It all started with a birthday. And a cake. A devil's food cake, to be exact.
And, while this story has a moderately happy ending, it's also proof positive that the Stones were, in fact, right:
You can't always get what you want.
Let's begin with the protagonists: Aime, King Arthur Flour's digital marketing manager. And me, King Arthur Flour's recipe fixer-upper and blogger, the self-styled Great and Powerful Wizard of Baking.
And the cake? Nina's (Aime's grandma) Devil's Food Cake – with the emphasis on DEVIL.
As in, the devil's in the details (scanty, in the recipe). And in, I had a devil of a time making this cake the way Nina did.
In fact, I never did truly succeed. But at the end of the day – well, several days, over the course of a week – I managed to make a cake that was, if not exactly a beauty-contest winner, at least tasted the way Aime remembers it.
Let's start with the recipe. Several months ago, Aime lamented that she just couldn't figure out her family's favorite devil's food cake recipe.
"What's wrong?" I asked, certain that the Great and Powerful Wizard of Baking could easily set Aime on the path to devil's cake heaven.
"The cake is really skinny. But that's not the problem. It's the frosting. I put it on the cake, and it slides right off," she lamented.
"OK, let's see the recipe," I said.
The recipe struck me as a bit roundabout and confusing – but surely the Great and Powerful, etc. could set things straight.
First, the cake. A single cup of flour for two layers is scanty, to be sure. So I increased everything by 50% (more or less), plus changed a few things, plus amended the directions... here, read for yourself –
We're going to start by preheating the oven to 350°F. Trust me – this is the easy part!
Put 1 1/2 cups whole milk (for best texture, use whole milk, not reduced-fat), and 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate in a saucepan set over medium heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the chocolate melts. Pour the mixture into a bowl or measuring cup (to cool it more quickly than if it's left in the saucepan), and set it aside to cool for a few minutes.
Next, stir together 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar and 5 tablespoons melted butter. Stir in 3 large eggs and 1 large egg yolk.
Why am I diverging from the recipe so precipitously? Shouldn't I use 4 1/2 large egg yolks? Well, technically; but I don't like ending up with a lot of unused whites, so I'm just kinda fudging it with whole eggs and 1 yolk.
With the mixer going, add the chocolate milk in a steady stream. If you don't have a stand mixer, just pour it gently into the bowl, then beat to combine.
Add the following:
1 1/2 cups (6 1/4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon espresso powder, optional; for enhanced flavor
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Beat briefly, just until fairly smooth.
So, what about dissolving the baking soda in water, as Grandma's recipe directs? People used to do this, back when baking soda was harder/lumpier than it is today; no need anymore. And besides, I can see the batter is going to be thin enough, never mind adding extra water.
Bake the cakes for about 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove them from the oven, and after 10 minutes, turn them out of the pan onto a rack to cool.
So far, so good.
But oh, my, the tide is about to turn. And I don't mean just a full-moon tide; I mean TSUNAMI.
My first go-around, I follow the recipe exactly, using 1/2 cup heavy cream, 8 tablespoons butter, and 1 1/2 cups brown sugar.
It strikes me that the directions sound very much like making fudge. So, rather than "bring to boil and cook 6-7 minutes," as the recipe directs, the Great and Powerful Wizard decides to study some fudge recipes. All of which say, "Boil until the mixture reaches soft-ball stage, about 238°F to 240°F."
I have a thermometer – it even has "soft ball" marked right on it. I can do this!
Fiasco #1: After bringing the mixture to 240°F, and doing exactly what the recipe says – including "beat the hell out of it!" – the icing wannabe thickens into a slimy combination of clay-like, grainy sugar and puddles of oil.
I give Aime a spoonful to taste. "That's the taste!" she enthuses. "But not the texture."
Back to the stove.
Next go-around, I reduce the butter from 8 tablespoons to 2 tablespoons.
Beat, beat, beat the hell out of it.
Until all of a sudden: BAM. The darned stuff turns back to brown sugar! Kind of moist brown sugar (lower left).
Hmmm, guess I can't multi-task while I'm doing this, I think. And try it again.
BAM! I'm standing there watching the glossy icing with an eagle eye, and doesn't it go from "almost there" to completely and utterly crystallized in the space of, like, 2 seconds! It's so hard, I have to laboriously scrape it from the sides of the mixing bowl (bottom right).
Meanwhile, my poor cake is getting older by the moment. So I decide to crumble the sugary shards on top and leave it on Aime's desk – with the suggestion that, once she's done laughing at my pitiful efforts, she should discard the "icing" and drizzle some ganache over the top.
(Aime later told me she did NOT, in fact, discard the icing. "It actually softened up, and we ate it the way it was – it was delicious!" Nice kid, that Aime, trying to make her elders feel better.)
After recovering from my hissy fit, I decide to delve more deeply into the wonderful world of fudge. And come up with all kinds of tips.
Like, don't stir the syrup or jiggle the pan while it's cooking. Don't add the butter until you've poured the syrup into the mixing bowl. And, "wash down the sides of the pan to prevent crystals from forming."
Plus, adding corn syrup helps prevent crystallization. And, BE ABSOLUTELY SURE TO COOL THE MIXTURE TO 110°F BEFORE BEATING!
I take all of this advice to heart, and start again.
I beat, and beat, and BEAT that icing, standing there watching it like a hawk every second. And after 10 minutes, it's still the consistency of caramel sauce.
But it's also kind of becoming a ball, if that makes sense. Discretion being the better part of valor, I decide enough is enough. Let's just put the icing on the cake and see what happens.
Think Vesuvius. It very... slowly... slides off the cake. Just like Aime said.
