine of fresh tomatoes with plenty of fresh basil and called it a day.

Then last summer I was idly flipping channels and happened to land on Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition.  The chef suggested that the contestant swap out his extra-large-double-cheese-double-meat-lover's pizza for a slimmed down pesto pizza.  Recalling that the primary problem with my pesto pizza was the grease, I decided to give their "diet" pizza a shot.

Pesto pizza calls for garden fresh basil and garden fresh tomatoes, two ingredients that are in abundance during harvest season.  But what should you do if you don't have a garden or if your craving lands during the 10 months of the year when tomatoes aren't in season?  I'll let you in on a secret: head to the grocery store and buy jarred pesto and any old tomato.  No, it won't have the magic garden freshness.  But it's still well worth making.

(Pesto recipe from Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition.  The unlikely source of my pizza dough recipe is found at the end of this post.)

  • Crust
    • 1 tablespoon (or packet) yeast
    • 1 teaspoon sugar
    • ¼ cup warm water, 95°-105°
    • 2 cups flour.  Suggest a mixture of 1½ cups all purpose flour, 6 tablespoons corn meal, and 2 tablespoons whole wheat flour.
    • ½ teaspoon salt
    • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
    • approx ½ cup additional water
    • oil spray (I use olive oil in a Misto sprayer)
  • Pesto
    • ½ cup fresh basil leaves
    • 2 teaspoons chopped garlic
    • 2 Tablespoons pine nuts (see discussion below for substitutions)
    • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
    • ¼ cup Parmesan cheese
  • Other:
    • 1-2 fresh tomatoes
    • 4-6 oz cheese (I use a mix of mozzarella and muenster)


My pizza dough recipe hasn't changed since my original post two years ago, but my preparation method has, so let's start by getting that up to date.
Heat ¼ cup of water between 95°-105°.  This takes about 15 seconds in the microwave, and since I'm leery of yeast cooking, I always use a thermometer to measure it.

Mix in a tablespoon (or packet) of yeast and a teaspoon of sugar.

 After 5 minutes, the yeast will be very bubbly.  If it isn't, something is wrong - water too hot/too cold/something wrong with the yeast.  Figure it out and try again.  Since I don't use yeast in anything much besides pizza dough, I store it the refrigerator, where it will last for years.

Place the flour, salt, and tablespoon of oil in a food processor and pulse together.  Add the yeast mixture and pulse again.

Now add the water, and let the games begin.  Due to some quirky law of the universe, I use a different amount of water every single time I make dough.  If it's too dry, the dough will look flat and and will be very tight to handle.  Too much water, and the dough will be sticky, as shown above.  Add a little more water to get it loose, and a little more flour to get it tight.

When it's just right, the dough will adhere together, and won't stick to the food processor bowl.  Let it spin about 25 times once it gets to this stage.

Hand kneed the dough a few times.

Place in a lightly oiled bowl, and spray a little oil over the surface.

Seal the bowl.  Technically you can roll it out in 10 minutes, which is what I used to do when I first started making pizza.  But then I discovered that it's just that much better if it has time to rise, so I started planning ahead.  If you're going to be cooking it within a few hours, leave it at room temperature to let it rise.  Any longer than than, put it in the refrigerator.

This is what the dough looked like 24 hours later.  Set it out to warm to room temperature while you make the pesto.

I headed out the garden to pick about ½ cup fresh basil.

Now let's talk about pine nuts.  Two things you should know: they are delicious and they are expensive.  I have room in my budget for such luxuries, but I understand that not everyone does.  To stretch my supply, I store them in the refrigerator, where as far as I know, they keep indefinitely.  Others have suggested using sunflower seeds.  I've also heard of just omitting them all together.  So pick your option and proceed.

Toast the nuts on medium heat for a few minutes until tan and fragrant.  If you used pine nuts and still remember the price, you will be extra motivated to not let them burn.

Combine the basil, Parmesan, garlic, nuts, and oil in a blender or food processor.

Blend until combined.  At this point, start preheating the oven to 425°.

Slice the tomatoes as thinly as possible (because they are heat sinks and you do not want to burn your mouth later on).  Quarter the slices and drain as much liquid off as possible, without being fanatical.

Place the dough on an unheated pizza stone (you can read about my love of pizza stones here - and yes, you can use a regular pizza pan if you aren't there yet).

Spread the dough out a little by hand.

Finish the job with a rolling pin.  If the dough is cold, it may resist a little.  Just walk away for a minute and it will cooperate.

Shape the edges.  Pre-bake for 10 minutes.

When the crust comes out of the oven, add all of the pesto.  If you're using store bought pesto, drain off as much of the oil as you can.

Spread it out to the edges.

Add tomatoes.

Add a light coating of cheese.  Listen, I am your friend.  Use as little cheese as possible because less is more here.  The pesto and tomatoes need room to shine.

Cook for 10 minutes, until cheese is melted and beginning to brown.  Remove from oven and let sit undisturbed for at least 10 minutes to let the flavors settle.  Clean up the kitchen while you're waiting.

And with that, let yourself sit undisturbed and inhale the pure late summer pleasure.