I've never been much of a cake lover, at least if the cake in question has a springy, box-mix consistency. For a couple of generations now, the box mix has defined the cake served at birthdays and other celebratory occasions and is, well, pretty darned boring. But when we Americans think "cake," that's what comes to mind.
I recall a TV commercial for cake mix that ran when I was a child or maybe it was a couple of commercials for different brands of cake mix that have now run together in my head. It doesn't matter, because Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker and the like were all trying for the same effect. Anyway, the memorable image was a close-up of a fork pressing down on a slice of cake that obediently sprang back into shape. The slogan that stayed with me was "tastes as good as homemade."
Never mind that there wasn't a scratch cake in all the land with that much bounce. The idea was that if your box-mix cake was moist enough to clear the fork test, you could pass it off as your own recipe, even to the most persnickety dinner guests. At that time, the box-mix people wanted to counteract the impression that prepared mixes produced dry and tasteless cakes. They also were trying to overcome the notion that only a lazy or incompetent cook would serve a cake made from a prepared mix.
Our society has since abandoned such pretensions, and I suspect that an astonishing number of Americans highest for people younger than 21 have never eaten a cake made from scratch. For them, "homemade" means the predictable cake that comes out of a box.
While this may not be the most pressing issue confronting society at the beginning of the 21st century, it's still unfortunate to think that many people might have such a limited view of a dessert that is synonymous with festive occasions. There's a whole world of cake out there that has nothing to do with the taste or texture of a box mix. When I have enjoyed a piece of cake, it was precisely because what I ate defied my expectation.
The other thing that has never made sense to me was combining the prototypical piece of birthday cake with ice cream. As the ice cream melts, the cake turns to mush and the fork test becomes a moot point.
Finally there is a birthday cake that has a density that makes it interesting and gives it the integrity to stand up to ice cream. What's more, the bittersweet chocolate in the following recipe will let you play on contrast. The theory here is that because ice cream is sweet, the cake doesn't need to be.
If ice cream isn't on the menu, you can substitute a dollop of whipped cream. If the emphasis on bittersweet chocolate makes you nervous particularly if children are going to be eating the cake substitute semisweet.
I found the basic recipe in a Sheila Lukens cookbook and have made some changes. The total prep time, before baking, is about 30 minutes, which begs the question: Why use a box mix when you can have this cake instead?
Chocolate Pecan Cake
1 cup unsalted butter
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1/4 cup milk
6 large eggs, separated
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
1 1/2 cups pecan pieces, ground to coarse meal to yield 1 1/4 cups
pinch of salt
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1/4 cup heavy or whipping cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9 1/2-inch springform pan. Line the bottom of the pan with a round of waxed paper. Butter the paper and dust the pan lightly with flour, tapping out the excess.
Place the 1 cup butter, chocolate and milk in the top of a double boiler. Stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks and powdered sugar with an electric mixer until thick. Slowly add the melted chocolate mixture and beat until well combined. Add the flour and the ground pecans and mix to combine.
In another large bowl, beat the eggs whites with a pinch of salt until they hold soft peaks. Stir one-third of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture until completely combined. Gently fold in the remaining egg whites with a rubber spatula until just combined.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the center of the oven until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out nearly clean, about 35 to 40 minutes. Place the pan on a wire rack until completely cool. Remove cake from pan, place it on a serving plate and peel off the waxed paper.
To make the glaze, place the chocolate, cream and butter in the top of a double boiler. Stir until chocolate is completely melted and mixture is smooth. Allow to cool slightly.
Pour the glaze over the cake and use an icing spatula to smooth it across the top and down the sides of the cake.
Makes 10 to 12 servings.
When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.