Coca-Cola Cake

Caption!

A stranger in a strange land, the Coke isn’t detectable in the finished cake.

I recently met up with a couple of cherished family friends (who are worth their weight in gold, just so you know) to exchange gifts and chat and just generally catch up on all of our lives. I gave them this mocha fudge and this peanut butter fudge, which were received with much joy. (Angels wept.) They told me about a cake they’ve been eating the dickens out of lately – the weirdest cake I’d ever heard of! It’s called Coca-Cola cake because the batter and the icing have Coke in them – the batter alone has a full cup of the bubbly stuff. It sounded like it would be a sticky mess to me, but I decided to look into it anyway. People raved about its moist texture in blog posts, and I thought, why not try something weird once in a while? (This doesn’t count as weird. It’s beautiful, plain and simple.)

C-Caption?

The texture of this cake is incredibly moist, and the chocolate glaze is delectable. Observe the walnuts.

After researching a lot of Coca-Cola cake recipes, I combined two of the most promising recipes and set to work. Making the batter was quite interesting in and of itself. Would the Coke make the batter fizzy? As it turns out, it did not. The fizz dissipated with all the stirring that accompanies mixing cake batter. Part of me was disappointed, actually; fizzy cake batter would have been cool. It didn’t taste very strongly of Coke, either, though a Coke taste was faintly there. I was glad I used Mexican Coke, because it still uses actual sugar in its recipe rather than high fructose corn syrup and thusly tastes a lot better than Stateside Coke. I didn’t want the batter tasting of what the FDA tried to gild as “corn sugar.”

The obligatory Coke bottle shot.

The obligatory Coke bottle shot.

Even with Mexican Coke, the batter didn’t taste too promising, actually, but I popped it into the oven and set to work on the icing. The icing is a Coke-spiked chocolate glaze which must be poured while still warm over the cake when it comes out of the oven. Though I don’t normally like nuts in chocolate, I added the 1 cup of nuts called for by both of the recipes I was using. I nonetheless went rogue in my own way, using chopped walnuts rather than pecans as directed. I tasted the icing, and found it to be overwhelmingly sweet. Ho-hum. I dutifully poured the hot icing over the hot cake, waited for it to cool, and cut myself a piece – because I have to admit that at this point, I was dying to know what a cake with Coke in it would taste like.

In a word, nirvana.

Caption?

Have I been here before?

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the biggest shocks I’ve ever had in my ten years of baking. Something magical happens to the batter while it is baking, and when it comes out, it no longer tastes remotely like Coke. It is simply a moist chocolate wonder. It was a bit sweet for me, and the chocolate flavour was mild, so next time I shall cut out 1/2 cup of sugar and add 1/4 cup cocoa; and then this shall be the best chocolate cake recipe I’ve ever tried. (This one is also one of the best ever, though its texture is more dense while this Coca-Cola cake is much more light and fluffy.) The icing, which is powerfully sweet by itself, soaks into the cake and suddenly makes sense to the palate. That’s the best I can describe it: When cake and icing meet, the twain shall not be overpoweringly sweet. This cake and this icing were made for each other. Together, they make perfect, perfect sense.

Next time I make this, I shall poke the cake all over with a skewer before pouring the icing onto the cake. I feel deep in my soul that this will make the cake happy.

Caption.

Oh, yes. This cake is about to get forked.

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Coca-Cola Cake

Yield: One 9×13″ sheet cake

Ingredients:

For the cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup Coca-Cola (ensure there is a full cup after the fizz has died down)
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups small marshmallows

For the icing:
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
3 TBS cocoa powder
6 TBS Coca-Cola (ensure that there are 6 TBS after the fizz has died down)
16 oz. powdered sugar
1 TBS vanilla extract
1 cup chopped nuts, optional

For serving:
powdered sugar or cocoa powder for sprinkling atop the cooled cake, optional

Method:

For the cake:
Preheat oven to 350˚F. Spray a 9×13″ pan liberally with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, cocoa, and baking soda. Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine buttermilk, vegetable oil, and Coca-Cola. Set aside.

