Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Restaurant: Shouk (Washington, D.C.)

Shouk, Washington, DC

There's no shortage of fast-casual options in Washington, D.C. I have Cava, Taylor and Sweetgreen on regular rotation. I'm excited that District Taco and Beefsteak are opening soon in my upper Northwest neighborhood. Occasionally, for variety, I venture to Protein Bar, Merzi or Shophouse. Buredo is on my "to do" list. Lunch has never been tastier.

Shouk cauliflower pita
Cauliflower pita
Despite all those options, I'm more than happy to welcome Shouk into the fold. Pronounced to rhyme with shook or hook, it features a vegetable-focused menu that should attract Beefsteak and Sweetgreen fans, but its bold Middle Eastern flavors set Shouk apart from those popular vegetable-focused chain. Does the choose-your-own-adventure approach of some fast-casual restaurants make you nervous? Shouk's menu, designed by founder Ran Nussbacher and chef Dennis Friedman, does the work for you, presenting a shortlist of options for stuffing pitas or topping brown-rice and lentil bowls inspired by Middle Eastern market and street food.

Shouk fennel mujadra
Fennel mujadra (brown rice and lentil bowl)
I selected the roasted fennel for my first bowl, and it's been my favorite so far. Bite-size chunks of roasted fennel are nestled among fried potatoes and red peppers, topped with a generous dollop of pistachio pesto served over rice and lentils. I love fennel, and it's wonderful here atop Shouk's rice (so delightfully chewy). The spicy-but-not-in-a-hot-way pistachio pesto unites all these flavors perfectly. Shock's staff, who have always been quite friendly, encouraged me to stir the ingredients to get that pesto mixed in. I liked this so much, I would be happy coming to Shouk all the time and never ordering anything else, but, of course, that would mean I wouldn't get to enjoy all the other wonderful options on hand.
Shouk black bean mujadra
Black bean mujadra
If you like heat, go for the black bean option, which features a drizzle of spicy harissa over beans, sweet potatoes, red pepper, arugula and tomato. For something mellower, the roasted cauliflower with tomato, scallion, tahina and jalapeño oil is a nice combination. Next on my list to try is the sautéed mushrooms with cauliflower, spinach and tahina. With just six options, I'm a little afraid of running out of choices, but Shouk assured me by email to expect the menu to evolve over time. Already, I see a couple of debut items--lentil patties and an Arabic salad--slipped off the menu recently. As we approach the summer months, I hope Shouk takes advantage of seasonal summer produce. I imagine they could do wonders with ripe tomatoes.

Shouk salad
Shouk salad
In addition to the pita/bowl combinations, Shouk offers a small selection of salads. I recommend the Shouk salad as a great way to sample a little bit of just about everything on the menu: a flavor-bursting combination of roasted cauliflower, sautéed mushrooms, cucumber, red pepper, chickpeas, radicchio, arugula and kale, endive, sweet potato, pistachio and brown croutons draped with a slightly sweet tahini dressing. Eating so virtuously rarely tastes this good.

Sweet potato fries with cashew labneh
Don't let such virtue from trying a side of Shouk's sweet potato fries. They're awesome! Be prepared to get your fingers dirty: the large wedges of potato are doused with an earthy spice blend with plenty of finger-yellowing turmeric. The fries also cooked to a perfect texture--pliably soft yet firm enough to dip into the accompanying tub of cashew labneh, a vegan take on strained yogurt.

Vegan? That's right. You won't find any meat or dairy here. Shouk doesn't promote itself as vegan but rather as "100% plant-based," a subtle yet possibly important distinction for reeling in those people who aren't "vegan" but are trying to live by Michael Pollan's advice to "eat food, not too much, mostly plants." Vegan dining is a tricky prospect. Native Foods Cafe, which specializes in vegan re-creations of meaty items like fried "chicken" sandwiches, recently shuttered its Penn Quarter location. Yet, the lack of animal products shouldn't scare meat-lovers away from Shouk. I've left the restaurant perfectly satisfied each time. 

