So there’s something I haven’t told you.
After that first foray into squidgy chocolate-spice rapture back in February, I made another attempt at that chocolate cinnamon cake. I resolved to change two things: I would not use a Bundt pan this time, opting for the classic (and recommended) loaf shape; I would also not double the recipe, which, my theory went, likely weighed down the obscenely buttery batter in my (relatively larger) Bundt pan, creating an environment not conducive to cooking thoroughly. I’d made my tweaks, and this time, I’d be UNSTOPPABLE.
Which was good, because I had pledged my baked goods this time around to a charity bake sale thing at work. I could not let people down. And I wouldn’t. Obviously.
So came the bright, chilly March Sunday that I had chosen as Cake Day. I’d bake in the morning, letting the cakes cool all day, then cut them into thick slices in the evening and pre-wrap them, preparing them for sale. $1 per slice sounded pretty reasonable to me. After all, this cake was going to be pretty mind-blowing.
I followed the same recipes as the last time. I lined my pans all pretty with parchment, oil, flour and cinnamon to ensure zero pesky sticking. I made a single batch. The batter was as delicious as the last time – that dark brown, almost black lagoon of chocolatey murk looking up at me, proud and goopy. The instructions in all incarnations of the recipe – Nigella’s, Heidi’s, Food52’s – emphasize that the batter will be runnier than one may be used to in cake making. They emphasize that it will all be alright, to trust the process, that ugly cake tastes gorgeous, etc etc. (And I knew all that because the last time I had made it, mercy, it was, if not attractive, pretty damn delicious.)
I was fastidious in my cake testing. I rotated the pans. I jiggled them, checking for extra movement, I used a new toothpick each time I tested.
You know where this is going.
I have described many things in my life as a hot mess. And now I was confronted with the realization that I truly had cried wolf “hot mess” too many times. Because this?
Immediately upon emerging from the oven, the cakes’ puffy tops fell in freakishly fast-motion like circus canopies, like someone (me? I shuddered) had literally knocked the air right out of them.
Relax, the recipes say this is going to happen. It’s all fine.
They fell so much that it looked like the top of the cake had fallen to just about an inch from the bottom of the pan. This couldn’t be good.
No! It is good! It is normal. Walk away. Isn’t there a yoga class you should be going to?
No yoga. Too much batter in the tummy. No bueno.
Nevertheless, I walked away. Maybe I really did just need to relax. Maybe the cake last time behaved like this too, and because it was in a different pan, I just didn’t notice it as much.
Yeah… yeah, that’s the ticket!
Three hours later, I returned to the kitchen to turn the cakes out and see what was what. They came right out of the pan. But far too easily. They were like bricks of half-baked mud; the sides flopped out, dragging their saggy innards with them, plop, onto the board.
This would not do at all.
I texted my friend who was organizing the bake sale: “catastrophe has struck. no cakes for sale. we would have to pay people to take a slice of this mess.” Her response was the text equivalent of consolative cooing, and insistence that it surely mustn’t be that bad. Oh but it was. She came over later that night, looked upon the unholy heap of chocolate goo, glanced at me, glanced away, and sighed. It was so. Catastrophe.
Meanwhile, my mother had read the original post on the cake. She was intrigued. She also had a birthday coming up. Eager to redeem the experience, and to finally put my Bundt pan into the sort of service it probably imagined, sitting regally on that shelf at Bed, Bath and Beyond, I offered to Make Her Birthday Cake this year. After years of my own lofty requests – “triple layer chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, dipped in chocolate and rolled in more chocolate! WITH CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM ON THE SIDE!” – it was time someone made something nice for mama.
Which brings us to an especially weekendy Saturday: after staying out late like two crazy teenage punks Friday night, we slept late. Like really late. Like noon late. With literally half the day literally gone, I knew I did not have the luxury to moon around the internets to find ideas for tweaking what I will continue to call the Squidgy Chocolate Cake recipe. I could not afford to bring squidge to a birthday party. The cake game had to be tight.
