"Homemade layer cakes seem to have gone the way of the spotted owl," writes Seattle-area chef Greg Atkinson in his book, West Coast Cooking.
It is an unfortunate but true statement about the state of our dessert plate; however, given my woeful skills in cake construction and icing art, I'll hold off from leading the charge on a layer-cake revival movement.
I'm more troubled by Atkinson's other crumb-y argument: "If it weren't for birthdays and all the contingent nostalgia, we probably wouldn't have homemade cakes at all."
He's right, y'all. The homemade cake is at risk of disappearing from our cultural landscape much like the 8-track tape, and the idea of a country without a cake-from-scratch future is downright disturbing.
What is it about home-baked cake that has our citizens running for the hills of the supermarket aisles, flush with boxes of instant-presto cake mix? Everyone knows the add-water-to-powder version isn't tastier or more elegant. Is it an aversion to electric beaters? A fear of (cake) falling? A malaise over mixing bowls?
I just don't understand.
As a card-carrying member of the single-layer cake club, I empathize with reticent home bakers in search of cakey simplicity and ease. Some of my two-layered projects of the past were unfit for human eyes (or consumption), but instead of throwing in the batter towel, I make one layer and help keep the cake alive in America.
I recently discovered the ultimate in homemade cake simplicity -- a batter without beaters or bowls, replaced with a whisk, a saucepan and a half-pint of Guinness.
Although far from my favorite choice at the pub, the Guinness works magic in this stove-top batter, lending warm, spicy notes and a right-on dampness that yields the most luscious chocolate cake to ever grace my lips -- and perhaps the answer to saving the homemade cake from extinction.
Chocolate Guinness cake
From Feast by Nigella Lawson
1 cup Guinness stout
1 stick unsalted butter (alternatively, equal amounts of Earth Balance shortening), sliced
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups granulated sugar (superfine, if possible)
3/4 cup sour cream (alternatively, plain yogurt)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
8 ounces cream cheese
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and line bottom with parchment paper.
Pour Guinness into a large saucepan, add butter and heat until melted, then remove from heat. Whisk in cocoa powder and sugar. In a small bowl, beat sour cream with eggs and vanilla, then pour into brown, buttery, beery mixture, and finally whisk in flour and baking soda. Make sure flour is integrated.
Pour cake batter into greased and lined pan, and bake for 45 minutes to an hour (check at 45 minutes for doneness, poking a skewer in center). Leave to cool completely in the pan on a cooling rack, as it is quite a damp cake.
When cake is cold, gently peel off parchment paper and transfer to a platter or cake stand. Place cream cheese and confectioners' sugar into a mixing bowl, and whip with an electric beater, until smooth. (Also easily done with a food processor.)
Add cream and beat again until you have a spreadable consistency.
Ice top of cake, starting at middle and fanning out, so that it resembles the frothy top of the famous pint. Yields about 12 slices.