Wow, it’s been a minute. In the six years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve never taken a hiatus of more than a couple of weeks (I think?), but it has been a doozy of a few months. I mentioned in my last post that I just moved halfway around the world to Tel Aviv, and it has been really quite insane in so many respects. My head is still spinning, and I’m still getting a lot of things settled, but it’s coming together slowly. Israel is a tough country to survive in with a lot of bureaucracy and rough edges– not for the faint of heart. It is even rougher than I anticipated, a feeling of “one step forward, two steps back” literally every day. I’m starting to get the hang of things like riding the bus (hopefully I’ll obtain my own wheels in the next couple of weeks!), reading menus with my 3rd grade Hebrew reading level, and learning where to shop for baking ingredients, but man, every single day is hard.
I started the journey in early June with a quick visit to New York en route to Tel Aviv, which was fabulous as always. I indulged in a bunch of pastries, spent time with one of my best friends, and had a tiny reprieve between the stresses of moving out of California and into Tel Aviv. I then arrived here, stayed with cousins for a week, and went on a short vacation to Sicily (blog to come, hopefully soon). Then I returned to the face-punching reality of setting up my Tel Avivian life… Between finding an apartment, getting cheated out of a month’s rent, figuring out banking, and a myriad of other things that threatened to strip my soul… I had literally no interest in or energy for baking. That is like, not a thing in my world, totally uncharted territory. But then, so was this whole adventure. (Not at all like studying abroad in college, by the way.) Even the thought of baking was overwhelming because ingredients are different here. For instance, there is no standard “all-purpose” flour. Bags of flour by different brands may be labeled bread flour, cake flour, challah flour, cookie flour, bright white flour, 80% flour, 405 flour, and many others; also there are self-rising versions of many of these. Some of the flours are labeled with numbers, which seems similar to the Italian system of indicating the fineness of the milling, but it doesn’t seem exactly the same. And of the many people I asked, no one really seemed to know the answer; that is, what is similar to American all-purpose flour. (And then there were the jerks who couldn’t help but interject their opinion that I should no longer want to bake American things because now I’m in Israel.) Bottom line was, I had no idea what any of these actually meant, relative to American flours that I had used for years reliably.
Sugar is different here as well. It is apparently beet sugar rather than cane sugar, and it’s much coarser than American sugar– it almost looks like sanding sugar for topping cookies! I wondered, would it melt? How would it incorporate into butter? Would it taste different? These are things that keep me up at night.
Lastly, ovens. My whole life I’ve had a standard American-sized oven. Never thought twice about it. Of course a half-sheet pan fits in the oven with room to spare! I see your half-sheet pan, and I’ll raise you a ¾-sheet! WELL. Knowing that Israeli ovens are the small European size/style, I purposely didn’t ship over my trusty ¾-sheet pan, but I did not expect that my half-sheet pan would be way too big as well. The oven cavity is exactly the size as the squarish cookie sheets that I bought at Williams-Sonoma many years ago, lucky for me. But think about how small that is– there is no turkey-roasting happening in here, that’s for sure!
Most homes in Israel do not come with appliances, so I had to buy an oven. While this was annoying and expensive, I have a brand-new, beautiful oven! Ain’t she pretty? Even with her demonic-looking dials!
Thus, I had no will to bake and experience yet more setbacks. I have taken great pride in not missing any Baked Sunday Mornings recipes in a few years, but I missed several in these months of moving chaos. And then… Sweet & Salty Cake from BAKED: New Frontiers in Baking came up on the baking schedule. Friends, this is one of my favorite cakes on the planet– I couldn’t bear to skip it. It is the ultimate chocolatey decadence– soft, moist, deeply flavorful cake layers sandwiching both salted caramel and whipped chocolate-caramel ganache frosting. This is a special, spectacular cake that you make for the people you love the most. I decided that even though my kitchen was a mess and I didn’t know what kind of flour to buy, and I didn’t think three 8″ cake pans would fit on one oven rack (would the third one on the bottom rack bake through?), I was going to dive back in. Oh, one more thing– I no longer own a stand mixer. (Talk about an identity crisis.) I know three people nearby who own one, so I figured I could get by without one in my kitchen, but I am so silly. I can’t believe I even thought that for five minutes. I have since resolved to buy a second-hand one, since new ones cost close to $1000 here (NO JOKE), but in the meantime, all I have is a hand mixer. I didn’t know if I could pull off this cake without a stand mixer– who was I if I didn’t have a paddle attachment, anyway?? But I was willing to take the risk. I did, in fact, ship my cake decorating turntable, offset spatulas, Guittard chocolate, Valrhona cocoa powder, Nielsen-Massey vanilla, and most of my cake supplies, so I was going for it!
Once I got past all the hesitations, I was excited to make this cake again after a number of years. I remember that when I first made it, I had to make it twice due to some issues the first time, most of which are pretty fuzzy now. The nice thing was that I didn’t have to keep it all in my head because I took copious amounts of detailed, nerd-tastic notes. My faithful, neatly typed note sheet would be waiting for me for next time, safely tucked into my book…. which, I realized, is in a box… in a storage facility… in California. So I was going to have to rely on the cake skills I’ve acquired in the six or so years since I made it!
The first step in making the cake layers is combining the cocoa powder with sour cream and water to make a thin chocolate mixture. Then cream together butter and vegetable shortening, add white and dark brown sugars, followed by eggs and vanilla. You then alternate additions of the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt) with the cooled cocoa mixture to make a medium-thick batter. (I chose a flour labeled “650” at the store, which seemed to have an appropriate protein level/fineness, according to people in a Facebook Israeli Foodies group that I belong to. I crossed my fingers…) I held my breath at each step to see if the hand mixer could handle the job. Let’s not talk about the cake batter flung all over me, the walls, and the floor. Let’s just not talk about that. More importantly, my cake batter looked absolutely… normal.
