The Cake Couldn't Hold It Together: Chocolate Stout Layer Cake with Chocolate Frosting

One of my favorite annual traditions is going to Shenandoah for a weekend in November to celebrate our friend Jim's birthday. Part of this tradition involves making Jim a birthday cake; the only constant for his birthday dessert is that it always involves chocolate (as you can see from his previous birthday cakes: a sweet and salty chocolate cake; a cocoa layer cake; a devil's food white-out cake; chocolate souffl├ęs; and a double chocolate layer cake).

This year I had a hectic work schedule leading up to the trip, so making a cake in advance and bringing it with us wasn't an option. I was going to have to bake the cake at our rented cabin, which made me nervous -- I get performance anxiety whenever I bake in someone else's kitchen. I decided to try a recipe for Chocolate Stout Layer Cake with Chocolate Frosting.

One of the reasons I chose this recipe is that it's pretty straightforward and I thought it would be easy to execute at the cabin. To make the cake, you cream room temperature butter and sugar; add egg yolks; mix in lukewarm melted unsweetened chocolate, stout, and brewed coffee; and incorporate the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt). I used Milk Stout Nitro from Left Hand Brewing for the cake because I was able to buy a single bottle in the beer room at our Whole Foods (and no chocolate stout was available).

I divided the cake batter between two greased pans, baked them, and let the cakes cool slightly before unmolding them. Then I made the frosting, which is just ganache -- hot cream mixed with espresso powder, which is heated to a simmer and poured over bittersweet chocolate. You stir the ganache until smooth and refrigerate it until it thickens to spreading consistency.
I often have problems with ganache frosting. Sometimes it's just too soft and melty and sometimes it chills into an impenetrable shell. It's tough to hit the proverbial sweet spot. This time I thought I had it just right. I checked the ganache frequently while it was cooling in the fridge and I kept stirring it. It had reached the perfect spreading consistency when I took it out and began assembling and frosting the cake. The thing is, the frosting continued to thicken even after I removed it from the fridge. And by the time I finished frosting the cake, the ganache was no longer spreadable. It had become the dreaded impenetrable shell. In retrospect, I should have tried beating the stiff ganache with an electric mixer, but for some reason the idea didn't occur to me at the time.
I had to use an offset spatula dipped in hot water and wiped dry to try to mold the ganache to a smooth finish. I wasn't happy with the way it looked. After Jim blew out the candles, the cake was incredibly messy to cut and serve. It was impossible to cut cleanly through the ganache shell, and each cut of the knife produced a ragged monochromatic slice of cake and a huge pile of loose cake crumbs.

I couldn't figure out why the cake was so dang crumb-y. I leveled the cake layers before frosting them, and the texture of the trimmed pieces was perfect -- light, moist, and coherent. And the cake was delicious. It had a light, aromatic chocolate flavor that was wonderful even without any frosting. I'd like to think that the milk stout added some complexity.

Jim and all of the other tasters enjoyed the cake, but I was a little underwhelmed. The cake itself was wonderful, but the frosting was so disappointing. But that's okay -- next year I'll have another chance to make another chocolate birthday cake!

Recipe: "Chocolate Stout Layer Cake with Chocolate Frosting" from epicurious.com.

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