Chocolate cinnamon cake

It’s not that my mother only made Bundt cakes when we were growing up.  There were also layer cakes, and a handful of my grandmother’s German chocolate cakes, but… there are a lot of Bundt cakes that live in my memory. 

So, it was (surprisingly) without irony or hesitation that I registered for a Bundt pan last year.  And actually, somehow, amid the weird orchestra of guilt-mixed-with-practicality-mixed-with-oooh-shiny-mixed-with-more-guilt of the wedding registry process, there were a few items on my mental must-scan list that were like a soothing balm in a big bulky moment of awkward materialism.  The Bundt pan was one of these items.

Do I make cakes from scratch?  No.  (Except this one. And it goes in a no-frills springform.)

Do I host the sort of gatherings that necessitate the quantity of cakey goodness that an ample-sized pan such as the Bundt would yield?  No.

Do I know the first thing about making an icing to adorn a cake like this?  Aw hell no. My mother is the master of the artful drizzle.  I might get there someday, but Saturday was not that day.

AND YET:  the Bundt pan is my destiny.  I’m not my mother’s daughter without it. 

Just hadn’t gotten around to using it yet.

But working late last week, I picked up some coffee and a piece of chocolate cinnamon bread.  Maybe it was the Alarmingly Productive Evening I had, maybe it was the coffee, maybe it was the free jar of really nice cinnamon I had gotten at Penzey’s earlier that day, OR… maybe the “bread” (truly: cake) was actually just that good.  Whatever it was, the universe conspired to bring me toward the Bundt pan in the ever-shrinking pile of kitchen-y wedding gifts in the corner of our dining room.

I wanted that breadcake.  I wanted to make it, and I wanted it IN QUANTITY.  I wanted dense, chocolatey, cinnamony, sneak-a-piece-every-30-minutes cake, working around that pretty crown shape until I accidentally-on-purpose had eaten far more than my share.

Luckily for my plan to not let my devilishly untrustworthy midsection get out of hand prior to an upcoming tropical vacation, we ended up making last-minute plans with friends this weekend.  After a flurry of Facebook messages and no fewer than 27 mentions of the word “taco,” it was decided that we would be having… All The Tacos.  Another couple would be providing the pre-snacks, and I offered to bring my experimental choco-cinnamon concoction to the party.

Without realizing it until after my stream-of-consciousness Google search, I discovered that I had been thinking of a spiced, Bundt version of Nigella Lawson’s chocolate loaf cake, which I had once ogled on Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks then ran into again more recently on Food52.

In both cases, this cake is described (hailed? cautioned? bragged about? insulted?) as a Very Ugly Cake.  The words “squidgy” and “unattractive” are also used.  Halfhearted suggestions for garnish/icing/adornment are limply tossed out and it’s clear to anyone that this cake is truly meant to be – and be enjoyed as – unabashedly ugly.

You see, the tradeoff is that it is F*ING DELICIOUS.

The reason it’s so ugly is that it’s got a whole lot of good things in there.  Namely butter.  More fat = more weight = less air.  (They don’t call it a pound cake in the US for nothin’.)  This little tease rises with the best of them but will fall like a bad souffle once out of the oven for 2 minutes.  It also is a bitch to get cleanly released from the pan.  For the loaf version of the recipe, one is well-advised to line the pan with parchment AND spray with oil.  For the Bundt version, I announced to our dinner hosts that I had good news and bad news:  “The good news is that it’s delicious.  The bad news is that it is ugly as hell.”  This is a pretty wet batter, and if you’re not familiar with cake batters like this, buckle up and get ready for a bumpy exit from the highway.  It is pretty hilarious and totally fine as long as you expect it.  So I’m doing you this favor:  expect it.

Also, brown sugar is used in place of white sugar.  The original recipe calls for Muscovado sugar, which is incredibly sexy and molassesy, but a small part of this cake’s beauty, aside from its promise of thick, spiced satisfaction, was the fact that I didn’t have to leave the house to buy any ingredients.  (A true miracle for a cake that expects to get born in my kitchen.)

I also had to substitute some doctored cocoa powder in place of the bittersweet chocolate in the recipe.  When I make this again, I will have the forethought to grab some callets to keep in the pantry for melting.  But really, this trick I found on the Optimist’s Can-Do Resource for All of Life (aka stood in quite nicely for a first go-round.

