Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Funky: Chocolate Toffee Cake

I’ve been trying, really I have. I’ve gotten a couple of new cookbooks, looked through some old ones, and generally tried to motivate myself to get excited about cooking. But I just can’t. I’m in one of my occasional funks, and I can’t get pumped up to cook anything. I read blogs and magazines, talk to fellow food devotees about food, but nothing is working. It’s a sort of depression that comes over me now and again, but confined to the food aspect of my life. It’s a feeling that if I could just cook something, I’d feel better, but I can’t think of anything to cook.

However, this past weekend I had to make a birthday cake for my husband, with the assistance of my children. They helped with both the cakes and the frosting, and the result was fine, but honestly, it wasn’t amazing. The kids adored it, of course, and I was glad to see them enjoying what they’d produced, even if I wasn’t. The one comment I got from my older son was that he’d prefer the cake without the candy.

The cake was a chocolate cake with chocolate icing that had toffee bar bits in it. The recipe is from Bon Appétit from March of 2000, which I found in my copy of the Bon Appétit cookbook. I flipped through a number of books looking for a cake for Alex’s 40th birthday that the kids could help me make, marked a few and presented them, and he chose that one. We had a bag of toffee bits in the pantry, so it seemed like a fine idea.

My reaction: meh. It was a lot of work, and it just didn’t have that sparkle. Also, I’m starting to think there’s something wrong with me, because all of my cakes seem to be lopsided in one way or another. No, I don’t trim them, so no doubt that’s what it is. If I evened them out after they cooled by leveling them, I’d probably end up with something a bit more finished looking.

The cake was easy enough, but in the frosting, I met my Waterloo. I tried to make it with the kids on Saturday afternoon and it flopped miserably. In fact, it flopped so badly that flopped is too mild a word to use. It just utterly, disappointingly, scrape-every-bit-of-it-down-the-drain-and-go-out-for-more-ingredients failed.

The only bit of happiness I was able to salvage from it was that Matthew stood by my side the whole time, watching it not succeed with me. Time and again I stopped the mixer, scraped down the sides, and started it up again with the hopeful comment, “Maybe this time it will work.” And each time he would nod solemnly and wordlessly hold out his little hand for the spatula to lick (hey, it was a cake for the family only—we all share the same cooties; besides, that batch of frosting went down the drain).

After a half an hour (half an hour) of whipping on the highest speed of my mixer, I decided that we were done, and that if I whipped it any longer, we’d soon have a very strange chocolate butter.

Sunday morning I gave it another go, and this time I was more careful during the cooling-and-whisking portion of the recipe. My error, I realized, was that I didn’t let it cool down and thicken up enough, nor did I whisk it. It was still quite liquid—about the consistency of chocolate syrup—when I started whipping it with the mixer the first time, and I used a spatula to stir it around in the ice bath. It was much closer to solid the second time; so much closer, in fact, that it was quite hard to whisk (and indeed, I used an actual whisk). Aha.

So we assembled the cake, scattering the toffee bits over the middle and, just for laughs, over the top (we skipped the shaved milk chocolate that the recipe calls for). The toffee bits were, I think, what actually detracted from this cake, and really put the “eh” in “meh.” They were, you see, somewhat, ah…aged. I think we actually moved them from East coast to West, which means that at a conservative estimate they were at least two and a half years old. And that estimate assumes I bought them the day we moved, which I can assure you I did not. So let’s say three years old, just for laughs.

They tasted dusty. Not something you really look for, or even expect, in a candy. And yet, that’s how they tasted, in spite of having been in a factory-sealed bag the whole time. I should have gone out and bought fresh Skor bars and used those. In fact, I was going to, but the Birthday Boy urged me to use what we had in the pantry, and so I sort of feel like he got what he deserved.

Given a little less frosting frustration, and a little more current candy bars, this cake has potential. But with my funk, I’m just grubby about everything, even chocolate cake. And when you’re grubby about chocolate cake, boy, you’re pretty darned grubby. I’ll try to snap out of it.

Chocolate-toffee Crunch Layer Cake with Milk Chocolate Frosting
from The Bon Appetit Cookbook
serves 10 to 12 people, assuming none of them is in a cooking-induced funk

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cup hot water
1 3/4 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup whole milk

1 1/4 cups whipping cream
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 pound milk chocolate, chopped

4 1.4-ounce chocolate-covered English toffee bars (such as Heath Bars or Skor), cut into 1/4-inch dice
7 ounces milk chocolate (such as one Hershey's bar or two 3- to 3.5-ounce milk chocolate bars)

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 3/4-inch-high sides. Line bottoms of pans with waxed paper; butter paper. Dust pans with flour; tap out excess. Combine chocolate and 1/2 cup hot water in small saucepan. Stir over low heat until melted and smooth. Cool to lukewarm, stirring often.

Whisk flour, baking soda and salt in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until fluffy. Gradually beat in sugar. Beat in eggs 1 at a time, then vanilla extract. Beat in chocolate mixture. Add flour mixture in 3 additions alternately with milk in 2 additions, beating just to blend after each addition. Divide batter equally beween pans. Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean and cake just begins to pull away from sides of pan, about 35 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on racks 5 minutes. Cut around pan sides. Turn cakes out onto racks; peel off waxed paper. Cool cakes completely.

Combine cream, corn syrup and butter in heavy large saucepan. Whisk over medium heat until mixture begins to simmer. Add chopped chocolate. Reduce heat to low and whisk until frosting is smooth, about 1 minute; transfer to large bowl.

Fill another large bowl with ice. Set bottom of bowl with frosting atop ice. Whisk until frosting is cool and begins to thicken, about 8 minutes. Place bowl of frosting on work surface. Using electric mixer, beat until color lightens and just until frosting becomes thick enough to hold peaks when beaters are lifted, about 2 minutes (frosting will continue to thicken as it stands).

Place 1 cake layer, flat side up, on 8-inch-diameter tart pan bottom or cardboard round. If desired, place pan bottom with cake atop 8-inch-diameter cake pan to make simple decorating stand. Top layer with 1 1/2 cups frosting, spreading to edge. Sprinkle evenly with diced toffee. Top with second cake layer, flat side down; press slightly to adhere. Spread thin layer of frosting over top and sides of cake to seal and set crumbs. Spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake (if frosting becomes stiff, stir gently with spatula to loosen).

Stand chocolate bar on 1 short end. Using vegetable peeler and starting at top edge of 1 side, run peeler down length of bar (chocolate will come away from side of chocolate bar in curls). Pile chocolate curls atop cake. Chill at least 2 hours. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover with cake dome and keep chilled. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving.)

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