An Inperfect Cookbook & Chocolate Mistake Cake

a square of chocolate cake topped with powdered sugar and whipped cream on a white plate

The cookbook for March’s Cookbook Club was Twelve Recipes, by Cal Peternell. I nominated this book. I voted for it. I already had in on my shelf (and had already read about a quarter of it). I wanted to love this book, and I almost do.

Twelve Recipes is written as a chef’s attempt to arm his kids with what they need to know about cooking as they go off into the world*. It’s conversational, working its way through basic concepts and the riffs on them that can turn into a full repertoire for feeding yourself and others. It’s exactly the kind of book I want to hand my kids in a decade, when they’re heading out of the house. It’s also imperfect.

At times the imperfections are small, the author’s voice strays a bit from “deservedly opinionated food professional with a great palate” and into the realm of “Northern California resident with year-round easy access to great ingredients who is assuming everyone else has that access too”.** What really strikes me as a problem, however, is the Cake chapter.*** For our cookbook club meeting, two sets of people, both of which included pretty experienced cooks, tried the “Chocolate Mistake Cake” and had it result in disaster.**** Someone else in the club made the Carrot Cake and discovered its proportions are simply all wrong. It appears that no one actually tested these recipes and that the author himself does not know them as well as the savory side.

Twelve Recipes did inspire me to do more and better with pasta nights***** as well as to go back to making my own croutons, but ultimately, it’s not a book I want to hand to my friends, at least not without some major caveats.

After the meeting, I just had to figure out what the heck was up with that Chocolate Mistake Cake recipe. Close reading the recipe made me question two things quickly. First, did he simply forget to mention it should be in two pans rather than one? The volume of ingredients is about what is generally called for to make two 9 inch round layers. Second, why 2 tsp of baking soda? 2 tsp is a lot of baking soda for 2 cups of flour, even given that there’s some yogurt and brown sugar in the mix. Both the trial cakes had more-or-less erupted in the oven, so it seemed a good guess that there might be something off about the leavening. Some brief internet research told me that the “mistake” part of the name generally referred to recipes which had chocolate added when there was already cocoa (or the reverse), so the volume or soda bit might be actual mistakes.

With a few tweaks, I made it. I couldn’t resist. As it turns out, this is a one bowl, one whisk, pretty easy recipe for delicious chocolate cake. Here’s how it worked:

Chocolate Mistake Cake (adapted from Cal Peternell’s Twelve Recipes)

  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 ½ cups boiling water, divided
  • 8 tablespoons butter, room temperature
  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (or ~3/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chips)
  • 2 ½ cups brown sugar, lightly packed
  • ½ cup plain yogurt
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 13×9 inch pan or two 9-inch round pans.

Place the cocoa powder in a large mixing bowl and add 1/2 cup of the boiling water******. Whisk until smooth. Cut the stick of butter into chunks and add it and the bittersweet chocolate to the bowl. Add the remaining 1 cup boiling water and let sit for a minute, then whisk until smooth. Next whisk in the brown sugar, yogurt and vanilla, then the eggs, one at a time, whisking after each addition. Next add the flour, baking powder, and salt in two additions. (To be certain the baking powder is mixed in evenly, you can whisk these dry ingredients together in a separate bowl before adding them. If you like living dangerously and want to only use one bowl, just be sure the baking powder is well incorporated.) Pour in prepared pan(s) and bake for 25 to 35 minutes or until the center springs back when you touch it lightly with a finger.

Serve dusted with powdered sugar, with a side of whipped cream, or ice cream, or frost if you like.

*His kids clearly already have the basics. He’s working to fill in the details of how to think through a recipe and a meal and how to improvise.

**See, for example, his “frugal” choice of grating cheese for pasta – “Grano Padano”. This is someone who probably lives walking distance from the Cheese Board.

***Yes, I know, my pastry bias is showing, but really! savory cooks should take pastry seriously.

****In one case, a disaster complete with actual billowing smoke.

*****incorporating the sauce before serving, using the pasta water, thinking more about my basic sauces, etc.

******this wasn’t in the original recipe, but is a great technique for getting the most flavor out of your cocoa powder, and since there was boiling water in the recipe already, I added it.

Something Actually Simple – Vinaigrette

As I think I’ve mentioned before, my family eats a lot of the following salad: arugula, apple, toasted almonds, sherry vin. If we happen to be missing one of the essential ingredients, the basic formula still usually works: leaves, fruit, nuts, vin. If it weren’t for this trick, we’d have a much harder time filling in the “vegetable” part of dinner.

Historically, I’m an incredibly lazy vinaigrette maker. Pour some vinegar in an empty spice jar, add some oil (about 3x the vinegar, but I never measure), add some salt and pepper, maaaaybe add something else to complement the flavors. Shake. Pour on salad and toss. I read recently, in The Food Lab, that emulsified dressing just works better. (The leaves get more evenly coated and wilt less.) I was still too lazy to try it, however, until something else I read, in my kids’ Raddish subscription, pointed out that there exist good dressing emulsifiers other than mustard. Now, I’ve leveled up my dressing game.