Shouk, 655 K Street NW (between 6th and 7th Streets), Washington D.C. (Mount Vernon Triangle). (202) 652-1464.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Middle Eastern Chips and Salsa

Middle Eastern Chips and Salsa

What does spring taste like? It's definitely green. Herbal. And maybe a little tart. Spring dishes celebrate all those fresh flavors that went missing during the winter months. This is one of those ideal dishes for tasting spring.

I created this dish as appetizer for a dinner party. My original concept was a marriage between two classic dishes that celebrate the union of bread and vegetables: fattoush, which is a Middle Eastern bread salad with vegetables and pita pieces, and bruschetta, an Italian dish that consists of garlic-rubbed toasted bread often served with a topping, such as fresh tomatoes and basil.

I planned on making a fattoush-like salad with finely chopped ingredients and serving atop wedges of toasted pita. But I backed out of this plan thinking that the vegetable topping, which is pretty moist, would soak the pita too much. So instead, I decided to serve the topping in a bowl next to the pitas and use the pitas as chips for dipping into the topping. And, duh, that's basically what chips and salsa is, the favorite free (usually) appetizer of great Mexican restaurants everywhere.

The spices are essential to this dish, especially the ground sumac berries, which give the salsa an earthy tartness. Za'atar, if you're not familiar with it, is a Middle Eastern spice blend. There's some variation among specific za'atar blends, but I recommend finding one with thyme, sumac and sesame seeds as prominent ingredients.


Middle Eastern Chips and Salsa

1 tsp. ground sumac
1 tsp. warm water
3 whole-wheat pitas
Olive oil spray
1 tbsp. za'atar spice blend
2 medium tomatoes
1/2 cucumber
3 tbsp. chopped fresh mint
3 scallions, green part only, finely chopped
1 tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. honey
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
Salt, to taste

1. Combine the sumac and water in small bowl and set aside for about 10 minutes.

2. Preheat oven to 375 F. Cut pitas into fourths, then carefully separate the two layers, resulting in 24 quarter-round pieces. Place the pitas on a baking sheet with the rough side (i.e., the side the inner side) up. Spray the pitas with olive oil, then sprinkle with za'atar. Bake in the oven until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer the chips to a cooling rack.

3. Slice off the tops of the tomatoes and squeeze the juice and seeds out, then chop the tomatoes into a fine dice. Peel and seed the cucumber, and chop into a similarly sized dice. Combine the diced vegetables in a small bowl and add the mint, scallions. Whisk together the soaked sumac with the soaking liquid, lemon juice, honey, olive oil, garlic powder and salt. Combine with the vegetable mixture and toss to coat. Serve the salsa in a bowl next to a plate with the pita chips.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Trio of Classic Cocktails

Old Za Za cocktail
Old Za Za cocktail
They say April showers bring May flowers, but D.C. has it backwards this year. I saw plenty of flowers last month, and this month it has rained almost every day.

It's also not been particularly warm, so what would usually be an ideal time of year to sit outside and sip mojitos has instead pushed everyone indoors (it's no coincidence that I've noticed a lot of colds being passed around). So rain, cold and colds mean...time for a drink.

While we're sitting around inside wishing for sunny days of al fresco dining, why not try mixing up a classic cocktail you've never tried before? If you've mastered the Martini, Manhattan and Negroni, perhaps its time to seek out something else, something less well known.

The Boulevardier sounds like a wonderfully Old Hollywood drink, doesn't it? It's sort of like a Negroni but made with bourbon instead of gin, making it an ideal cold-to-warm (or warm-to-cold) weather transition drink. Robert Simonson's recent article on the drink pegs its origins to the late 1920s by writer and socialite Erskine Gwynne. His original version called for the drinks three ingredients--bourbon, sweet vermouth and Campari--in equal measure. As is typical for modern tastes, most recipes today employ a 2:1:1 ratio that doubles the proportion of bourbon.

