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February 22-28, 2006

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Cake Making

Recipe For Retribution

I spent 20 hours making chocolate cakes, and all I got was this dumb article

By Sara Bir


Most any baker and lover of homemade cookies is familiar with the urban legend about a fancy department store—usually Neiman Marcus—charging an unsuspecting woman anywhere from $250 to $2,500 because she requested the recipe for their delicious oat-laced chocolate chip cookies. The woman then swore to avenge the deceptive company by sharing the costly recipe with as many people as possible for free.

The mythical Neiman Marcus lady's pledge sprang to mind recently when I likewise resolved to spread a recipe across the face of this great nation, all in the name of justice. In other words, I spent over 20 hours developing the ultimate chocolate sheet cake for a highly respected national cooking magazine, and all I have to show for it is this stupid article.

Months ago, I sent résumés to a handful of cooking magazines in far-flung corners of the country. There's not exactly a labor shortage in editorial positions at major cooking magazines, and while I knew not to expect much, I figured that it never hurts to try. So when an editor at one of the East Coast mags actually called, I was alternately thrilled and skeptical. We had a short but pleasant conversation about the several positions they were hiring for and the possibility of me flying out for an interview.

But before we got as far as plane reservations, the editor asked if I'd be willing to complete an assignment to assess my editorial and culinary chops: develop a simple chocolate sheet cake recipe and write an accompanying 1,000-word article in the style of the magazine. I'd have three weeks to turn in the story. Sounded like fun to me—besides, how hard could it be to develop a simple chocolate sheet cake? I'd been baking chocolate cakes for decades; a recipe called Black Magic cake held a particularly dear place in my heart for its moist, dark crumb, bold flavor and ease of preparation. That would be my starting point.

After whipping up a Black Magic cake and tasting it with a newfound scrutiny, however, I realized that it needed more than refinement. I'd practically disemboweled my cookbook shelf and recipe file by the time I returned to the kitchen, where I baked a dozen cakes over several weeks. That may not sound like much, but altering a recipe one-half teaspoon at a time can be a very tedious thing. It didn't take long for plastic-wrapped cake specimens to take over the kitchen table, as well as my diet.

Such is the life of an assistant in a test kitchen, a life I'd already professionally led about eight years ago at the headquarters of a lifestyle magazine. Baking a dozen cakes at home is nothing compared to what established test kitchens will do to nail the perfect roast turkey or the ultimate pan of brownies. Recipes fail magnificently and are rebuilt from the inside out, often to fail again with even more magnificence. Cooks who are sloppy, careless and forgetful—which even the most stalwart of recipe testers can be at times—will eventually find that a test kitchen is indistinguishable from a torture chamber.

But then those moments pass, and enlightenment via edible alchemy triumphs. The cake flour assimilates effortlessly into the golden genoise batter, the matzo balls bob in chicken broth with an ethereal lightness and the skin of the duck sheds its plentiful fat to become irresistibly crisp. The recipe works and it works and it works again, and the tester finds herself smugly thinking, "If readers at home screw this up, they are dimwits who can't follow directions, because this recipe is perfect!"

A recipe tester must every day enter the kitchen and assume a cloak of ignorance; she must scrutinize a procedure and anticipate where cooks at home might make mistakes. She must assume nothing and question everything.

I tried to do all of this in my own apartment's ill-appointed kitchen. While wiping away the fine dusting of cocoa powder that covered every square millimeter of countertop, I dreamed of slabs of country-style paté or carrot sticks dipped in buttermilk dressing—anything that wasn't sweet or cakey. I ate chocolate sheet cake first thing every morning and right before going to bed every night. I wondered if I was cut out for this kind of life.

By cake number 10, I sensed that as long as I was working alone in my own kitchen with zero budget, the ultimate simple chocolate sheet cake would elude me forever. The deadline was the next morning. I baked one last cake and took the batter-smeared legal pad I'd been making notes on to the computer to finish the article, hoping the magazine's editors would be able to recognize at least a glimmer of competence and respect for the craft of cooking.

After e-mailing my recipe to the magazine's staff and allowing my body to exist cake-free for several days, I felt more confident. The magazine said I'd be contacted within two weeks. After three weeks with no word, I grew anxious and sent a brief e-mail to feel things out. In her reply a day later, one of the editors told me that they were now filling only one position, and though they saw "promise" in my recipe and article, they were fairly far along in the process of interviewing several local people. They'd let me know if anything changed.

I have not heard from them since. I felt the sting that thousands of hopeful job applicants feel after a wild goose chase, but I decided not to waste my time being angry or feeling used. The magazine needs to look after its own best interests, and so do I. And so, like the Neiman Marcus cookie lady, I seek retribution by passionately distributing the one thing I have to show for the trouble I went through: the recipe.

With the clarity afforded by perspective, I can now say that my simple chocolate sheet cake is not just "promising," but really fucking good; I am going to wring it for all it's worth. This cake is mine now, but it won't do me any good unless I share the recipe with as many people as humanly possible.

Sara Bir's Retribution Chocolate Cake

This is a moist cake with a chocolate depth that's intense but not overbearing. Though it tastes wonderful served straight from the pan with naught but a dusting of powdered sugar, it makes an ideal base for icing and will yield the ultimate birthday cake. You can bake it in two round 8-inch pans or in cupcake tins, but make sure to adjust the baking time appropriately.

The leavening in this recipe will not work with natural cocoa powder; be sure to use Dutch-processed cocoa. Cold buttermilk and eggs bring down the temperature of the cocoa-butter mixture; they can come straight from the refrigerator and should not be at room temperature.

1 3/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting pan
1 1/2 tsp. instant espresso powder (I use Medaglia d'Oro)
3/4 c. plus 2 tbsp. (3 ounces) Dutch-processed cocoa (I like Droste or Valrhona)
1 c. water
12 tbsp. unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 c. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. buttermilk
2 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease bottom and sides of 13-by 9-inch baking pan; dust with flour, tapping out excess.

Stir together espresso powder and cocoa in medium bowl; set aside. Place water and butter in small saucepan and cook, uncovered, over medium-high heat until butter is melted and mixture just comes to a simmer. Pour over cocoa and espresso powder, and whisk until no lumps are visible. Set aside.

Whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt in medium bowl. Set aside. Whisk buttermilk, eggs and vanilla into cocoa mixture until well blended; pour over dry ingredients all at once and stir together with rubber spatula until all of the flour mixture is moistened and no lumps remain. Pour into prepared pan.

Bake until skewer inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking. Set pan on wire rack; cool cake at least 1 hour before serving. (Cake can be stored in pan at room temperature, tightly covered, for up to four days.)


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