Beat butter and sugar until creamy and pale, about three minutes. Add eggs and vanilla and blend well, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the flour mixture and the buttermilk mixture alternately, beginning and ending with the flour mixture and blending in each addition only until incorporated. Do not overbeat batter. Stir in marshmallows.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 30 – 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. The cake will sink a little in the middle; this is normal. Immediately pour the hot icing (see below) over the hot cake.

For the icing:
About 10 minutes before the cake is done baking, begin making the icing. Place the powdered sugar in a large bowl and set aside. In a 2 quart saucepan, combine butter, cocoa powder, and Coca-Cola. Bring to a boil and boil for about 30 seconds, then pour the boiling mixture over the powdered sugar and whisk until completely combined. Whisk in the vanilla and the nuts, if using.

When the cake comes out of the oven, immediately pour the still-hot icing over the hot cake, taking care to evenly distribute the icing. The cake will sink a little in the middle, so the icing will tend to pool there. The icing will still soak into the entire cake, including the raised edges.

Let cake cool completely on a wire rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar or cocoa powder before serving, if you wish.

Sources: Cake and icing a combination of the Coca Cola company recipe and of MyRecipes.com

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Badass Pecan Pie

The pecan pie is reposing near my beautiful fall apron. I know my crust looks a little wonky, but I happen to be quite terrible with pie crusts. It's an affliction that is poorly understood.

The pecan pie is reposing near my beautiful fall apron. I know my crust looks a little wonky, but I happen to be quite terrible with pie crusts. It’s an affliction that is poorly understood.

Hold the phone, people! This pie is beautiful. This pie is poetical. The filling is buttery, the notes of vanilla definite and sure. It tastes almost like caramel; and the thick, smooth texture of the filling is actually quite reminiscent of caramel, only it holds its shape. The secret to the filling’s unbelievable, and atypical, smoothness is that the filling is cooked to 130˚F before being added to the just-baked pie crust, and then baked at 275˚F for an hour. The character of the pecans really comes to life against this butter-and-vanilla majesty. Crivens*, but I could eat this filling all day long.

And the crust! Oh, the crust! As if this amazing filling weren’t incredible enough by itself!

The filling is as smooth as caramel and twice as thick!

The filling is as smooth as caramel and twice as thick!

The crust, a vodka pie crust from Cook’s Illustrated, blew my socks off. It was such a scunner** to work with, being very wet compared to more typical pie dough, and it needed a lot of patching; but it’s so flaky, tender, and mildly sweet – the perfect backdrop for the rich filling – that I forgive it its scunnery. This is hands-down the best pie crust I’ve ever encountered. I am wowed. I am amazed. I am in love.

And I almost passed it by! Why? Because it has vodka in it, and I thought that vodka would make the crust taste of strangeness. But it doesn’t! It leaves no vodka flavor whatsoever in the pie crust. I was skeptical of this claim, but my skepticism was silenced by my first bite of this flaky wonder. I am a believer.

The cool thing about using vodka in a pie crust (aside from boozing while you bake) is that vodka retards the formation of gluten during the mixing process. Gluten forms when flour absorbs water and is subsequently physically manipulated, as with kneading. Gluten toughens the dough and too much of it, as would form with too much handling of the dough, makes for a tough baked product. With vodka, you can handle the dough practically all day long, and it won’t form much gluten compared to using water. The alcohol content of the vodka evaporates in the oven, leaving behind absolutely no taste of vodka. A bit of caution: This crust must be made in a food processor to get the flour both evenly coated and not coated with butter. (When you’re blending flour and butter, some of the flour is coated with butter and thus will not absorb water, while the rest of the flour is not coated with butter, and thus will absorb water.) Having said that, it’s certainly worth a try even if a food processor doesn’t enter the picture. I bowed to the Cook’s Illustrated recommendation and used a food processor. It really works wonders.

