Jennie Geisler: Learned a lot from layer cake

Now I know why God made cake mixes. And bakeries and bakers. And why no one says “It’s as easy as cake.” They say “piece of cake,” yes, because it is indeed easy to hack off a hunk of someone’s hard work and dismember it with a fork.

But having made this from-scratch Black Forest Cake (and fail-safe Butterscotch Bundt as a hedge against disaster), I can tell you I had a twinge of horror watching it be dismantled, even for a photograph, let alone by people with paper bowls and plastic forks singing my praises.

Of course, I don’t know what I would have done with it otherwise, and pictures and praises are nice, especially since I don’t think I’ll be doing another layer cake for a while. It was a fun challenge, but it was a 24-hour project, and when I set it on the table to be photographed, I have to admit to an audible sigh of relief that drew a laugh from photographer Jack Hanrahan.

In case you’re wondering why I put myself up to this in the first place, I don’t know what to say, other than I’d recently received a review copy of an absolutely gorgeous book “The Perfect Cake” from America’s Test Kitchen. It’s the kind of book that I like to gaze at, and rub my hand over and read, page by page, like a novel. It’s inspiring and educational and you can’t have it. I mean, I guess you could buy your own. But I’m not putting it into a drawing. You wouldn’t want mine anyway. It’s full of sticky notes, fingerprints and highlighting.

I did have the presence of mind to make copies of the pages I’d be working from, to tape to my cabinets, so the book wouldn’t get slopped with ingredients and such while I was working. But anyway, I was looking for an excuse to work with it when I realized this Saturday is my birthday. I’ll be 46, and I was up for a challenge. I sure got one. And it was delicious.

Five things I learned:

1. I did use my digital scale to weigh my flour ingredients as directed. I wasn’t leaving anything to chance with this recipe. It’s impossible to say if the scoop-and-sweep method using dry measuring cups would have worked as well, but I’ll tell you the texture of this cake was the best I’ve ever made. I also invested in a can of Pam for baking, which includes flour in the spray, coated all the cake pans in cocoa powder and cut parchment to fit the bottoms of the cake pans, as directed. But the time I was done preparing the cake pans, I was ready to pack it in.

2. I knew (believed) I had one 8-inch cake pan a home, so knew (thought) I only needed two more. Since I was going to be hauling this cake to work from home, I knew I was going to need a cardboard base to build it on and a proper cake box to carry it in. I also wanted a cake tester for my Bundt cake because I’d read that, while toothpicks are fine for testing the doneness of regular cake layers, they don’t go deep enough into bundt cakes to measure the middle, so I got one of those, too ($3.99).

I got all that at A.C. Moore, but it’s all available in other places, including Michael’s and independent baking supply stores around town. I got 10-inch cardboard bases (package of 10 for $4.99) that fit perfectly into the 8-inch cake box ($1.49).

3. The cake book explains in detail the differences between cake pans and their behavior. The authors recommended they be 2 inches tall to prevent overflowing. Then there’s color. Dark colored pans conduct heat faster, so cakes brown more, but, since the outside of the cake layer cooks faster, the inside has no choice but to puff up as it cooks, creating more domed layers that can cause structural problems when building a layer cake.

I bought two lightweight light-colored cake pans ($8.99 each). Of course, when I got home, I dug out the pan I thought was 8 inches and it was some kind of whacky 7.5-inch monstrosity. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I decided to just use it, and put it in the middle layer and “fix it with frosting.” This actually worked, to some extent, despite the fact that the layer broke in half during the transfer from cooling rack to cake.

I cannot stress enough the patience, planning, attention to detail, finesse and calm in the face of adversity that is necessary to build a layer cake. It should be part of training for elite military squads. Seriously.

4. The “kirsch” in the Black Forest Cake is clear, unaged cherry brandy. I bought a bottle of Kirschwasser at the state store for $15.99 because I’ve wanted it before for other recipes, and it’s a standard ingredient in this classic German dessert. Don’t use creme de kirsch. If you don’t want to shell out for kirsch, you can use another fruit brandy, such as blackberry or apricot if you have those. Teetotalers can just use more of the cherry juice.

5. It’s probably best to spread out the work of both of these cakes over two days, creating the cake part on an evening, allowing them to cool and wrapping them for overnight. Then deal with the syrups, glazes and toppings the following day, leaving time for chilling the Black Forest Cake before adding the chocolate shavings.

Speaking of chocolate shavings, I tried — no kidding — seven tools in my quest for nice big curls of chocolate and wound up with 8 ounces of chocolate gravel that melted on my hands as I tried to apply it to the sides of the cake. If anyone has a tool or technique or suggestion out there for big, beautiful chocolate curls, feel free to share.

BLACK FOREST CAKE

2 cups jarred sour cherries in light syrup, drained, 1 cup syrup reserved (1 24-ounce jar)

½ cup sugar

½ cup kirsch or other cherry-flavored liqueur

Cake

3 (8-inch) Devil’s Food Cake layers, recipe follows

Whipped Cream

¼ cup sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

3 cups heavy cream, chilled

1½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Garnish

Shaved semisweet chocolate

For the cherries, reserve the 8 prettiest cherries for garnish in a small bowl.

