October 20, 2006

Chocoholics Beware!

One of the nicer parts about returning to Iowa City for a few months has been spending time with my family. Besides having both my parents and Paul's parents in the same town, I'm lucky enough to have my maternal grandparents here, too. They moved to Iowa City the year that I was born, having retired from farming in Illinois. They have been there for me my whole life and it's just now that I'm into adulthood that I realize what a uniquely special gift it is to have had grandparents so close when I was growing up.

My grandfather is turning 95 years old this week and my grandma will turn 94 next week. They are still living at home, still driving, and although their health has deteriorated in the last few years, I'm feeling lucky to have these kinds of genes in my family! Grandma was a good cook. Unfortunately, she hasn't been able to lately because of her health. She never made anything too fancy, but every Sunday we always sat down to a huge table of food. Pot roasts and potatoes were her specialty, so it's no wonder that my life wouldn't seem complete without occasionally gorging myself on mashed potatoes and gravy. Being farmers, even once they retired, they had a huge garden for years. Among their garden and fruit trees, Grandpa had to the most virile cherry tree I have ever seen. I have the fondest memories of being a little girl, picking the darkest red ones I could find and putting them right into my mouth straight from the tree. And I can just picture Grandma with a big bowl of cherries on her lap, pitting each one to go into a fabulous pie.

Chocolate pudding was the dessert Grandpa and I bonded over. Once I was old enough, I knew right where Grandma kept the box. She had almost an entire shelf devoted to Jell-O, most of it chocolate (with some pistachio for those Watergate Salad opportunities). As I got older, I decidedly sorted through the boxes to find the ones with the most current packaging, just to be on the safe side. Anyway, Grandma loves to tell about how whenever they were watching me, mostly when I stayed home sick from school, I would eventually make my way to that cupboard and say, "let's make Grandpa some chocolate pudding!" She always was tickled that I never said it was for me, but always for Grandpa. Grandpa also required large amounts of Cool Whip on top, too.

So, for this special birthday, I was given the task of making a very dark chocolate birthday cake. "Something Grandpa can taste..." said my Mom. I just told you about how I'm not much of a baker, but it seemed like I'd be getting some practice in.

I was looking for something with an intense chocolate flavor, but in normal layer cake form, as opposed to a flourless cake or torte. I found this recipe from Martha Stewart online. I'd love to tell you that it worked perfectly. But, actually, it was a huge mess. The good news is, it tasted fantastic in the end and I think the recipe is a good one, but with one very important flaw. LISTEN UP, MARTHA!

She says to divide the batter between two 8x2 inch round cake pans. It should actually tell you to divide the batter between 3 pans, or at least use 9-inch pans. Trust me; your oven will thank you. Since I was a dutiful recipe follower, my oven got coated with a volcanic explosion of oozing chocolate cake batter that didn't slow down until 30 minutes into the baking time. Finally, the cake sealed itself and I left it to continue cooking, hoping like hell that the whole cake wouldn't smell or taste of burnt chocolate from those hardening masses on the bottom of the oven.

Despite that near catastrophe, I soldiered on and once the cakes were cooled and I removed them from their tiny pans, I cut off the uneven overflow around the top, ate the evidence, and frosted the thing. I frosted the cake with a chocolate buttercream ganache. And it's good. Ooooh, so good! If you love chocolate, you will adore this cake. It was the richest, most chocolaty layer cake I've ever tasted, so I know Grandpa definitely tasted the chocolate! Maybe I should bake more often?
Before frosting the cake, line the bottom edges with strips of wax paper.
Slide them out gently once you have finished for a clean edge.

Grandpa's Chocolate Cake "Ol' 95"
(adapted from Martha Stewart)

1 1/2 cups good unsweetened cocoa powder (like Penzey's),
plus more for dusting
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup hot water
1/2 cup strong coffee, still hot

Butter the bottoms and sides of three 8-inch cake pans. Line the bottoms with parchment paper and butter them again. Dust the pans with a few tablespoons of cocoa powder, shaking out the excess. Coat the bottoms and sides completely. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 C).

Sift together the cocoa powder, flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Place in the bowl for your mixer. Add the sugars to this and mix these dry ingredients together lightly. One at a time, with the mixer going on very low, add the buttermilk, vegetable oil, eggs, extract and finally the water and coffee. Mix together on low for 2 minutes.

Pour the batter between your 3 pans. Bake for about 30 minutes, but check at 25. An inserted toothpick should come out clean when they cakes are done. Let the cakes cool in their pans for 30 minutes, before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Frost cake and serve. Mine made 2 very high layers, or 3 layers if you use 3 pans.Chocolate Ganache Buttercream Frosting
(recipe from baking911.com)

1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup light corn syrup
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 12-oz bags semi-sweet chocolate chips, or chopped bars of chocolate.
2 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

In a small saucepan, stir together the cream, corn syrup and 1 stick of butter over medium low heat until the butter melts and the mixture barely comes to a simmer. Place the chocolate chips in a large bowl and pour in the hot cream. Stir until the chocolate is completely melted. Let this cool.

Using an electric mixer, cream together the remaining stick of butter and powdered sugar. Once this is smooth, beat in the vanilla extract. Once the chocolate ganache is cooled (enough so that it is mildly warm but not hot) pour it into the mixer and whisk on medium speed until thoroughly combined. Do not over mix this as the frosting can become grainy. This frosting is thin, but let it sit for a few minutes and it will thicken up, or place it in the refrigerator for 5 minutes. The frosting will harden if refrigerated too long, but it can be stirred together again before using to loosen the consistency. Makes more than enough for my 2 layer cake, so there will be plenty for the 3 layers in the above recipe.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful tribute to your grnadparents. My grandma passed away last year at 03 but Grandpa is 96, driving kicking and fighting! I am blessed to have him in my life like you are celebrating your blessings with yours.
Great recipe too. I have episodes of chocolate coated oven explosions, and it is not funny!

Melissa said...

Wow.....that picture and a glass of cold milk sure makes me smile!

Megan said...

Helene - Thank you! You are so right - we are so lucky to have them in our lives.

Melissa - Thanks for your comment!

bcinfrance said...

You've gotta love the contrast between Paris and Iowa City...