I have a confession to make. I rarely cook the recipes out of food magazines, even though I’ve been collecting and reading them (devouring is probably a good word here too) since I was about sixteen. I have always just like looking at the pretty pictures and getting inspiration to make my own things. This is true even more so now, I tend to buy mainstream magazines less and less and turn to historical cookbooks for real recipes. What do I mean by a ‘real’ recipe? Well, if I want a carbonara recipe, for example, I would look at Roman Ada Boni‘s The Talisman (1927), rather than the latest food magazine’s “carbonara with a twist” recipe. Why do we need a twist in it? The original is good! And once I know the original, I can twist it myself. I suppose this is what is behind all Italian cooking and explains why traditional regional dishes are so upheld and mixing or fusing things together is almost looked down upon.
I also find that I’m getting bored of most of the food magazines out there. They look the same. They have the same recipes. They’re full of advertisements. Increasingly, I put those down and instead go out of my way to find (because around here you have to look for these!) and shell out the money for more interesting, more inspiring printed material. Magazines like Kinfolk, Gather Journal, new Australian magazine Fete and the cheeky quarterly Lucky Peach.
It was in Issue 4 of Lucky Peach that I happened to pick up while waiting a little too long in a cafe that I found the inspiration to follow a recipe: Chocolate olive oil cake with apricot-grappa marmellata and ricotta buttercream. Aside from the entertaining and no-nonsense writing, the chef-driven recipes are interesting, often experimental (sometimes a little out there) and like Brooks Headley, the pastry chef author of this recipe claims, “foolproof”.
The whole reason I even contemplated making this recipe in the first place is because first, despite being from the “American Food issue”, it struck me as quite an Italianate recipe (the olive oil, the grappa, the ricotta), and secondly it was an idea for a wedding cake, not a traditional wedding cake, mind you, but an idea for one. My little brother is getting married later in the year and I offered – having never done such a thing before – to make his wedding cake. So I figured this was a good excuse to try a wedding cake and get the repertoire going before actually going ahead with it. Oh, ok, it was also just an excuse to make this cake and eat it.
So it’s not exactly an Italian recipe. At all. And that’s probably a good thing when it comes to wedding cakes. Most Tuscan weddings will proudly display either one of two types of “cakes”: a gigantic (and this could mean the size of a table top) fresh fruit tart or mille foglie, a layered puff pastry and chantilly dessert. It does get a bit tiring, not to mention unoriginal. When I got married in Florence, the most difficult thing to figure out (more so than the paperwork, which is saying something!) was the wedding cake. I was being difficult and demanding something different. Despite visiting many accomplished pastry shops all over Tuscany, finding someone, anyone, who was willing to venture out of the bubble and make something other than the two aforementioned traditional wedding desserts was near impossible. It was an unprecedented occasion where the sheer stubborn clinging on to traditional ways was truly baffling.
Anyway, back to our “American” cake. It has such a perfect moist crumb and consistency that it almost tastes like a cake made from a packet – in a good way, if that could ever be. It struck me as the perfect birthday party cake. Perhaps not the most elegant but a surefire crowd pleaser. Of all the chocolate cakes I’ve tasted and baked and tried (and yes there have been many), nothing compares to Elizabeth David’s chocolate cake. This is, for me, the ultimate chocolate cake. It’s sophisticated, with a perfectly dense, fudgy inside and a crisp outside. It’s a cake that you want to eat with a very tiny spoon so that it lasts longer. The Lucky Peach cake is quite a different cake but one that is absolutely worth trying, and yes – foolproof. It’s fluffy yet dense and moist. It’s also quite crumbly which makes cutting it into layers very fiddly, so if you do intend to make this into more layers, simply divide the batter into baking tins for each layer that you need.
The apricot ‘marmellata’ is genius. I love this part of the recipe. You spend a couple of days soaking dried apricots in grappa (but why not try rum or even better, vin santo? The Tuscan dessert wine complements the apricot flavour and has that wonderfully sticky sweetness), then you simply blend. I also tried it without the alcohol and simply stewed the apricots to soften them adding a bit of rosemary for a subtle herbiness, then pushed the cooked apricots through a sieve for a beautifully silky ‘jam’ (I was on holiday and didn’t have a blender but you could probably do this faster by blending). I also found that the day after assembling the cake, when the jam has had time to soak into the cake, it was even tastier.
