Thursday, July 26, 2007

Cake Walk

I know I've mentioned before that when it comes to baking sweet stuff, I don't really think that cakes are my strength. I can make a good cake, sure, but I've just never made them often enough to feel like they represent some of my best baking work.

Maybe that's because as I was growing up, I watched the Chef Mother earn a little extra income by baking and decorating beautiful wedding cakes. I helped a little: mixing cake batter, helping to tint the frosting, stuffing the paper decorating cones with frosting, and eventually setting the posts and tiers. It was breathtaking to watch her professional creations take shape, and though she worked hard to teach me basic decorating techniques, I could never quite live up to the daunting standard she set.

Maybe that's about to change.

In the past couple of years, as I've experimented with recipes, I've found myself drawn a little more to cake baking. I'm not talking about fancy tiered decorated cakes here... just simple, flavorful pastries with at most a simple frosting. My tastes tend more toward making the cakes themselves the showpieces, setting off a moist and tender crumb with delicate spices, fruit, or even flowers.

And the ideas just keep coming.

Lately I've been dreaming of a spice cake topped with a maple-laced cream cheese frosting, all infused with espresso powder for a cappuccino-like flavor. And though I gathered the ingredients a few weeks ago, only tonight did I finally get around to testing the idea.

Some time back, I borrowed a copy of The Cake Book from the library, hoping to get some inspiration for expanding my cake horizons. The Apple Cake with Maple Frosting recipe had caught my eye when I read the book, and as I thumbed through my notebook to find a starting point for my new cake, the same recipe jumped out at me once again.

You'll not be surprised, I know, to find out that I made changes right from the start, making some substitutions in order to work in local ingredients (spelt flour, honey, and milk) and altering the spice combination to feature just cinnamon and cardamom, backed by espresso powder mixed with vanilla extract. Everything seemed to work out well, and the cake turned out a beautiful bronze color, speckled with spice and slightly crackly on top.

As I set the cake out to cool, I creamed together the very soft organic butter and cream cheese for the frosting, adding a repeat of the spices and flavors from the cake as well as local maple syrup to sweeten it all. (I still haven't quite learned the trick to get allof the lumps out of the cream cheese, but perhaps that requires a mechanical mixer, which really isn't worth the effort in my kitchen.) And once the cake had cooled, I was ready to spread the frosting on top.

As always, I couldn't wait to try my new creation and to evaluate the recipe, so I cut out a corner and sampled it, bite by slow and savoring bite. The spices deepen the flavor of the cake, and the frosting carries the hint of coffee for a good balance. The whole is moist and tender and creamy, not too sweet, and altogether satisfying.

While I think the cake would be more fitting for an autumnal celebration, served with strong coffee or even mulled cider, it was a splendid treat for a cool and damp summer evening, too.

Fancy cakes with roses and garlands piped on? No, I'm still not very interested in making those.

But making wholesome cakes loaded with surprising flavor and topped with a smear of creamy frosting? Easy. I can do that.

And maybe I'll even try to do that more often.

Cappuccino Spice Cake

Considering that my all-time favorite cake is the Chef Mother's legendary carrot cake, it's not a giant leap of the imagination to think that a spice cake would make me almost as happy. The original Apple Cake with Maple Frosting recipe found in The Cake Book called for cinnamon, ginger, and cloves for spices along with chopped apples and walnuts, but I felt reasonably certain that it would adapt easily to my own vision. I like having more spice flavor in the cake and more coffee flavor in the frosting, but you may find that you want more of the same in each. Though this only makes one square cake, I'm sure you could expand the recipe to make a round layer cake or a rectangular cake.

1 c whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c spelt flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 c unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
1/2 c honey
1/2 tsp espresso powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2/3 c milk

8 oz package cream cheese, room temperature
4 T unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp espresso powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
pinch of salt
1/2 c maple syrup

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 9" square baking pan. Set aside.

In medium bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, cinnamon, cardamom, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

In large bowl, cream the butter and honey together. In small bowl (ramekin or prep dish), mix espresso powder into vanilla extract until blended. Add mixture to butter along with eggs, and beat well. Add the flour mixture in thirds, alternating with the milk and stirring just until blended.

Scrape batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

To make frosting, cream together cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy. Add vanilla, espresso, spices, and salt, mixing well. Add maple syrup and beat until smooth, increasing your speed until frosting is light, too.

Frost cooled cake with prepared frosting, decorating as desired. Cut cake into squares and serve.

Serves 9-16 (depending on size of squares)


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