Basic Vinaigrette Ratio

  • 1 part something acidic: Vinegar, Lemon juice, Wine, etc.
  • 3 parts oil
  • 1/2 part (or a bit more or a bit less, to taste) something binding or emulsifying: Mustard, Honey, Yogurt, Mayonnaise, Egg Yolk (if you’re using the dressing immediately)
  • Seasonings

Add all ingredients to a jar. Shake until well-blended. Pour on salad. Toss.

Some more specific examples:

Honey Mustard: 1 T apple cider vinegar, 3 T sunflower or other neutral oil, 1 tsp dijon mustard, 1 tsp honey, salt, black pepper – good on spinach based salads

Basic Balsamic: 1 T balsamic vinegar, 3 T olive oil, 1 slightly smushed garlic clove, 1 tsp honey, salt, black pepper, maybe some thyme. Add the garlic clove to the vinegar before everything else. If storing before use, remove the garlic after about fifteen minutes.

Sherry Vin: 1 T sherry vinegar, 3 T olive oil, 1 tsp honey, salt, black pepper, the tiniest bit of vanilla paste or extract – really good on salads with apples.

I plan to start experimenting more with yogurt or mayo as the binder. I suspect this will be great with more herb focused dressings (which are great with iceberg, bib lettuce, etc.).

Thanks, Food Lab and Raddish!

Simplicity is Relative, Sourdough Crackers

February’s cookbook club book was Plenty*. I have several friends who adore this book and I looked forward to exploring it and perhaps expanding my kitchen toolkit to include more Middle Eastern flavors and techniques. As it turned out, however, this was not the right book for me. Plenty is chock full of delicious recipes, and those recipes are chock full of somewhat precise and complicated techniques along with not-so familiar (to me) ingredients. What it is not chock full of, however, is unifying theory or process explanations which would lead me into the recipes themselves. For something I’m not already familiar with, I definitely prefer more prose about why and how to do things, what’s integral and what can be simplified, etc. To expand my Middle Eastern influenced toolkit, I’m going to need a different book.**

The recipe I choose to make, Saffron Tagliatelle with Spiced Butter, was beautiful and delicious, but also gave me hours of grief when my dough was too wet and my pasta roller clearly did not have the same capacity for which the recipe was written. I’m glad I tried it. When I make pasta again, however, I’ll follow some combination of Alice Water’s advice, my brilliant spouse’s advice, and this article on Serious Eats (which seems to agree, on the whole, with my spouse and Alice Waters) and I’ll leave Plenty on the shelf.

Then, after spending way too much time muttering under my breath about complicated recipes being barriers to home cooks, I decided to make something simple. And I did! And it was delicious! And I realized that while it was simple to me, recipes that start with a cup of sourdough starter and involve rolling dough thin enough for crackers, aren’t necessarily simple to others. I may have some work to do on walking my talk. Nevertheless, if you happen to have some sourdough starter and a silicon baking mat or two, these are great!***

Simple Sourdough Crackers

  • 1 cup sourdough starter
  • 1/4 cup olive oil (or ghee or lard or coconut oil or …), plus more for brushing
  • 1 cup (or more) whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • coarse salt for sprinkling

Mix starter, oil, flour, and salt together, adding more flour until a relatively stuff dough forms. Knead lightly (for a minute or two) in the bowl, then cover with plastic wrap and let rest for ~8 hours (up to 24 is probably fine).

Preheat oven to 350º.

Divide dough into two halves*** and shape each roughly into a rectangle. Place the rectangle on asilicon baking mat or sheet of parchment and roll thin, covering as much of the mat or parchment as possible while remaining within the confines of what will fit on your baking sheet. (I kept the plastic wrap on top of the dough to keep my rolling pin from sticking without adding more flour.) Repeat with the other half.

Brush the dough with a bit more olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt. Using a bench scraper or spatula****, cut the dough into cracker-sized***** rectangles. You don’t need to separate the pieces. The dough will put apart slightly while baking so you have separate crackers in the end.

Bake at 350º, for 15 to 20 minutes, just until golden brown. Open the oven door a crack, but leave the baking sheets in for another 15 or more minutes while the crackers crisp up. 

*yes, I am just finishing a write-up of something that happened in February. Sorry.

**maybe it’s Zahav? I haven’t given up.

***I’ll post something more actually simple soon. I promise.

****if you’re using a standard half-sheet pan, aka a regular sized cookie sheet. if your pans are smaller, divide more!

*****don’t use an actual knife or a pastry cutter! It will cut your baking mat and that is sad.

******whatever size cracker you like.