Building Blocks: Chocolate Cake (and a cookbook review)

Rye Humour -- Building Blocks: Chocolate Cake

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I grew up spending summers in Alaska– first in Denali National Park and later on way out in the middle of nowhere, accessible only by bush plane. This was a fantastic childhood: running around in breathtaking wilderness all day with my brother, learning social skills by schmoozing the wide variety of guests staying at the backcountry lodges my dad managed, and coming inside at the end of the day to gourmet, wholesome, creative, beautiful meals cooked by an incredibly talented kitchen team. I also spent a lot of afternoons “helping” in the kitchen (don’t tell the food hygiene inspector) and even earned my own apron.

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Years later, one of the cooks (also a dear family friend, as many of my dad’s coworkers became) published a cookbook with her daughter. The taste of my childhood, wrapped up in hardcover and presented to me as a college graduation gift: priceless.

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The cookbook is called The Abundant Table and is available for purchase here. Go ahead. I’ll wait. It’s worth it. The recipes are creative, seasonally-inspired, whole-foods-based works of love and art, with plenty to keep vegetarians and omnivores alike happy for years. This is my number one go-to cookbook, as you may have inferred from the cocoa powder smudges all over this recipe for Black Magic Cake.

Speaking of which, from the first time I baked this particular cake, I have never tried another chocolate cake recipe. I’ve never needed to. Liz’s Black Magic Cake is impossibly moist, incomparably chocolaty, and impeccably adaptable. It veganizes well, it handles gluten free adaptations with grace, and pairs smoothly with any number of icing choices. Did I mention how all you need is two bowls and a whisk? Everyone needs a solid chocolate cake recipe in their arsenal, and this is mine.

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I made cupcakes and topped them with a simple vanilla buttercream and a dusting of cocoa powder this time, but I often pair this cake with a chocolate or salted caramel buttercream… use your imagination!

Liz’s Black Magic Cake
Makes 16-24 servings or approximately 3 dozen cupcakes

2 1/2 cups (500g) sugar
2 1/4 cups (281g) flour
2 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1 1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup (94g) plus 3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/4 cups (295ml) freshly brewed, strong coffee, cooled
1 1/4 cups (295ml) buttermilk
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp (125 ml) vegetable oil
1 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
3 eggs

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 10 by 15-inch Pyrex pan or two 9-inch round cake pans. Measure the sugar into a large mixing bowl. Sift the remaining dry ingredients into the bowl of sugar and whisk together. In another bowl, whisk together all of the wet ingredients until well blended. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and whisk until evenly incorporated and blended.
  2. Pour this batter into the prepared pan and bake for approximately 40 to 45 minutes, or until the cake is pulling away from the sides of the pan and the top of the cake springs back when it is lightly pressed with your hand. A toothpick inserted into the cake should come out clean. Let cool on racks for 10 minutes before removing from the pan for further cooling.

My notes:

  • For a vegan cake, replace buttermilk with nondairy milk + a squeeze of lemon juice. Stir together and let sit 5 minutes to sour. Replace eggs with flax eggs: 1 tbsp ground flaxseed (linseed) + 2 tbsp water = 1 egg. Stir together and let sit 5 minutes until slightly gummy.
  • For a gluten-free cake, simply replace flour with your favorite gluten-free all purpose flour.
  • Baking time is for a 10 by 15-inch cake. Reduce time to about 30 minutes for 9-inch cakes, about 20 minutes for cupcakes.
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Building Blocks: Pie Crust

I remember being maybe eight or nine years old and informing my mom that I wanted to invent a soup recipe. She gently suggested that I might want to at least glance at a recipe and just make some changes, make it my own, but I wanted to do it my way! So into the pot went water, salt, and a head of broccoli that I had very carefully chopped. There may have been a seasoning or two in there, but you get the idea. I dutifully ate my entire pot of “soup”, but I then went away and had a good think about the few steps I might have skipped in learning to cook.

In the past couple of decades, I’ve learned that in order for improvisation to be successful (in music, in cooking, in any creative pursuit), there needs to be a foundation of basic skills and understanding. In the kitchen, I’m always working on collecting building blocks: basic recipes that are (in my opinion) the very best of their kind and can easily be tweaked to open up whole new worlds of culinary creativity. I’ll share them here from time to time– the unbeatable chocolate cake, the basic vegetable soup, the elemental muffin– but today I’ll start with just one: the perfect pie crust.

Rye Humour -- Pie Crust

The pie crust recipe I’ve ended up with is an amalgamation of more different recipes than I can count, but there’s one thing that they all had in common: the vinegar, egg, and ice water mixture that binds the crust together at the final stage. This adds a whole extra level of rich flavour and flakiness that plain shortening-and-flour crusts can never achieve.

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You want your butter chilled and chopped into manageable chunks. Heat is the enemy of flaky pastries everywhere. Those little nuggets of butter that never quite work into the dough are key for the flaky texture you’re aiming for.

Rye Humour -- Pie Crust

Flour, salt, and just a hint of sugar (omit for a savoury crust) get sifted together…

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Tossed in a food processor with the chilled butter cubes…

Rye Humour -- Pie Crust

And pulsed until it looks like coarse meal. Or, if you don’t have a food processor, you can use a pastry cutter or two knives or even your fingers. The goal is the same: no butter chunks bigger than a pea, but don’t overwork it!

Rye Humour -- Pie Crust

An egg and a splash of white vinegar get whisked together with ice cold water…

Rye Humour -- Pie Crust

Poured into the flour and butter mixture, a little at a time…

Rye Humour -- Pie Crust

And mixed gently, just until the mixture can hold together in a ball.

Rye Humour -- Pie Crust

The crust needs to be wrapped up tight and refrigerated for at least an hour (preferably overnight) before it can be rolled. I flatten it into a disc shape before chilling, as this shape is a million times easier to roll out than a solid ball.

Use in any recipe that calls for a shortcrust pastry or pie crust. Go ahead and have a couple copies of the recipe written out– you’ll get asked for it.

Pie Crust
Makes enough for 3 single-crust pies or 1 large double-crust pie

3 cups plain flour (375g)
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp sugar (omit for a savoury pie)
1 1/4 cup unsalted butter (285g), cubed and chilled
1 egg
2 tsp white vinegar
5 tbsp ice water

  1. Sift flour, salt, and sugar together.
  2. In a food processor, pulse flour mixture with cubed butter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Place flour mixture in a medium bowl.
  3. In a small bowl or jug, whisk egg, vinegar, and ice water together until well incorporated.
  4. Gradually add the egg mixture to the flour mixture, stirring gently to combine. Add just enough liquid to allow the mixture to hold together in a ball– you may not need all of it!
  5. Separate mixture into the number of crusts you plan to make. Shape each amount into a ball, squash it into a disc, wrap tightly with cling film, and refrigerate thoroughly (at least an hour, but preferably overnight).

Note: these pie crust discs freeze really well! Just wrap in a layer of cling film and a layer of foil and freeze until needed, moving to refrigerator to thaw a day or two ahead of time.