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31 Oct 2020

Adventures in cake – Cake is one of those aspects of culinary culture where I definitely fall on the Western side of things as opposed to the Korean side of things. Cake—and by this I mean the baked confection usually eaten for dessert or as a snack—is not traditionally a thing in Korea, but of course it has long since become a part of the culture. Most cakes here, though, either follow the Japanese model of Castella confections, or are a Koreanized version of Western layer cakes, such as the now somewhat old-fashioned “fresh cream cake.” Either way, Korean cakes tend to be much lighter than Western cakes. It’s not that I haven’t had good Korean-style cakes, and sometimes that might be what I am in the mood for, but I often miss heavier, more substantial Western-style cakes.

“...if I want a good chocolate cake, I generally have to make it myself.”

One type of cake that seems to be particularly difficult to get here is chocolate cake. Wait, no. Let me rephrase that: It is very difficult to get a good chocolate cake here, and by that I mean a cake that actually tastes like chocolate and isn’t just a light brown mockery. Jean Boulangerie, a bakery near us, has a good chocolate cake, and I know of a few other bakeries that do the chocolate cake well, but these are all very good versions of Western-style cakes by competent bakeries. I don’t know why, but for some reason Korean-style chocolate cakes almost always fall very flat on the chocolate part. Maybe it’s just different expectations.

At any rate, the long and short of it is that if I want a good chocolate cake, I generally have to make it myself. For the longest time, I have used a slightly modified version of Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” cake (if you’re curious, the slight modifications are reducing the sugar, as I find the original recipe way too sweet, and switching the milk out for yoghurt). This recipe produces an extremely thin batter, somewhere along the lines of pancake batter. This is due to the addition of the boiling water at the end, which loosens everything up considerably.

Why boiling water? That’s a good question. Initially, I thought that the idea was to bloom the cocoa, or heat it up in order to bring out a more intense chocolate flavor. But cocoa powder is bloomed by mixing it with boiling water before adding any other ingredients—the whole point is that it should be just the cocoa and the water. This recipe, though, has all the other ingredients thoroughly mixed together before the boiling water is stirred in. It’s possible that there is still some blooming effect, but it doesn’t seem likely (I’ll come back to this again a little later). In the end, I don’t really know what the boiling water does.

That mystery aside, the cake does come out very chocolatey. One thing I have never been a huge fan of, though, is the texture. If you look at the photo of the cake on the recipe page I linked to above, you’ll see that it is very thick and fudge-like. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I have never had a cake come out looking like it does in that photo—it is always very thick on the bottom, growing progressively less dense the higher up you get. To put it another way, the cake rises, but it is too heavy to support itself and ends up collapsing to form a dense layer at the bottom. This doesn’t affect the flavor of the cake, but it has always bothered me, because texture is an important element as well.

A few weeks ago, HJ and I were watching The Chef Show on Netflix, and Jon and Roy visited Christina Tosi of Milk Bar, with whom they baked a cake (several cakes, actually). Christina’s recipe differs from the Hershey recipe in a number of ways. For one, she uses both butter and oil in her cake. She also includes buttermilk in the recipe rather than plain milk (this is more in line with my use of yoghurt), and there is no boiling water. In terms of flour, while the Hershey’s recipe uses all-purpose flour, the Milk Bar recipe uses cake flour (the latter has less gluten—more on that in a moment). Finally, Christina uses only baking powder, not a combination of baking soda and baking powder.

The difference in ingredients was not what inspired me to make yet another chocolate cake, though—it was the difference in methodology. The butter and sugar are creamed together first, and then the other wet ingredients are added in sequence until you end up with a uniform mixture. It is only at the end that the dry ingredients are added, and you only mix long enough to incorporate those dry ingredients. The reasoning for this is that the cake relies on baking powder for its rise, not the activity of yeast, which requires a gluten structure. You actually don’t want any gluten structure in your cake, otherwise it will be chewy. I’m not sure why I never thought of this before, because I follow the same principle when making soda bread or biscuits—I add the dry to the wet and mix with a spoon only until everything is combined. It makes perfect sense.