Flipping through my cookbook collection before finishing up the grocery list, I happened upon a very promising recipe in a book I’ve had for a few years and consulted on a few occasions: Mad Hungry by Lucinda Scala Quinn. The book had caught my eye way back when, as the cover makes some references to cooking for menfolk, but the photos are homey yet sophisticated at the same time, which for whatever reasosn led me to believe it was a book of recipes to impress a special man-friend. Turns out Quinn’s motivation was a bit more down-to-earth (not to mention palatable): she has sons and over the years has figured out how to balance a commitment to making good, real food with a commitment to feeding a family of dudes whose stomachs appear to have no bottom. She also works for Martha Stewart, which means any recipe she publishes has been brought into this world with the aid of plenty of test-kitchen support. (If there’s one thing Martha Stewart seems to pride herself on, it’s putting in the time to make sure everything is teeth-clenchingly perfect, dammit.) Inside the book I located a recipe for a chocolate cake, involving cinnamon, and other ingredients in proportions intended for a Bundt pan: HEYO!! And a bonus: a stupid-quick recipe for a chocolate glaze that could do triple duty as a chocolate sauce, dip or spread.
It was so on.
As I gathered my ingredients and got to work on my various mixing bowls and rigged-up double-boilers, I realized something else about this scenario felt really great: using an actual, paper, bound cookbook. I felt grounded. Reassured. Like my mom was in the kitchen with me and even though I had literally just looked at that ingredient list 3 seconds ago I am very bad with remembering numbers and my mom knows that and you know so what if I need to check for the seventh time on how much baking soda to use okay?
There was no sliding to unlock my iDevice, no password, no intermittent Facebook notifications, no loss of WiFi, no getting flour or egg or chocolate sludge on my phone or tablet. It, oddly, felt very clean because I felt okay getting the book a little dirty if I had to. Seemed fitting for Mom’s birthday cake.
The entire process this time around was infinitely smoother. No guessing, no betting. This is an honest cake and it will not jerk you around with false promises. Even the batter was reassuring; it fell in thick, hearty plops from the mixing bowl into the pan.
It was done in exactly the amount of time the recipe suggested it might, and after cooling, the cake thunked healthily and without complaint from the pan to a waiting plate. If all cakes behaved like this, I’d make more of them.
In fact, I will be trotting this out for pretty much any major or minor celebration from now on – it is so easy to make, the spices are almost infinitely adaptable (Mexican chocolate cake, maybe Garam Masala?), and of course the Bundt shape and chocolate glaze are devastatingly impressive. For my version, I added more spices, of course, and also a teeny bit of oil to ensure a moist cake. For the special occasion, I did also put together a honey-cinnamon-mascarpone whipped cream to go alongside the cake. It’s exactly the ingredients you think, and it takes about 10 minutes to make, if you really want to go all-out.
A note about the spices: to heighten the flavor of cinnamon in almost any application, I have recently developed what I believe is a pretty effective habit of supplementing with Chinese five spice. It’s a simple combination of cinnamon, fennel, star anise, clove, and either Sichuan pepper or ginger. Our current bottle has ginger instead of pepper, which has proven ideal for various dessert iterations (see: Danny’s Annual Holiday Brittle Factory…). I’ve found that it truly raises the cinnamon to a different level, as the other spices really support the different notes in the cinnamon. So maybe now it’s a legitimate chocolate spice cake. Which I am more than okay with.
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 1/2 cups sugar – I used half white sugar and half raw turbinado sugar (I like the earthiness that the molasses brings, especially for such a uniquely spiced cake)
- 4 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder (feel free to use a blend with the Sichuan pepper if you want to go all out cray)
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1/2 cup chopped semisweet chocolate
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1/4 cup canola oil
for the glaze…
- 1 cup finely chopped unsweetened chocolate
- 1/2 cup sugar – also did halfsies with the raw sugar
- 1/3 cup (5 1/3 tablespoons) unsalted butter
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, cinnamon, five spice, baking soda, and salt. Toss in the chopped chocolate.
Into the butter mixture, alternately add the flour mixture and the buttermilk in three additions, ending with the flour. Mix just until everything is blended together; don’t overmix. (For those of you who find this process tedious and are tempted to simply slop all of it in together at once: bad idea jeans. In my now-extensive research on cakes such as this one, I find that it’s a pretty common instruction to add starch then liquid then starch, though in various incarnations of tedium. This three-addition bit seemed just right. Reasonable but safe.)
Spoon the batter evenly into the Bundt pan and smooth the top of the batter. Bake for about 55 to 60 minutes, or until a cake tester or a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan briefly. Turn out onto a cake plate to cool completely.
For the glaze, place a heatproof bowl over a pot of simmering water. Add the glaze ingredients and whisk to melt and combine. Drizzle over the top of the cooled cake and let the glaze set, 15 to 20 minutes, before serving.