Thursday, February 19, 2015

Midweek Roundup: Did Pavarotti Hit the Right Notes?

Photograph by Jill
Fabulous Sweet Fillings

There are 25 Alpha Bakers, and I would be amazed if these smart, opinionated people would all agree on anything, but I don't remember such disagreement about a baking project in a long time.  I'm not talking disagreement like, "Chocolate cake isn't my favorite" as opposed to "I love anything chocolate."  That's a matter of taste, and we'll get to that when we get to the ganache.  This difference is like we're talking about two different cakes.

Here's Raymond's take on the Chocolate Pavarotti:  "This is one of Rose's TETG (Too Easy-Too Good recipes....  I have a hard time describing the texture of this cake.  It is light and airy but at the same time almost dense and moist.  The addition of white chocolate produces a cake with a full, rich chocolate flavor without being too overwhelming."

And here is Patricia's reaction to the same cake:  "The cake was very crumbly and it didn't taste very chocolaty, despite containing a lot of cocoa and melted chocolate."

Now, Raymond and Patricia are two excellent bakers, so it's not a question of one being "wrong." And Patricia was not the only one in the "crumbly" camp.  Nancy described the cake's "dry and crumbly texture," as did Glori.

But Jen said it was "light, moist, and tender," and Orin described it as "moist, melt in your mouth."

What was going on?  The chatter started on Facebook.  Could it be the difference in cocoas?  Could the brand of white chocolate make a difference?  Vicki unearthed an article by chemist-cook Shirley Corriher that explains the chemical ins and outs of cooking with cocoa:  among other things, it recommends baking with Dutch-style rather than natural cocoa, and reminds you that a cake made with cocoa can be dry if you don't compensate by adding extra liquid or subtracting flour.  Could the answer to the mystery be as simple as that?  After all, Lois used natural cocoa and found the cake "dry and unappealing" and Mendy, who loved the cake so much that he doubled the recipe, noted that he added a little extra water.

But wait a minute--if that's all there is to the mystery, I'm going to have to stop here without even talking about the ganache or the many imaginative and beautiful ways this cake turned out.  So I'm going to talk about another variable too:  white chocolate.  If you're at all like me, you got your first taste of "white chocolate" with something that wasn't chocolate at all--an intensely sweet concoction (maybe used in almond bark), made of vegetable oil and various unnatural flavors and colors.  At first, I loved it because it was sweet and that was all I required.  Then I got a little more persnickety and scoffed at white chocolate.  Then along came Rose with her white chocolate frosting and her requirement that it contain cocoa butter, and suddenly I'm a white chocolate fan again.

But would the amount of cocoa butter make a difference?  Nancy's blog suggested this possibility when she said that the white chocolate she had on hand was old and didn't melt properly, and she described her cake's texture as "crumbly."

I cleverly sleuthed the Alpha Bakers' blogs to see what their mise-en-place photos might tell me.

Glori:  "Crumbly" but moist.  Ghiradelli white chocolate.
Vicki:  "Delizioso!"  Lindt White Chocolate Coconut.
Jenn:  "Texture is lovely--soft and moist."  Green and Black's white chocolate.

But I soon tired of this detective work after I noticed that too many people (including me) were not taking pictures of our white chocolate labels.  So after my extensive, exhaustive research, here is what I recommend:  Use the chocolates and cocoas recommended in The Baking Bible on pages 519 and 522, or use something that you know you like.  If you think that chocolate cakes made with cocoa tend toward dryness, add a little more water (this is my advice, not Rose's, so take it at your own risk).

Now let's talk about the most fun thing about this cake--the ganache made with cayenne pepper.  If you read my blog, you know that my tasters said "too hot, too hot, I need more milkie" and "Mom, this frosting tastes weird."  But my tasters apparently had abnormally tender palates.

