An Inperfect Cookbook & Chocolate Mistake Cake

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.

6 thoughts on “An Inperfect Cookbook & Chocolate Mistake Cake

  1. Thanks! What is showing is your expertise and willingness to experiment.

    I laughed about the “frugal cheese” choice. Where I come from, that’s the Parmesan in the green canister rather than the pre-grated Parmesan in the bag.

    If you do write that cookbook, let me know. I know a young man who could use a copy, and I, too, would love to send him out into the world with one when the day comes.

    With an addendum of family recipes, of course. Maybe he’ll appreciate Nellie’s apple butter/pumpkin pie by then…

    (Yes, I have been told that she clipped it from a magazine. But once the family has been using it for four generations I think we get to call it what we like.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just made this cake with my 14 year old daughter, who adores chocolate anything and wanted to try a new chocolate cake recipe. I was dubious about the proportions once we got started, but it was our first time using the recipe so I figured we’d go ahead and see how it turned out. Good thing I put a cookie sheet on a lower rack at the last minute, because the cake is already spilling over the 9.5 inch round cake pan. I kept wracking my brain to think if I’d screwed up the recipe somehow. But you made me realize it wasn’t me, it was the recipe. Your rewritten version looks like a winner – we’ll try it next time. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Given my (increasing lack of) short-term memory, I read this as a completely new blog entry, and was going to reply until I saw my own reply of about a year ago. How embarrassing…

    I would say about the same thing now, with the added hope that said young man will have learned to enjoy chocolate by then. (Unbelievable, I know, but true…he just doesn’t LIKE chocolate. Or eggs. But he’s learning to enjoy sauce (a SMALL amount, strictly marinara, and on top rather than mixed in) on his pasta, so perhaps there’s hope for him yet.

    And perhaps there’s hope for me, who still have not made a chocolate cake (any cake, really, except carrot) from scratch. Perhaps before I’m 50 (wait, that’s coming up alarmingly fast…)


    1. P and I made this about a week ago, actually. He needed something to bring to a tea party and we tend to have all the ingredients for this one on hand. It’s easier than carrot cake – try it out! (If you can get that guy to eat chocolate.)


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