The next hurdle was whether the cake layers would bake evenly in the tiny oven that I’d never used before. I put two cake pans on the top rack and one on the bottom, and then I rotated them after about 25 minutes. Again, they looked perfectly normal– I was beginning to get really excited for chocolate cake! I pulled them after 37 minutes, and I couldn’t believe how gorgeous they looked. Not only were they evenly cooked (and I mean perfect, except a totally negligible smidge of sinking in the middle of the cake that had been on the bottom), they were completely flat on top. In the States, I had 8″ and 9″ standard cake pans that are about 2″ tall. However, when I started making cakes from Ovenly‘s book, I needed 3″ deep pans, so I added those to my collection. Because I’d heard somewhere that deeper pans yield flatter cakes, these are the ones that I brought to Israel. I don’t know if this is what prevented doming and uneven baking, or if it was exceptional oven function, or maybe my oven and cake pans just really liked each other, but at any rate, I was beyond thrilled with my cake layers!
That was a transformational moment in moving here– despite the daily (sometimes hourly) challenges of adjusting to life in Israel, I felt like things would be okay because my chocolate cakes came out out awesome!
Moving on to the “sweet and salty” component of the cake– the caramel and frosting. Besides the fact that the chocolate cake recipe is exceptional, the salted caramel filling and the whipped chocolate-caramel frosting set this cake apart from all the other chocolate cakes that you’ve had. You’ll make two batches of caramel, which at first seems a little annoying, but they are not identical, so it is, in fact, necessary to make it twice.
The first batch will be the filling, which is a straightforward salted caramel. You will melt together sugar, corn syrup, and water and bring it to a temperature of 350°F, or a medium-dark amber, then add hot cream mixed with fleur de sel (French hand-harvested sea salt), followed by sour cream. Funnily enough, I remembered that the first time I made it, I burnt the caramel– one of the notes that was still etched in my brain was to turn off the heat at about 305-310°F. However, I bought myself a new candy thermometer to take to Israel since mine was several years old, and 310°F came and went with barely a hint of golden color in my sugar syrup, so I did, in fact, take it all the way to 350°F. (So now I’m wondering if everything I made using that old thermometer was 40° or so off??) Let it sit for a minute before pouring in the cream, and the sugar will continue to darken slightly; just make sure it doesn’t burn– I think that’s where mine went wrong that first time years ago. The larger sugar crystals even worked to my advantage– they did not stick to the sides of the pan! The first batch of caramel was super easy and uneventful, and soooo very delicious. I would probably made it ahead next time and refrigerate it to help it thicken.
The second batch was also successful, though a completely different texture. There is no salt or sour cream, and three times the amount of cream, so it’s much thinner. In fact, I thought I messed something up because it’s not really a caramel-y texture. You pour this over the chocolate which you’ve placed in a large bowl, then whisk it into melty deliciousness. Once it cools you’ll whip it in the mixer. Here again, I do not want to talk about the cleanup that was necessary in doing this with a hand mixer. (Never again.) I initially thought I had ruined the ganache because the butter began to separate and the mixture was soupy; however, it was simply too warm (I think my butter was too soft), and after hanging out in the fridge for a couple of hours, the ganache was beautifully glossy and spreadable. (P.S. One could easily just grab a spoon and devour this sweet and salty bowl of heaven.)
As for assembling the cake, I’d say that was the most challenging part of the whole endeavor– this cake does not play nice with heat and humidity. I had to assemble it right next to a hot stove, and it was not a pretty scene. The caramel gets melty and the cake layers start to move around, making it very difficult to keep the cake even, smooth, and level. I would dub it “Slip n’ Slide Cake” in the summertime! If I make this again in warm weather, I would probably refrigerate the cake layers, caramel, and frosting separately to firm them up a bit, then refrigerate in-between stacking layers to keep the caramel from dripping out all over the place. Of course that means it will take longer, but if your goal is a sleeker, smoother cake, I think that’s the way to achieve it. I imagine that in the winter this would not be necessary. 🙂 Anyway, despite this challenge, I managed to assemble the cake successfully and get it into the fridge. My one regret is that I forgot I wanted to drizzle more caramel over the top!
One more thing– the recipe calls for regular fleur de sel, but there’s a note in the book about using different flavors of salt. I have some hickory smoked salt that seemed like a good flavor combination, so I used half ½ teaspoon of that and ½ teaspoon unflavored salt in the salted caramel. I thought the smoky flavor might be too strong, but it was barely perceptible at all, so next time I’d use a full teaspoon.
So. I’d like to reiterate that this is one of the most fabulous cakes in the world. Despite uncertain ingredients, an inferior mixer, melty weather, and an unfamiliar oven, it turned out lovely. It didn’t cut very neatly because I didn’t have enough time to chill it properly, but it was scrumptious nonetheless. I made it for my aunt’s birthday, and at first my family (who are not accustomed to towering American layer cakes) seemed doubtful that we could eat such a decadent behemoth, but I only went home with ¼ of the cake in tow, so I would consider that a successful indoctrination. 😉
You need this cake this in your life. I know I’ve said that before for other cakes (and it was true), but like, you REALLY need *this* cake in your life. Find the recipe for Sweet & Salty Cake at Baked Sunday Mornings and you will instantly be on your way to chocolate bliss. Also check out my fellow cake bakers’ blogs while you’re there!
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2018.