“Better” Chocolate Cake
One of the wonderful things about starting this blog is that I’m seeing inspiration in everything I’m reading.
Recently, I picked up a book by Boston-based doctor Atul Gawande. He is one of my writing heroes for his ability to explain health care policy and patient issues in a compelling and accessible way. He is a full-time surgeon, professor at Harvard Medical School, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine and a happily-married father of three. Despite those incredible accomplishments, he is never satisfied that he has done everything as well as he could. He strives to be even better. Gawande is unusually forthright (for a doctor) about his vulnerabilities and mistakes. He uses those experiences to describe what he has learned and how he thinks those experiences can improve the health care of his patients and the health care system as a whole.
In his 2007 book: “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance,” Gawande says writing is one of his tools for self improvement and suggests that it can help his readers too. He says:
“Write something. I do not mean this to be an intimidating suggestion. It makes no difference whether you write five paragraphs for a blog, a paper for a professional journal, or a poem for a reading group. Just write. What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observation about your world…By offering your reflections to an audience, even a small one, you make yourself part of a larger world…an audience is a community. The published word is a declaration of membership in the community and also of a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it.
Gawande’s words resonate with me. I have been writing for more than twenty years — mostly about public policy topics ranging from campaign finance issues to health care — and while I haven’t thought what I was doing was about contributing to a community, I suppose I have. I strive to inform readers, particularly those in the policy community, to help them make decisions. At the very least, I hope to make a reader think more deeply about a topic. I also feel like I can always do better at writing and communicating. I’m never done learning.
Okay, so what does this all have to do with chocolate cake?
I’m always looking for a better chocolate cake recipe. Mostly because I love the challenge of trying different versions of the same kind of cake and then declaring which version I think is the best. I have tried Ina Garten’s recipe, which she (the Barefoot Contessa) declared in Food & Wine to be “the most fabulous chocolate cake I’ve ever made.” It’s good and very moist, but I wasn’t going to stop there. Next I turned to a version made by Cook’s Illustrated. I love that publication because they too like to test lots of versions of recipes before declaring their version the best. Their “Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cake” is definitely a mild and tender cake. Then I tried a recipe from the Fearless Baker. The cake was really good, but amazingly, the one that has gotten the best review (by friends and family) is a version of a Hershey’s chocolate cake recipe adapted by David Leite from his website Leite’s Culinaria.
This awesome outcome was a surprise because conventional wisdom has it that Hershey’s is not the best chocolate. A baker should turn to Vahlrohna, or Callebut or even Ghiradelli, over Hershey’s chocolate. But the Hershey’s cake was velvety chocolate, moist, not too dense, and with the addition of the Hershey’s chocolate icing, a total winner. The cake has no butter in it, which may reduce the denseness of the cake. It also calls for instant espresso, which I think enhances the chocolate flavor of the cake. The icing is a butter cream, with plenty of butter at its core. The recipe is easy to make because it doesn’t require sifting.
Hershey's 'Perfectly' chocolate cake
- Makes 1 9-inch 2 layer cake
- About 30 minutes prep and 20-30 minutes baking time
Recipe by Hershey’s and modified by David Leite
2 cups sugar
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Hershey’s Unsweetened Cocoa
2 Tablespoons instant expresso
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water
1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans.
2. In a mixer, stir together dry ingredients: sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed 2 minutes.
3. Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin). Pour batter into prepared pans.
4. Bake 20- 35 minutes, depending upon your oven. When a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, the cake is done. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely.
½ cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1 1/3 cups Hershey’s Unsweetened Cocoa
2 teaspoons instant expresso
3 1/3 cups powdered sugar
2/3 cup whole milk
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
In a mixer, add melt butter. Stir in cocoa and expresso. Alternately add powdered sugar and milk, beating to spreading consistency. Add small amount additional milk, if needed. Stir in vanilla. Makes about 2 cups frosting.