This slice of pecan pie is giving me a pointed look.

This slice of pecan pie is giving me a pointed look.

Over the years, I’ve wrestled with making a good pecan pie. I could never achieve the right balance of flavours, and the texture was always a bit lumpy, which served as an addendum to the mediocrity of my pecan pies. And I never bothered making my own crust, because I figured its flavour and texture would disappear into the overly sweet filling. I used store-bought frozen crusts, which are very thin, and tasteless, and so I created my very own little self-fulfilling prophecy. Yay!

As you know, I’ve been trying out recipes for the upcoming Feast of St. Bird, and I was mighty pleased with how the pumpkin cheesecake from Cook’s Illustrated holiday baking magazine turned out. Leafing through the magazine – I still haven’t read all the recipes in it yet! – I encountered a recipe for Classic Pecan Pie. I made a few changes, and wound up creating an amalgamation of the Cook’s Illustrated pecan pie recipe and the pecan pie recipe I’ve been using and tweaking for years (from an old recipe card of my mom’s – unfortunately, I don’t have a more specific source than that). I downplayed the molasses flavour of the magazine’s recipe, slightly increased the amount of corn syrup, and scaled back the butter by 1/3. The full TBS of vanilla extract seemed spot on to me, however, and I happily tipped in a full measure of vanilla. So that’s why I could never seem to get a bold vanilla flavour out of my old pecan pie recipe – I was only using 1 tsp of vanilla! When comparing the two recipes side-by-side, I saw a note I’d written to myself on the old recipe card: “Try 1 full TBS vanilla?” So that made me feel a bit better about my thought processes regarding pecan pie.

What is your quest?

What is your quest?

Two things about the Cook’s Illustrated pecan pie recipe bothered me, and bother me still. The first is that the filling recipe yields enough for two standard-depth 9″ pies (or 1 deep dish 9″ pie), yet the recipe calls for the use of only one standard-depth 9″ pie dish. You will have enough filling for either two standard-depth 9″ pies, or one deep-dish 9″ pie. Trust me on this. I know of what I speak. The second issue is that the crust recipe for this particular pie would yield a fairly thick crust for a standard-depth 9″ pie dish, but a very, very thin crust for either two standard-depth 9″ pie dishes or one deep-dish 9″ pie dish. I doubled the crust recipe, as I have a deep pie dish, and I am so, so happy I did this. The crust was not overly thick, nor was it overly thin: it was just right. ‘Tis something to consider when choosing to make either two standard-depth 9″ pies or one deep-dish 9″ pie. The crust recipe below is the doubled version; simply cut the amount of each ingredient neatly in half to halve recipe.

*An all-purpose exclamation used by Pictsies.

**A deeply insulting word – also used by Pictsies – for a useless git.

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Pecan Pie

Yield: One deep-dish 9″ pie OR two standard-depth 9″ pies

Ingredients:

For the crust:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus flour (up to 1/4 cup – yes, the dough is wet!) for dusting the rolling surface
2 TBS sugar
1 tsp salt
12 TBS unsalted butter, cut into 1/4″ pieces and chilled
8 TBS vegetable shortening (such as Crisco), cut into 4 pieces and chilled
1/4 cup vodka, chilled
1/4 cup ice water

For the filling:
4 TBS unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
3 TBS light brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3 large eggs
1 cup light corn syrup
1 TBS vanilla extract
2 cups toasted pecans, chopped fine

Method:

For the crust:
In a food processor, process 1 1/2 cups of the flour, 2 TBS sugar, and 1 tsp salt until combined, about 5 – 10 seconds. Scatter butter and shortening atop flour mixture and process until mixture begins to form uneven clumps with no floury bits left, about 15 – 20 seconds. Scrape sides and blade of food processor; re-position mixture evenly around the bottom and blade of the food processor. Cover mixture with remaining 1 cup flour and pulse until mixture is broken into pieces, about 6 – 8 pulses.