So I decided to try my hand at the Milk Bar recipe. I did modify it slightly—mainly just a reduction in sugar and substituting yoghurt in for the buttermilk—but I also scaled it down for a 15-cm cake ring, since I didn’t want to make a huge cake as an experiment. I followed the recipe, starting off with the softened butter and sugar in my stand mixer with the paddle attachment. This was actually the first time I had used my stand mixer for this purpose, so I wasn’t sure how it would work. I creamed the butter and sugar for a full three minutes, but I could still hear some of the scraping of the sugar against the bowl. I let it go for a little longer before adding the egg (I used only a single egg and compensated for the difference in liquid and fat elsewhere), which I again mixed for a full three minutes. I was dismayed to see that it wasn’t really coming together at all; there were very clear lumps of somewhat creamed butter and egg in a decidedly non-uniform mixture.

I wondered if perhaps the small amount of ingredients had something to do with why it wasn’t coming together—maybe there just wasn’t enough in the bowl for it to properly combine? At any rate, I decided to move on to the next step, which I knew was the key step from watching The Chef Show. This was the step that couldn’t be rushed, and at the end of which you should have a completely uniform mixture. So, as instructed by the recipe, I streamed in the oil, yoghurt, and vanilla on low speed and then kicked the speed back up. After a few minutes, I looked into the bowl and was surprised and pleased to see something that resembled a golden mayonnaise. The mixture had finally come together! In somewhat more scientific terms, it had finally emulsified. I added the dry ingredients and mixed it until it was just combined, and cake batter was ready. It was very thick, and I had to scoop it rather than pour it into the cake ring.

I wasn’t sure how long I would have to bake it; it’s a lot less batter than the original recipe, but it is also much taller than what you would get it if you spread it out over a sheet pan. I relied on my general baking experience and my knowledge of how our oven works and made an educated guess of 25-30 minutes. At 25 minutes I took it out to test it, and a toothpick came out clean, so I cut the baking short.

I was mostly interested in what sort of texture I would get, and I can say on that front that I was very pleased with the way the cake turned out. It was neither spongy or fudgy, like the Hershey’s cake. Instead, it had a denser, more even crumb that was still light enough for cake. There is a picture of the cake on the recipe page, but here’s a picture of how mine came out.

Of course, texture is not everything when it comes to cakes—just as important is the taste. Alas, this experiment did not taste quite as good as I hoped it would. The good news, though, is that I think this was entirely due to the modifications I made, which means it should be easy to fix. Namely, I think I reduced the sugar by too much. I’m used to halving the amount of sugar because most cake recipes are way too sweet for me, but this cake did not turn out to be sweet at all. If you look at the recipe again, you’ll see that the cake itself is only part of the finished product; there is also a malt fudge sauce, a chocolate malt frosting, a malt crumb, an Ovaltine soak (a liquid that is poured over the cake to make it even more moist), and charred marshmallows (misspelled as “marshmellow,” unless that was a deliberate pun or something), all of which are probably quite sweet. I think the cake is meant to be a base for all those other ingredients, and is thus not as sweet as other cakes.

A side effect of the lack of sweetness was that the cake actually tasted a little salty. It was not overly salty, but there was definitely a salty note there, and I don’t think you want a salty note in your cake (unless it’s a salted caramel cake... which actually sounds like it would make for an interesting future experiment). I was surprised by this, because I reduced the salt in proportion to the sugar; perhaps there was some other variable in the equation that I did not consider. The butter was also quite prominent, which is something that I am not used to because I generally use only oil. I think the butter flavor is a nice addition, but to be honest it tasted a little too buttery. Had it been a different type of cake—say, a pound cake—I think the butteriness would have been appreciated, but “buttery” is not really a note I want in my chocolate cake.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it did not taste quite as chocolatey as I would have liked. I suspect this had something to do with the lack of sweetness, and I suspected that bumping the sugar up a bit would also bump the chocolate flavor as well. I ended up using the same amount of cocoa powder for this recipe as I would normally use in a cake this size, so I don’t think it was a lack of cocoa. I did briefly wonder if the hot water didn’t also play a part, but as I discussed above the hot water in the Hershey’s recipe isn’t really blooming the cocoa because it is added at the very end. (If you’re thinking that it might not matter when the hot water is added, ask yourself this question: If it is just a matter of heating the cocoa power in a liquid, why wouldn’t simply baking the cocoa powder in the batter achieve the same effect, since it will get just as hot? No, it can’t just be the heat—there has to be something about combining only the cocoa with hot water first and letting it sit before adding it to the rest of the ingredients.)

