After the holidays, it seemed impossible to want any more sugary sweet treats.  Still, early January found the test kitchen empty and our heads full of ideas.  In the midst of winter boredom, cooking dinner was not satisfying our desire for culinary experimentation, and we turned once again to its evil stepsister, cake baking.

Cake-venture 2010 began innocently enough.  Following a quick debate, we decided to do a modern take on the classic Black Forest cake recipe.  A traditional Black Forest cake is made with up to five layers of dense chocolate cake sandwiched with whipped cream, cherries, cherry syrup and liquor, all frosted with a whipped-cream frosting and topped with chocolate shavings.  Being lovers of berries and knowing that there was no way we’d get any sort of decent (and cheap) fresh fruit at this time of year, we decided to forgo cherries in favor of a more natural, tangy raspberry taste.

From there, we went straight to the pinnacle of all culinary research – that’s right, the Internet.  We were intent on not using any particular recipe, so like a puzzle, we cobbled our cake together using several different blogs and instructions (credit given below). For the most part, we stuck to the recipe for the cake itself but played around with the extras.

Oddly enough, it was the by-the-books cake that gave us the most trouble! We mixed our wet and dry ingredients and combined them using a handheld electric mixer to create a batter of what appeared to be perfect consistency.  We then spooned it into two 9-inch round baking tins as directed, set the timer, and went about our business, confident that we’d have our base ready to assemble in no time.

After about fifteen minutes in the oven, though, it was clear that our cake had a mind of its own.  Indeed, it had risen above the lip of the baking tins and fallen, not at all gracefully, all over the oven and racks.  A quick check of the recipe confirmed our fears – we’d used one-inch pans, when the recipe called for two-inch ones.  Oops.

In a valiant (if not somewhat insane) display of kitchen prowess, we started emptying the burnt batter and cleaning up the tins to an acceptable level, and then stuck them back into the oven.  We were skeptical that they could be salvaged, but after coming so far we didn’t want to throw in the towel just yet. We were pleasantly surprised when half an hour later we pulled out two very normal looking rounds of chocolate cake.

Cake crisis largely averted, we set about preparing the other components while our layers cooled.  For the raspberry syrup, we mixed the berries in a food processor and then simmered them with honey and a little bit of sugar, then added in some raspberry liquor and let the mixture cool.  Meanwhile, we poked tiny holes into the cooled cake layers and drizzled them with more liquor.  Finally, we made a whipped cream frosting by adding a cooled sugar and cornstarch mixture to heavy cream and vanilla, and using the hand mixer to beat it to the desired thickness.

It was finally time to assemble the cake – and not a moment too soon.  By now, we’d racked up many hours of kitchen time and just wanted to see the adventure come to an end.  We laid down whipped cream and syrup on the first cake layer, topped it with whole raspberries, and then placed the second layer on top.  We then carefully cleaned up the edges of the cake and applied the frosting, first in a thin crumb-coating and then more evenly over top.  When all possible sides were covered, we topped the cake with minced chocolate pieces and decorated it with the remaining berries.

The verdict?  Delicious!  Despite a rocky start, this cake proved resilient and lived up to the consistency and taste of its classic predecessor. The tartness of the syrup was a good contrast to the sweetness of the frosting and liquor, and the cake itself was moist and dark.  The frosting held up well against the stronger textures but felt pleasingly smooth and even against the tongue.  Those who prefer a less-sweet confection might want to reduce some of the sugar used, but that would be the only alteration necessary.  And even though this cake could only have half of the recommended layers, it still managed to be a rich and extravagant dessert – a surprise happy ending to what could have been quite a disaster. We’d recommend it for birthdays, special events, and any time when you need a bit more than a basic brownie after a meal.  For best reception, serve with a cup of espresso or a dark-roasted cup of American coffee taken black.

(Modified) Black Forest Cake Recipe

For the cake layers:

Adapted from Gourmet (March 1999) and Smitten Kitchen (July 2007)

3 ounces semisweet chocolate

1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee

3 cups sugar

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process!)

2 teaspoons baking soda

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

3 large eggs

3/4 cup vegetable oil

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

3/4 teaspoon vanilla

Make cake layers: Preheat oven to 300°F. and grease two 10’’ x 2’’ cake pans. Line bottoms with rounds of wax paper and grease paper.

Finely chop chocolate and in a bowl combine with hot coffee. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.

Into a large bowl sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another large bowl with an electric mixer beat eggs until thickened slightly (5 minutes with a hand-held mixer). Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined well.

Divide batter between pans and bake in middle of oven until a tester inserted in center comes out clean, about one hour.

Cool layers completely in pans on racks.  When cooled, you may slice each layer into two one-inch layers or you may leave them whole, depending on how many layers you want in the final cake and how thick you prefer the layers to be.

For the syrup:

This can be made ahead.  To prepare, spread evenly between liquor-soaked cake layers.  The syrup can also be used to garnish the serving plate or spooned, hot or cold, over the cake slice prior to serving.

Roughly 2-3 cups of raspberries (frozen is fine – make sure to thaw prior to use)

Sweetener of choice (we used honey, but sugar is fine)

Raspberry-flavored liquor or brandy

Water

Using a hand mixer, blender, or food processor, puree the raspberries.  If you’d like a smoother syrup, strain mixture to remove the small seeds using a cheesecloth or fine mesh strainer.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the raspberry mixture to a simmer.  Stir in sweetener and liquor to taste.  Add water, in small quantities, until desired thickness is reached.  Syrup will gradually thin out as it heats up.

When you are satisfied with the taste and consistency of the syrup, take saucepan off of heat and allow to cool prior to use.  Can be reheated.

For the whipped-cream frosting:

Make a large batch of this frosting – possibly a double batch, if you prefer a very thick layer of frosting on the cake.  You’ll use it alongside the syrup in between cake layers and to frost the entire round cake once it is assembled.

3 cups of heavy whipping cream, chilled

1/4 cup granulated sugar (or less, depending on desired level of sweetness)

1 tbsp. cornstarch

2 tsp. vanilla extract

In a small saucepan, whisk the sugar and cornstarch together.  Add in ½ cup of the cream.  Bring the entire mixture to a simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly. Continue until the mixture has thickened, or for about 3 minutes.

Remove mixture from heat and allow to cool to room temperature (about 20 minutes).  In a large bowl, mix the remaining cream and the extract together using a hand mixer on low speed (about 30 seconds).  Increase the speed to medium and slowly add in the cornstarch and sugar mixture.  Continue to whip the cream until it forms soft peaks (about 2-3 minutes).

Assembly:

1. Using a skewer or toothpick, poke small holes in each cake layer.  Drizzle with leftover liquor and allow time to soak (about an hour).

2. Place first cake layer on plate.  Spread an even layer of syrup on top, followed by a layer of whipped cream.  Press remaining raspberries into the whipped cream in a circular pattern.

3. Carefully, place the second layer of cake on top of the first.  Press down gently.

4. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as needed for each remaining layer.  Do not put syrup on the top layer of the cake.

5. When the cake is assembled, use a flat spatula or butter knife to frost the cake with the whipped cream frosting.  Allow time to cool, and then garnish with chocolate curls, chocolate chips, and raspberries.

Store cake in the refrigerator.  Keeps several days when kept cold.

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