In my experience, the essentials of baking are eggs, sugar, butter, and flour. Occasionally some baking soda or baking powder, sometimes cocoa or chocolate, sometimes cream, frosting, berries, nuts, what-have-you. But flour – that’s a definite. Usually.
I was recently faced with the task of making a gluten-free birthday cake. Now, I could have gone the simple route – a dense, delicious, flourless chocolate cake with some whipped cream and a raspberry syrup – or the complex route – potato flour, rice flour, arrowroot starch, or a pre-prepared mix of these in some box labeled “all-purpose ‘flour'” – but a basic flourless chocolate cake wasn’t enough of a challenge and the latter choice too much of one.
Faced with having discounted both of my choices, I did what any reasonable person of my generation would do. I turned to Google. In turn, Google handed me right over to Smitten Kitchen. Smitten Kitchen gave me this and reminded me that whipping egg whites and egg yolks works wonderfully as leavening: http://smittenkitchen.com/2007/03/the-best-chocolate-cake-expletive-free/. It’s the ingredients of a basic flourless chocolate cake – chocolate, sugar, eggs – made light and fluffy.
I baked the cake layers a night prior, allowing ample time for the cake to set and sink before frosting. The recipe makes four layers, but I couldn’t cope with the idea of baking something that Ridgelings and I wouldn’t be able to try that night, so the final cake ended up with three layers.
This fourth layer was served in the extended kitchen on Monday night alongside my first failed batch of whipped cream. It didn’t fail due to taste or texture; rather, it failed due to presence of cornstarch. See, the gluten-free man in my life is also sensitive to corn and I remembered immediately after pouring tediously sifted powdered sugar into the mixing bowl with the cream that powdered sugar contains cornstarch. Why does powdered sugar contain cornstarch? Take a look into our powdered sugar bin and you’ll see that it can’t possibly be functioning as an anti-caking agent.
Anyway, I simply used granulated sugar in my second batch of whipped cream and it whipped up just fine. The recipe calls for Grand Marnier as a flavoring in the whipped cream, but there’s that whole having to go to the store issue again. I substituted some cocoa powder and a splash of vanilla (very specific measurements, I know, but baking by taste is fun!).
The following day, I frosted the three remaining layers with my cocoa whipped cream, resulting in what I decided was too plain a cake. As a solution, I made some whipped ganache (heated cream poured over an educated guess at the right amount of chocolate, whip until chips are dissolved and ganache is thick) and poured it into a ziplock bag. No piping tip needed! I did eventually decide, with the help of Erica and her car, to venture out for raspberries. Some raspberries filled with ganache later, and I finished with this, the sign on it a necessary part of co-op living.
Baking for foodies (as the birthday-ee is) is a somewhat nerve-wracking process, but all said and done, it was a successful venture into gluten-free baking. The recipient, having assumed it was a basic flourless chocolate cake prior to cutting, was impressed by the texture and delightfully surprised by the ganache filling in the raspberries.
I’ll reproduce the recipe here, with credits and my thanks to smittenkitchen.com
To make four cake layers:
12 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), chopped
6 tablespoons water
12 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups heavy cream
6 tablespoons confectioners sugar, sifted
4 tablespoons Grand Marnier*
Make cake layers: Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease four 9-inch circular cake pans and line bottoms of circles with a piece of parchment paper.
Melt chocolate with water in a small heavy saucepan over very low heat, stirring. Cool to lukewarm.
Beat yolks, 2/3 cup sugar, and salt in a large bowl with an electric mixer until thick and pale, about 5 minutes in a standing mixer or about 8 minutes with a hand-held mixer. Fold in melted chocolate until blended. Beat whites with cleaned beaters until they just hold soft peaks (you will need an enormous bowl for 12 egg whites).
Gradually add remaining 2/3 cup sugar and beat until whites just hold stiff peaks. Fold one third of whites into melted-chocolate mixture to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly.
Spread batter evenly over four baking pans and bake until puffed and top is dry to the touch, 15 to 18 minutes, rotating cakes between racks to ensure they bake evenly. Transfer pans to cooling racks and if necessary, loosen edges with a knife.
Sift cocoa powder over top of cake layers and place a piece of waxed paper over the top of the pans. Place a baking sheet over paper and invert cake onto it, gently peeling off wax paper lining. Place layers in the freezer for about an hour, until they are firm enough to be carefully lifted without breaking.
Make filling: Beat cream with powdered sugar and Grand Marnier with cleaned beaters until it just holds stiff peaks.
Fill and stck cake: Bring first cake layer out of the freezer and arrange on platter, cocoa side down. Spread one-quarter of filling evenly over the cake. Bring the next cake layer out of the freezer, placing it gently over the filling, again cocoa side down. Repeat this process until all layers and whipped cream are used.
Keep cake in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve it. Two hours should be more than enough to assure that the layers are no longer frozen.
Dark chocolate grated into curls with a vegetable peeler makes for an excellent garnish.
* You can substitute the following for Grand Marnier: 4 tablespoons Cognac and 1 teaspoon vanilla; 4 tablespoons cocoa and 1 teaspoon vanilla; or 4 teaspoons instant-espresso powder or instant-coffee granules dissolved in 4 teaspoons water plus 1 teaspoon vanilla.