Now, don’t let me give you the impression that the cake didn’t taste good—it did, it’s just that I thought it could taste better. So I made notes for modifications: 1) bump up the sugar, 2) reduce the butter (and maybe the oil, too) a bit and compensate with a little more yoghurt, and 3) reduce the salt ever so slightly. There was one more change that I considered making, and that was to bloom the cocoa powder. But how to do that without ruining the wet ingredient emulsification? Well, I did some digging around on the internet, and apparently hot water is not the only liquid used to bloom cocoa powder—you can also bloom it in oil. Perhaps it would be possible to bloom the cocoa in warm oil and then let it cool down before streaming it, along with the yoghurt and vanilla, into the butter, sugar, and eggs? As long as the oil is not hot enough to cook the eggs or (more likely) melt the butter, it should be fine.

Of course, there is also the question of whether the cocoa powder in the oil would interfere with the emulsification of the wet ingredients. I did a little online research and came across a paper that I most certainly did not 100% understand, but the long and short of it is that cocoa powder is actually what is known as a Pickering particle, or a particle that can be used to form a Pickering emulsion, which is an emulsion stabilized by said solid particles. The idea is that a non-stabilized emulsion will eventually break down as the liquid particles coalesce. Pickering particles, though, will adsorb (a fancy word that means “stick to the surface of,” cf. “absorb”) to the liquid particles and prevent them from coalescing. So cocoa powder, far from interfering in the emulsification process, will actually help it. There was no telling what sort of difference it might make in the flavor or texture, and I knew it would be difficult to get any sort of read on it with all the changes I was making, but since it wouldn’t fundamentally alter the process, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a try.

So, one week after my first attempt—that would be last weekend—I went for round two. Not only did I change the recipe, but I also changed the size and shape of the cake; I baked the cake in a sheet pan so I could cut out circles to make a layer cake. The original recipe calls for the cake to be baked in a quarter sheet pan, which unfortunately I do not have. A quarter sheet pan measures 220 mm by 330 mm; our sheet pans measure 215 mm by 315 mm. This means that our sheet pans are roughly 90% (91.2%, to be exact) the size of a quarter sheet pan, so I adjusted my recipe accordingly, in addition to all the other changes I would be making. If you’re thinking that this sounds like a lot of variables to be switching up in a single go, you’re right, but it’s all part of the process. If I only switched up one variable at a time, we’d end up eating way too much chocolate cake.

I’m not going to include an exact recipe here or precise measurements, because this is more about the process than arriving at a perfected recipe; you can always refer back to the original recipe if you want something precise. I will walk you through the process, though, complete with pictures and a discussion of what went right and what went not-so-right. We start off with the blooming of the cocoa powder in hot oil. The resource I linked to above suggested blasting the oil in a microwave on very short bursts until it was “warm but not hot,” but I found this too imprecise. Instead, I heated the oil on the range in a small copper-coated saucepan until it was around 75 degrees Celsius. I do not know how hot the oil has to be to properly bloom the cocoa powder, but I also did not know what would happen if I poured super-hot oil into cocoa powder, so I decided to err on the side of caution. I figured 75 degrees was still fairly hot, so when it reached that temperature I took the oil off the stove and poured it into my waiting bowl of cocoa powder and stirred. I ended up with a smooth, dark mixture. It looked very much like chocolate syrup, if a little thiner.

