Two years now. Two years of sharing recipes, dinners, photography, writing, and glimpses into my life with you all. And I’m so happy to tell you that right at that two year mark I had the shock & honor of winning the Saveur Best Food Blog Photography Award, both reader & editor’s choice. I couldn’t believe it. Slack jawed, no words, squealed at my cat couldn’t believe it (and that is not in character for me). There was so much talent in that category it honestly didn’t cross my mind that I would win at all. I owe you guys for that one. So thank you for your support. My life as I know it wouldn’t be possible without you. So, I figured I’d celebrate & say thank you a couple of ways: an exceedingly delicious cake (no brainer) and a few things you may or may not know about me from reading this blog…
For one, I swear profusely. I’m essentially incapable of stringing together a sentence without an expletive (sorry, mom!) I twirl my hair incessantly, pathologically. And then I smell it and put it in my mouth like a weirdo. I’m doing it right now. I’m an obsessive Star Wars fan; I know what the stripes on Han Solo’s pants are called. I have a level 85 undead warlock in World of Warcraft named after a Baudelaire poem. I don’t currently play, but I was once the proud member of a serious raiding guild. That sentence will only make sense to nerds. I’m three years clean & sober in July. I’m bipolar, in the medical way, not a in a kooky self-descriptor way—I talk more about living with that here on Esme’s blog. I have a cat named Gremlin, but I mostly call her “Fat Lobster” these days. No reason. I had a fashion blog six years ago. It’s a secret. And has been destroyed so don’t even ask. I kind of suck at making coffee. I pick my battles. I’m a bit of a misanthrope. My biggest fear is mediocrity (not a healthy fear—working on it). I’m an INFP. Aaaand this, not some beautiful French chanson, is my current anthem. Though, if I’m feeling down, this is my go. Forget sharks & snakes. Ludacris & Snoop Dog are my spirit animals. So, hi, I’m Beth. Nice to meet you. And thank you. Thank you for reading, for cooking along, for coming to dinners, and for supporting this space. There are very few good decisions I’ve made during my party time on this mortal coil, and starting this website is one of them. Huh. So to celebrate the two year anniversary of Local Milk and all the friends & wonderful opportunities it’s brought along with it, I made you up a cake. As much as one can “make up” a cake. An incredibly moist Chocolate Lavender Cake with Mascarpone Earl Grey German Buttercream. Yeah? Ok!
Yes, I have a pathological need to put flowers, tea, and herbs in all the things; I don’t fight it, and it’s delicious. It’s my witchy prerogative; I’ve been this way my whole life. This is, dare I say along with the hordes before me, The Best Chocolate Cake Ever. Why? Because it’s constructed of the mean ratios of all The Best Chocolate Cakes Ever. Did I just ruin cake with maths? No, I built this cake with maths. I spent an entire afternoon doing cake algebra after having baked three cakes that were acceptable. There is, in my opinion, nothing worse than a merely acceptable cake. Or a merely acceptable anything. Be awesome or burst into flames, that’s my general outlook (recall fear of mediocrity.)
Right, so…what is cake maths? Why do math to bake a cake? Because there’s a common denominator in all of these omfugawesome chocolate cakes; they’re all adaptations of essentially the same ratio. I wanted to distill that ratio to a few numbers and then use the simplest method possible to combine them. With the ratio in hand, you can play around. You can adjust the amount you make as you please, and you can start experimenting with different flours, fats, sweeteners, and liquids. Once you have the numbers you become Cake God. And I, admittedly, wanted to be Cake God. At least to celebrate my “blogiversary”…which is a word that largely shouldn’t exist.
