I’m not really known for my patience and attention to detail when it comes to making pretty food. I think “rustic” is the term used for most of what I put on the table.
I don’t have that gene for precise perfect repetition and much prefer to slap and dash where food is concerned. I do marvel at the concentration it takes to make the same beautiful flourish over and over again to decorate a thousand chocolate truffles. Pastry arts is not my thing, and I could never measure up to the standards of Chef Bill at The Secret Chocolatier! I also have hot hands, which can be the kiss of death in the pastry world.
Despite that handicap, I make some pretty tasty desserts. Several years ago, I made an “Ugly Birthday Cake” for a treasured friend. I was in a hurry and had to assemble the cake before all the parts were cool, and the cake slid a bit and crumbled when I tried to fix it. I delivered it anyway because…CAKE!
And, thus, a tradition was born.
The rule for the past decade has been to tilt and hack the cake layers until the finished product is laughable. There have been chocolate with raspberry and ganache cakes, chocolate with chocolate whipped cream, custard filled and dense flourless chocolate tortes, but this one…this one may just take the cake!
I give you chocolate cake with salted caramel cream cheese filling topped with chocolate ganache and caramel whipped cream frosting.
I found an unusual technique on Epicurious for making this moist and intense chocolate cake. I read all the reviews with the various complaints about how weird the technique was for a cake and blah, blah. The cake actually makes one 12-inch layer as per the directions, but I made two eight-inch round layers. I shorted the batter in one so the cake would be slightly lop-sided. I stuck with the directions adding the butter after the eggs and sugar have been beaten together. I thought the cake came together really fast, and for the first time ever, I was happy with the outcome of using cocoa powder instead of baking chocolate for a cake. I think the recipe is a keeper, and I’m sending you over to Epicurious for the recipe so you can read their directions.
I made the salted caramel from memory using two cups of granulated sugar,12 Tbsp. of a European style butter, 1 cup of heavy cream, and 1 Tbsp. of smoked sea salt.
The best directions I have found are here on the Two Peas and Their Pod blog.
While the caramel was still hot, I used a serrated knife to carve a bigger slope into the bottom cake layer and then poked holes in the layer to create some extra room for the hot caramel. I drizzled the hot caramel all over the layer but tried not to over saturate the cake. I then slipped the bottom layer into the fridge to chill.
I made the cream cheese caramel filling next while the caramel was still warm and pulled the chilled cake layer out of the fridge and added a thick layer of the filling and smoothed it rather unevenly over the top. I returned the layer to the fridge along with the jar of caramel sauce to chill. I saved the remainder of the filling for the frosting.
Then I made the frosting. Before I added the top cake layer, I poured some of the cooled caramel all over the filling layer.
When I laid the top layer over the caramel and filling, I pressed down one side so some of the filling squished out making the cake a bit more “ugly”!
I topped the cake with the frosting layer. I did not frost the sides, and I was not trying to make the frosting look attractive. But damn. Chocolate frosting always looks awesome, so when the caramel had completely chilled into a stiff consistency, I spooned a few glops over the top of the chilled cake and quit with that.
Making an ugly cake on purpose actually takes far more time than a conventional beautiful cake. The first time was because I was in a rush and the comments confirmed that though ugly, it tasted sublime. The time and effort I take now to ensure I uphold the ugly cake tradition takes me far longer because I care that the cake is memorable each year. I sometimes spend weeks researching ideas and lie awake deconstructing the construction of a project.
True Friendship is a precious commodity. I often say that the most interesting thing about me is the quality of my friendships. The traditions and secret squirrel handshakes that grow out of long term friendships can be silly and often make no sense to outsiders. I would not miss the chance to make an ugly cake every February 7th because, in return, I get to experience the singing-dancing-doorway-hands every June 5th.
It’s TRADITION and, well, you have to be there to get it.
A few notes on timing and assembly:
- Make the cake early or the day before.
- Make the caramel and use it on the bottom cake layer while it is hot.
- When the caramel sauce has cooled enough to handle, use it to make the filling.
- Reserve plenty of the filling to make the base for the frosting.
- Chill the caramel for everything else.
- Keep the heavy cream very cold for the filling and the frosting.
- Allow the chocolate ganache to cool to room temp before making the frosting.
- Reserve all the cake trimmings and extra frosting and caramel to make a layered dessert like a birthday treat for another treasured friend!
- Chocolate Cake
- Nonstick vegetable oil spray
- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 cup boiling water
- 2 cups sugar
- 3 large eggs
- ¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Sea Salt Caramel
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 12 Tablespoons European style butter
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 Tablespoon sea salt
- Cream Cheese Caramel Filling
- 8 ounces cream cheese
- ½ cup warm caramel sauce
- 1 tsp. pure vanilla
- ¼ cup very cold heavy cream
- Chocolate Ganache Caramel Frosting
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 10 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
- ¼ cup very cold heavy cream
- remaining Caramel Cream Cheese filling
- Make the cake the day before or very early in the day. The Epicurious recipe I used is here.
- For cake:
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Spray (2) 8-inch round cake pans with nonstick spray. Line bottom of pan with parchment paper round. Spray parchment paper with nonstick spray. Dust pan with flour, tapping out any excess.
- Sift 2 cups flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into medium bowl.
- Sift cocoa into another medium bowl. Pour 1 cup boiling water over cocoa; whisk to blend.
- Using electric mixer, beat sugar and eggs in large bowl until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
- Add butter to egg mixture and beat until blended.
- Beat in cocoa mixture.
- Add buttermilk and vanilla; beat to blend.
- Add dry ingredients and beat on low just to blend.
- Transfer batter to prepared pans; smooth top.
- Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool cake completely in pan on rack. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and let stand at room temperature.
- Sea Salt Caramel directions here.
- Chocolate Ganache Caramel Frosting
- Heat the cream until near boiling in a large glass bowl or measuring cup in the microwave. I heat mine for about 45 seconds on high.
- Add all of the chocolate chips and allow to sit for at least 1 minute.
- Using a fork, stir the mixture together until all of the chocolate has melted and you have a thick, glossy mixture.
- Allow to cool to room temperature.
- Scrape the chocolate mixture into the remaining cream cheese caramel filling mixture and beat the two together until thoroughly incorporated.
- Allow to cool completely. You can chill this in the fridge, but be cautious not to allow it to become stiff and too cold for beating in the heavy cream.
- When this is completely cool, beat again on high and slowly add the heavy cream. Do not add all of the cream until you test the texture.
- As the heavy cream is added, the frosting will become lighter and more airy. This needs to be a spreadable consistency like frosting rather than completely airy like whipped cream. Remember this has cream cheese and chocolate, so it will firm up when chilled.
- Assemble the cake
- Pour the hot caramel sauce over the bottom layer of the cake and allow to chill.
- Spread the bottom layer with the cream cheese caramel filling in a ½ inch thick layer and chill.
- Pour the cooled caramel over the filling layer.
- Top with the second cake layer.
- Spread the frosting over the top. There will be enough to ice the sides if you want a pretty cake.
- Chill in the fridge.
- Top with the cold caramel. This can be made pretty if you have the time and patience. Glopping spoonfuls on the cake top achieved the “Ugly Cake” status required for this occasion!
- Serve room temperature and make sure you offer a fork and a spoon.