Once this was done, I let the mixture sit until it had reached room temperature. I then started the actual making of the cake with the butter and the sugar, which I creamed in the mixer.

Once the butter and sugar were creamed, three eggs went in, and I beat the mixture some more until it was uniform. The next step in the process, according to the original recipe, requires you to “stream in” the oil, buttermilk (or yoghurt, in my case), and vanilla on low speed and then turn the mixer up to medium-high speed. Because all three of those ingredients need to be measured and I didn’t feel like having separate dishes for each, I decided to combine them. I had done this the first time around, weighing the oil, yoghurt, and vanilla into a cup and then slowly pouring that into the butter, sugar, and eggs. Without thinking too much about it, I did the same thing this time as well, scooping the yoghurt and vanilla into the bowl with the cocoa oil. As I whisked it a bit to combine everything, the mixture quickly began to solidify.

For a brief instant I panicked, thinking that the cocoa was seizing up. I suppose, in a sense, something similar was going on here to what happens when chocolate seizes up. The difference, though, is that this mixture contained no sugar (unlike chocolate), so it did not get solid and grainy. Instead, it felt much more like a gelatin—much more like how I imagine an emulsion stabilized by Pickering particles would be. It was certainly not an ideal outcome, as it was a pain in the neck to try to get it off the whisk, but I didn’t think it would matter much in the end. It wasn’t going to be streaming into anything, though, so I just scraped it into the mixer bowl and beat it on medium-high for a good five or six minutes. The result was a glossy and uniform mixture, looking very much like the mayonnaise-like substance I had achieved in my first experiment, except chocolatey.

With all the wet ingredients incorporated, it was time to add the remaining dry ingredients—this time only the flour, baking powder, and salt.

That is what my mixture of dry ingredients looked like before I added it to the mixture. It is a fairly unremarkable photograph, but I am including it for a reason; If you look closely, you might notice that something is amiss. Somehow, even though I’ve done this many times before and never made this mistake, it managed to slip my mind this time. But as soon as I dumped the dry ingredients into the bowl and turned the mixer on, I realized my error: I had forgotten to sift the flour. If you make cakes in the US, you might be scratching your head, because you probably don’t sift your cake flour (you’ll notice that the Milk Bar recipe does not mention a sifting step). This is because cake flour in the US comes pre-sifted (at least the brands I am familiar with do). Cake flour in Korea, which is not called “cake flour” but something like “low-strength flour” (referring to the low gluten content) is not sifted. I always sift my cake flour to make sure I don’t have any lumps, whether I am making cake or soda bread or biscuits or whatever, but for some reason I forgot to do it this time—and as a result there were a lot of tiny little lumps of flour in the batter. It was too late to do anything about it, and mixing the batter long enough or fast enough to break up the lumps would just make matters worse. So I left them in, and I poured the batter into my parchment-paper-lined baking sheet pan.

The batter is very thick, and this is what it looked like after I had spread it out with my spatula. I wasn’t too worried about the unevenness—the first version of the cake looked similarly uneven going into the oven but came out perfectly smooth.

The recipe calls for a bake of 30-35 minutes, with a check at the thirty-minute mark, but even that seemed too long to me, knowing what I know about our oven. So I checked the cake at 25 minutes, only to find that it was already completely cooked. When I took it out I noticed that it had even grown a little darker in the center, which you can see in the next pic.

It wasn’t burnt, though, and I was pleased at the deep chocolate aroma that wafted up from it. You can probably spot some of the little lumps of flour, which did not dissolve but instead hardened into tiny nuggets. I set the cake outside in our cool multipurpose room (sort of a combination pantry and laundry room that doesn’t have any insulation) to cool off and then set about making the frosting. I didn’t take any photos of the frosting because it is not particularly interesting—just cream cheese, yoghurt, and sugar.

