Tag Archives: baking

Chocolate-Almond Upside-Down Cake

I was born to be a baker—and by that I don’t mean just a bread baker—something that I’ve been accused of pursuing and talking about obsessively in the way that an insurance salesman talks about, well, insurance. I have patience and curiosity, the humility of a novice, and a cautious and attentive hand that will watch over sugar and butter and cream the way a mother will cradle her newborn infant. What I do not have is a baker’s sweet tooth. A few nibbles of cake, a fingertip of frosting, and two or three, okay, I will admit to four or five spoonfuls of ice cream, and my primordial hunger is satisfied. So, I usually bake bread while my wife is the enchantress of all things sweet. She, however, will not bake her own birthday cake. Nor will she buy her own presents. Or offer hints, other than to say, “I am the easiest person to buy presents for. Just don’t get me another pair of heavy earrings.”

This year I dragged my daughter along with me to shop for my wife’s presents. I didn’t ask my son because when it comes to birthday celebrations, he has two questions: What time should I be home and where are we going for dinner? Most of my daughter’s one-sentence conversations are versions of “can you take me shopping?” so I assumed that she would be my savior. Instead, she was my fitness instructor. Up one aisle and down another. I lifted clothing off racks. She raised her eyebrows. A desperate man does what he has to do. I started filling up my shopping cart. My daughter looked at me. “What did you expect from me?” she asked while putting a pair of leggings that she wanted me to buy for her in the cart. “Remember, I was the one who bought you a broom for your birthday.” When she suggested sexy underwear, I knew it was time to leave.

While we were walking to the car, my daughter sensed my desperation and offered to bake my wife’s birthday cake. “Does this mean that you won’t need my help?” I asked. “Yes, dad, I’ve got it covered. Now that I had a few extra minutes, I could walk up the avenue to our local jewelry store. I found a pair of reversible earrings. She had to like one side. Didn’t she? I asked the saleswoman to try them on. How heavy could they be if she was able to talk with me while wearing them?

When I returned home, my daughter was staring at a TV show on her computer, playing a game on her iPod touch, and texting on her phone. I didn’t smell chocolate and sugar fusing together in our oven. “Dad, I didn’t say I would bake mom a cake. I said I would make the frosting.” Oh, is that what you said?

A few years ago, my wife received the book chocolate & vanilla as a present. If Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder collaborated on a cookbook, this is what it would look like. Written by Gale Gand, James Beard Award-winning pastry chef, it’s a flip/cookbook. One half chocolate recipes, the other half vanilla; you can flip the book over and start from either direction. I zeroed in on a recipe for chocolate-almond upside-down down cake that my wife had made before so I knew it would taste good and that she would like it. I had all the ingredients. I wouldn’t have to melt chocolate because Gand uses cocoa powder, which is easy to measure and mix—and it transports an intense chocolate flavor.

Cakes can be temperamental. Or maybe it’s my oven. Baking time for this cake is 25 to 35 minutes. I turned the timer off after 35 minutes and kept checking it until it was finally done. It was like peeking into the bedroom to see if my wife had finished dressing and was ready to finally come out.

My daughter came into the kitchen and said, “I’m ready to make the frosting.” “It doesn’t need any. Take a look. It’s topped with almonds.” Dad, are you serious? The only reason people eat cake is because of the frosting.”

Have you ever noticed that the person with the worst singing voice is almost always the first one to start singing “Happy Birthday?” I am not going to rat out who that was, but my wife, who is an amazing singer—had to suffer through our rendition—and pretend that she enjoyed it. She didn’t have to pretend that she liked the cake. The caramel topping was just as Gand described it. Gooey-Nutty.

My son was eating his second piece. My daughter was scraping her finger across her plate. I looked at my wife, whose earrings were dangling as if the weight of the world were lifted from her shoulders. Sometimes you get to have your cake and eat it too. Even if it isn’t frosted.
Chocolate-Almond Upside-Down Cake
Chocolate-Almond Upside-Down Cake (from chocolate & vanilla)

For the caramel topping

6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter, melted
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
¼ cup honey
1¼ cups sliced or slivered almonds, lightly toasted

For the cake

1¼ cups cake flour
½ cup cocoa powder, preferably Dutch processed
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1½ cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Generously grease a 10-inch round cake pan. To make the topping, pour the melted butter into the cake pan and swirl to coat the bottom, then sprinkle in the brown sugar. Drizzle in the honey and sprinkle the almonds evenly over the bottom.

