I recently had the opportunity to dine at what I call a “hoity toity” restaurant here in Florida’s Palm Beach district. While I didn’t get a glimpse of Donald Trump or Jimmy Buffett, I did get a taste of the food they eat on a regular bases while dining out.
I have no complaints about the food in general, in fact both the Sous Chef and Head Chef there are friend’s of mine and produce absolutely excellent dishes equal to any famous ‘Top Chef’. When I started my own restaurant in the Florida Keys a decade ago, both had volunteered their recipe knowledge and culinary skills in my start up .
The meal went well, my fellow dinner guest raved and wished they could get the recipes… until desert came.
While there were a number of choices, the ‘Old fashioned chocolate cake’ was pushed on us by our server. She exclaimed it was made from scratch by the Pastry Chef from an old passed down recipe. We didn’t doubt her so most of the table ordered the cake.
When it arrived on its small golden rimmed white china plate drizzled with chocolate and caramel sauce in fancy artistic patterns something seemed strange about it. It was perfect. I mean absolutely perfect.
I know some of you have had the chance to see or watch videos on how food is photographed. Rarely, if ever is real food used. Real food looks terrible through a camera lens. Nothing looks worse on TV than seeing a cheaply done commercial for some local restaurant using it’s own real food. The colors are off and meat becomes an object of unrecognizable origin. Pizza looks like a plastic Play-Doh disc a kid made.
This dessert had the appearance of the perfect stand in ones used by the professional food video industry. But… I figured since the much bragged about Pastry Chef made it from scratch, it may just taste as good as it looked. Maybe he was just incredibly good. I figured wrong!
Partway through the silent dessert session, I looked up and glanced at my fellow dinners. Each face showed a different expression. Some looked puzzled, others like they had already over eaten and were eating only out of politeness and others took a bite or two and stopped and like me, looked at the others. I swear, the Old fashioned chocolate cake was nothing more than a Sara Lee job with fancy artwork drizzles over it. Finally someone spoke up loud enough for half the restaurant to hear. “This cake taste like crap!”
All at once everyone agreed and began putting in their own two cents. The server, upon overhearing our comments quietly made her way back to the kitchen. She returned moments later trailing behind the huffy looking Pastry Chef. He stopped and with mocking politeness asked if we had a problem with the desert. The look he gave us was saying, “You better say it was excellent or I’ll kill you with my wildly overgrown Scottish eyebrows.”
Figuring my fellow guest lives were in jeopardy, I flung myself at him as the sacrificial goat offering.
“We we’re just wondering about the cake,” I said, “Our server told us it was home made from a passed down family recipe of yours. Our taste buds say different and wanted to know if you would tell us which food purveyor you used to purchase it.”
The Scottish eyebrows scrunched, quivered violently and as if having a life of their own, grew in size and became even more disheveled. He sputtered for a few seconds, then realizing we may just have a bit of food knowledge ourselves, turned and stomped back into the kitchen without uttering a word.
“Well,” I said, “I think I just offended Scrooge McDuck.”
The thing is folks, DON’T ever try and pass off an institutional premade food as ‘Home Made’, your dinner guest will know you’re trying to snooker ‘em.
To prove my point, Many ‘Home made’ recipes are not anywhere near as complicated as those premade ones. Ingredients used in many of the institutional recipes are not even readily available to the average cook. I use ‘Cook’ instead of ‘Chef’ because I still hold that only a school trained cook should title themselves as a Chef. But, that doesn’t mean cooks are less qualified by any means in producing a great dish. In fact the famous BBQ sauce maker, Stubbs, proudly proclaims on each bottle, “Lady and gentlemen, I am a Cook!” But I digress.
If you question whether or not those strange sounding additives in an institutional recipe change the flavor, ( or are even good for you) I challenge you to make this old fashioned ‘from scratch’ chocolate cake and compare it to the taste, texture and post dining sugar / caffeine rush of the store bought variety. I think your Grandma would approve of the homemade one and you can honestly tell your guest, “It’s from scratch”!
Real, from scratch, Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake*
Preheat oven to 350
1 ½ cups of all purpose unbleached flour
1 cup of granulated sugar
3 Tablespoons of cocoa powder
½ teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of vanilla
1 Tablespoon of vinegar
½ cup of melted butter
1 cup of warm water
In a large mixing bowl, mix all dry ingredients until well blended. Set aside.
In a smaller bowl, using a fork, whip the wet ingredients together until blended.
Making a depression in the middle of the dry ingredients, slowly pour the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry ingredients. Mix the wet and dry ingredients together using the fork.
Do not whip, just blend them well.
Pour into greased and floured cake tins. (I still don’t trust the non stick stuff.)
Place in the ovens middle rack and bake for 30 minutes.***
When finished, remove from cake tins and cool on a cooling rack.
When cooled, use a bread knife to slice off the rounded top of one of the finished cakes. Use this shaved cake as the bottom layer. Place the rounded unshaved one as the top when frosting the cake.
* This chocolate layer cake recipe is from my collection of heritage recipes. Modern measurements have replaced the originals (eg; a tad bit of cocoa, a few spoonfuls of butter, a scoop of sugar…)
** In the ‘olden days’, fresh eggs were not always available, especially out west. It was common to use vinegar mixed with milk to prevent crumbling. The vinegar soured and curdled the milk bonding the flour together.
*** Use a toothpick to determine doneness. Each oven bakes differently. When inserted into the middle of the cake, the toothpick should come out dry.
Cocoa chocolate frosting
10 Tablespoons of very soft room temperature of butter
5 cups of powdered sugar
1 ½ teaspoons of vanilla
15 Tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder
½ cup of milk (hold back 2 Tablespoons of milk and add as needed while mixing to achieve desired thickness)
Beat the butter in a large mixing bowl until fluffy. Slowly add ½ of the powdered sugar amount (2-3 cups) and mix well. Beat in 6 Tablespoons of milk and add vanilla. When well blended, add the cocoa powder and remaining powdered sugar. Beat well until desired consistency is found. If too thick, add the last of reserved milk as needed.
Apply to cooled cake ( ¼ inch in thickness) then chill cake until frosting sets up.
How to frost a cake ; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1ZAcSazfvE