The ricotta buttercream is delicious and is a bit like having a cheesecake coating. The only problem with ricotta as a frosting is its slightly grainy texture. I also pushed the ricotta through a sieve to start with a smoother, fluffier ricotta (a secret to many Italian desserts that involve ricotta), but the grain, although finer, still remains. The other thing you want to be careful of is having the butter and ricotta at the same temperature when you cream them together for a smoother result.
Chocolate cake layered with apricot & rosemary marmellata and ricotta buttercream
Adapted from Brooks Headley’s “foolproof” recipe from the American Food issue of Lucky Peach magazine, the original recipe made 3 round 9-inch cakes for a three-tiered “wedding cake”. I had only two square tins so with the same quantity, ended up with two thicker layers. If you can’t get buttermilk, substitute with half natural yoghurt, half whole milk. Also, do splurge on a good olive oil. You can taste a not so great one.
For the cake:
- 500 ml water
- 200 gr cocoa powder (bitter not sweetened)
- 500 gr flour
- 500 gr sugar
- 2 tbs baking powder
- 3 tbs salt
- 500 ml buttermilk
- 500 ml extra virgin olive oil
- 3 eggs
Combine water and cocoa powder in a pot, bring to gentle simmer and stir until smooth. Set aside and allow to cool.
Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt. Add the wet ingredients, whisking gently to incorporate – don’t over mix. Stir in the cocoa and divide into greased cake pans. Bake at 325 F or 160 C for 30 minutes. Cool in their tins and refrigerate before frosting. I also find that handling the cake for frosting/cutting into layers is much easier after a day or two in the fridge.
For the apricot marmellata ~ apricot, rosemary and vin santo jam
The original called for 1 litre of sugar syrup (made by heating 1 litre of water and 100 gr of sugar until dissolved). When cool, 180 ml of grappa was added and 500 gr of dried apricots soaked in this for 2 days before simply being blended (using the syrup as needed to make it runnier) but left quite chunky. It results in a “jam” that is a brighter, more opaque colour, chunky and tastes distinctly of dried apricots.
The way I made it: Soak apricots in vin santo overnight; next day, put them in a saucepan with the vin santo and add water to cover, simmer with two sprigs of rosemary for about 15-20 minutes or until the apricots are soft and begin to fall apart. Drain (saving the juices to add f necessary) and push the apricots through a sieve to get a very smooth, silky jam. Add sugar to taste and return to the pan until sugar is dissolved – add any extra juice if it’s too thick. This results in a deeper, richer apricot flavour, more like an actual apricot jam, and is smoother and runnier than the original version.
For the ricotta frosting:
Note, the original called for double this amount but I found this was enough for my two-tiered cake.
- 750 gr ricotta
- 250 gr butter
- 130 gr icing sugar
Cream everything together until perfectly smooth. I found a hand mixer does a great job at this.
To assemble the cake:
Carefully level off the chilled cakes with a good serrated knife to even out the surfaces – flip them over so you end up with the flat bottom on top. Spread a layer of apricot jam followed by a layer of ricotta frosting on the top of the bottom layer. Carefully position the top layer on this then cover the whole thing in ricotta frosting (see notes below). Refrigerate to set.
A couple of hints worth noting:
- If your trimming skills weren’t great or you’re worried about the cake falling over, you can use bamboo skewers, plastic straws or cake dowels carefully cut to the right height to hold together the cake layers. Do this before frosting and just remember them when you’re cutting your cake!
- Chocolate crumbs floating through white frosting are not so inconspicuous, so to keep them at bay when frosting, start with a thin layer of the freshly whipped frosting that will help cover and hold them in place. This is called crumb coating. Chill the cake for about 15 minutes then follow with a thick (1cm) layer of frosting starting from the sides and finishing on top.