Devil of a Cake - Recap

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Alton's cake story opens long, long ago in a midwest far, far away. Presented newsreel style, complete with a tinny tack piano and the whirring of an old-style film projector, viewers see the final judging of a cake-baking contest. The winner, for the fifth straight year, is Miss Ellie Elson, whose angel food cake the judges pronounce truly fit for angels. A reporter whisks Ellie outside for pictures, leaving behind the bitter Miss Prudence Binderbrass.

The music takes an ominous turn as Miss Prudence angrily exclaims that she'd give anything to win that prize! A dark-suited man in a homburg enters the contest tent. Sympathizing with her, and disdaining things angelic (too many feathers), he offers her his own favorite recipe, and they leave.

A card appears in the documentary - a woman hungry for a ribbon - a demon hungry for a soul – and a year of time slips away. The scene opens once again in the judging tent at the fair, where the outcome is far different. Miss Prudence Binderbrass has won the contest with a confection she calls devil's food cake. It is moist, delicious, decadent, and... Good Eats!

Alton doesn't really believe that some forgotten cook traded her soul for the recipe for devil's food cake. Rather, this cake got it's name because it is rich and chocolatey, and because it is everything angel food cake is not. But, modern devil's food cake isn't what it used to be, either, since most cooks rely on a box containing highly specialized ingredients designed to...

The Mysterious Stranger who offered Prudence Binderbrass his favorite recipe appears, happy to help Alton get his very own boxed recipe. He's helped others... But Alton shrugs off the siren of temptation and instead turns to science.

The search first turns up a recipe that circulated in the early 1950s, which Alton describes as someone “shoe-horning” chocolate into a traditional layer cake recipe. Solid chocolate, butter (solid fat), and milk, assembled by the creaming method (mixing sugar and butter and adding other ingredients to that in order). Will this produce a moist, dense, dark cake worthy of the name devil's food? To find out, Alton makes such a cake. Neither he nor the Mysterious Man are pleased with the result. It just isn't worth the calories. The parts list and the techniques of this recipe are in Alton's view fatally flawed.

Alton plans to start from scratch. First he sets a rack in the middle of his oven, dialing the oven heat to 325° F. Next, he retrieves a 13” × 9” baking pan – to him, devil's food cake calls for a pan cake, not layers. He coats that with non-stick cooking spray and pushes a piece of parchment in that, the sprays on more non-stick spray. This batter will be very sticky!

With the pan prepped, Alton turns to the software. He recalls that the original recipe used baking chocolate. He'll use cocoa powder instead, and to explain why, he goes into a little of the history of chocolate. Growers dry and hull cocoa beans and then grind them. The resulting thick liquid, called chocolate liquor (despite the fact that it contains no alcohol), saw use chiefly as a beverage. Around 1828 that began to change when Casparus van Houten discovered he could use a hydraulic press to literally squeeze the fat (called cocoa butter) from the solids. This started chocolate on the road to use in confections. But the solids prepared this way are reddish, not brown, and relatively sour and bitter because cocoa contains a number of acidic compounds. Theorizing that an alkali added before pressing might neutralize these and change the flavor, Casparus' son Coenraad tried it. The resulting powder was darker, smoother flavored, more soluble and less acidic. Most importantly for this recipe, they lack nearly all of the cocoa butter. This is nearly flavorless, and a solid at room temperature, which means it detracts from the 'bite' and the flavor of the cake, and Alton is happy to have a form of chocolate without it for devil's food.

Rigging his own “press” Alton extracts the cocoa butter from some liquor (he'll sell the butter to a cosmetics maker), and he has his Dutched cocoa. He starts his recipe by blooming that cocoa in some hot water. This process analogous to the brewing of coffee prepares the cocoa for use.

That old recipe calls for ordinary flour, but Alton believes some of that should be cake flour, which is lower in protein and absorbs more water due to the bleaching process used to give it that bright white color. He swaps about half of the all-purpose flour for cake flour.

For leavening, that recipe called for baking powder, a balanced blend of baking soda and tartaric acid, which in the presence of water combine to produce carbon dioxide. Whether he can use baking powder alone, or with baking soda, depends on the acidity of his final recipe, so he leaves the leavening decision for later.

That brings him to the fats. Butter, called for in the original, is tasty but a solid at room temperature, which means it won't taste very moist. Alton replaces the butter with vegetable oil – it contains no water, but it feels moist to the mouth because it is a liquid at room temperature. And because he is no longer using solid fats, the creaming method is out. That means he can replace the white sugar that the original recipe called for with dark brown sugar. This will heighten the chocolate's flavor and contribute to the feeling of moistness, since the molasses that coats the sugar granules is hygroscopic.

The original recipe called for milk, a staple of cake recipes. Alton believes milk masks chocolate flavors, so he replaces it with water – the water he already added to bloom his cocoa powder.

Four eggs? That's too many eggs. Alton selects two whole eggs and two egg yolks, reducing the amount of egg white. Egg white is a drying agent, so this change also helps make a moist cake.

Alton drops the vanilla, believe he does not need it with the many other flavor compounds present. He does add just a little kosher salt; salt helps the taste buds operate and a little of it even in sweet recipes enhances the flavor. Finally, he adds some sour cream to give the batter a pleasantly acidic tang.

Since the batter is now acidic, baking powder is the wrong choice. Alton selects baking soda, an alkali. It will combine with some of the acids in the sour cream to create the carbon dioxide needed for a nicely leavened cake.

