True to Dennis’s genuine love for all things chocolate and all things peanut butter, we made a chocolate cake with chocolate and peanut butter frosting for his birthday.
Okay, I’m actually using the pronoun “we” here very loosely. It was more like “he” rather than “we”. Dennis made his first two-layer chocolate cake from scratch and I was the assistant pastry chef and food stylist. We used a basic chocolate cake recipe from Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food and a chocolate butter icing recipe from The Joy of Cooking. We tweaked the icing recipe a little to make a decadent chocolate and peanut butter frosting instead. The chocolate cake recipe is a great versatile recipe that can be used to make cakes in any format from sheet cakes to cupcakes.
For the chocolate cake, makes one 9-inch one-layer or multilayer round cake
4 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 cups cake flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
6 Tbsp cocoa powder
8 Tbsp (1 stick) butter, softened
2-1/2 cups brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1-1/4 cups boiling water
For the chocolate and peanut butter frosting, makes two cups of frosting
4 oz unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
Making the cake
Preheat the oven at 350 degrees F.
Butter two 9-inch cake pans and line the bottom with parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust the pan with flour or cocoa, and shake out the excess. Lining the pan with parchment paper makes removing the cake from the pan much easier.
Coarsely chop the unsweetened chocolate. We used the Venezuelan chocolate El Rey Bucare that has 58.5% cocoa. Place the coarsely chopped chocolate in a metal bowl and set the bowl over a pot of simmering water. The metal bowl should be big enough so that it sits on top of the pot without touching the water.
Turn off the heat. Stir the chocolate from time to time until completely melted and smooth. Remove the bowl from the pot and set aside the melted chocolate.
Sift together the cake flour, baking soda, salt, cocoa powder.
In a large bowl, beat the softened butter until creamy. Beat the butter either by hand or in a stand mixer. Beat in the brown sugar and vanilla extract. Then beat in the eggs, one egg at a time. When fully blended, stir in the melted chocolate. Add half of the dry ingredients to the mixture and combine. Stir in the buttermilk. Then stir in the rest of the dry ingredients. Gradually pour in the boiling water until completely blended. The batter will have a thin liquid consistency.
Pour the batter equally into the two cake pans and bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Place the pan on a cooling rack and allow the cake to cool completely.
Run a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake. Remove the cake from the pan and peel off the parchment paper. The cooled cake can be kept in the pan and stored if you are not using the cake the same day. Just make sure that it is tightly covered.
The recipe can also be used to make a sheet cake or cupcakes. For a sheet cake, prepare a half-sheet pan as mentioned above. Pour the batter, smooth the top, and bake for about 20 minutes. For cupcakes, bake for about 30 minutes. The recipe makes around 24 individual cupcakes.
Making the icing
Melt the chocolate the same way as previously. Place the coarsely chopped chocolate in a metal bowl and set the bowl over a pot of simmering water. Remove from heat. Add the unsalted butter, stir in the milk and the vanilla extract. Blend by hand or use a stand mixer. Gradually add the confectioners’ sugar and beat until smooth and spreadable. Add the peanut butter and mix until well blended.
Add more sugar, if needed, to thicken the consistency. According to the Joy of Kitchen, confectioners’s sugar icings tend to thicken on its own if left undisturbed for a few minutes. Also, it thickens if stirred over a bowl of ice water. Add more peanut butter if you prefer a more peanut buttery taste.
Make the icing just before using.
Assembling the Cake
Place the first layer on a cake pedestal. Using a carving knife, trim the top of the first layer to make it flat.
Evenly spread a generous layer of the icing on top of the cake using a metal spatula. Then place the second layer on top of the frosting.
Generously coat the cake with the frosting using a metal spatula. The recipe for the frosting makes 2 cups, which we found to be just enough for a two-layer 9-inch cake. If you prefer a cake more lavishly coated with frosting, adjust the ingredients proportionally to yield more.
The cake was amazing. Rich and moist. Dennis’s birthday, too was equally amazing. Sweet sixteen.
Across the street from the old warehouses in Pier 70, Kitchenette serves tasty lunches out of a garage door along Illinois Street. Run by chefs who have worked with the likes of Thomas Keller and Alice Waters, the food is organic, local and delicious.
I’ve had memorable lunches at Kitchenette since we moved to the Dogpatch. Their house smoked pastrami sandwich (Marin Sun Farms beef smoked over fig wood with apple-caraway mustard and braised cabbage) and their beef and pork polpette sandwich (meatballs in amatriciana sauce with parmesan cheese) are really yummy.
But the most memorable by far is their bacon snickerdoodle. I think it’s genius. It’s an excellent example of how bacon can make anything, like a simple snickerdoodle, extra special.
Lelenita’s makes delightful tres leches cakes and other Nicaraguan baked treats like the Pio Quinto, a Nicaraguan rum cake with walnuts and dark rum.