Transfer mixture to large bowl and add vodka and water. Using a heavy, stiff spatula, press and turn the dough to incorporate the liquids.

If making one deep-dish 9″ pie, wrap dough as it is in plastic wrap; if making two standard-depth 9″ pies, divide dough in half before wrapping each half in plastic wrap. Refrigerate dough for at least one hour and up to two days. Dough can be frozen for 1 month; when ready to roll, allow dough to thaw completely at room temperature before rolling.

Note: Do not bake crust until ready to make the pie filling, as the heat of the crust and that of the pie filling (which is cooked to 130˚F before being baked) are necessary to achieve the smooth texture of the baked filling. When ready to make the pie filling, preheat oven to 425˚F. On a heavily floured surface, and with a heavily floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a 12″ round (or two 12″ rounds, if making two standard-depth 9″ pies) and place in pie dish(-es). Fold and tuck the overhanging dough underneath itself; patch any holes using some of the overhang, if necessary. With your fingers, crimp edges of dough. (Here’s hoping you’ll have more luck than I did. I’m terrible with managing pie crusts.) Loosely wrap dough and pie dish(-es) in plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, about 30 minutes.

Line surface of chilled dough with double layer of aluminum foil, making sure to cover the edges of the crust. Fill with pie weights and bake for 15 minutes. Remove pie weights and aluminum foil and bake an additional 4 – 7 minutes, or until crust(s) is (are) golden brown. Immediately after removing browned crust(s) from oven, reduce oven temperature to 275˚F. Fill hot crust(s) with pecan filling and bake (further instructions below).

For the filling:
While crust(s) is (are) baking, melt butter in 3 quart heavy-bottomed saucepan on medium-low heat. Off the heat, whisk in the sugar, brown sugar, and salt until the butter has been absorbed. Whisk in the eggs, corn syrup, and vanilla until completely incorporated and smooth.

Return mixture to the stove on medium-low heat and cook, whisking occasionally (at some point during this stage, the crust[s] will come out of the oven – you want the crust to still be hot when you pour the filling into it. Place baked crust[s] on rimmed baking sheet[s]* and set aside), until the mixture is hot to the touch and registers 130˚F on an instant-read thermometer.

Immediately remove mixture from heat; stir in pecans and pour mixture into hot crust (if making two pies, divide filling evenly between crusts). Bake at 275˚F for 50 – 65 minutes, rotating the pie(s) halfway through baking. The filling should look set and crispy on top. If you shake the pie gently from side to side, the pecans should not move about in the filling; they should form a united, stiff mass of browned pecans. The filling should “[yield] like gelatin when gently pressed with back of spoon,” to quote Cook’s Illustrated (p. 72 – 73). I didn’t find the gelatin qualifier to be of much help, as the top of a baked pecan pie is kind of hard due to the pecans rising to the top, but perhaps you will find this information helpful.

Let pie cool on wire rack, about two hours. This will help the filling set even further, as the pie will still cook a little after it’s removed from the oven. Wrapped in plastic wrap, the cooled pie can be stored at room temperature for 2 – 3 days. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm, with whipped cream if desired. This whipped cream would make a smashing accompaniment to this pie.

*Here is where the wisdom of placing the baked and empty crust on a rimmed baking sheet becomes apparent: If the pie is sitting on a rimmed baking sheet, it will be much easier to get into and out of the oven without destroying the edges of the crust, as the filling for this pie is very heavy. Using a rimmed baking sheet for this purpose also makes it easier to move the pie around in general.

Source: Crust from, and filling heavily adapted from, Cook’s Illustrated All-time Best Holiday Baking, 2013

Vanilla Extract

I couldn't resist taking a family photo. Alla famiglia!

I couldn’t resist taking a family photo. Alla famiglia!

I love vanilla! Vanilla smells like the very essence of the exotic, far-off lands whence it came. That vanilla became a signature flavour of Western cooking is just plain weird, but I’m more than happy to inhale its seductive fragrance every time I bake something.

