Yeah, he's pretty cool.
Maybe even cool enough to forgive me for lying to him about exactly which cake I was making last night when he called...?
Hey everybody, this is P writing. I’m a friend of Kaitlin, and I’m here to tell you that you can make a cake. Yes, you, sitting at your computer, drooling while looking at Kaitlin’s pictures. I’ve been there before too, when I see some fantastic looking picture of a recipe in a magazine or on the internet. Then I go down to the recipe and think, no way. I can’t possibly make something that delicious. It’s too complicated. Now, why in the world would I say that?
Because I’m in India. And I don’t have an oven.
Actually, there are almost no ovens in Himachal Pradesh. Indian cuisine just doesn’t require oven cooking. And no electric mixers for making batters or frosting. And no shortening, no candy thermometers, no silicone spatulas, and especially no specialty baking equipment of any kind. This is a really bad thing for somebody like me who has an addiction to making and eating cakes. With all of those limitations, you may think that I should just forget about expecting an American-style, high quality cake for six months.
Oh ye of little faith!
Did you know that you can make cakes and brownies in a microwave? Anything that’s leavened by baking soda or baking powder just needs some sort of heat to rise, and you can get that kind of heat in the microwave. It’ll even cook the batter a lot faster and more evenly than an oven. You won’t get any browning on it, but it will be moister than an oven-baked cake and it will fall right out of the container without any greasing required. No cake pans needed, and no wasting parchment paper and worrying about the cake rounds releasing cleanly. Plus, microwaves are a bit more common in rural India. You just need to find a cake recipe that can be made without creaming butter and sugar, because that would definitely be difficult to do by hand.
Now for the frosting. I think most people will agree with me that European meringue-style buttercreams are by far the best. The problem is that they must be beaten by a mixer to get the right volume and texture out of it. Right? Wrong. You can make Swiss meringue buttercream frosting by hand. Sure, you’ll be whisking for 45 minutes, but if you have a little bit of patience (and Popeye forearms), you can make a frosting that’s pretty darn close to the quality you would get from a machine-whipped one. Plus, whisking butter, eggs and sugar for nearly an hour may offset some of the massive amounts of calories that you will soon be receiving from said butter, eggs and sugar. No, it’s not easy, but if you’ve gone three months without cake like I have, you’ll start to go into frosting withdrawal and may be willing to put it a little bit more effort than normal.
It’s not easy. Your arm will want to fall off. It’s hot, humid, there’s flies and moths buzzing around your mud hut, and you’ll be slaving away over a gas burner, trying not to let the sweat building up on your forehead drip into the frosting. Besides, you have to realize that no matter how much you whisk, your arm is never going to move as fast as a Kitchen Aid set to high, and you’ll never get quite the same fluffiness as the frosting you’re used to. Which is why I think it’s perfectly O.K. to add about a quarter cup of powdered sugar near the end of the beating to stiffen up the mixture. No, it’s not authentic, and it won’t be perfectly creamy anymore, but sometimes it’s okay to take shortcuts. I promise I won’t tell.
Also, did you know that you can make your own powdered sugar? That’s a handy thing to know when you’re in India and you can’t buy it. Just grind regular sugar in a blender on high with some cornstarch. After the frosting reached the desired consistency, I added some leftover dulce de leche that I made by putting a can of condensed milk in a pressure cooker, but that’s another story. I was a little disappointed that the dulce de leche didn’t reach the consistency that I wanted – it was much too solid – because little specks of it didn’t melt completely and got distributed throughout the frosting. Honestly though, it looks kinda cool, and that was really the only thing that went wrong during the whole process.
Another problem you’ll face when trying to make an American-style layer cake in India is waste. Indians hate wasting food. Food is a gift from the gods, and throwing any of it away is ridiculously rude and arrogant in this culture. So when you have a recipe for Swiss meringue buttercream that uses five egg whites, you better make sure that you can make something else from five egg yolks. That’s why I made simple chocolate custard from five egg yolks, a cup of sugar, a couple of spoons of cocoa and about a cup of milk (which, in my opinion, is the best milk in the world. I guess that’s just the side effect of a society that worships cows. Or maybe the cause. Who knows?) A thin layer of it would go in between the layers of the cake along with the frosting. The rest would go to somebody’s stomach. Respect the food; that’s what Indians say.