As to the frosting, I knew I wanted a buttercream that was really something else because I’m one of those that really can’t abide American buttercream, which is just powdered sugar whipped into butter. It’s grainy, pasty, and crusty; I just don’t like it. I once heard it likened to “sad sand”, and I agree. I like Swiss meringue buttercream (which I intend to make with the copious amounts of Cruze Farm’s buttermilk butter in my freezer….lord), and I’m also fond of Italian meringue buttercream because, as an avid marshmallow maker, I’m used to boiling pots of sugar. But I wanted something….different. That’s when I discovered, via one of my favorite baking resources Brave Tart, “German Buttercream” which I’ve also seen called “Creme Mousseline”. It is, in essence, pastry cream with a healthy amount of butter whipped in. Yeah, healthy. Though for this one here, I subbed half the butter with mascarpone. The result is an ice cream-like butter frosting with a wonderfully smooth, intensely creamy texture. I’m a fan. If you’re looking for something different, something you can make taste like anything you can imagine (pastry cream, being milk based, is incredibly easy to infuse with just about anything), then maybe it’s time to branch out in to German buttercream territory. It’s no substitute for a butter lovin’ Swiss or French buttercream, but it’s the ice cream of frostings. And therefore has it’s place. So about this cake equation…
The moistness of this cake cannot be overstated. You don’t need to pour simple syrup on it; it’s good for days. People often ask me how I develop my recipes. If it’s a savory dish “I’m making what’s on hand not trash” is usually the answer. If it’s baking, that’s a different matter. If it’s a thing I don’t already have a clear cut ratio for (usually from Ruhlman’s Ratio), I will crowd source the ratio from recipes I know and trust or that people I trust trust. To do that I create parameters like the maximum amount of fat people tend to use and the minimum in any given rendition of a baked good. Then I’ll either go with the average or choose the one I want based on how I want the thing I’m making to taste, i.e. if I want it rich, I’ll go with the max amount of butter. The three cakes I used to develop this ratio were a recipe from a 1999 issue of Gourmet posted on Smitten Kitchen, the chocolate cake from The Essence of Chocolate by John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg on Poires au Chocolat, and Walter Beatty’s chocolate cake from Ina Garten. They are all amazing in their own right.
Here are the cold, hard fudgy chocolate cake facts:
Flour 1 : Sugar 2 : Fat 0.5 : Hot Water Based Liquid 1.25 : Room Temp Dairy or Dairy Sub Liquid 1.25 : Cocoa Powder 0.4 : Egg 0.5 : Baking Soda 0.0375 : Baking Powder 0.0375
How do you use this? First, if you don’t have one, you buy a digital scale. This is the one I use because it isn’t ugly and was only $30. But Salter makes nice scales too. I don’t mean to command you in a baking snob sort of way, but it’s the only way to use this method besides being the only way to ensure consistent results. And as I always say, less dishes. I promise you’ll love it!
Okay, now that you have your awesome digital scale, decide how much you want to make. 250 g (about 2 cups of flour) yields a 3 layer 8″ cake or about 8 4″ cakes (for mini layer cakes). Okay, know how much flour? Now multiply that number (the weight of the flour in grams) by all the other numbers in the ratio (2, o.5,….etc) to get the weight in grams you need of each ingredient. Ta-da! Cake God. Subbing things will take a little finagling as different flours act in different ways, different fats can have varying water contents, and different liquids will have different fat contents etc, but this base will allow you to play around. For instance, instead of the cake here you could do an olive oil, orange, and lapsang souchong chocolate cake. You could even try subbing about a quarter of your ap flour with oat flour or rye…or or. You get the picture. Google substitutions to get the particulars. You could go crazy healthy and try out a combo of oat & whole wheat pastry flour with a flax seed oil and coconut oil fat combo, almond milk, and sweeten it with agave. Here’s some tips for subbing agave, oat flour, and here’s some for subbing brown butter to get you started. And for measurement conversions, I find PastryScoop to be invaluable. I can’t testify as to how any of it it would taste, but you could try it with this ratio as your springboard and those resources for adjustments. That’s how I make stuff up. Sometimes it fails. Fair warning. Others not, and the more research you do into the ingredients you want to sub and the ways in which they behave differently from the original ingredient, the greater your chances of success. Class adjourned.
As I mentioned above, I wrote a piece on living and working with Bipolar I along with addiction and a fun slew of other maladies for Esme Wang. It’s essentially about how I learned to live and thrive with crazy in spades.
While the workshop is sold out, Rebecca of A Daily Something & I have tickets left to our August farm dinner in Virginia!
rich chocolate lavender cake + mascarpone earl grey german buttercream
- 1 2/3 cup water
- 3 tablespoons + 2 tablespoon lavender buds, divided
- 250 grams (2 cups) all purpose flour
- 520 grams (2.6 cups) granulated sugar
- 105 grams unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons (10 g) baking soda
- 1 teaspoon (5 g) baking powder
- 320 g buttermilk (1 1/3 cup), shaken & room temp
- 2 extra large (about 125 g) eggs, lightly beaten & room temp
- 150 grams (2/3 cup) coconut oil, melted but not hot
- 1 recipe of mascarpone earl grey buttercream (recipe below)
- Heat oven to 325°F.