And, as the icing in the middle slides, so does the top layer of cake. I notice this tectonic shift just before it's about to topple sideways onto the plate. I instinctively grab it, to halt its progress.
You can see the result.
Sigh... Still, it does taste good. Let's just leave it awhile and see if it that icing firms up.
A few hours later, I begin an email conversation with Aime:
Me: As the icing sits on the cake, it's losing its glossiness/stickiness, and becoming matte, and just soft/fudgy. REALLY tasty!
Aime: Really??? Well maybe you got it!
Next day –
Me: After 24 hours, the icing is PERFECT - "fudgy"/moist consistency, a tiny bit of graininess from the sugar, and absolutely delicious.
Aime: That’s EXACTLY how it’s supposed to turn out! It’s always best the next day. Once we actually forgot about the cake in the trunk of our car – it came out tasting even better than it did the day before. My dad is now convinced that storing the cake in the trunk is the key to a great tasting devil’s food cake!
Still, I wasn't satisfied. No one wants to make a cake whose icing puddles at the bottom, leaving the thinnest layers of sweetness on top and in the middle.
After some back and forth, Aime suggests she give it a try.
More digital communication. Including a picture from Aime's aunt, Liz, of what the cake is SUPPOSED to look like.
Aime: I talked to Aunt Liz about the icing – here’s her feedback: She typically doubles the icing recipe – this makes more than she needs to ice the cake, but she thinks that the quantity in the recipe is insufficient.
She boils the icing for 10-12 minutes, significantly longer than the 6-7 minutes noted in the recipe.
She puts the icing directly in the mixer and beats at medium speed for what she said feels like another 10-12 minutes (I don’t think it’s nearly that long). She watches the icing every closely while it’s beating and checks the consistency by testing how drippy it is (like, if it’s going to fall off the cake). Once it feels like it’ll hold up she applies to the cake.
O...K... The Great and Powerful feels confident again!
Rather than double the recipe and have leftover icing, I decide to increase it somewhat – but not the butter, which I decide to go light on, once again.
So – I combine 2 cups brown sugar, 2 tablespoons corn syrup, 6 tablespoons butter, 1/4 teaspoon salt (to balance the sweetness), and 1/2 cup whole milk.
I melt everything slowly, stirring frequently to dissolve the sugar.
I put a lid on the pan for 1 minute, just before it comes to a boil, to "wash down" any sugar crystals around the sides of the pan. The mixture simmers slowly, rather than boils vigorously; it actually takes 15 minutes to get to the soft-ball stage.
Then I pour the hopefully perfect icing-to-be into the mixing bowl, and commence beating – again, taking it slow: medium speed on my KitchenAid.
I watch. And wait. And wait. Set my timer. Once I nail this, I don't want to forget just how long it takes.
Gradually, the icing thickens. Then, at around 8 minutes, it starts to generate sticky little strings. Good? Bad? Who knows?
At 11 minutes, it's definitely looking thicker. I stop the mixer; it settles down onto itself. Flowing; not spreadable.
And finally, at 11:38, the icing suddenly lightens dramatically in color and – hallelujah! – thickens. It's perfect!
I pick up the bowl and grab a spatula, ready to spread this lovely icing onto the cake.
And before my eyes – before the spatula gets within a foot of it – BAM!
The icing hardens. I spitefully pile it atop the cake anyway.
Aime: To clarify, is this what it looked like when you took the icing out of the bowl? I think you might have beat it just a little too long?
Me: Yes, I beat it too long, but it's virtually impossible to tell what "too long" is - it looked perfect, and as I tried to scoop it out of the bowl, it literally went from perfect to rock hard in a matter of seconds.
Then – light dawns on Marblehead! Why not stick this recalcitrant icing in the microwave, and see if it softens up? I scrape the icing crumbles off the cake, into a glass bowl.
And after 25 seconds in the microwave, success! The crystallized mess turns back to lovely, peanut butter-consistency frosting.
For about 15 seconds. As I madly spread it on both cake layers, the icing is already hardening.
Still, I manage to SPREAD it onto the cake – rather than crumble it.
Aime: Stick it in the trunk, quick! That looks perfect!
Aime: You’re never going to forgive me for this, are you?
Me: Forgive?! This is the most fun I've had in ages! I will NOT be beat by a cake. Bread, maybe. Not cake. If it's acceptable tomorrow, it's a go - "Beat too long? Turned to concrete crumbles? Quick, the microwave!"
Next day – OK, the icing didn't revert to being perfectly smooth and glossy, like Liz's.
But it did soften sufficiently to qualify as icing, rather than concrete casing.
Now, rather than put it in the trunk of the car, I'm going to mail the rest of this cake to Aime. After all, a USPS Priority Mail box is quite similar to a car's trunk. It's dark. It's stuffy.
And it's going places. From the home of the Great and Powerful Wizard of Baking, here on Cape Cod, to King Arthur Flour's offices in White River Junction, Vermont.
Where Aime is celebrating her 20-something-th birthday Tuesday.
Happy birthday, Aime. I didn't nail your grandma's recipe. I would have preferred an epic nail – not an epic fail.
But, like Nina's, this cake is made with care and love – which is why it's a good example of our current King Arthur Flour initiative, Bake for Good.
Bake and share with those in need. Bake for neighbors. Bake for family.
And bake for one special friend, far from home on her birthday, whose grandma surely made her granddaughter this birthday cake, once upon a time.
Postscript: Looking for a printable recipe for this cake on our site? Sorry, there isn't one. It's too "iffy" to share with the general public, those unlikely to have read all of this background. But if, after reading this, you want to give it a try, remember: an eagle eye, swift hands, and a microwave are your best friends!