Alton chooses the muffin method for assembly. The dry team goes in the mixer bowl first; a few seconds of spinning the paddle at low speed combines these. He adds the wet team to that, combining them to a smooth batter. That process should take no longer than 45 seconds. A few lumps are fine.

Alton decants the batter into his prepared baking pan and slides it into his pre-heated oven to bake for 30 to 35 minutes until the cake is springy to the touch and its internal temperature is 205° F. While it bakes, he turns his attention to frosting.

Alton's icing will be a basic butter cream, a type of icing whose chief components are butter and powdered sugar. Powdered sugar is fine enough to dissolve in the small amount of moisture present in butter. For chocolate flavor, Alton selects semi-sweet chocolate morsels. They're a solid chocolate, which would be bad for the cake but good for its icing, since they will stiffen it. Icing must be firm enough not to run off the sides of the cake, which is not good eats. Semi-sweet chips go into the microwave to melt for about a minute and a half, while Alton measures room temperature butter into his mixer's bowl. He adds just a little mayonnaise to that. Icing is an emulsion, and the mayonnaise will help keep it blended. Since it is soft even at refrigerator temperatures, it will keep the icing soft. With those ingredients creamed together, Alton adds his melted chocolate. Even melted it is thick, so it will take a few minutes to completely integrate.

Powder sugar goes in as three batches, Add that all at once, Alton cautions, and a white cloud of powder will explode from the mixing bowl and fill the kitchen. Once the last batch is completely integrated, he kicks the mixer into high gear and beats the icing until it lightens, telling him that it contains plenty of air, which will make it smooth and keep it fluffy.

This dark and delicious cake even impresses the Mysterious Stranger, prompting Alton to exclaim that Good Eats triumphs over Evil!

Returning to the documentary of that long ago fair, we learn what happened next: now it is Ellie Elson's turn to be bitter and determined to crush her new rival Prudence. And by a coincidence, that Mysterious Man is there to whisper in her ear. A year passes and Ellie is back on top with a new creation she calls red devil cake! Did she sell her soul for that recipe? Of course, not, scoffs Alton: it's merely a matter of scientific detail. The Mysterious Man pops in to note that he is in the details...

Alton trades Dutch process cocoa for the natural sort and ups the acidity of his batter with buttermilk and (a little) vinegar. This promotes anthocyanins which are anti-oxidant pigments (they give red cabbage and many other plants their colors). In a previous show, Alton showed how cabbage cooked in a little baking soda turns bluish, while the same cabbage boiled in acidic vinegar retains its red color. This effect (on a smaller scale) works in a cocoa flavored cake, during something dark to dark red.

Red velvet cake also has a more refined “tooth” than devil's food cake, so Alton returns to a solid fat – butter. He'll use vanilla as well. Otherwise, red velvet cake is very similar to devil's food cake.

The key to the correct texture is proper creaming and that depends on the butter temperature. To get that right, Alton relies on a probe thermometer to verify the butter is between 68° F and 72° F before he adds it to the mixer's bowl, chases it with brown sugar and creams them together. While the mixer does that, he prepares his layer pans.

Folding two sheets of parchment in half, and then in half again, then folding them twice on the diagonal gives Alton a wedge of paper. Using the pan as a guide, he cuts this wedge to the diameter of the pan. When he unfolds it he has a nearly perfect round that fits into the bottom of the pan. A little non-stick cooking spray anchors it and a little more on the top of the parchment and sides of the pan ensures the batter won't stick.

By this point, the butter and sugar are creamed together. At medium speed, Alton integrates eggs. His dry team consists of the same mixture of all-purpose and cake flour, natural cocoa, baking soda, and a small amount of kosher salt. The wet team is buttermilk, a little vinegar, vanilla, and... red food coloring.

Some parents might be concerned about red food coloring. There are contradictory studies, some suggesting that such dyes can make children (especially those prone to ADHD) hyperactive, while others do not support this conclusion. The government says such dyes are safe. Some parents disagree. Alton's view is that it's safe as long as you don't eat it every day. But you can leave it out and your cake will still be delicious and kind of reddish. For real red color, though, you'll need the coloring.

Alton first whisks the dry team, then the wet team. With the mixer on low, he adds the two in small parcels, alternating between them, and then lets the batter mix until it is bright red and smooth. A scale helps Alton load each of his two layer pans with the same amount of batter. The pans go side by side into his oven (still at 325° F) with at least an inch between them. They'll bake for 30 to 35 minutes to an internal temperature of 205° F. Turn the pans midway through if your oven has a history of uneven heating.

The invention of cream cheese just might have saved southern cake-baking. Its retains its shape at higher temperatures, unlike butter, and it confers this property on frosting that uses it as an ingredient. Two southern cake specialties are most associated with cream cheese icings: carrot cake, and red velvet cake.

Alton fetches cream cheese from the chill chest, using cheese that has never been frozen (that would produce a runny, repulsive product). He lets the cheese reach room temperature before adding it to the mixer bowl with some butter (also at room temperature). He beats that for about a minute before adding a pinch of kosher salt and a little vanilla extract. Dropping the speed to the lowest setting, Alton adds powdered sugar and beats the icing until it is smooth. Thirty minutes back in the fridge chills it prior to application. If you wait longer than thirty minutes and you will need to respin the icing before applying it.

With his layers baked, Alton splits them stacks them with the cream cheese frosting between each layer, leaving the sides unadorned so the red color shines through. The Mysterious Man tries to horn in, claiming you have to give the devil his due, but Alton forces him away, explaining that on Good Eats they don't. With a forkful of red velvet cake in hand, Alton bids farewell until next time.