- Bring the water to a boil, remove from heat, add in 3 tablespoons of the lavender. Cover and let steep 30 minutes. When done steeping, strain and reserve 320 g (1 1/3 cup) of the lavender water, discarding the rest.
- Line your cake pans with parchment rounds and grease. I always grease, parchment, then grease again. Especially with this cake. It's wet. And that means sticky. I either use 8" pans or 4" pans (if making a mini cake and using my two 4" pans, I obviously have extra, which I usually use to make an additional couple of 8" single layer cakes to give to away.)
- Meanwhile, grind the additional two tablespoons of lavender in a mortar & pestle or spice grinder until you have a fine powder. Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and lavender powder into the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large mixing bowl if you're doing it by hand, which I do.) Mix on low or whisk until combined and a nice uniform brown color.
- In a small bowl or 2 cup measure, whisk together the eggs and buttermilk. It's imperative they be room temp, so don't cheat. If they're cold, your coconut oil will solidify. And we'd rather that not happen.
- Bring your reserved tea concentrate to a boil. Meanwhile, with the mixer on low, add the egg mixture and the coconut oil to the dry ingredients. Once just combined, scrape down the bottom with a rubber spatula to make sure there's no dry bits hiding. Then, with the mixer on low, pour in the hot lavender tea, and mix to just combine, scraping down the bottom once again.
- Pour into 8" cake pans, about half way up. I sit my pans on a scale and do about 20 oz per cake pan among three 8" pans or 7.25 ounces between seven to eight 4" to make oodles of mini layer cakes. If I have extra or don't want to make that many minis, I do a few cupcakes. Do not overfill. It will floff all over your oven. And be a big fat delicious mess. Note: I have never successfully gotten this cake out of a bundt pan. So if you try, you're braver or smarter than me. Or you have a better bundt pan.
- Bake for 20-30 minutes for minis and 30-40 minutes for 8" layers. The cakes are done when a cake tester (read: toothpick or wooden skewer or thin knife) inserted into the center comes out clean (as in no wet cake batter, a few crumbs are kosher).
- Allow cakes to cool in pans on a rack for about 10 minutes, then gently invert the cakes on the racks to cool completely.
- Before icing I wrap fully cool cakes in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge or freezer. If I plan on splitting the layers, I go with the freezer. If not, I chill them in the fridge. Earl Grey frosting recipe follows.
mascarpone earl grey german buttercream
- 16 oz whole milk
- 3 earl grey tea bags
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 280 grams (10 oz, about 1.5 cup) granulated sugar
- 1.5 oz cornstarch
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 whole eggs
- 16 oz butter, completely soft at room temp
- 16 oz mascarpone cheese
- 1/4-1/2 teaspoon salt to taste
- juice of one lemon
- Bring milk to a simmer in a sauce pan, add the tea bags, cover, and let steep 5 minutes. Try not to let it go too long or the tea will become bitter. Give it a good stir and remove the tea bags (I give them a squeeze to get all that good flavor out).
- Whisk the cornstarch, sugar, yolks, and eggs in a mixing bowl. Bring the milk to a simmer. Once the milk comes to a simmer, whisk a ladle of the hot milk into the eggs. I do about two ladles to temper the eggs and then pour the warm egg mixture into the hot milk, whisking constantly. Cook this mixture at a simmer until thick and bubbly sluggishly. Cook for a full minute to ensure the cornstarch is cooked out.
- Remove from heat and transfer to a large mixing bowl. At this point you're either going to need to cool it in the fridge or cool it in a stand mixer. The latter is faster and is what I usually do. To chill in the fridge cover the surface of the pastry cream with plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely cooled. To cool in a mixer, mix constantly on medium until the bowl is room temp to the touch. It should not be at all warm. If it is, your butter and cheese will melt when you add them. And it will not be awesome. If you have put it in the fridge, mix for a few minutes on medium until creamy before proceeding.
- Once your pastry cream is cool, add the very soft butter one tablespoon at a time and then do the same with the mascarpone. Add the lemon and salt and whip to thoroughly combine. It should be smooth and creamy. At this point the frosting can be used, refrigerated, or frozen. Bring to room temp and whip until fluffy before using.