Once the sheet cake was completely cooled, I used a paring knife to very delicately extract any hardened lumps of flour I could find. I then flipped the cake out onto a large cutting board, pulled off the parchment paper, and performed the same operation on the other side. This of course left little holes in the surface of the sheet cake, but it was going to be covered with frosting so I didn’t care too much. Better tiny holes filled with frosting than hard little lumps of flour, right?

To begin construction of the cake, I cut out two circles from opposite corners of the cake, using my 15-cm cake ring. I then cut out two almost-half-circles from what remained for the bottom layer. These semicircles weren’t quite enough to make a full layer—there was about a centimeter gap between them when I fitted them into the ring—so I cut out a thin strip of cake to fit in between. The Milk Bar recipe recommends lining the cake ring with a sheet of acetate to make for easier removal, but I don’t have sheets of acetate, so I used a long strip of parchment paper that I wrapped around the inside of the ring. Then I put my Frankensteined layer on the bottom and slathered it with frosting. On top of that went one of the whole layers and another helping of frosting, and the whole thing was finished off with the third cake layer. I did not put on the final slathering of frosting because the cake was already high enough to touch the lid of our cake carrier; the frosting would have to be applied directly before serving.

Sunday came, and in the afternoon we went to HJ’s father’s place for our first family gathering since the Chuseok holiday. When it came time to serve the cake, I first removed the cake ring, which turned out to be a tricky task. You would think that if the cake layers had been cut out with a cake ring, they would fit easily inside that ring. I discovered, though, that the top layer had expanded somewhat, and it was a bit of a mess getting the ring over it. I guess the cake is compressed ever so slightly when it is cut and then later relaxes and expands back to its original size. It wasn’t too bad, though, and when I had finally gotten the ring off and the parchment paper unwrapped, I applied the final layer of frosting.

I will readily admit that this is not the prettiest cake ever—you can even see an indentation where I Frankensteined the bottom layer together. But it held together, probably due to the adhesive power of the frosting, and you couldn’t actually tell that one of the layers was stitched together from pieces. Truth be told, I didn’t notice until I looked at the photograph later.

This is my piece of the cake, taken after a few bites because I forgot that I was going to take a picture of it. Anyway, it should give you a good idea of the texture, which is similar to my first experiment and definitely more in line with what I consider to be a traditional cake than the spongy Hershey’s cake. The important question, of course, is whether the taste improved over the first experiment, and I am pleased to report that it did. There was no overt saltiness, the overpowering butteriness had been reined in, and it had a rich chocolate flavor. I have no idea if the blooming of the cocoa in oil helped boost the chocolate flavor, but it certainly didn’t hurt, so I think I will keep that step in for now.

Is there room for improvement? Most certainly. For starters, next time I need to not be a knucklehead and remember to sift the cake flour. I think it’s also probably a good idea to add the yoghurt and the cocoa oil separately (and in that order), so that the mixture does not emulsify too soon—even though it didn’t seem to have much effect on the final product. I might tweak the proportions a little as well, maybe bumping the oil back up a little to introduce more moisture into the cake. But I think the most important factor is baking time. In both experiments, a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake came out completely clean on the first try, so I’m wondering if I might not have slightly overcooked the cakes both times. Neither struck me as noticeably overcooked, but next time I am going to test it at 20 minutes to see what it’s like. After all, the Milk Bar recipe says that the two signs of a properly baked cake are that it springs back slightly when poked at the edge and that the center is no longer wobbly, and I’m pretty sure the cake reached that stage well before the 25-minute mark.

It is also possible that this cake is just a little drier than the Hershey’s cake, which wouldn’t surprise me. That may be why the recipe also calls for an Ovaltine soak. We don’t have Ovaltine, but I could try to get my hands on some generic malted milk powder. HJ suggested that I try the soak next time, and I think she’s right. If I can’t find any malted milk powder, I suppose I could make chocolate milk to bump up the chocolate flavor even more.

Even though this experiment is not complete, I think we’ve had enough chocolate cake for now, so I’m going to wrap up today’s entry here. I’ll probably give this another shot sometime around Christmas, and maybe I will post a follow-up then, if I feel I’ve nailed down the recipe.

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