Preheat the oven to 350°.

To make the cake batter, sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt together three times (this is to make the cake extra light). Beat the butter in a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment until smooth and fluffy. Add the sugar and mix. One at a time, add the eggs, mixing after each addition. Beat until fluffy and light, about 3 minutes. With the mixer running on low speed, add a third of the ingredients and mix to combine. Mix in half of the buttermilk, and then another third of the dry ingredients, before adding the remaining buttermilk and the vanilla. Finish with the remaining dry ingredients and mix until smooth. Pour the batter into the pan.

Bake until set in the center and springy, 25 to 35 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and immediately invert the pan onto a serving platter. Let it sit with the pan still on top for 5 minutes so the caramel can soak into the cake a bit, before removing the pan. If the topping is sticking to the pan, warm the pan surface over a low burner to loosen the caramel and pour it over the cake. Let cool completely (The cake keeps at room temperature for up to 2 days). Cut into wedges with a serrated knife.


Country Wheat Bread (No-Knead Method)

It’s early evening on a Sunday night. You just spent six hours driving back from Los Angeles. Everyone is hungry, dirty laundry that escaped from your bags is now camped out on the living room floor, and your son just revealed that he forgot to do his math homework and needs help. But you also want to run a quick errand to a friend’s house to pick up a package. Your wife says, “If you really have to go, please pick up some bread while you are out. We’ll need it for sandwiches for lunch tomorrow.”

Would you:

a) Begin stirring together flour, yeast, and water, knowing that thanks to a recipe from Baltimore baker Ned Atwater, with minimal investment of time and labor (no kneading required) you will be taking country wheat bread out of the oven before you go to bed?

b) Set the timer for the dough to rise, start making dinner, run out with your daughter to pick up the package, and let your wife, who is helping your son, continue making dinner?

c) Reluctantly accept the offer of a glass of wine from your friend, but graciously decline an invitation to join her family in dinner, even though you see your daughter’s eyeballs growing larger* as she stares at the bowl of pasta mocking her hunger, because you know your wife is laboring in your kitchen?

d) Gab with your friend’s new neighbors who have recently relocated from Ireland, despite being aware that your wife is probably starting to throw pots at the walls while she awaits your return, because it’s common knowledge that not even a saint can resist talking about Ireland?

e) Stare at the homemade apple pie that your friend has just taken out the oven, hoping  she won’t offer you a slice (not even with vanilla ice cream) because you really don’t want an excuse to stay longer?

g) Know that you’ve over-exaggerated your fame as a raconteur, realize that your dough is now probably over-rising and needs to be stirred again, and tell your daughter that it’s time to head home?

h) Stop at the bakery?

*I confess. I added this for dramatic effect. My vegetarian daughter had no problem resisting the pasta because it contained meat.

Here’s what I did:

Country Wheat Bread

And here’s what you can do:

Stare at your hands

Stare at them again

Find a wooden spoon

Now stare at your hands holding a wooden spoon

Good, that was the hard part

Now, the fun part

Atwater’s County Wheat Bread (Recipe from the Baltimore Sun)


3 Cups All-Purpose Flour

3 Cups Whole-Wheat Flour

1 Tablespoon Salt

1 Tablespoon Dry Yeast

3 Cups Room-Temperature Water

2 Tablespoons Honey

In a big bowl, stir dry ingredients together.

In a separate bowl, stir together water and honey. Add to the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Dough will be sticky.

Cover the dough in the bowl and let it rest for an hour.

Wet your hands with water (or dust them with flour) and fold the dough seven times (I usually do it more). Re-cover and let it rest for another hour.

Uncover it and fold the dough again.  Re-cover and let it rest for an hour.

Divide the dough in half and shape each half into a loaf of your choice.

Pre-heat oven to 450° and bake for about 40 minutes. The crust should be a rich, dark-brown color.

If you want to know how good this bread tasted, I will tell you that my daughter rated it RGD even though half of the dough consisted of whole-wheat flour. It was almost good enough to make my wife forget that she was mad at me. I guess I’ll have to remember that the next time I go out for a “quick” errand.