All has never been quite so well with my soul as it is right now, with a big mug of coffee in hand and a sliver of Mocha-Frosted Cake in front of me. If you know me at all, then you are probably aware that a coffee dessert will get me more excited than finding a substitute teacher for my homeschool.
And I'm a little bit in love with this one. The coffee dessert, that is. Not the homeschool.
A few weeks back, four generations of my family ate together at The Grit, Athens' beloved vegetarian restaurant, to celebrate my birthday, and I remember nothing from that day quite as clearly as I recall my first bite of their Mocha Cake. The wedge of cake was huge, far too much to eat in one sitting, and I brought the leftovers home to share with The Carnivore that night, but, of course, devoured it by myself when he wasn't looking. The cake was luscious in that way only a good homemade cake can be, rich and dense, tasting of butter and vanilla and sugar, but it was the mocha frosting that took my breath away. It was crazy-sweet, almost painfully so at first, but the flavor was something to swoon over. The coffee and the cocoa came through so perfectly, so exquisitely, that within a few hours I was digging through my copy of The Grit Cookbook to see if the recipe was in there.
It was not.
I was horrified. This was the kind of thing that I wasn't going to be able to live without, but at $4 a pop for a piece of cake, I didn't see living off take-out portions in my future. So I did what any industrious techno-savvy girl would do. I went to Facebook and updated my status, pleading for the recipe. And before you think I'm crazy, that this doesn't seem the best way to obtain a restaurant recipe, well, you might not be familiar with Athens. See, The Grit isn't such an institution around here just because we love their food (though that is true enough). It is just One of Those Places, you know? The kind of place that has been around pretty close to forever, has an offbeat personality that almost perfectly mirrors that of the town, and has employed something like 86.9% of all local musicians and artists through the years.
And we take our local musicians and artists very seriously around here. Athens is a little bit like high school, you see, except that in this case, The Geeks and The Freaks are the popular ones. It is a very endearing quality in a city.
I wasn't terribly worried about getting a hold of the recipe. At least a few handfuls of the people I know have worked there at some point (this is rather a small town), and The Carnivore does work on their building occasionally, bringing home treats and goodies for me and the kids.
There are ample variations of mocha frosting online, of course, but it was the one from The Grit that I wanted, and so I reached out. And within a few minutes, a handful of the best friends a girl could have were weighing in and giving me some options. In the most bizarre twist though, my old friend Becky found the recipe in Her Copy of The Grit Cookbook.
It isn't in my copy. I checked four times. She claims her copy is an anniversary edition, but I'm not sure I believe her and I didn't really have the urge to delve too deeply into that particular part of this saga anyhow. I just wanted to bake the cake.
Of course more roadblocks raised their heads. Nothing can ever be so simple that I eat a piece of cake, find the recipe in the restaurant's cookbook, and then come home and duplicate it myself. This time, it was the cake batter that tripped me up. The frosting recipe in Becky's Extra-Super-Special-Limited-Edition version of the cookbook was not associated with a particular cake, and the book lists a handful of their different batter recipes.
I skipped over Facebook this time and dialed the restaurant directly. "I want to bake your mocha cake," I told the person on the other end of the line, "but the cookbook does not mention which cake batter is used."
"It goes on the Chocolate Death Cake," she replied.
And I started to silently recite mild curse words in my head. "But," I began, "When I had the cake a few weeks ago in the restaurant, it was on a white cake."
Silence on the other end.
Then, "Nooooo," she said. "It would have been on the Chocolate Death Cake." [Pause]. "Unless," she went on, slowly, "Unless we were just playing around and trying something new."
I bit my tongue painfully for a moment, and then, in a pained voice, said, "Do you know which cake it might have been on then?"
More silence on the other end.
One of two things happens to me in situations like this. Either I dig my heels in and refuse to give up, plowing forward until I get to some conclusion, any conclusion, whether correct or not; or I walk away on the spot, fully absolving myself of the matter and refusing to ever bring up the subject again.
There is no middle ground. And the decision is always immediate.
I felt fully vested in this cake though, and I was starting to take the whole thing just a little personally. So I packed the kids in the car and went out to buy a pound of butter. When The Boy Wonder asked what we were doing, I gritted my teeth and told him we were going to bake a cake. Right away. He brightened up and said, in the most heartwarmingly cheerful voice I've ever heard, "You're finally going to get your birthday cake, Mama?"
I'm telling you, I love that little guy so much it makes my heart hurt.
Choosing a cake batter turned out to be relatively simple once it was all said and done. I knew I wanted a cake that was moist, but was not spiced, and was not chocolate, which narrowed down my choices in their cookbook until I ended up with the batter for their Vanilla Malted Cake.
By dinnertime, I had a three-layer cake sitting on the counter, slathered more than generously with the mocha frosting. After three weeks of bellyaching about this cake, I finally had it. It was right there on my counter.
And I was afraid to cut into it. Something about knowing how much butter and sugar went into it was really messing with my head.
It's not easy being me.
The cake did turn out perfectly, thank God. Even though I ripped the layers a little bit getting them out of the pans, and despite the way they each cooked up lopsided so that one side was higher in each layer, and overlooking the fact that I unevenly iced the layers, this cake is a wondrous thing.
I know there is untold disagreement on when a cake is at it's best. Some say cakes are always better on the day they are made, and then there are those in my camp that feel strongly cakes improve with an overnight rest. Please believe me on this one though: this cake is much better the second day. The cake layers seem somehow denser to me, and the frosting has hardened up just a little, enough to get those kind of delicately crispy peaks that make it so much fun to eat cake.
The coffee flavor of this frosting is heavenly to a coffee nut like myself, with the same delicate intensity of Haagen-Dazs coffee ice cream, but, um, even sweeter from the ungodly amounts of confectioners' sugar that are used. Every bite tastes of butter and sugar and vanilla and coffee. I can't think of a better combination.
MOCHA-FROSTED CAKE (adapted from The Grit Cookbook, serves at least 12)
- 1 cup butter, at room temperature
- 2 cups sugar
- 4 eggs, at room temperature
- 3 cups sifted cake flour
- 1 Tbs baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Grease three 9-inch round cake pans. Grease them liberally. And then grease them a little bit more. Then dust with a considerable amount of flour, shaking out the excess.
- Using an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
- Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
- Stir together the milk, oil and vanilla extract.
- Add flour mixture to butter mixture alternately with milk mixture, beating after each addition, just until smooth.
- Divide batter evenly (or close to evenly) into those 3 heavily-greased pans.
- Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the layers comes out clean. Take care not to overbake.
- Remove from oven, cool for about 10 minutes, then remove layers from pans (run a knife along the edges, and gently use a spatula to loosen if necessary) and allow to cool completely.
- Freezing the layers for about 5 minutes before frosting them will help them to hold together better and not get crumbs everywhere. Trust me.
- 1 cup butter, at room temperature
- 2 lb powdered sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 Tbs instant coffee granules
- 2 Tbs cocoa
- 2 to 6 Tbs soymilk or whole milk
- Beat butter at medium speed in an electric mixer until creamy.
- Stir in sugar, beating until combined.
- Dissolve instant coffee in vanilla and a tiny bit of water.
- Add coffee mixture and cocoa to the butter mixture, stirring until combined.
- At medium speed, add soymilk or whole milk, starting with 2 Tbs, and adding more as needed (1 Tbs at a time) until spreadable consistency is achieved.
- Frost between layers, and top and sides of cake.