Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sweet and Salty Cake

No picture I could ever take of this cake could do it the true justice it deserves. No picture is ever going to capture the deep, dark, chocolatey fluffiness of the frosting. I won't be able to sell you on words alone on the moist, tender crumb of the three chocolate cake layers. Likewise, I'm probably never going to convince you that the salted caramel layers are nothing short of a revelation, lending an amazing depth and complexity of flavor that just elevates the entire cake to a whole other level. But hey, I'll do the best I can!

This cake caught my eye immediately about a year ago, back when I first purchased the Baked cookbook. As I flipped through the pages, reading recipe titles, none sounded quite as interesting, as innovative, as downright delicious to me as this one. Sweet and Salty Cake. How intriguing. The idea of sweet and salty together in an almost absurdly decadent chocolate cake definitely appealed to me. This, I thought, was the very embodiment of indulgence.

How fitting, then, that I should finally decide to make this as a very special birthday treat for....me! Yes, I am ridiculous and wanted to make myself a birthday cake. Why not? I enjoy baking, and I enjoy eating. Sounds like a great way to spend a birthday to me.

I had read on several other blogs about how other people had a devil of a time making this cake. People truly lamented their time spent slaving in the kitchen, all for the love of the sweet and salty. However, the unanimous consensus heard 'round the blogosphere, as far as I could tell, was that eating the cake was well worth the effort and hours.

The effort I speak of is as follows: first, you bake a three-layer chocolate cake; next, you make your own salted caramel. This will be drizzled on each cake layer and allowed to soak into the cake a bit.....yum! See above picture, in which the salted caramel is sprinkled with sea salt atop my second cake layer. Finally, you make even more caramel, to be incorporated into a heinously unhealthy (but ever so delicious!) whipped chocolate ganache frosting. You assemble the cake, garnish it with a final sprinkle of sea salt (or fleur de sel, as the recipe states), and there you have it.

Perhaps it is simply because I was warned about how complicated it was, but I really didn't find this cake all that complex. I mean, sure, there are a ton of steps. It does take a very long time to put everything together, beginning to end. There are elements that are tricky, such as making the caramel...twice. However, I felt as though I was successful in the end, and I was proud of the accomplishment.

I did face one complication, though. The recipe's instructions state that this cake keeps "beautifully" at room temperature in a cake saver. I finished making this cake around 10:30 p.m. When I lifted the lid to my cake saver about 12 hours later to admire it, I realized that some of the frosting had begun to roll, avalanche-style, down the side of the cake! I still don't know for certain why this happened, but I decided to bite the bullet and throw the whole shebang in the fridge to let the frosting firm up. I realize that refrigerating a cake such as this is violating like a hundred baking commandments, but I felt like my hands were tied in this situation. I couldn't have runny frosting!

Its brief stay in the fridge did allow me to fix the gooey side after a couple hours of chilling, and in the end I think it all worked out. The cake turned out divine, exquisite, like no other cake I've had. Each element is distinctly flavorful, but when combined it's just out of this world! My husband proclaimed this cake "the best one I've ever eaten." A superior compliment, to be sure, but I believe he has said this before about other cakes (or cupcakes) I've made in the past. So, he's either being way too nice and forgiving with me, or maybe I'm really improving with each cake I make. I don't know for sure, but I do know that this cake was among the best I've ever eaten, too. Seriously, I don't think I could have asked for a better cake for my birthday. Worth every second I worked on it, truly!

Sweet and Salty Cake
recipe from Baked
makes one 8-inch, 3-layer cake (I made mine in 9-inch cake pans)

For the classic chocolate cake layers:
3/4 cup dark unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/4 cups hot water
2/3 cup sour cream
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening (I used a trans fat-free variety from Whole Foods)
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 Tbsp. pure vanilla extract

For the salted caramel:
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. fleur de sel
1 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. light corn syrup
1/4 cup sour cream

For the whipped caramel ganache frosting
1 lb. dark chocolate (60 to 70% cacao), chopped
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. light corn syrup
2 cups unsalted butter, soft but cool, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