Many people believe that tres leches, a popular Latin American cake, originated from Nicaragua. There are actually two types of tres leches. One is the deliciously moist traditional sponge cake soaked in a glaze made of three types of milk, and the other is a sponge cake with a fruit filling, usually strawberry, which is not soaked in a milk glaze and is less sweet. Both are topped lavishly with meringue instead of the more common whipped topping. Meringue actually makes their cakes truly Nicaraguan. But if meringue is not your thing, Lelenita’s can bake you a cake with either a vanilla or chocolate flavored whipped topping. They also make delicious and detailed decorated cakes for weddings and all occasions.
For my birthday this year, Dennis graciously offered to bake me a tres leches cake. I’m actually very proud of Dennis and very proud of myself, too since I feel responsible for converting him. You see, Dennis is, or rather was, a strict chocolate only for dessert person. He loves chocolate and chocolate alone. But I have successfully managed to convince him that there is so much good stuff besides chocolate. Don’t get me wrong, I love chocolate, too. But I also love carrot cake, pineapple upside down cake and I love tres leches.
Tres leches or Pastel de Tres leches is “three milk cake” in Spanish. It is a sponge cake or butter cake soaked in, you guessed it right, three types of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream. The cake is very popular in many parts of Latin America. A popular variation is adding cajeta or sweetened caramelized milk, which makes it cuatro leches, or “four milk cake”.
Making tres leches at home requires a bit of a time commitment. You need to bake the cake and then leave the cake refrigerated overnight to let it soak in the milk glaze before topping it with whipped cream. The recipe is taken from Alton Brown’s Good Eats. Note that the measurements are very precise, for instance, it’s 6 3/4 ounces cake flour, not 7 but 6 3/4 ounces by weight. Dry ingredients are by weight. Liquids are by volume. Note also that the recipe calls for a standard mixer. It will make things easier but a big bowl and some brawn will be fine, too.
For the cake
vegetable oil to coat the baking pan
6 3/4 ounces (by weight) cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
8 ounces (by weight) sugar
5 whole eggs
1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
For the milk glaze
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup half-half
For the whipped topping
2 cups heavy cream
8 ounces (by weight) sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Making the Cake
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly oil and flour a 13 by 9-inch metal pan and set aside.
Whisk together the cake flour, baking powder and salt in a medium mixing bowl and set aside.
Place the butter into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat on medium speed until fluffy, approximately 1 minute. Decrease the speed to low and with the mixer still running, gradually add the sugar over 1 minute. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl, if necessary. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and mix to thoroughly combine. Add the vanilla extract and mix to combine.
Add the flour mixture to the batter in 3 batches and mix just until combined. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and spread evenly.
Do not panic if there appears to be a very small amount of batter. It will rise and it will soak in the milk glaze later.
Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until the cake is lightly golden and reaches an internal temperature of 200 degrees F.
Remove the cake pan to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 30 minutes. Poke the top of the cake all over with a skewer or fork. Allow the cake to cool completely and then prepare the glaze.
Making the glaze
Whisk together the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and the half-and-half in a 1-quart measuring cup. Once combined, pour the glaze over the cake.
Refrigerate the cake overnight. The tray will feel very heavy because of the milk glaze. Really heavy.
Making the whipped topping
Place the heavy cream, sugar and vanilla into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whisk together on low until stiff peaks are formed. Change to medium speed and whisk until thick. The topping can also be made without a standard mixer. It can be done with just a large bowl, a whisk and a lot of stamina. It’s more difficult but it can be done.
Spread the topping over the cake and allow to chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
For a more festive tres leches, add some color by sprinkling candy sprinkles generously over the whipped topping.
It may appear daunting to make tres leches at home but let me assure you that the rewards are great and tasty. It’s creamy. It’s moist. It’s sweet. It’s seriously delicious.
Just right outside the city is the House of Silvanas Bakeshop. This tiny bakeshop in Filipino-town Daly City truly lives up to its name: it’s the House of amazing Filipino sweet treats, from food for the gods to polvoron.
Food for the gods are tasty candy bars made of dates and walnuts. Polvoron, on the other hand, is powdered milk candy, which is basically toasted flour, sugar, butter and powdered milk. I fondly remember enjoying making polvoron with my mom growing up in Manila. She would mix all the ingredients and toast them in a huge wok and I would mold them into oval-shaped candies. But I remember getting too frustrated though when I tried wrapping them in delicate Japanese paper.
But the real reason to make the trip to this bakeshop are their deliciously crunchy and creamy silvanas.
A silvana is a layer of buttercream sandwiched between two cashew-meringue wafers, coated with cookie crumbs. For those who grew up in the Philippines, it’s the cookie version of Sans Rival, a rich Filipino cake with layers of meringue, cashews and buttercream. It comes in truly Filipino flavors: ube or purple yam, buko pandan or coconut and mango. And there’s chocolate, mocha and strawberry, too. They are best enjoyed frozen. The crunchy wafers and the yummy buttercream just delightfully melt in your mouth.
The House of Silvanas is a bit of a trek from the city but it’s well worth the trip. Just a note though that the bakeshop is in a rather inconspicuous location, tucked away in a shopping center. The obvious landmark to watch out for is a weathered sign that says bake shop to your right along Gellert Boulevard.