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Off the Shelf: Easy Chocolate Cake

Errors and oversights in technique are becoming the bane of my existence with Off the Shelf . The ideas in this book are excellent, and if you're careful to fill in the blanks when it comes to the instructions, no problem. But oftentimes, Donna Hay leaves the fine details out of her recipes, and that is a problem.

If you're not an avid baker, I'd imagine that a recipe titled "Easy Chocolate Cake" might appeal to you. It's easy -- says so right there in the title! But if you don't have a lot of experience with baking or working with chocolate, Hay's instructions could leave you high and dry. The cake itself is easy to put together and there are no problems with the instructions. The glaze, however, is a disaster waiting to happen.

Hay tells the cook to place the cream and chopped chocolate together in a saucepan and "stir until smooth." The problem with those instructions? In all likelihood, the cream is coming straight out of the refrigerator. If you put cold cream and melting chocolate together, you have a very high probability of the chocolate seizing: turning into a grainy, lumpy mess. A small change to the instructions would make this a remote possibility instead of an almost-guaranteed problem. Simply have the cream hot before stirring the chocolate into it. Trying to stir melting chocolate and cool liquids together is the problem. Hot cream solves this problem.

I guess that Donna Hay is assuming that most home cooks know this already, but I don't think that's a fair assumption to make. The recipe author should always make the instructions as fool-proof as possible, and in this case Hay fails. I've rewritten the instructions to avoid the seizing problem.

The cake is very intensely chocolate-flavored, and the glaze is delicious. Use the best-quality chocolate for the best results. Valrhona and Scharffen Berger both make excellent dark chocolate varieties.

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 45 to 55 minutes
Yield: 8 to 10 servings

8 oz. butter, softened
1 1/3 cups brown sugar
3 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/3 cup cocoa powder, plus extra for the pan
1 cup (8 oz.) sour cream
8 oz. dark chocolate, chopped

For the glaze: 5 oz. dark chocolate, chopped
1/3 cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9-inch cake pan with softened butter or vegetable shortening, and coat it with about 1 Tbsp of cocoa powder, tapping the pan over the sink to remove the excess.

Place the 8 oz. chopped chocolate into a microwaveable container. Heat in the microwave at 50% power for 1 minute. Allow to stand for 2 to 3 minutes, then stir. If necessary, heat for another 15 to 30 seconds. Do not overheat, as the chocolate can scorch.

Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat with a handheld electric mixer, or with the paddle attachment of the stand mixer, until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs and beat well.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and 1/3 cup cocoa powder over the ingredients in the bowl. Add the sour cream and 8 oz. melted chocolate and mix until just combined, about 2 minutes. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 45 to 55 minutes. Cool the cake in the pan for about an hour, then invert onto a rack and continue to cool to room temperature before glazing.

For the chocolate glaze: Put the cream in a saucepan over medium-low heat and bring just to a boil. Remove from heat. Add the 5 oz. chopped chocolate and stir until melted and smooth. Allow the glaze to stand off the heat for 5 minutes, then spread it over the top of the cake.



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