Valentine’s Day cake–and my new favorite ganache

23 Feb

On Valentine’s Day, I rediscovered a heart-shaped cake pan in the back of my pantry and knew I had to put it to use. Since it was my first cake attempt, I wanted to use another fairly simple recipe, so I found this recipe for dark chocolate cake on Dark Chocolate Cake. It got some pretty excellent reviews from the site’s readers, including one person who wrote, “I am a pastry chef, and this is the only chocolate cake that I will make from now on.” Awfully high praise!

When I pictured the finished cake, I couldn’t get the image of a glossy chocolate ganache-covered heart cake out of my mind…so I dug up a recipe for red wine chocolate ganache I’d seen on What could be more sexy and romantic than dark chocolate cake with red wine ganache for Valentine’s Day?

Okay, here’s something you should know about me (if you haven’t already noticed): I’m a chocoholic. This means that I often don’t consider a dessert worth eating unless it contains a fair amount of chocolate. This also means that I’ll need you guys to urge me to try recipes that aren’t all about chocolate. I’d gladly welcome any non-chocolate recipe suggestions any time!

I didn’t really run into any problems mixing the batter, although it did take a long time to prepare the chocolate mixture, sift all the dry ingredients, and beat everything together. I tend to be a slow worker, but I also lack some of the tools that would make all this a lot easier, like a freestanding mixer.

The cake came out looking good, though I found those big cracks down the middle distracting. Is that normal for a cake? Maybe I filled the pan too high.

Because I wanted to cover this cake with poured ganache instead of frosting, I knew I had to flip it over to hide those cracks. I did, and it looked pretty great.

Because I had a lot of extra batter (the recipe fills three cake pans, which I don’t have), I made some extra cupcakes. These looked nicer than my last ones, but just like last time, one oozed in the oven. Seriously, why does that happen?

Of course, the oozy cupcake became my taste test. I liked this cake a lot, and I can see why it got good reviews: it had a delicate texture and a nice chocolate flavor. It wasn’t as moist as my last batch of cupcakes, though, so I think I’ll stick with that other recipe the next time I make chocolate cupcakes. But if you’re looking for a classy dark chocolate cake, this is a lovely one.

More on those cupcakes later! Back to the cake…

The ganache was a breeze to make. I liked the way it tasted, though it’s not for the faint of heart–that stuff is rich. The very thin layer I poured over the cake turned out to be plenty; if I’d spread it on, it might have been overwhelming. As for the pouring process, it went well except for two snags. Because the cake was so rounded on the bottom, it cracked a little when I flipped it over, which showed through the ganache. Second, it was difficult to coat the sides of the cake as thickly and neatly as I’d have liked. If I were to do it again, I’d make a little more ganache for that purpose.

Here’s a photo of the cake covered in ganache, plus an ill-advised decoration attempt. I’ve learned my lesson: ganache and edible red gel do not look good together. I wanted to make a border of gel hearts, but they barely showed up on the dark background. Should’ve known better.

As you can see, I ended up with more of a broken-heart cake than a heart cake…which seemed a little more cynical than what I was going for.

I decided to cover up my bad decoration and the crack down the middle with a design using pecans. It was very experimental, but I’m pleased with the outcome.

The result was a tasty cake with just the right amount of tasty ganache. The pecans didn’t hurt a bit, either. My mom, who loves all things rich and chocolatey, was in love. This was the first thing I’d baked entirely from scratch that I was truly proud of!

I’ll save my stories about frosting those cupcakes for my next post. As always, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting! It’s great to have supportive readers to keep an eye out for me as I stumble through this self-taught baking course. See you next time!


Baby’s first cupcakes

17 Feb

A few days ago, I went shopping for flour, baking powder, and a few other baking essentials. Then I cracked open my brand-new baking book (“Baking” by Martha Day), and tried to decide which recipe should be Project Number One.

I picked up this book at my local Half Price Books, and I’m really pleased with it. It’s huge and has a stunning variety of recipes, both sweet and savory. It’s full of clear directions and helpful color photos, plus some introductory sections on baking tools and techniques for amateurs (like me!). The only teeny-weeny problem is that it’s, well, British–meaning it uses significantly different measurements, and sometimes different terminologies, than I’m used to. Although I kinda wish I’d noticed that before leaving the bookstore, I’m far too pleased with this book for every other reason to ever return it.

Confronted by so many glossy photos of pretty pastries, I found myself dreaming up elaborate pies, cakes, and tarts–but I knew those would have to wait for another day. I had to start with the basics! So I flipped through until I found a recipe for nice, simple chocolate cupcakes. What better place to start than with a no-fuss classic?

It’s a good thing I did start there…because as it turned out, even that simple recipe proved plenty challenging for me.

This particular recipe called for baking chocolate–not cocoa powder–which I’d never worked with before. The first step was to melt the chocolate with 1 tablespoon of water in a double boiler (or, in my case, in a bowl sitting on a simmering pot). Instead of melting into a nice, smooth chocolate sauce, my mixture kind of congealed. It became a bit lumpy and no amount of stirring seemed to make it any smoother. In desperation, I added a bit more water, which didn’t help in the slightest. After a little online research on melting chocolate, I read that mixing water into melted chocolate is exactly the wrong thing to do–and it seems that’s true! I’m confused, then, as to why the recipe says to mix the chocolate with water. Any thoughts?