Vanilla from the grocery store is bloody expensive, so I resolved to learn how to make my own. I thought it would be difficult, or that the final product would taste like alcohol, but neither scenario came true! Making vanilla is time-consuming because each bean must be slit individually in order to release those gorgeous, tiny seeds that are the source of vanilla flavouring, but other than the lengthy nature of the beast, it’s easy, it’s relaxing (to me, anyway), and it’s economical! And it will last for literally decades! (Unless I use it all.)

For the cost of a half pound of beans (I got mine from Amazon) and two bottles of vodka (either vodka or bourbon can be used; the choice is yours), I made a total of four quarts of vanilla extract. Seriously. I even had a fair amount of vodka left over from the second bottle!

Gorgeous grade B vanilla beans - about 46 of them - await their de-seeding and slicing so that they can become yummy vanilla extract. True story.

Gorgeous grade B vanilla beans – about 46 of them – await their de-seeding and slicing so that they can become yummy vanilla extract. True story.

Use grade B beans, also known as “splits” as many of them have split open. Grade B beans actually impart a more concentrated flavour than grade A beans, rendering them the perfect beans for making vanilla extract. Hence their second, more common, name: Extract beans. They’re also less expensive than the grade A beans, a simply marvelous coincidence in my book. As for the alcohol, use an inexpensive brand. The good stuff will be wasted on making extract, because the flavour of the alcohol simply isn’t noticeable in the final extract. I used Smirnoff vodka because we had it on hand. (Naughty, naughty kitchenchantress!)

The extract must sit in a dark, cool place for at least two months before it is usable, and it must be shaken at least once a day for the first two weeks. That’s right: Shaken, not stirred. (I could not resist.) The vanilla scent is out of this world, and it will strengthen over the next few months. The extract is mature after around 6 months. It is as strong or as weak as you wish to make it – I used about 8 beans per cup of alcohol to make mine. Federal guidelines specify the use of 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of vanilla extract (coming out to about 125 beans per gallon, or about 8 beans per cup), so I’m within regulation! Yay! You may double, triple, even quadruple the number of vanilla beans per cup of alcohol. Again, the choice is yours.

A sliced bean reveals its delectable haul of tiny seeds, also called "caviar." (I know, I know, I said that already.) These small seeds are the source of the vanilla smell, amazingly enough.

A sliced bean reveals its delectable haul of tiny seeds, also called “caviar.” These small seeds are the source of the vanilla smell and flavour, amazingly enough.

Homemade vanilla extract smells deeper, richer, and cleaner than the stuff from the grocery store. Even well-known brands have a faint wood-pulpy smell that you may not have even noticed until you’ve smelled homemade extract that uses NO ingredients other than vanilla beans and booze. Vanilla extract you’ve made yourself imparts a truer taste and, depending on the strength of the extract, adds a more powerful vanilla flavour than store-bought extract. Professional bakers usually use triple strength vanilla extract, bless their vanilla-loving hearts.

Onward with the extract! (Here’s where I run around brandishing a broadsword and falling over backwards with it.)

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Vanilla Extract

You will need:
Inexpensive bourbon OR vodka (I used vodka)
Approximately 8 – 10 grade B vanilla beans per cup of alcohol used (for regular strength extract; use double or triple the number of beans per cup if you wish to make double or triple strength extract, respectively)
Clean GLASS container with an airtight lid for maturing the extract (Mason jars or extract bottles are highly recommended)
Clean plate (OR clean cutting board that has NOT been used for savory items)
Sharp knife, for slicing open beans
Blunt-tipped knife, for scraping out seeds (you can also use your very, very clean thumbnail)

The room in which you’re working will need to be free of any strong odours, as these odours could affect the taste of your extract. Remember, the extract will be in a container for long-term storage, so any residual flavours in your room or your equipment will affect the final taste of the extract. I don’t have a cutting board for use only with sweets (I keep meaning to get one…), so plates it is for me. I find it helpful to use two plates, one for cutting and one for holding the beans I’ve yet to cut.

