Sunday, May 22, 2005

Dirt Cake

On certain very special occasions, my pal Sharlene (yes, the glamourpuss who got the original red velvet cake, below) will whip up her mother Mavis's famous Dirt Cake. It's trompe l'oeil, central-Illinois style: You fill a flowerpot with layers of chocolate cake and chocolate pudding, top it with chocolate icing and then add a thick layer of crumbled chocolate-cake crumbs. Then you poke flowers into the "dirt"--either real ones or, if you're really gifted, fake ones made out of marzipan or fondant. It should look as realistic as possible, in order to make your guests really freak out when you stick your fingers into the pot and start happily licking the "dirt" off your hands.

Why Dirt Cake? Well, I was at the Union Square Greenmarket yesterday, and there was a book-signing going on for a great new book called
You Grow Girl
, written by nifty Canadian Gayla Trail. 5 years ago, Trail started a website by the same name--a kind of virtual gardening club for funky urban homemakers. Now, the many tips, tricks, and helpful hints she's learned over the years are collected in a delightful, very user-friendly book. Whether you've got an overgrown backyard or just a teeny fire escape, this book will make you want to get out there and get dirty. Click on the link, over on the right, to get more info and find like-minded grow girls in your neighborhood.

Right now, I fall into the teeny (and mostly) shady fire-escape camp, so I'm doing more baking than gardening. But if I don't have dirt, I do have chocolate, so I spent Saturday afternoon whipping up a batch of devil's food cupcakes (from a recipe in a recent issue of Cooks Illustrated) to take to a little backyard get-together in Park Slope.

Do you know this magazine? The obsessive recipe testers at CI are the copy editors of the food world, fending off the sloppy, dump-and-taste barbarians with single-minded scientific devotion. An article about something completely ordinary, like mac and cheese or roast chicken, always starts with a line like "To find out the truly best way to roast a chicken, we spent three months roasting over 500 chickens in our test kitchen." And then they'll tell you, in insanely nit-picky detail, how they explored each tiny variable, probably in between scrubbing every strip of grout on their bathroom tile with a toothbrush and re-alphabetizing the spice rack.

Well, modern medication is a wonderful thing. I hadn't really thought that cupcakes needed their own recipe--isn't it enough just to slop a regular cake batter into a muffin pan?--but clearly, the cupcake question had been keeping the Ritalin-fired CI staff up nights. And the recipe's pretty damn good, as it should be with chocolate, cocoa, butter AND sour cream in there.

If you want the dirt-cake look, you can crumble up one of the cupcakes and sprinkle the crumbs over the icing, adding edible or sugar flowers on top.

Sweet Little Cupcakes, Baked by the Devil
aka Devil's Food Cupcakes

1 stick butter (4 oz)
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I like Droste)
2 oz. bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate (i.e., stuff you'd eat by itself, not unsweetened baking chocolate)
2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract or strong coffee
3/4 cup flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup sour cream (4 oz, or half a small-size carton) or plain yogurt, or buttermilk

In a double boiler (or a metal bowl set over a pot of simmering water), melt the chocolate, butter, and cocoa together. When everything's melted, stir until smooth, then remove the bowl and let it cool until the chocolate mixture is just barely warm.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 and line a 12-cup muffin pan with those cute little paper liners. Then beat the eggs, sugar, and vanilla together in a big bowl, and sift or whisk together the dry ingredients in a smaller bowl. When the chocolate's cooled off, scrape it all out with the rubber spatula into the eggs and beat together. Add about half the flour mix, stir, add sour cream, stir, then add rest of the flour and mix gently again. Scoop your lovely, gloopy dark-choc batter evenly into the muffin cups. Bake 20 minutes, or just until a cake tester comes out clean from the center of the cupcakes. Don't overbake! Let cool on a rack, and don't ice until they are perfectly room-temp.

Quickie chocolate icing

1/2 stick butter, really soft
4 TB unsweetened cocoa
1 TB coffee, rum, vanilla--whatever you like
1 cup powdered sugar

Beat soft butter with cocoa, then add the coffee, rum or whatever. Beat in sugar--if it looks too dry or clumpy, add some more coffee or a little warm water. Beat until fluffy. At first taste, it might seem way too sweet, but it will mellow after an hour or so, so don't start doctoring it until you've let it sit around for a while. Makes enough to lavishly ice a dozen cupcakes.

Songs for Dirt Cake

1. Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, "These Foolish Things"
2. Brooke Benton and Dinah Washington, "You've Got What It Takes"
3. Bow Wow Wow, "I Want Candy"
4. Romeo Nelson, "Gettin' Dirty (Just Shakin' That Thing)
5. the theme song from Brooklyn cable-access cooking show Post-Punk Kitchen


esther said...

Dirt cake sounds sooo cool.
What sort of chocolate pudding is in it? One of those gloopy ones?

Oh I wanna rush home and make cupcakes now but I gotta work more. damnit.

but thanks...

Stephanie J. Rosenbaum said...

Hey there Esther--thanks for your note! As for the Dirt Cake details, I've emailed my pal Shar for a refresher on how she (and her mom) actually made it. I'll post more stuff when she gets back to me. I seem to remember that gummy worms (coming out of the "dirt") might have been involved, too....

Shar said...

well Steph, you know you are MY pie queen, anyway it's actually best with vanilla pudding. You grind chocolate sandwich cookies until they look like top soil. and you prepare vanilla pudding -- and I need to ask Mavis but I swear that she puts more than the average cup of milk in it. Okay this is from memory and I bet I am missing something but here goes:
If you prefer- line a medium-small flower pot with foil (if it's new and clean you can skip this). Make vanilla pudding and fold in any extra creamy stuff you can find. Cream cheese for sure, heck throw in some cool whip or sour cream, yogurt. If you spend less than $20 just on the dairy alone then you are doing something wrong. 2 cream cheese bricks I think.
Put a layer of cookie soil, then pudding then soil then pudding and top with at least an inch of soil. Some young mothers thought they'd get fancy and add gummy worms and the like. This makes for good magazine pictures but really when you are eating it they only get in the way and distract your taste buds from the cream and chocolate essence.
so soil on top and serve with a new hand shovel. It's taste better than it looks or sounds. It's really delicious. OH and yes the Mama Mavis way is (again not fancy but purist) you pluck a real flower with leaves and all, wrap the bottom in plastic wrap so as not to dirty the pudding and you stick it in. In our family the point was to trick people not just feed them.

esther said...

wow.. that sounds absolutely awesome. cream cheese too? eeks.

I'm still not sure exactly what is meant by pudding.. i think this must be some kinda americanism that I'm missing. I'm thinking one of those packet things that you set in the fridge?

Stephanie J. Rosenbaum said...

Ah, yes--pudding in the specific American sense, not the Aussie/Brit sense. Here, pudding means a specific creamy dessert, made from milk with sugar and flavoring (vanilla or chocolate), thickened over heat with cornstarch (cornflour) or sometimes eggs, then chilled in the fridge. Or, of course, you can make the instant or quick-cook kind, from the little boxes of powdered mix sold in the supermarket.