Faithy thought the cayenne tasted nice in the ganache, but barely noticed it when she tasted it with the cake.  Some of her tasters couldn't detect it at all; others called it an "annoying aftertaste."  Faithy believes her Southeast Asian tastebuds, accustomed to spicy foods, have been "desensitized." Kim "could have handled more spice," but she used the minimum amount in deference to the children who would be eating the cake.  (Those children were obviously more sophisticated than my grandson; they all gave Kim a thumbs-up on the cake and the frosting).  Kristina and her husband both thought the ganache could have used more heat--like Faithy, they thought that once the ganache was actually on the cake, the cake itself tamed the spiciness.  Michele thought the cayenne made the ganache "wicked great"!  Katya said the ganache was "indeed, very good ganache," but she found this "unsurprising" since it "the name indicates that it is clearly from Massachusetts, and all things from Massachusetts are excellent."  You will not be surprised to learn where Katya hails from.

And in the you-can't-please-everyone department, please note Catherine's experience.  She realized she was out of cayenne, and decided not to run out and buy some since she was taking it to work. One of her co-workers told her she thought the frosting would be really good with a bit of chili.

One last thing about this cake--since there were no photos of it in the book, people let their imaginations run wild when they decorated it, leading to some especially beautiful and imaginative versions (and to Jim's most difficult photo choice to date):  Faithy's wonder of sprinkly swirls; Tony's rococo romance; Orin's Valentine's Day heart; Jill's hearts AND sprinkles extravaganza; Alice's pairing with caramel whipped cream; Monica's exquisite and graceful chocolate swirls; Michele's unforgettable chocolate rose.  I was glad I didn't have to make the photo decision this time.

By now, we should be looking at the lemon posset shortcakes recipe.  Another Q&E--a belated Valentine's Day present from Rose and Woody.  Some people won't be able to find Wondra flour; some people won't be able to find Meyer lemons.  Rose has suggested alternatives in both cases.  Hope you love this simple, lemony dessert.

Happy birthday, Vicki!
Happy anniversary, Monica!


  1. Marie, this is a roundup of roundups and what a challenging one. You never cease to amaze me with your perspective and eloquence. And I want to congratulate everyone for the magnificent renditions that took my breath away. You all are quite something and I feel so very fortunate to have you on my team. I know Woody would agree but he is right now with Marie and without his own computer so I'll just have to speak for him.
    love, Rose

  2. ב''ה

    Thanks Marie, for this great analysis and write up. With our heads steeped in the nuances of baking we are sure to come out better bakers on the other side.

  3. Thanks, Marie, you are the best! Loved this terrific post!

  4. Great round-up, Marie. Makes me even more curious to make this cake and its "hot" frosting :) I'm afraid it'll have to wait for the next Catch Up week.

  5. We appreciate your research Marie, brief though it might be. I think the answer to most questions is just do it the way the recipe (Rose) says.

  6. Great round up, especially since there were such different results amongst us. I think this was a good reminder to use the best ingredients we can find and afford :-)

  7. Thank you Marie. That was fun to read!

  8. Thank you Marie.. Truly your round ups are the best thing in the bakealong... And thanks for the anniversary shout out... 2 years!!! They time flies.

  9. Thank you Marie! I feel so honored to have my picture at the top. I'm late with my blog post and discombobulated with my kitchen torn apart. Perhaps this is the time when a picture really needs to be worth a thousand words. Nonetheless, this was a dessert that my entire family enjoyed. You amaze me with your round ups!

  10. Congrat's Jill! Such a gorgeous photo of your gorgeous cake! I'm not quite finished sleuthing chocolate, Marie. We kind of hit the tip of the iceberg with the Pavarotti.

  11. In did a great sum-up....and a cake :-) since i didn't mention on my post the brands of my ingredients here is the list:

    for the cake batter i used Green & Blacks organic white chocolate with a 30% Cacao content also, The Guittard "Cocoa Rough" Cocoa powder unsweetened rare red dutch process.

    For the amazingly delicious ganache i used, Guittard %100 unsweetened chocolate gourmet baking bars, also Guittard %63 cacao extra dark chocolate baking chips.I put a total of 1 tsp of Cayenne pepper.