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The Devil’s Food is in the Details

Melissa Clark has published an over-the-top cake recipe for the New York Times this week with two frostings and a demo video in her usual breezy style. The devil’s food cake, one of my favorite kinds, is pretty enough, and it looks like a fun idea, but… two homemade buttercream-type frostings? What kind of cake recipe is she using, and how does it compare with my usual (dare I say it) Duncan Hines?

I checked out the recipe itself and did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation on the basic nutrition stats–carbs, fat, sodium, calories–then stared at it for a minute and wondered if I could possibly have been right.

Because the total I was coming up with was scary:  more than 1000 calories per serving for 10 servings. Half a day’s calories crammed into one piece of chocolate cake. It was about twice what I would have estimated looking at the photo. I mean it LOOKS pretty standard, if a little tall, on that cake stand. But 1000-plus calories per slice? Are you kidding? Had to be wrong.

So I went to the recipe nutrition calculator at myfitnesspal.com and tried it again. And it confirmed again that the recipe is indeed over-the-top, and over 1000 calories per tenth of the cake. What’s gone wrong here?

Here’s Clark’s recipe in the New York Times online for reference:

Devil’s Food Cake With Black Pepper Buttercream

and here’s what I saved off the nutrition calculator for everything–the cake plus both frostings:

Nutrition stats for Melissa Clark's 2-frosting devil's food cake for 10

Nutrition stats for Melissa Clark’s 2-frosting devil’s food cake for 10 people Calculated using myfitnesspal.com, 5/5/2014. Click the image to enlarge as needed, the numbers are still pretty scary.

My crude estimates, based on experience from having to calculate carbs in baked goods for a diabetic kid, were very close to the online calculator totals, within about 2o calories per serving and within 2-5% for each of the other stats.

And although it’s good to know my arithmetic and skepticism skills haven’t gotten rusty in the past month or so of trying hard not to bake, I think the nutrition chart above really tells you what’s going on in the world of popular recipe publishing today, particularly for American baking.

So let’s hit it over the head once more, because it’s still ridiculous: The first thing to think is, geeeeeeezzzzzz, over 1000 calories per serving.

How does Clark keep so thin? Did she actually eat a whole piece of this thing, or just pose for the photographer?

A 1/10th wedge of cake is a pretty big slice to begin with, and this cake is six layers tall–three full pans, cut crosswise in halves–for a standard-diameter round cake. In the accompanying demo video, Clark explains that the extra layers give you more room for frosting. “And isn’t that the best part?” she quips.

Well–I guess if you really like buttercream. She’s got both a vanilla-and-black-pepper buttercream AND a whipped chocolate ganache frosting. Does devil’s food cake really need so much dressing up to be good?

But here’s the added cost per serving: 111 grams of carb (about 2 meals’ worth), 86 grams of which are sugar. That’s 21 teaspoons of sugar per slice. A full day’s worth. 71 grams of mostly-saturated fat. Three full days’ worth.

Pro chefs excuse themselves for this kind of thing by calling their food “indulgent” or “decadent”. But this isn’t just excess, it’s mindless excess that doesn’t really add to the flavor or quality of the kind of dessert it’s supposed to be.

If you look at just the frosting ingredients, we’re talking 4 sticks of butter and 2 1/2 cups of sugar. The cake itself contains another stick-plus of butter and almost another two cups of sugar. So 5 sticks of butter and 4 1/2 cups of sugar total, or about half a stick of butter and half a cup of sugar per person, if you serve 1/10th cake as suggested. That puts it way into Paula Deen territory. Maybe even beyond Paula Deen.

I have to ask: Can’t we do a little better and still be decadent? Do we really need all that excess goo for it to be an okay cake?

It’s not that the frostings or even the cake are terrible-tasting or artificial or bland–she uses a whole real vanilla bean in the buttercream.  But it’s an awful lot of fat and sugar piled up with cake included merely as the excuse for the frosting.

That kind of tells you that the cake itself isn’t so hot. I’d rather have a smaller piece of a really good, really chocolate cake with more intense flavor per bite and no actual need to rely on frosting for interest. Something like Alice Medrich‘s revamped, lower fat Reine de Saba-style cakes (“Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake” and “Bittersweet Deception,” neither of which contain any butter) from Bittersweet, which she’s just reissued as Seriously Bittersweet. Or even David Lebovitz’s chocolate-butter-sugar-eggs flourless chocolate cake, which he’s dubbed “Chocolate Idiot Cake.”

If the cake’s just there as a frosting vehicle, why not be honest? I’d rather skip the cake and make dessert some intense ganache truffles to eat in smaller quantity with strong coffee. And even then I’d cut back on the fat and sugar so I could concentrate on the flavor.

If you are going to try and make some version of Melissa Clark’s cake, you really need to cut it down to size. In my two public performances exploring The Sacher Torte and the Madness of Crowds” I’ve confirmed that in practice, half-inch slices of tall, multiply-frosted cake are plenty and then some for most of the people who go for it. So I think smaller is achievable. So is getting back to the standard 2 round pans of cake, not three, which Clark was mostly doing for looks and stunt value. Certainly not for added flavor.

But even then, 1/10th of the cake would be in the 600-700 calorie range. Ouch! It’s just too rich for what it’s supposed to be.

So the real thing you have to do with a Paula Deen-style special like Melissa Clark’s recipe is to take at least one stick of butter out of it, possibly two or three, and at least a cup of sugar as well. You already know this.

Do you really need a stick and a quarter of butter in the cake itself? Actually, most of the from-scratch cakes I’ve ever eaten that were heavy on the butter were just plain…heavy. Devil’s food cake is basically a springy dark chocolate genoise that relies on eggs, not butter, for its body. The applesauce ploy (half a cup, unsweetened) works beautifully in place of the usual oil in the Duncan Hines devil’s food box mix. The cake comes out tasting plenty chocolatey and it’s moist and springy. So applesauce, maybe supplemented with a dollop of yogurt, would probably work just fine subbing for butter in a from-scratch cake too.

Do you really need to add a whole stick of butter, or any, to the chocolate frosting, which otherwise is a more sophisticated and easier-to-make ganache of cream and chocolate? Will butter really add flavor, or just extra volume as a greasy filler while diluting the chocolate flavor? I think we know the answer to that.

The vanilla-pepper buttercream: does it really need to be a buttercream frosting (3 sticks of butter just for this, plus 5 egg whites and a cup of sugar)? Couldn’t you make a lighter vanilla pastry cream or pudding with the same accent flavors, and maybe add some fresh strawberry slices or raspberries in the layers for better contrast and brightness? It would be less tricky to get right, it would take less working time, it could be substantially less sugary and still good, and it would taste and look fresher and fancier for less actual work and a lot fewer calories. And strawberries go pretty well with cracked black pepper if you were hanging onto that motif. And they’re coming into season here in California.

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