Diamondback cocktail
Diamondback cocktail
I came across the Diamondback in Paul Clarke's The Cocktail Chronicles, an excellent book I wrote about last July. For whatever reason, I seem to be using a lot of yellow Chartreuse lately, and this is a nice simple drink of rye whiskey, apple brandy and chartreuse. Clarke doesn't tell us anything about the drink in the book, but his blog has a history of the drink, which he describes as an ideal intersection of rye whiskey and apple brandy. Clarke dates the drink to Ted Saucier's 1951 book, Bottoms Up. For my version, I added a couple dashes of bitters, following the lead of Doug Case, who wrote about the drink for his blog, Cold Glass, which includes the interesting tidbit that this was the house cocktail at the Lord Baltimore Hotel bar.

I found the Za Za Cocktail in Barflies and Cocktails, a cheeky little cocktail book published in Paris in 1927 by "Harry and Wynn," who were Harry McElhone of Harry's New York Bar (which is actually in Paris) and Wynn Holcomb, who was reporter and caricaturist (what a cool job) for the Paris edition of the New York Herald. Cocktail Kingdom resurrected and republished this little ditty in 2008 with an information introduction by David Wondrich (because if you're resurrecting a classic cocktail book, Wondrich is definitely the guy you want to write the foreword). The Za Za is the book's last drink, a simple libation credited to F. Newman (no idea who that is) that's 1/3 gin, 2/3 "Italian" (i.e. sweet) vermouth and 2 dashes of Pepson bitters, which I read were a forerunner to Dr. Pepper. Of course, I switched the proportion of gin and sweet vermouth, but then I made substation: I swapped out the gin for barrel-aged gin. The Za Za is basically a Manhattan made with gin, and you know I love Manhattans. So why not use barrel-aged gin in the Za Za, which is the closest gin can come to being whiskey? I call this drink the Old Za Za, and it's great. Got a nice woodsy quality to it.
Boulevardier cocktail
Boulevardier cocktail
Boulevardier

1 1/2 oz. bourbon (I used Buffalo Trace)
3/4 oz. sweet vermouth (I used Carpano Antica)
3/4 oz. Campari (I substituted Aperol, which is less bitter and more citrus)
Orange twist garnish

Combine bourbon, sweet vermouth and Campari (or Aperol) in a cocktail mixing glass with ice. Stir until very cold (about 1 minute), then strain into a chilled couple glass. Garnish with orange twist.


Diamondback

1 1/2 oz. rye whiskey (I used Rittenhouse)
3/4 oz. apple brandy (I used Laird's straight apple brandy)
3/4 oz. yellow Chartreuse
2 dashes Boker's bitters (optional, not in the original recipe)

Combine whiskey, brandy, Chartreuse and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass with ice. Stir until very cold (about 1 minute), then strain into a rocks glass with a single large ice cube. No garnish.


Old Za Za
A variation on the Za Za Cocktail, Barflies and Cocktails, 1927

2 oz. Few barrel gin
1 oz. Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash Regan's orange bitters
Bing cherry garnish

Combine gin, sweet vermouth and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass with ice. Stir until very cold (about 1 minute), then strain into a chilled couple glass. Garnish with cherry.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Balsamic Roasted Carrots with Za'atar

Balsamic Roasted Carrots

Observant readers may have noticed that Monday's salmon recipe came with a side of roasted carrots. Here's the recipe for them.

This is a simple recipe that makes use of za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend that contains ingredients such as thyme, sumac and sesame seeds (the specific ingredients of za'atar blends vary).

Baby carrots

This recipe calls for baby carrots. Note that "baby carrots" are young, full-size carrots and not the "baby-cut" snack carrots that have been peeled, cut and shaped into little stubs and bagged. They usually come with the green tops still attached. Smaller ones can be roasted whole; larger ones should be cut in half lengthwise.

Balsamic Roasted Carrots with Za'atar
Adapted from Balsamic Glazed Carrots by Cravings of a Lunatic

1 bunch baby carrots, tops removed, peeled if desired, larger carrots (at least 1/2-inch thick) cut in half lengthwise
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
6 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp. za'atar spice blend
2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

1. Preheat oven to 400 F.

2. Place carrots in a large bowl, add the olive oil and vinegar and toss until the carrots are coated. Spread carrots on an aluminum-foil-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with za'atar.