Slice remaining cherries in half and place in a second bowl. Bring reserved cherry syrup and sugar to simmer in medium saucepan over medium heat and cook until syrup is thickened and measures about ½ cup, 8 to 10 minutes. Turn off heat, stir in kirsch. Toss 1 tablespoon with cherries reserved for garnish. Toss 3 tablespoons more syrup with halved cherries.

For the cake, poke top of cake layers thoroughly with wooden skewer and brush with remaining syrup.

For the whipped cream, whisk sugar and cornstarch together in a saucepan and slowly whisk in ½ cup cream. bring mixture to simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly, until mixture thickens, 2 to 3 minutes. Let mixture cool completely, about 30 minutes.

Using a stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment, whip remaining 2½ cups cream and vanilla on low speed until frothy, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium and continue to whip until mixture begins to thickens, about 30 seconds. Slowly add cooled sugar mixture and continue to whip until soft peaks form, about 1 minute.

Line edges of cake platter with 4 strips of parchment paper to keep platter clean. Place 1 cake layer on platter. Spread ½ cup whipped cream over top, right to the edge of cake, then cover with half of the sliced cherries. Repeat with 1 more cake layer, ½ cup more whipped cream, and remaining sliced cherries. Top with remaining cake layer, pressing lightly to adhere. Spread remaining whipped cream evenly over top and sides of cake.

Refrigerate cake so it absorbs soaking syrup, at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours. Before serving, let the cake sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour, then gently press shaved chocolate into sides of cake. Evenly space 8 small piles of shaved chocolate around the top of the cake and top each with a cherry. Carefully remove parchment strips before serving.

DEVIL’S FOOD CAKE LAYERS

Makes 2 9-inch or 3 8-inch cake layers

½ cup (1½ ounces) Dutch-processed cocoa powder, plus extra for pan

1½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1¼ cups boiling water

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped

1 teaspoon instant espresso powder or instant coffee powder

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1½ cups packed light brown sugar

3 large eggs, room temperature

½ cup sour cream, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 2 9-inch or 3 8-inch round cake pans, then dust with cocoa powder and line bottoms with parchment paper.

Whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl. Whisk boiling water, chocolate, cocoa and espresso powder in a second bowl until smooth.

Using a stand mixer fitted with paddle, beat butter and sugar on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until combined, about 30 seconds. Beat in sour cream and vanilla until incorporated. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with chocolate mixture in 2 additions, scraping down the bowl as needed. Give batter final stir by hand.

Divide batter evenly between prepared pans and smooth tops with rubber spatula. Gently tap pans on counter to settle batter. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out with few crumbs attached, 18 to 22 minutes, switching and rotating pans halfway through baking.

Let cakes cool in pans on wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans, discarding parchment, and let cool completely on a rack, about 2 hours. Cake layers can be stored at room temperature for up to 24 hours or frozen for up to 1 month; defrost cakes at room temperature.)

— America’s Test Kitchen “The Perfect Cake”

TRIPLE BUTTERSCOTCH SWIRL BUNDT

Butterscotch Swirl

2/3 cup butterscotch chips

2/3 cup chopped pecans

1/3 packed dark brown sugar

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup unsalted butter, softened

Cake

3 cups all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

¾ teaspoon baking soda

1½ cups packed dark brown sugar

¾ cup unsalted butter, softened

¼ cup vegetable oil

3 large eggs, at room temperature

2 tablespoons Scotch or whiskey

1¼ cups sour cream (not fat-free)

1 recipe Butterscotch Glaze, recipe follows

Filling: In a food processor, pulse butterscotch chips, pecans, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt and butter until mixture is very finely chopped and moist clumps form.

Cake: In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda.

In the stand mixer bowl, beat brown sugar, butter and oil on medium speed for 4 minutes or until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add Scotch and beat for 2 minutes.

With the mixer on low speed, alternately beat in flour mixture and sour cream, making three additions of flour and two of sour cream and beating until incorporated.

Transfer half the batter to prepared pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle butterscotch mixture evenly over batter and top with the remaining batter. Smooth the top.

Bake in preheated oven for 60 to 70 minutes or until puffed and golden brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes, then carefully invert cake onto a wire rack to cool completely (see tip.)

Pour glaze over the cooled cake, letting it drip down the sides. Let glaze set for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Tip: For best results, wrap the cooled cake tightly in plastic wrap and store at room temperature or in the refrigerator overnight before glazing.

— “Beautiful Bundts,” by Julie Ane Hession

BUTTERSCOTCH GLAZE

½ cup packed dark brown sugar

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup unsalted butter

¼ cup light corn syrup

1/3 cup heavy or whipping cream

1 tablespoons Scotch or whiskey, optional

½ to ¾ cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted

In a medium saucepan, stir together brown sugar, salt, butter and corn syrup over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and carefully pour in cream (mixture will bubble), stirring to blend.

Return saucepan to medium-low heat, add Scotch (if using) and bring to a gentle boil. Boil gently, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes or until slightly thickened. Let cool to warm.

Stir in ½ cup confectioners’ sugar. Stir in more confectioners’ sugar if necessary, 1 tablespoon at a time, until glaze is thick but pourable.

Tip: If the glaze is still too thin after you’ve added all of the sugar, it’s probably too warm. Let it cool a bit more to thicken.

— “Beautiful Bundts,” by Julie Ane Hession

— Jennie Geisler can be reached on Twitter: @ETNGeisler.

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