June 2019, Bake #3: Chocolate Cake w/ Ganache Frosting

June 29, 2019

I baked another cake! You would think after all my whinging about how I like bread more than I like cake that I would have, you know, not IMMEDIATELY BAKE ANOTHER CAKE.


The Recipe

I decided I’d make another cake because I wanted to really give cakes another chance. Also because I want to not suck so much at it.

I kind of agonized over what recipe to choose, because FUN FACT: there are a LOT of types of cake out there in the world!

I was hoping to make a cake that was less moist than last time, so that it would be a little easier to handle. The thing that impressed and frustrated me most with that project was how dang delicate the cake rounds were, and this delicacy seemed largely a product of how moist the cake was.

But as it turns out, cakes are SUPPOSED to be moist! Because that is part of what makes them delicious. WHO COULD HAVE KNOWN

Anyway the recipe I chose was from Epicurious, and it’s one of their tippy-top rated cake recipes.

As a brief aside, however, I would like to marvel at the photo that Epicurious use for this, one of their top cake recipes:

A low-quality photo of a chocolate cake on a cake stand, with the top of the cake cut off by poor cropping.

This, in a world where large chunk of the population carries a $700 food-photography device (which is also internet-enabled for you to more easily share your food photos (and which is even capable of making VOICE CALLS (???) presumably so you can tell your friends about all the great things you are eating without them)) in their pocket at all times.

Keep in mind that I have not cropped the photo IN ANY WAY. My guess is that Epicurious is actively trying to turn away baking dilettantes, those horrible people who don’t have the right ingredients or equipment but figure, “durrr, I can make still the recipe anyway,” and then (OF COURSE) they screw everything up; but these people are so deluded by their own enormous self-confidence that they leave crummy reviews of the RECIPE – the RECIPE! – as though it’s the RECIPE’S fault they can’t follow directions, a recipe that literally hundreds of other people have successfully implemented, a recipe that, mind you, doesn’t change over time (as a matter of fact, if you step back to think about it, a recipe is of the precious few things in this capricious world that is enduring, reliable) – and so but anyway it’s clearly the RECIPE’S fault that, boo-hoo, the gnarly lump of confection you incompetently whipped together doesn’t look like the studio-photographed thing in the photo.

It’s like those dum-dums who leave bad Yelp reviews of good restaurants. THE RESTAURANT ISN’T A BAD RESTAURANT; YOU ARE A BAD PERSON

Anyway, the recipe is long enough that I won’t replicate it here. Instead, I shall refer you to Epicurious directly.

Baking the cake rounds

The single biggest time sink for this recipe was cutting out circles of parchment to line the bottom of my cake pans. I don’t know what it is about cutting out these dang circles! I am just bad at it!

I found out you can buy circles of parchment directly on the ol’ internet. I was looking at them on King Arthur Flour’s website, and when Carrie realized I was shopping for an item that could be trivially manufactured at home, she started laughing at me.

Marriage, folks!

I also had to chop lots of chocolate for this recipe. Turns out, if you’re chopping up chocolate, it’s helpful to have a good knife. It was extremely satisfying to slice through that chocolate as easy as butter.

(INCIDENTALLY: butter is one of my least favorite things to slice. If a recipe says “cut butter into 1/4-inch cubes” I break into a cold sweat. If you try and cut it into little cubes, the cubes invariably stick back together, so that it’s almost like you’ve never cut it in the first place! It’s a huge pain in the patootie and I think we all should discuss this fact more often.

Butter: Actually Not So Easy To Slice As Everyone Says™)

Anyway, I don’t know why people don’t invest in good knives. It’s FOOLISH. That’s right, if you cook at all and you don’t have a good knife, you are a FOOL.

I am calling you a FOOL because THAT IS WHAT YOU ARE

Melting chocolate

The recipe called for making hot coffee, and then melting chocolate into it.

This is like the third different substance I’ve melted chocolate into. It seems like people are melting chocolate into all sorts of stuff.

I wonder what the limits are. Could I melt chocolate into orange juice? Gatorade?

I mean, I know I can physically do those things. But could I do so in a way that is culinarily effective? I suspect I’d need to throw some sort of fat in there. I don’t really know why. But whenever I’ve melted chocolate in the past, I’ve ultimately mixed it with oil or cream and butter. Probably the fats help the chocolate to bind. Maybe if there were no binding fats, the chocolate would just congeal into weird clumps once the mixture cooled back down.

Fats are always helping things bind, right? That sounds like a smart food thing that Alton Brown might say.


(I am not actually going to do this.)

Standing mixer

This recipe called for me to mix a bunch of liquid ingredients together, then slowly add the dry ingredients, all using MY ANCIENT EMENY: the standing mixer.

I feel like this sequence is inverted from how I’ve used standing mixers in the past. Historically, I’ve just poured liquids into a relatively dry mix. This time around I had to gingerly shove dry ingredients into a device that was rapidly splashing a bowl of liquid all willy-nilly.

It somehow worked out fine???

I guess the recipe wanted me to whip the eggs up real good, because it told me to have them going in the mixer for 3–5 minutes before putting any dry ingredients in. This seemed unnecessarily long, but I figured they wanted me to get air into the eggs, because you’re always trying to get air into things when you’re baking.

If you want to sound like a smart baker, you really need to hit a few main points:

Between the binding and the whipping, the vocabulary here makes baking seem like a S&M thing. Maybe we should call it something other than “developing” the gluten. We could “torment” the gluten, maybe? Or “harrow” it! I like that one. Harrowing the gluten.