3. Roast the carrots for 20 minutes, then stir a bit with a spatula. Roast another 5 to 15 minutes, depending on how done you want the carrots (be sure they do not burn). Remove from oven and serve warm sprinkled with fresh parsley.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Roasted Salmon with Red Pepper-Hazelnut Salsa


What can I do with salmon that I haven't already done? That's a question that's sometimes hard to answer. After a long day at work, it's easy to fall back on something familiar and simple. I promise myself I'll do something more interesting next time.

Here's that "next time," a salmon recipe I adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, a wonderful work I talked about last year when I made its recipes for Beef and Lamb Meatballs Baked in Tahini and Fennel, Corn and Cherry Tomato Gratin.



The salsa is what makes this recipe great. A lot of fish salsas are made with raw ingredients, including fruit (especially mangoes). Here, the salsa is made from roasted red pepper and hazelnuts, a delicious combination that's perfect for salmon. The original recipe calls for pan-grilling the fish, which isn't a good option for my kitchen, since I don't have sufficient ventilation to deal with the smoke. So instead, I roasted the fish, which works great.




Roasted Salmon with Red Pepper-Hazelnut Salsa
Salsa adapted from Organic Salmon with Red Pepper and Hazelnut Salsa from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Serves 4

Salsa:

2 red bell pepper
2 tbsp. hazelnuts (note: although you only need 2 tbsp. for the salsa, I recommend roasting at least twice this much, so that you can get 1 tbsp. of nuts without any skin, since I find the skin difficult to get off about half the nuts I roast.)
Olive oil spray
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. minced fresh chives
1 garlic clove, minced
Zest and juice from 1lemon (Tip: remove the zest with a microplane first, then cut the lemon in half before juicing it.)

Fish:

1 1/2 lb. salmon fillet, skin removed
Olive oil spray
4 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

1.Preheat oven to 400 F. Quarter the peppers (i.e., slice them into large flat strips) and discard the seeds and inner membranes. Spray both sides of the pepper strips with olive oil and set on a baking sheet (line with aluminum foil for easy clean-up). Roast for 20 minutes until the peppers are softened and lightly charred. Transfer peppers to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap.

2. Spread the hazelnuts on another baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes (they can roast at the same time as the peppers, but remember they cook in half the time). Allow the nuts to cool a bit, then transfer to a clean kitchen towel. Fold the towel over the nuts and rub vigorous to remove the skins from the hazelnuts. Pick off any stray skin pieces with your fingers (note: this is why I recommend roasting twice as many nuts as needed for the recipe--save the rest for later, such as a snack or add to a salad). Chop the nuts coarsely and add to a small bowl.

3. After the peppers have cooled a bit (about 10 minutes), transfer them to a cutting board. With your fingers, remove and discard the peel (it might not all come off, which is fine). Chop the pepper into a fine dice and transfer to the small bowl with the nuts.

4. To the bowl with the chopped peppers and nuts, add olive oil, chives, garlic, lemon zest and juice, vinegar, salt and pepper. Stir to combine.

5. Increase oven temperature to 425 F.

6. Spray the salmon fillet with olive oil and place on an aluminum-foil-lined baking sheet. Roast in the oven for at least 12 minutes up to about 18 minutes depending on how cooked through you like the salmon (I like mine more cooked--remove the salmon at the 12-minute mark and check it for doneness by splitting it apart a a little with a knife). When done, remove the salmon from the oven, cut in half. Serve on plates topped with a scoop of the salsa and a sprinkle of fresh parsley.

Related
Cooking with Ottolenghi

Monday, May 9, 2016

Restaurant: The Source (Washington, D.C.)

The Source

Celebrity chefs are common now. It's easy to forgot that chefs used to simply run kitchens (if you can call that task "simple") without lending their name, face and personality to products, television shows and restaurant empires.

I remember when chefs first started becoming household names, and the name that I remember first learning was Wolfgang Puck. Not surprisingly, it's his mug that illustrates Wikipedia's Celebrity Chef page.

