There is something about heart-shaped things. Whether they are edible or decorative, I appreciate the warm fuzzies that they bring to the day. Truth be told… I am not a huge fan of Valentine’s Day. While the sentiment is endearing, I think it’s overdone and too commercialized, and most of the romantic places to go with your sweetheart get so crowded that it defeats the purpose (case in point: our 4-hour drive to Napa last year that should have taken 45 minutes), but I have to admit that heart-shaped desserts make me go all melty inside. I do love cooing over all the beautiful, pristine Valentine’s treats at the bakeries in San Francisco and all over Instagram! In my opinion, the love and care with which each treat is tenderly crafted is the ultimate way to demonstrate one’s feelings. So I was extremely excited (giddy, even!) to see these Conversation Heart Cakes from Baked Occasions on our Baked Sunday Mornings schedule for this weekend. These were certainly a labor of love, and as is usually the case with such projects, it was 100% worth the time and effort to craft these delicious little hearts!
I made mini conversation heart cheesecakes a few years ago, which are among my favorite things that I have ever made (fortunately my photography skills have improved tenfold since then), but… there was no chocolate. These cakelets, on the other hand, are made with two kinds of cocoa powder: regular dark, and one of my all-time favorite baking ingredients, black cocoa. Black cocoa powder is an over-roasted Dutch-processed cocoa that imparts the particular chocolate flavor and dark color of Oreo cookies. It is not commonly found in most grocery stores, but is well worth seeking out online. I use Guittard “Dark Cocoa”, and King Arthur Flour makes a popular one as well. It is often combined with regular cocoa powder in baking recipes because the ultra-roasting process neutralizes the acidity and strips almost all the fat from the cocoa powder, thereby altering its baking chemistry.
These are called black “velvet” cakes, which sometimes makes me cringe, because lots of baked goods are incorrectly named “velvet”. A true velvet cake contains a specific combination of ingredients: buttermilk, baking soda, vinegar, and a little cocoa powder. Many desserts are called “red velvet” just because they are dyed red, but legit red velvet is made with the above combo. (I am thisclose to going on a rant about fake red velvet…) I was happy to see that these cakes do in fact contain the magical quartet! (But then, BAKED is not exactly apt to making inauthentic stuff…) The ingredient list includes optional black food coloring to achieve a deep black color, but I elected not to add it because it sounded wholly unappetizing, so the cake looked like a light chocolate cake, much like a red velvet cake would look without the red coloring. I would love to experiment with more black cocoa powder here so I could achieve that sexy shade of DARK naturally!
Instead of using small cake pans or molds, the chocolate cake is made in a half-sheet pan and then cut into heart shapes with a cookie cutter. My half-sheet pans are slightly smaller than the 18×13″ called for in the recipe, and I wasn’t sure how much the cake would rise, so I opted to split the batter between two quarter-sheet pans.
Before you start the batter, combine the cocoa powders and boiling water (and black food coloring, if you wish) and set it aside; I recommend using a measuring cup with a pour spout, as it will be easier later to pour it into the mixer bowl without dribbling down the bowl.
You’ll then cream together the butter and shortening until it “ribbons”, then add the sugar and beat until it’s fluffy. My mixture was rather odd– even after beating for about 10 minutes, I could not achieve a fluffy texture. My mixture flew around the bowl like chunks of cookie dough, rather than a smooth mixture that sticks to the sides of the bowl. It finally started to break up a little, but only once I added the eggs did the mixture really loosen up.
Add the cake flour and salt to the mixer, alternating with a mixture of cocoa powder/water/buttermilk. Finally, you’ll combine the baking soda with apple cider vinegar in a medium-sized bowl (bigger than you think you need), and add this fizzy mixture to the batter. It will be a medium-thick, satiny consistency.
Pour the batter into the sheet pan(s) and bake for 20-30 minutes; mine took 25 minutes. Once the cakes cool, the recipe recommends freezing it in the pan. I’m gonna go so far as to say that it’s necessary because the tender nature of the velvet cake makes it a little crumbly and difficult to cut out cleanly, even after freezing.
Anyway, you’ll cut as many hearts out as possible with a 4″ cutter; I only got 8 instead of 12, since my cake was split into two pans. Keep them in the freezer while making the frosting.
Standard cream cheese frosting protocol: cream the butter, add the cream cheese, then add the confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, and salt. It’s important not to overbeat cream cheese frosting because it will lose its structure. I tried for red icing, but no amount of Super Red gel was enough, and the color looked similar to my pink Dolly’s Doughnut. I decided to go purple instead, so I added some royal blue, but that was just a weird muddy shade; Regal Purple did the trick to achieve a deep, pretty wine hue.
You’ll stack each cake 2 layers high, then cover them with a thin crumb coat of frosting, chill them, and cover them with a full frosting layer. I ended up with 4 little hearts– couldn’t have been happier! (Incidentally, these take a good while to make, so I was somewhat relieved not to have 2 more cakes to assemble and frost!)
The cakes are decorated with simple white chocolate messages. Problem is… I SUCK at writing on cakes. I decided to decorate most of the cake with tiny Valentine’s sprinkles, but I did want to make one with writing on it, being that they are called *conversation* hearts. My white chocolate was too thick to write cleanly, so I decided to use white candy coating. On a piece of wax paper, I practiced a couple of times (smaller decorating tip next time), let the writing dry, and placed the lettering on one of my cakes. I highly recommend this workaround if you are cake-writing-challenged as I am. 😀
At long last, the cakes were ready, and I was so happy to share one with the hubby! The cream cheese frosting is to die for– it almost doesn’t need cake. BUT, the cake and frosting together are downright velvety. Sexy, actually. I was hard-pressed to share the other three cakes, but I begrudging did so… because… because… well, I don’t really remember right now and I regret giving them away. *sigh*
My one complaint is that there is a lot of wasted cake. It was partly because I used two smaller pans, so I had more scraps left over than normal, but it was sad that so much cake didn’t get used. On the bright side, I was able to slather my frosting pretty liberally since I didn’t have to worry about running out! Next time I might use either smaller hearts or bake the batter in heart molds and slice them in half crosswise for filling; the latter would then utilize every drop of that delicious batter!
So really, these are an absolutely perfect treat to share with your sweetheart, whether or not you subscribe to the notion of Valentine’s Day. In fact, you can easily make these in other shapes, sizes, and colors for whatever occasion you like. Find the recipe for Conversation Heart Cakes at Baked Sunday Mornings, and please take a look at my baking friends’ beautiful hearts too! 🙂
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2016.