great British blog off

The Great British Blog Off: Bitter Chocolate Stout Cake

A happy holiday season to you all, dear readers!

This week has been one of those strange, slow weeks where I repeatedly lost track of what day it is. Not that it isn’t a common occurrence in these pandemic times, but I had an extra dash of holiday time off to add to the confusion. I’m very lucky to work in higher ed and receive a nice long winter break around the holidays, and adding a few vacation days to round out the year means that Wednesday found me searching for things to do.

Then it hit me. There are no rules here. I can do my bake on Thursday!

Those who celebrate Christmas might note that Thursday was Christmas Eve, and since we had no place to go and it did indeed snow, snow, snow, I decided to spend the morning in the kitchen with my next recipe: bitter chocolate stout cake!

The past few weeks have been a strange leadup to Christmas, with gifts coming in the mail sometimes disguised as ordinary Amazon packages which I accidentally opened early.

In spite of not being able to gather in person with many of my far-flung friends and family, I nevertheless have enjoyed feeling particularly seen in the gifts chosen for me this year. Among my favorites are the cookbook stand my parents sent me, a copy of Dessert Person, and a glorious apron proclaiming me Star Baker that I’m excited to wear for my next bake(s)!

I do hope that whichever holiday(s) you celebrate and however you and yours are feeling connected in these strange times, you have a happy holiday season. I can hardly believe the next time I write, it will be the new year.

And so without further ado, let’s get to my last bake of 2020!

This Week’s Bake: Bitter Chocolate Stout Cake

The Prep

Unlike last week’s bake, which I approached without much enthusiasm, I greatly looked forward to this week’s recipe. It’s the first chocolate cake of the challenge, and I’ve learned to love stacking cake layers atop one another on my new spinning tray.
In addition to the excitement of chocolate cake, there are a few interesting and unique ingredients that had me curious about the final flavors: chocolate malt powder and a chocolate milk stout.
The malt powder brought to mind a very specific childhood memory of driving down to the United Dairy Farmers to get milkshakes. Because it was such a short drive, Dad would sometimes let us kids post up in the bed of his pickup truck–something that felt exciting and adventurous, especially if we were still garbed up in bathing suits and towels from a day trip to the neighborhood pool.
Upon arrival, we’d stand at the ice cream counter considering our choices. Nine times out of ten, I’d opt for a chocolate malt, loving the extra tangy flavor the malt powder added to the chocolately goodness.
Roaming the aisles of the Giant Eagle wondering where in the heck one might purchase malt powder wasn’t quite the same, but a felt a flicker of excitement when I finally spotted it. A single option for Ovaltine chocolate malt powder tucked away amongst the hot cocoa.
The stout was easy, because Andy loves a good milk stout and I’d asked him to save me a bottle of the Chocolate Oatmeal Breakfast Stout he picked up on a beer run a few weeks prior.
This week also saw the return of my trip to the Fresh Market, where I hoped to pick up light muscovado sugar, buttermilk, and the dark chocolate I needed. Andy came along this time, as we folded it into a trip to Half Price Books to buy a puzzle to occupy our time.
To my surprise, it turns out that The Fresh Market does not seem to carry buttermilk. Or, if they do, no amount of Andy and I’s combined efforts could figure out where it would be if not amongst the other varieties of milk and heavy cream.
Alas, we found ourselves back at Giant Eagle a second time to grab entirely too much buttermilk because I’d forgotten to write down how much I needed (spoiler alert: it was two tablespoons).
My ingredients assembled and the promise of the first blog off use of my stand mixer ahead, I went to bed eager for my Thursday morning bake.

The Bake

For someone who isn’t fond of geometry or measuring or shapes, I’ve found a great deal of pleasure in the simple act of tracing and cutting out parchment paper to line cake tins. There’s something so satisfying about pressing the paper in and having it line up just so.
Less satisfying? The sweet scent of chocolate stout and cocoa powder being brought to the boil before 11am. Admittedly, the chocolate mixture smelled phenomenal once the harshest beer smell had simmered down, but I felt decidedly odd popping open a can of beer so early. “It’s a breakfast stout,” Andy proclaimed when I asked if he wanted to finish it off.
If you ever boil together stout, cocoa powder, and malt powder, do not be fooled by how delicious it looks. There is no sugar in there, and you’d best remember it before absentmindedly licking a drip off your thumb. Yuck.
That mixture set aside to cool, I got down to work assembling the other cake batter items in the bowl of the stand mixer I was recently gifted by a friend who received a new one as a gift. (Thank you!!!)
I’ve never used a stand mixer before, and I felt like I may as well be there in the tent with the bakers as I creamed butter and sugar together with the press of a button. Soon enough, I had a nice shiny chooclately cake batter ready to go into my lined cake tins.
I’ll confess I was a bit dubious as I spooned the batter in. It barely covered the bottom of my tin, and I have to assume mine are a bit bigger than what this particular recipe calls for. Still, the cakes rose a decent bit in baking and came out seeming relatively cake-like, so I don’t think the recipe suffered too much for it.
Aside from repeatedly chasing Azula away from the countertops, there wasn’t much to do while the cakes baked, since the final touch of a chocolate buttercream frosting wouldn’t be needed until the cake fully cooled. I settled in for a bit of reading until the time came to remove the cakes from the oven and flip them precariously onto the cooling rack.
Like last time, the cakes pressed themselves into the cooling rack a bit, ending up with a crosshatch pattern on the top. If anyone has tips for preventing this, I’d love to hear them.
Unlike last time, when I got ready to move the sponge from the cooling rack to the cake decorating stand, I noticed a bit of stickage. As in, the top of the cake was going to rip away if I tried to slide it off. I consulted my resident engineer, who suggested I try flipping the entire rack and letting the cakes come off that way. I took this advice, with the added step of gently poking all of the sunken in bits of the cake back up a bit so they would, with luck, come unstuck before the big flip.
It worked! The cakes came free with only a few minor crumbs stuck to the drying rack, and I managed to slide the bottom tier off the counter and onto the stand.
I’ve said before that the purchase of a bench scraper revolutionized my bread making game. The purchase of a spinning cake stand has definitely done the same for cake baking. The thrill of spinning the thing round while I press a spatula to the icing and watch it essentially spread itself has yet to fade even though this is my third time using the stand.
The sponges iced, all that remained was the simple act of… taking a vegetable peeler to a bar of chocolate to produce some chocolate curls for the top? I am not sure how one produces the nice long shards pictured in the book, because my bar of chocolate simply wanted to crumble away at the merest touch of the peeler, resulting in tiny chocolate chunks instead of curls. Nevertheless, I tossed them atop the cake and called it a day.
Let me tell you, reader, this cake recipe is delicious. I can be rather picky about chocolate cake, because I require a certain level of chocolate-ness before I’ll accept it (I despise chocolate birthday cake for being a mere suggestion of chocolate, for instance). This one passed my test and will go down as another repeat bake for me, should I find myself in need of a chocolate cake at any point in the future.

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