The most beautiful little package of potential pleasure the kitchen has to offer: the square of unsweetened Baker's chocolate.
We are lucky enough to have two winter birthdays in our house, one in late November and one in late December. Traditionally, the dessert of choice after birthday dinner is chocolate cake with creamy chocolate frosting, from Marion Cunningham's revision of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook (1986). As she says, this is "a fine-grained, tender cake -- ice water is its secret." Don't be tempted to think that ice water makes a weak or flavorless cake. It is delicious, and not bloatingly rich.
After buttering and flouring two round cake pans, you melt 2 squares of chocolate in a heavy small pan (be careful and remember how quickly chocolate can scorch). Set the chocolate aside to cool, and then cream one stick (1/4 cup) of room-temperature butter, and slowly beat into it 1 and 1/2 cups sugar. The butter-sugar mix takes on a feathery consistency at the end.
Then, mix in 2 eggs and 2 teaspoons vanilla. And why is it that the young cashiers at the local supermarket, who may not even scan a bottle of wine through their register, are allowed to scan a bottle of vanilla extract, which is 35 percent alcohol? It used to be that the customer herself could scan just this one product on the clerk's behalf, wine, but as of this winter, the store has changed both its computer system and, apparently, the rigor of its adherence to inane state liquor laws. Now any cashier under 21 must summon a manager to physically move the bottle of wine past the little electronic eye and so tot up as a sale. While everybody waits, fuming or not. Innocent, seductive vanilla, more potent in its tiny flat brown bottle than any three average wines, is deemed not to be the hazard to fragile young morals that its proof ought to make it.
But we digress.
After the vanilla and eggs are thoroughly mixed in to the butter/sugar, add the cooled chocolate. It always seems, to this chocolate lover, that I am leaving spoonfuls of it in the pan, but it all seems to come out all right.
Meanwhile, you will have mixed 2 cups of cake flour, 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of baking soda, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a separate bowl. The use of cake flour does make a difference. Add the flour mix to the batter, and blend.
Now you will add 1 cup of ice water. Mix it in.
Pour the batter into the two pans, and bake the cakes for 25 minutes in a preheated 350 F oven.
While the cakes are baking, address yourself to making Creamy Chocolate Frosting. This is simple. Put 2 more squares of baking chocolate into a heavy small pan, along with 1 cup of sugar and 3 Tablespoons cornstarch. Stir into this 1 cup of boiling water.
Cook and stir until the chocolate melts, the sugar and cornstarch dissolve, and everything becomes smooth and thick. This takes about five minutes. If you make a mistake and your cornstarch turns lumpy, you can always pour the frosting through a fine strainer into a bowl and save the day that way. After the frosting is smooth, add 1 Tablespoon butter, 1 teaspoon of that intoxicating vanilla, and a pinch of salt.
Mix thoroughly, and allow to cool.
When the cake is done, a toothpick inserted in its center will come out clean. And when the cake and the frosting are cool, it will be time to create your birthday masterpiece.
When I used to watch my mother make cakes as a little girl, I remember being disappointed at the rule that one always frosts between the two layers first, and then the sides; I thought of course we want all that delicious frosting plopped right on top right now, don't we? No, we do not. Frosting the middle and sides glues the cake together and hides what tend to be the ugliest parts, the crisp, floury sides.
Then you may frost the top.
And then you may eat, after you sing Happy Birthday. Tea and coffee are fair companions to this, but the best drink of all beside it is, of course, nice cold milk. Whole milk full of fat, please. So appropriate for the youngsters. They are safe anyway because all the alcohol in the vanilla has cooked away. We haven't invited the liquor control commissioners ....