My mother's chocolate cake wasn't a fancy cake - square, unadorned, better suited for a school night than a birthday.
Cocoa cakes conjure up childhood taste memories
It wasn't a fancy cake - square, unadorned, better suited for a school night than a birthday. Still, it was irresistible and my siblings and I jockeyed for every piece of my mother's chocolate cake. My father dubbed me "Flash" - that's how fast my hand went from pan to plate. I was surprised years later to discover that this moist, dark cake was made with cocoa, not chocolate. In fact, that was the secret of its success. Cocoa powder is produced by removing 75 to 85 per cent of the cocoa butter, then pulverising the remaining mass, explains Alice Medrich in Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate. "With all of the flavor and none of the fat, cocoa is essentially a concentrated form of cocoa bean."
Cocoa's two varieties boast supporters and detractors. Natural cocoa is strong, complex, fruity, requiring sugar to tame its wild side. Dutch-process cocoa - treated with chemical alkalis to soften the acidity - is a rich, red brown, "with fans extolling its nutty flavor and coffee notes", writes Medrich. However, natural-cocoa proponents claim Dutch-process tastes dull. Dusting truffles, for example, can be done with either, depending on taste. But food scientists advise that if a cake recipe calls specifically for natural or Dutch-process, heed the directions. The leavening in baking powder and baking soda reacts with the cocoa's acidity. Or doesn't, in the case of alkalised cocoa.
Ruth Gauld, owner of The Cupcake Society (www.thecupcakesociety.com), a caterer in Abu Dhabi, prefers baking with natural cocoa. "For a mousse you'd want the silkiness of melted chocolate, but I find cocoa easier to work with for cakes. Plus it's always there in your cupboard." As for brands, Gauld loves the taste of Cadbury's cocoa, although she also recommends Green & Black's organic and Fair Trade cocoa.
The frosted red velvet cupcake she serves me in her kitchen is moist and rich, light and dense all at once, and takes me back to the cocoa cake of my childhood. Cake is a favourite memory for Gauld, too. "My grandmother made what we call 'fairy cakes'. Like most Scottish women of her generation, she did all the baking for the family." Her grandmother - 93 next month - still bakes and remains Gauld's inspiration as she builds her business. Asked countless times by friends at coffee mornings, "Where did you buy these?" she realised there was a market for "good, quality home-baked cupcakes". The Cupcake Society's are beyond good, leaving other cupcake brands, frankly, in the (cocoa) dust.
These have variously been credited to Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, circa 1920, as well as to Eaton's, the Canadian department store chain. Whatever their origin, their hue is what makes them distinctive. In Gauld's tweaking of the recipe she has included wheat flour and canola oil for a good-to-the-heart treat. Makes two dozen.
Cupcake ingredients 120g cake flour* 160g wholewheat flour 100g natural cocoa powder, sifted 1 ¼ tsp baking soda 1 ¼ tsp salt 375ml canola oil 450g caster sugar 300ml full-cream laban 3 eggs 1-3 tbsp red food colouring, depending on how red you want them 1 ¼ tsp white vinegar 2 tsp vanilla 2 tbsp water * Not easily found in the UAE: For the equivalent, whisk together 180g self-raising flour with 25g corn flour, then measure out 120g.
Method Preheat the oven to 160°C. Line two 12-cup muffin pans with paper liners and set aside. Sift together the cake flour, wholewheat flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside. In an extra-large bowl blend the oil, sugar and laban with a mixer until combined. Next add the eggs, food colouring, vinegar, vanilla and water. Mix well. Add the dry ingredients a little at a time, mixing on low and scraping down the sides occasionally. (Do not over-mix.) Using a small soup ladle or ice cream scoop, fill the paper liners two-thirds full of batter. Bake for 23-28 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Do not over-bake or they will become dry. Cool in the pan for five minutes, then remove the cupcakes to a cooling rack. Cool completely before frosting.
Frosts 24 cupcakes Ingredients 200g full-fat cream cheese 100g unsalted butter, room temperature 1 tbsp vanilla powder 600g icing sugar, sifted Method Cream together the cream cheese, butter and vanilla powder until creamy. Add sifted sugar in small portions until well combined, about two minutes. Using either a piping bag or a small spatula, frost the cupcakes. (Because of the cream cheese, the cupcakes will need to be refrigerated.)