The tools for extraction are gathered together. The energy is fierce.

The tools for extraction are gathered together. The energy is fierce.

You’ll also need at least one very sharp knife (I was doubly prepared with two), for slicing the ends of the beans off and for slitting each bean open, and either a blunt-tipped knife or your very, very clean thumbnail for scraping out the seeds, or caviar, of each bean. You’ll also need a clean container (or multiple clean containers, depending on the quantity of extract you’re making) with an airtight lid (an airtight lid prevents unwelcome odors from entering your maturing extract and interfering with the nascent flavour), into which you’ll place the caviar as you scrape it out as well as the sliced vanilla beans themselves. Have enough containers on hand to hold the volume of alcohol you’re planning to dispense. Keep in mind that you’ll need to leave room in the container(s) for the vanilla bean pieces to secrete a little water and a little oil, which they will do over time. Again, as stated above, ensure you have at least 8 beans per cup of alcohol on hand so that your extract will be of adequate strength.

Start by slicing off the ends of each bean. This makes slitting the beans easier, in my book. You can leave the ends on, if you wish, but they tend to be a bit drier than the rest of the bean and thus can yield little flavour to the extract while it’s maturing. Discard the ends, or add them to an airtight container of sugar to make vanilla sugar (sugar will absorb the vanilla flavouring from these cut ends within about two to three weeks).

The caviar - in other words, the seeds from the slit vanilla bean - sits on the tip of a blunt knife. It shall soon go into the Mason jar with its friends!

The caviar – in other words, the seeds from the slit vanilla bean – sits on the tip of a blunt knife. It shall soon go into the Mason jar with its friends! Those curled tips on the bottom right are the ends of two vanilla beans.

Next, carefully slit open each bean – without simply cutting it in half! Though if this happens, it isn’t the end of the world, and you can still scrape the seeds out of the split bean – and use either the dull tip of a knife or your very, very clean thumbnail to scrape the caviar out of the bean and into your waiting container. Once all the seeds are scraped out of the bean, slice the bean into pieces (the size of these pieces is entirely up to you; just make sure they’ll fit inside your container) and add these pieces to the container.

The seeds and sliced beans have been divided between two quart-sized Mason jars. All that must be done is to fill with vodka, cap, store, and shake!

The seeds and sliced beans have been divided between two quart-sized Mason jars. All that must be done is to fill with vodka, cap, store, and shake!

When you’re finished de-seeding and slicing the vanilla beans, and they’re all cozy inside their storage container, pour your chosen alcohol into the container until the desired volume is reached. Important: Do not fill the container completely! Leave at least an inch and a half from the rim of the container to allow secretions from the beans. They will release a little bit of water and some oils.

The two containers have been filled with vodka but not yet shaken. Hence the vodka is still beautifully clear.

The two containers have been filled with vodka but not yet shaken. Hence the vodka is still beautifully clear.

Tightly close the container and admire your handiwork! Then shake the container. The contents will darken immediately, and will continue to darken over time until they are a gorgeous, deep brown – almost a black.

The bottle on the right has been shaken, and has begun the process of turning brown! The bottle on the left is still clear and inviolate.

The bottle on the right has been shaken, and has begun the process of turning brown! The bottle on the left is still clear and inviolate.

Store your extract in a cool, dark place in its airtight container for at least two months, shaking at least once each day for the first two weeks. Shake once a week thereafter, until the extract is six months old. After two months, the extract can actually be used (though it isn’t at its full strength yet). After about six months (though some say eight months), the extract is mature.

On the left is the new extract, freshly made, not yet shaken. On the right is matured extract, a week shy of eight months old.

On the left is the new extract, freshly made, not yet shaken. On the right is matured extract, a week shy of eight months old.

Sources: Ranging from data “extracted” (hee!) from acquaintances, to comments on Amazon, to Wikipedia; inspired by ridiculous grocery store prices for vanilla extract