Baking the cake rounds

The recipe called for 10” cake pans, but I only had 9” ones, so I expected to have to bake the cakes for a little longer than normal. Carrie warned that this might cause the edges to burn a bit, and suggested I make little foil tonsures that I could put on the cakes near the end of the bake. I did this, and it seemed to work, because the cakes came out nice and consistent throughout.

I also allowed the cakes to fully cool before popping the springform pans. This is opposed to last time, when I popped the springs on one of my pans right after the cake came out of the oven, and it tore apart in a very uncakelike manner.

The cakes came out quite nice and I was very pleased with them. They were still moist and finicky to handle, but with one cake already under my belt I was a little more comfortable with that.

The process of getting a cake out of a springform pan and onto a cooking rack involves a fun and eye-wateringly terrifying procedure:

  1. Pop the springform pan, thereby freeing your cake from its imprisoning girdle.
  2. Now all that remains is for you to get the cake off the bottom of the pan. Which you’d think would be easy enough to do – say, for example, by gently sliding the cake horizontally off the pan.
  3. I mean, after all, you spent a painstaking half-hour cutting out a perfect round of baking parchment to line the bottom of your pan, with the notion that doing so would prevent your cake from sticking.
  5. Apparently the baking parchment is just, like, table stakes for being able to get your cake out of the pan, not the total get-out-of-jail-free card you thought it would be.
  6. So now you need to pick up your cake and hold it in the palm of your hand, offering it up to the world as though you were a fancy French waitperson.
  7. With your other hand, pick up your cooling rack. Gently place it on the top of your cake round.
  8. If you’ve done this all correctly, you should be holding a little sandwich of pan-bottom/parchment-paper/cake-round/cooling-rack between your hands.
  9. Now, take a deep breath …
  10. AND FLIP
  15. Set the cooling rack on the counter and undergo the harrowing process of peeling the pan bottom and parchment paper off your cake.

Now you have an upside-down cake on your cooling rack.

I honestly don’t know if you’re supposed to flip the cake back to the original orientation you baked it in. I didn’t bother, because the bottom of the round looked perfectly nice to me. Also, I wasn’t emotionally ready to invert the cake again.

Also, PRO TIP: You need to cool your cakes on a Real Honest-to-God Cooling Rack™, not a cooking grate. My cooling rack could only comfortably fit one cake round, so I tried using a cooking grate for the other. Turns out that the wires on a grate are too far apart: as the cake cools, it kind of sags into the space between the wires, which does not look very nice.

Making the ganache

Ganache is great, you guys! It’s pretty much just melted chocolate plus some butter and sugar and cream, which is something a sane and respectable person would reasonably come up with – as opposed to buttercream, which as I have previously asserted was clearly invented by a psychotic maniac.

Now, I realize that chocolate is basically just sugar and cocoa and butter – i.e., literally the same things that go into buttercream – and that I’m really just fooling myself into thinking that melting chocolate is somehow less ridiculous than blending powdered sugar and cocoa into buttercream frosting.

However! Have you considered?: the word “ganache” is FANCY and FRENCH, as opposed to the word “buttercream”, which is literally just the words BUTTER and CREAM smashed together like a madman would do.

More practically, I like ganache more than buttercream because it’s a heckuvalot easier to spread on a cake. Buttercream is viscous enough that you have to constantly worry about accidentally scraping up bits of cake as you’re spreading it and getting everything unaesthetically crumb-laden. Ganache, in my experience, is beautifully gloopy and easy to spread in a carefree (some might even say careLESS) manner.

Ganache also hardens up in the fridge. It’s like a shell of chocolate is gently cradling your cake’s soft, vulnerable interior.

The main disadvantage to ganache, really, is that it doesn’t taste as good as buttercream. Let me qualify the previous by saying that it doesn’t taste as good TO ME. Even this claim, however, is less an indictment of ganache than of my own taste, namely, the lack thereof, because ganache is objectively more sophisticated and complex than buttercream.

Words like “sophisticated” and “complex” can at least in THEORY be applied to ganache. Whereas they are not even listed in the same dictionary as buttercream. I honestly can’t think of a less sophisticated or subtle food than buttercream. Butter has its complexities, as does cream. Plain sugar has its varieites. Heck, even salt – which let me remind you is literally just a ROCK that for some reason we have decided we like to eat – is served in multifarious varieties and put on display in delicate chinaware at restaurants as illustrious as the French Laundry.

Conclusion: ganache is ironically more forgiving and easier to work with than the much-maligned buttercream.

The result

The cake came out quite nicely, if I do say so myself. Carrie liked it more than my previous cake. As I mentioned before, I personally like buttercream; I also prefer yellow to chocolate cake; so I personally preferred the previous week’s bake to this one. But as we have established, my tastes are akin to that of an unsophisticated goat (as opposed to one of those SOPHISTICATED goats, like a goat wearing a top hat) and so I freely admit that this cake probably came out better than the last one.

Also, it’s not like I didn’t eat any of this cake. I ate a lot of it. I really liked eating it, too. And I’m not someone who is wild about chocolate. So hey, there you go.

Next time I might put some brandy or some other sort of liqueur into the ganache, just to fancy it up just that extra degree.

A truly stunning and delicious-looking chocolate cake on a stand, with a slice taken out of it and presented on a plate in front of the cake.

June 2019, Bake #3: Chocolate Cake w/ Ganache Frosting - June 29, 2019 - Greg Poulos