The Austrian immigrant became known for his first Los Angeles-area restaurant, Spago, a showcase for "California" cuisine. I was lucky enough to get to visit Spago in 2000, which was such a thrill for me at the time. Since its opening in 1982, Puck's empire quickly grew, making Asian fusion mainstream with Chinois and offering air travelers a better food option, including his great pizzas, at Wolfgang Puck Express, among his many concepts. His list of restaurants counts over 75 fine- and casual-dining establishments all over the world.

When Puck's The Source opened in 2007, it was a big deal. The restaurant is attached to The Newseum, a media-focused museum that relocated from suburban Arlington, Virginia to downtown Washington, D.C. on Pennsylvania Avenue, America's main street, just blocks away from the U.S. Capitol. At the time, our roster of local celebrity chefs was pretty lean, with José Andrés pretty much cornering that market in a time before Mike Isabella and Aaron Silverman. Chefs from other markets--like David Chang or Daniel Boulud had not yet opened establishments here (Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin opened Westend Bistro around the same time Puck opened The Source, however Ripert is no longer associated with the Bistro). So a celebrity chef of Puck's caliber opening a restaurant in D.C. was a really big deal. Not surprisingly, the restaurant's contemporary Chinese menu--executed then as it is now by Chef Scott Drewno--made headlines.

For whatever reason, we never had dinner at The Source until recently. There were plans from time to time, but they always seemed to fall through. We stopped in for drinks a few times though and were impressed with the cool vibe of the two-story space's modernist, minimalist decor framed by large glass windows (which unfortunately just look at the uninteresting back side of the D.C. Superior Courthouse--you can't have it all).

After last fall's decor and menu revamp, The Source is making headlines once again, having been re-reviewed by the Washington Post's Tom Sietsema and featured for a few months on Eater DC's Heatmap (it has since fallen off). We finally found time to visit The Source for a proper dinner.

Adios Nonino cocktail
Upon entering the restaurant, it didn't look that much different from what I remember. The light fixtures and furniture may have changed, but the space still has a sleek modern vibe. Plenty of smiles greeted us at the host station, and our always friendly server were quick to bring us menus so we could started with a round of drinks. Adios Nonino was our favorite cocktail, a citrusy concoction of bourbon, Aperol and amaretto that hits a nice sweet spot between an Amaretto Sour and a Boulevardier.  As the drinks were being made, our first taste arrived, an amuse of a warm steamed onion roll, a perfect start to a great meal.

Selection of Dim Sum
For our first course, we split a couple of starters. The Source has long been known for its dumplings, so it's hard to pass up the Selection of Dim Sum, which provides two tastes of four choices: Scallop Siu Mai, Pork Potsticker, Lobster Springroll and Chicken Dumpling. All were good, but of course we had our favorites. The spicy chicken dumpling stood out for its texture and kick. And the pork potsticker is like the classic dumpling available at any Chinese restaurant, except at The Source it's made to perfection, with its chewy wrapper thick enough to avoid it falling apart but thin enough that it recedes behind the meat filling. The lobster springroll, which looks like a little bag of goodies tied with some kind of edible twine (mushrooms, perhaps?) was also quite satisfying.

Korean Pear and Kale Salad
Want something fresh before diving into the entrees? The Korean pear and kale salad is perfect for this. The vibrant pile of greens is accented with marinated cucumbers, pickled radishes, sweaty-drop peppers, candied walnuts and a crispy slice of lotus root. The Source uses a light touch with its sesame-garlic dressing, all the better for letting the salad flavors really shine.

Top: Chili-Oil Poached Nordic Cod. Bottom: Fire-Roasted Pork Belly and Littleneck Clams
We're not usually seafood guys, but both of us ended up ordering entrees composed mostly or partly of seafood and neither disappointed us. The Nordic cod poached with chili oil was very good--tender, nicely seasoned with a good pepper flavor and not as hot and spicy as its name might imply. The side of lobster fried rice was fantastic--and large enough to share--and the wok-fried spring peas and asparagus were a perfectly seasonal accompaniment. Chris went the "surf-n-turf" route, a split entree of fire-roasted pork belly and littleneck clams. Both were tasty, especially those clams that soaked up all that wonderful smoky bacon flavor.