After this hiccup, I soldiered on with the recipe and didn’t run into too many more problems. I slid my pan into the oven, set the timer, and waited, pleased with myself for having whipped up what looked like a decent batter.

A few minutes later, I peeked into the oven and found that one of my little cakes had oozed out of its cup, and the rest were rising somewhat messily. Does anyone know of a way to prevent cupcakes from oozing like that? When the timer finally went off and I pulled them all out, I was sad to see that they were a fairly ugly batch of cupcakes…kinda concave, rough on top, and marred with little air holes. I’m pretty sure the lumpy chocolate sauce is to blame for this, but if anyone has any other ideas, I’d love to hear them! I was feeling crummy about the whole endeavor until I pulled the ugliest, ooziest cupcake from the pan and bit into it–and fell in love! As ugly as it was, that cupcake was one of the tastiest I’d ever had. The cake was light and perfectly moist, and tasted great without any frosting at all.

…It’s a lucky thing, too, because the two batches of frosting I made proved even more abysmal than the cake! Here’s what happened:

I decided to go with the sugar icing recipe from my book, rather than a buttercream. And I just loathed the way it turned out–which I blame half on myself and half on the book. The worst thing about the icing was that it tasted way too lemony, so I’m not sure why the recipe called for 2 entire tablespoons of lemon juice. Still, it’s definitely my fault that the consistency was off–because I used the wrong sugar. Yes, ladies and gents, I used regular granulated sugar instead of powdered sugar. Who knew “icing sugar” meant “powdered sugar”? Probably everyone except me.

I didn’t realize this, though, until after I’d also made a batch of chocolate buttercream frosting. This went significantly better, until I realized that I had a soupy, grainy mess instead of a nice, spreadable frosting…and I finally looked up “icing sugar” and discovered my error. Of course, the only way to save the batch was to add the powdered sugar on top of the granulated sugar, so I ended up with doubly-sugary chocolate buttercream frosting. The stuff was completely delicious, but had the wrong texture and the effect of crack cocaine. Seriously, I felt my heart racing after just licking the spoon.

The next day, my brother ate four of the crack-cupcakes in a row, had a crazy sugar high, and then promptly crashed…making him the first innocent victim of my baking escapades.

I never got around to photographing my buttercream cupcakes, but here’s a pic of the sugar-icing ones (I kept the decoration quite simple, since I was pretty focused on the icing itself. I definitely regret not taking more time to make it a less noxious shade of lavender, though):

In the end, my cupcakes were definitely tastiest when eaten plain–assuming you could get over their ugly appearance. I’ll definitely be making this cake recipe again, because it really was one of the yummiest cakes I’ve ever had…but I’ll try very hard next time to melt my chocolate right and avoid those lumps and bumps!


4 oz good-quality plain chocolate, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon water
10 oz plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
pinch of salt
10 oz caster sugar
6 oz butter or margarine, at room temperature
1/4 pint milk
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
3 eggs

1 Preheat a 350° oven. Grease or line 24 cups.
2 Put the chocolate and water in a bowl set over a pan of almost simmering water. Heat until melted and smooth, stirring. Remove from heat and leave to cool.
3 Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and sugar into a large bowl. Add the chocolate mixture, butter, milk and vanilla essence.
4 With an electric mixer on medium-low speed, beat until smoothly blended. Increase the speed to high and beat for 2 minutes. Add the eggs and beat for 2 minutes.
5 Divide the mixture evenly among the prepared tins.
6 Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre of a cake comes out clean. Cool in the tins for 10 minutes, then turn out to cool completely on a wire rack.

Sugar Icing:
2 egg whites
12 oz caster sugar
2 tbsp cold water
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
food colouring

Combine the egg whites, caster sugar, water, lemon juice and cream of tartar in the top of a double boiler or in a bowl set over simmering water. With an electric mixer, beat until thick and holding soft peaks, about 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and continue beating until the mixture is thick enough to spread. Tint the icing with food colouring.

Buttercream Frosting:
4 oz butter, preferably unsalted, at room temperature
8 oz icing sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
about 2 teaspoons milk

1 Put the butter in a deep mixing bowl and beat it with an electric mixer at medium speed until it is soft and pliable.
2 Gradually add the icing sugar and beat at medium-high speed. Continue beating until the mixture is pale and fluffy.
3 Add the vanilla essence and 1 tablespoon milk. Beat until smooth and of a spreading consistency. If it is too thick, beat in more milk. If too thin, beat in more sugar.

LeighBakes: An Introduction

8 Feb

Hi there! My name is Leigh, and I’m a cake decorator who can’t bake.

While I can fill, frost, and festoon a cake or cupcake to perfection, I’ve always relied on other people to make those cakes and cupcakes for me first. I’ve decided that this needs to change–who wants to be a one-trick pony?

The thing is, I’ve almost never baked anything from scratch before. I’ve always been a big fan of cake mixes and pre-made pie crusts. But as everyone knows, no cake made from a mix can compare to one made lovingly by hand, from the first step to the last. From now on, I’d like to be able to say that I put as much thought, time, and skill into making desserts as I put into decorating them.

So, that’s my mission. Check back often to see how I’m doing! I’m bound to make a few (dozen) mistakes along the way, and I’m always open to advice, critiques, and people to join me in laughing at myself. Keep me company as I progress from a clueless amateur to–fingers crossed–a baker extraordinaire!

~ Leigh

For more about me, please see the About page.

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