Aside from that, and the fact that I added cinnamon and used light brown instead of dark brown/Muscovado sugar, I did stay pretty true to the recipe.  OKAY and the fact that I used a Bundt pan, which requires one to double the recipe and risk a very ugly Ugly Cake due to the Bundt’s notoriously tricky shape.

So um, I guess, bottom line, this cake is nothing like Nigella’s.

But she would be proud!  Proud of just how funky this cake ended up looking, and how perfect it ended up tasting.  With the recipe below I have also included cosmetic words from the wise, gathered, of course, after the cake (and the damage) was done.

You wanna piece of this?  Remember these proportions are for a Bundt pan, which is essentially a double-batch of the loaf recipe.  Making loaves?  Good – you’re making two.  (I would like to meet the person capable of making just one of these anyhow.)

  • 2 cups soft unsalted butter (you read that right)
  • 3 1/3 cups brown sugar (light, dark, Muscovado – what do I care)
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (OR unsweetened cooca powder mixed with hot water and a bit of butter, according to the proportions in the link above)
  • 1 Tbsp cinnamon, plus more for dusting the pan
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pan
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • nonstick cooking spray

Do this:

Heat the oven to 375F.  If you’re using a Bundt pan, listen carefully:  put a few tablespoons each of flour and cinnamon in a small bowl and mix them lightly.  If you’ve got extra cocoa powder lying around, you can throw some of that in there too.  (Get ready; this is the piece of advice that I am inserting for you.  May you benefit from my experimental shortcomings!)  Spray down that Bundt pan like you’ve never sprayed anything before.  You don’t want the oil to the point of pooling, but go beyond the boundaries within which judgment and good taste usually bind you.  Then, with a small sifter or sieve (or hell, just with your fingers), sprinkle the cinnamon-flour mixture generously all over the pan.  Get those crevices!  I can’t make any promises, but after some thoughtful discussion with a fellow resourceful cook, we established that a dusting of flour would have ensured a slightly more graceful exit of this cake from the nooks and crannies of the pan.

If you’re using loaf pans, line them with parchment and spray the parchment and sides of the pan.

Melt the chocolate gently and slowly in a small saucepan.  Once it’s melted, add the cinnamon and nutmeg, and whisk in to combine thoroughly.  Set aside to cool.

Cream the butter and sugar together using electric beaters if you’ve got them, or a wooden spoon if you don’t.  (I normally prefer the simple wooden spoon method, but there was a lot of butter that needed attention here, and the beaters made the task much more painless.)  Once they are just combined, add the eggs and vanilla, beating again.  Next, add in your melted chocolate-cinnamon mixture.  Mix this well but don’t go crazy.  The point here is not a meringue and you’ll never get it with this much butter anyway. Once you’re done, leave that for a minute.

Combine the flour and baking soda in a medium bowl.  Gather your boiling water in another (safe) vessel nearby.  Now gently add about 1/4 of your flour mixture to the chocolate mixture, stir until combined, then add about 1/4 of the water.  Alternate these two until you’ve used up all of your flour mixture and all of your water. 

Is this batter a little runny?  Good.  You did it right.  Taste it for seasoning – you’re mainly looking for a sufficient amount of cinnamon here.  Don’t be shy about adding more if you feel like it.  (Friends also suggested ancho chile powder, cayenne, or even Chai spices as a swoon-worthy add-in.  Go for it!)

Once you feel your batter is ready for battle, pour it in the Bundt pan, leaving a good inch at the top of the pan.  As I said, this cake rises like a boss.  It’ll fall back down, but not after it makes a holy mess of your oven if the pan is too full.  If you’ve got excess batter due to your safe kitchen practices, dump the rest in a loaf pan, muffin tins, or other cake pan.  This can be the cake you keep at home after bringing the big guy to your friends’ house.

Bake for 30 minutes, then turn the oven down to 325 and bake for another 15 minutes.  If your toothpick/cake tester comes out with a little residue on it, it’s actually fine.  Remember, that’s the kind of cake this is.

Put your pan(s) on a rack and let cool completely before turning them back out.  I mean really wait.  You’ll see the cake(s) fall within a few minutes of removing from the oven; this is Density Magic at work, and it should not be disturbed.

This is the sort of cake that can – and should – just hang out on the counter under a glass cover, beckoning to anyone who hazards a trip to the kitchen.  It’s the Sirens’ song in cake form – a soft, knowing call.  Except, you know, without all the wreckage on sharp sea rocks.

Pictured: the mini-loaf I made with the leftover batter. See that bow on the right side? Girl is a hot mess.

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