15 Layer Carrot Cake
Normally, we get one dessert and split it, but we must have been in a particularly piggy mood at The Source, because we ordered two desserts. All the better for sampling some pretty great treats. There was a definitely favorite of the two: the 15-Layer Carrot Cake, a sort of carrot version of the Smith Island Cake (Maryland's official state dessert!). The cake is composed of eight very thin layers of carrot cake with cream-cheese frosting between each of those layers, making for a deliciously rich cake. It's topped with candied nuts and creamy ginger ice cream, making for one of the best desserts we've had this year. The cake easily outclassed our other dessert, a banana bread pudding with peanut-caramel ice cream that was satisfying but not as memorable.

There were a couple of niggling issues I'd feel remiss not to mention. One was that the floor under our table was pretty dirty. Chris had to go the restroom to clean off his shoe after stepping in something rather sticky, and when I looked under the table there was an obvious collection of unswept food bits. The second is that the restaurant is really noisy. I know this is a trend in restaurants and I don't always mention it (Espita Mezcaleria was also very noisy, almost uncomfortably so), but it's becoming more a of problem, especially when its difficult to hear your server or your dining companion without shouting.

Those couple issues aside, The Source definitely delivered many more pluses than minuses, offering a  interesting and tasty menu with friendly, attentive service. I'm glad I finally got the scoop on what makes it a newsworthy night out.

The Source, 575 Pennsylvania Avenue NW (In The Newseum; separate entrance on 6th Street), Washington, D.C. (Penn Quarter). (202) 637-6100. Reservations: Open Table.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Star Wars Day: Dark Side Black Chocolate Cake

Star Wars Day: Dark Side Chocolate Frosted Cake
"Show me again the power of the darkness, and I'll let nothing stand in our way. Show me, grandfather, and I will finish what you started."
--Kylo Ren (a.k.a the grandson),
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
"Give yourself to the Dark Side. It is the only way you can save your friends. Yes, your thoughts betray you. Your feelings for them are strong. Especially for... sister. So, you have a twin sister. Your feelings have now betrayed her, too. Obi-Wan was wise to hide her from me. Now his failure is complete. If you will not turn to the Dark Side... then perhaps she will... "
--Darth Vader (a.k.a. the grandfather),
Return of the Jedi 
The force is strong in the Skywalker family. That much is certain. What's unfortunate is that it's not always the good side of the force--the side of the Jedi--but sometimes the dark side. Spoilers ahead, but I doubt there are many people with any interest in Star Wars that don't realize that Anakin Skywalker had two kids--Luke and Leia--then turned to the dark side and became Darth Vader. He later tried to recruit a young-adult Luke to the dark side. "Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son," implored Vader, moments after having chopped off Luke's hand. Family dysfunction isn't just universal, it's intergalactic apparently.

Dark side grandfather and grandson (background image from The Empire Strikes Back, from Wookieepedia). 
Luke, of course, had no interest in the dark side. But Luke's nephew, who's Leia's son and thus also Anakin's grandson, Ben Solo, took after his grandfather and joined the dark side, changing his name to Kylo Ren. Imagine if Darth Vader and Kylo could have joined up? They'd have gotten into some pretty serious dark-side stuff that I imagine is way different than anything most of us do when hanging out with grandparents. Stuff like blowing up planets, force-choking your opponents and hiring bounty hunters to help track down wayward adversaries.

Star Wars Day: Dark Side Chocolate Frosted Cake

And were those dark-side-of-the-force Skywalkers to accomplish those tasks, surely they would celebrate together afterwards with a cake like this. This is a black chocolate cake. Not a regular chocolate cake or a dark chocolate cake but honest-to-goodness black chocolate. Just to look at it is to feel as all the goodness of your soul is sucked out into the cake. Just like the dark side, it's very tempting. You'll want a slice. Trust me, it's useless to resist.

Hey there Star Wars good guys. This cake is not for you.