To assemble the cake
2 tsp. fleur de sel, plus more for garnish

Make the classic chocolate cake layers: 1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter three 8-inch (or 9-inch) round cake pans, line the bottoms with parchment paper, and butter the parchment. Dust with flour, and knock out the excess flour.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the cocoa powder, hot water, and sour cream and set aside to cool. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in another medium bowl and set aside.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and shortening on medium speed until ribbonlike, about 5 minutes. Add the sugars and beat until fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition, then add the vanilla and beat until incorporated. Scrape down the bowl and mix again for 30 seconds. Add the flour mixture, alternating with the cocoa mixture, in three additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture.
4. Divide the batter among the prepared pans and smooth the tops. Bake for 35-40 minutes (mine took 30 for the 9-inch cake pans), rotating the pans halfway through the baking time, until a toothpick inserted in the center of each cake comes out clean. Transfer the cakes to a wire rack and let cool for 20 minutes. Invert the cakes onto the rack, remove the pans, and let cool completely. Remove the parchment.

Make the salted caramel: 1. In a small saucepan, combine the cream and fleur de sel. Bring to a simmer over very low heat until the salt has dissolved.
2. Meanwhile, keeping a close eye on the cream mixture so it doesn't burn, in a medium saucepan combine 1/4 cup water, the sugar, and corn syrup, stirring them together carefully so you don't splash the sides of the pan. Cook over high heat until an instant-read (or candy) thermometer reads 350 degrees F., 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool for 1 minute.
3. Add the cream mixture to the sugar mixture. Whisk in the sour cream. Let the caramel cool to room temperature, then transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the cake. (At this point, the caramel will keep in the fridge up to 3 days.)

Make the whipped caramel ganache frosting: 1. Put the chocolate in a heatproof bowl and set aside. (I just placed mine inside the bowl that goes to my stand mixer, since we'll need the chocolate in there soon anyway.)
2. In a small saucepan, bring the cream to a simmer over very low heat. Meanwhile, keeping a close eye on the cream so it doesn't burn, in a medium saucepan combine 1/4 cup water, the sugar, and corn syrup, stirring them together carefully so you don't splash the sides of the pan. Cook over high heat until an instant-read (or candy) thermometer reads 350 degrees F., 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the caramel cool for 1 minute.
3. Add the cream to the caramel and stir to combine. Stir slowly for 2 minutes, then pour the caramel over the chocolate. Let the caramel and chocolate sit for 1 minute, then, starting in the center of the bowl, and working your way out to the edges, slowly stir the chocolate and caramel mixture in a circle until the chocolate is completely melted. Let the mixture cool, then transfer it to the electric stand mixer.
4. Mix on low speed with the paddle attachment until the bowl feels cool to the touch. Increase the speed to medium-high and gradually add the butter, beating until thoroughly incorporated. Scrape down the bowl and beat on high speed until the mixture is fluffy.

Assemble the cake: 1. At this point, I wrapped each cake layer in two layers of saran wrap and put them in my freezer for about 45 minutes, just to firm them up enough to trim the tops. The cookbook does not say to do this, but after reading up on this cake on other blogs, it seemed like a crucial step. I think it helped me out. But it is optional.
2. Trim each cake layer so it lays flat on top and on the bottom. Place one cake layer on a serving platter. Spread 1/4 cup of the caramel over the top. Let the caramel soak into the cake, then spread 3/4 cup of the ganache frosting over the caramel. Sprinkle 1 tsp. of the fleur de sel over the frosting, then top with the second cake layer.
3. Spread with caramel, then frosting, and sprinkle with 1 tsp. of the fleur de sel. Then top with the third layer. Spread with caramel. Crumb coat (spread a very thin layer of the ganache frosting over the entire cake) the cake and put the cake in the refrigerator for 15 minutes to firm up the frosting. Frost the sides and top with the remaining frosting. (I did generously frost my cake, but I still had some frosting left over.) Garnish with a sprinkle of fleur de sel.
4. This cake will keep (maybe?) in a cake saver at room temperature (cool and humidity-free) for up to 3 days. If your room is not cool, place the cake in a cake saver and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Remove the cake from the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for at least 2 hours before serving.

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