Star Wars fun aside, this is a wonderful cake, which I made as my birthday cake this year. The recipe is an adaptation of Sally's Baking Addiction's Triple Chocolate Layer Cake. Sally's cake was almost exactly what I was looking for when I wanted a dark, rich chocolate layer cake. I say almost because I wanted to push the chocolate even darker and richer. To do so, I substituted Dutch-processed cocoa for the natural cocoa called for in Sally's recipe. And not just any Dutch-processed cocoa, but black Dutch-processed cocoa (I used Cocoa Trader brand), which is as dark as cocoa gets. It's one of those "black" ingredients that's actually dark brown. This stuff is black as the night sky. I get scared just looking at it.


So what's the difference between natural and Dutch-processed cocoa? It's actually pretty important. Cocoa is naturally acidic, thus natural cocoa--for example, the kind Hershey's makes--is an acidic ingredient. Acid is an important element in the chemistry of many baked goods, which rely on the chemical reaction between an acid and a base to produce carbon dioxide. In the batter, the gas is trapped as thousands of tiny little bubbles, which provides "lift," making the cake (or cookies or bread) rise and become less dense. Without this, your baked goodies would have a very dense texture that, in most cases, would not be very appealing. One of the easiest places to see this reaction is in making buttermilk pancakes, which call for buttermilk (an acid) and baking soda (a base). As the batter cooks on the griddle, little bubbles form in the dough. I learned at a young age that when those bubbles start to burst, your pancake is ready to turn over, but what I didn't realize was that those bubbles were carbon dioxide formed by the chemical reaction between the buttermilk and baking soda in the batter.


In contrast to natural cocoa, Dutch-processed cocoa has been treated with an alkalizing agent. This makes the cocoa darker, but it also neutralizes its acidity. Thus, it won't react with baking soda to create lift, so something else must be added. That's where baking powder comes in. It's a mixture of baking soda and acid-salts, so it contains both a base and an acid. That's why if you add water to baking powder it fizzes, since the water activates the chemical reaction to produce carbon dioxide. Similarly, when you add water to baking soda, it doesn't fizz, since that acid-base reaction isn't occurring. This is also why baking powder isn't as shelf-stable as baking soda, since heat and moisture can cause baking powder to basically react with itself, rendering it less effective. So remember to replace your baking powder periodically, especially if you don't do much baking.


Sally specifically says not to use Dutch-processed cocoa in her recipe, since she formulated her leavening for natural cocoa. Elsewhere on her site, she has great discussions about both baking powder and soda and using natural vs. Dutch-processed cocoa. So, I don't doubt her at all when it comes to her recipe. That said, since I'm aware of the chemistry involved, I thought it would be a good cooking challenge to figure out how to adjust the leavening appropriately to account for Dutch-processed cocoa. Sally's original recipe called for both baking soda and baking powder. It also contains buttermilk, which is another acid. So in using Dutch-processed cocoa, I was only eliminating the acid from the cocoa, not all the acid in the recipe, as the buttermilk would still be reacting with the baking soda. I basically just needed a little additional baking powder to account for the lost acid in the cocoa.  After consulting with a coworker who's a baking pro, I figured that doubling the baking powder (from 1 to 2 tsp.) and cutting the baking soda (from 2 to 1 tsp.) would probably be enough to account for the difference. Turns out, this was right, as the cake rose a desired amount and produced the kind of cakey-rich texture I was hoping for.


The Dutch-processed cocoa is also used for the frosting. Here, the chemistry isn't important, since frosting doesn't "rise," the cocoa is just there for flavor and color. Be sure to use butter that's at room temperature for making the frosting. If you forget to set the butter out to warm up, proceed very cautiously if you use the microwave, since melted butter will not work for making a creamy frosting (if you do happen to melt it, you'll need to let it cool down and re-solidify before proceeding).


Dark Side Black Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Triple Chocolate Layer Cake by Sally's Baking Addiction

Note: 1: I've repeated Sally's weight-based measurements in grams, as I agree that measuring dried ingredients by weight is more accurate for baking and grams are more precise than ounces, since they are a smaller unit of measurement. I've also included the volume measures (i.e., cups), for those who do not have a kitchen scale (but I recommend getting one, as they are very useful).

Note 2: Black Dutch-processed cocoa can be found in some stores and online (I used Cocoa Trader brand). Dutch-processed cocoa is different from natural cocoa because the former has been treated to neutralize its acidity. Thus, when used in recipes, other acids must be present to react with baking soda or baking powder (which is both an acid and a base) may be substituted. The original recipe called for natural cocoa, but since I used Dutch-processed, I had to adjust the leavening to account for the different chemistry. To do this, I doubled the amount of baking powder and reduced by half the amount of baking soda. You can make this recipe with any Dutch-processed cocoa; it doesn't have to be the black kind. However, if you substitute natural cocoa--like Hershey's--you'll need to adjust the baking soda and baking powder amounts back to the original recipe.

Note 3: Used a stand mixer for making the cake batter and frosting. If you don't have one, instead, use a large bowl and a hand mixer.

Cake:

About 2 tsp. unsalted butter, softened, for buttering the cake pans
220 grams (1 3/4 cup) all-purpose flour, plus extra for the cake pans (see note 1 above)
350 grams (1 3/4 cup) sugar
65 grams (3/4 cup) black Dutch-processed cocoa powder (see note 2 above)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee

Frosting:

2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
360 grams (3 cups) powdered (confectioner's) sugar (Sally's recipe called for using 3 to 4 cups, depending on how thick you want the frosting; I like a little thinner frosting, as I find it easier to spread of the cake)
65 grams (3/4 cup) black Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1/4 tsp. salt (or more to taste)
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Prepare two 9-inch round cake pans by buttering both pans, placing a round piece of parchment in the bottom of each pan, buttering the parchment, then flouring the pans with the parchment in place (refer to this Cook-In 101 primer on baking cakes if you need more in-depth instructions on this method of prepping cake pans).

3. Whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium-size bowl.

4. In the bowl of a stand mixer (see note 3 above), combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs and vanilla extract and mix on medium-high speed until combined. Reduce the speed to low and slowly add the combined dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in the mixer bowl, then add the coffee. Stop the mixer, scrape down the sides with a spatula, then turn the mixer back on to make sure the ingredients are evenly blended. The resulting batter will be quite thin, which is expected.

5. Pour the batter evenly into the two two prepared cake pans. Lightly tap the pans on the counter (this is make sure there are no large air pockets). Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of each cake comes out clean, about 23 to 27 minutes (my cakes were done and perfect at 23 minutes, but you may need longer). Set the cakes on individual round cooling racks and allow to cool for about 15 minutes.

6. Using a plastic knife, carefully run the knife around the edge of the cakes to separate them from the sides of the pan, Set an inverted round cooling rack on top of the cake, then carefully invert the cake and the rack. Slowly remove the cake pan, leaving an upside-down cake on top of the cooling rack. Repeat with the other cake. Carefully remove and discard the parchment rounds. Allow the two cakes to cool completely before frosting.

7. Make the frosting: Add the butter to the bowl of a stand mixer (clean it out first if you're using the same bowl you made the cake batter in) and beat on high until very creamy, about 5 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add the powdered sugar, cocoa powder and salt to the butter. Add the vanilla and the cream on low speed, then, once incorporated, increase speed to medium and beat for about a minute. Stop the mixer, scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, and beat a little bit more until the frosting is evenly mixed.

8. To frost the cake: Place the first cake right-side-up so the flat surface that was on the bottom of the cake pan is touching the cake plate. Using a spatula (preferably a metal offset spatula), spread about 1/3 of the frosting on top of the cake in an even layer. Invert second cake layer and carefully slide it on top of the frosting, so that the flat surface that was on the bottom of the cake pan is now on top. Spread about 1/3 of the frosting on top in an even layer, then spread the rest of the frosting on the sides of the cake, adding the remaining 1/3 of frosting to the cake and smoothing the frosting by holding the spatula vertically and moving it along the side of the cake. Even the top with the spatula. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Eat within 7 days (shouldn't be a problem).

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