Four layers later, I had a stacked cake that looked quite stable, but somewhat naked, seeing as it was missing a final external coat of buttercream. Normally I would use a serrated knife to trim the sides and make them completely flat and even, but this is India, and that would be wasteful. Plus I didn’t have a serrated knife. I made do with an extra-thick crumb coat which also served the purpose of flattening out the sides. Anyway, cooking a cake in the microwave seriously limits the amount of crumbs that get into the frosting. It’s awesome, and very easy.
I didn’t have a cake turntable for decorating. What I did have was a smooth metal plate and an upside-down bowl. Works just the same.
I didn’t have a piping bag. What I did have was a piece of wax paper folded in half and rolled into a cone shape, then filled with frosting. Works just the same.
I didn’t have an offset spatula, or icing spatula of any kind. What I did have was a long, flat knife that’s basically a sharpened piece of scrap metal (I call it a prison shank knife). Works just the same.
I didn’t have a fancy Canon camera to take awesome-quality picture of my average-quality creation. What I did have was a friend’s digital camera that I borrowed. It doesn’t work just the same, as you can clearly see by the pictures. Plus it helps if you had mad decorating and photography skills like Kaitlin.
Moral of the story is that if you really want to, you can make a cake under any circumstances. It’ll take all day, it will be much more work than if you had a Kitchen Aid and an oven, and it won’t look or taste perfect. But it will be very, very, very good. And anyway, even if you do have all of those appliances in your fancy schmancy American kitchen, sometimes you still screw up. So don’t worry about it. Just eat it.
MacGyver’s Microwaved Indian Cake
Kaitlin provided me with this chocolate cake recipe, and we both worked out a frosting recipe together. Well, that’s not entirely true. What really happened is that she gave me a frosting recipe, I argued with her about the amount of butter, she told me to shut up and listen to her, I did, she was right, and I was wrong. But at least I came up with the chocolate custard recipe on my own. Everything is in imperial measurements for your convenience, but I had to use liter-size measuring cups and serving spoons, which aren’t exactly calibrated to precise measurements. No, I didn’t get exact measurements, but trust me, you’ll be fine if you’re short a few grams. If I can make this cake in India, you can make it too.
Chocolate Cake – recipe via Martha Stewart
3/4 c (65 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 c (215 g) flour
1 1/2 c (300 g) sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
2 eggs, beaten
3/4 c (180 ml) warm water
3/4 c (180 ml) buttermilk (or milk + 1tsp vinegar, which is what I used,
3 Tbls canola oil (just fill up three big spoons with oil, it’ll be close enough)
1 tsp vanilla (your choice, and since all you can get it India is cheap, bad-tasting vanilla essence, I just skipped it)
Sift together cocoa powder, flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. You may have to grind up the sugar a bit if you have unrefined white sugar crystals that don’t dissolve well on their own. Mix eggs, warm water, buttermilk, oil, and vanilla in a separate contain. Or, put them in an empty jar, seal the lid and shake it like a Polaroid picture. That mixes it really well. Add the liquid ingredients on top of the dry and mix it gently until smooth, about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides and bottom of bowl to ensure batter is well mixed.
Find some straight-sided, microwave-safe containers, something like Tupperware. Plastic works better than glass. Size and shape is your choice. It would be good if you could use something that has a perfectly flat bottom, because you won’t have to trim it. You can grease the container with a little bit of butter (or ghee, another Indian substitute) if you want, but it’s probably not necessary. You’ll be surprised.
Pour the batter into the container as thick as you want, because again, size is your choice. Keep in mind that the batter will double in size as it cooks. You can cook individual layers if you use a small amount of batter, or you can make thick layers and split them when they cool, that’s up to you.
Microwave the container on high 4-6 minutes. Start with 4, and add more time later if it’s not done. It should be very firm and solid and spring back quickly when you press down on it with a finger. The toothpick test works too. It will act somewhat “spongier” than a cake that has baked in an oven, but that’s just because when you pull a cake out of the oven, most of it is still unbaked and liquid, and it solidifies after it’s removed from the heat. With a microwave, that’s not the case. It should cook 98% of the way in the microwave.
Remove the container from the microwave when the cake is finished. Remove the cake from the container immediately afterwards and put it on a cooling rack. It should pop right out. Then just pour the same amount of batter back into the container and repeat the process.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream, by hand via Kaitlin, with some improvisation
1 c (200 g) sugar (ground up a bit before using, if you have Indian-style sugar)
5 egg whites; don’t you dare throw away the yolks!
18 Tbls (about 250 g, or a little over a cup, or about half a pound, or about two sticks, or about half a brick… why are butter measurements so freaking complicated?) butter, softened slightly and sliced
1 c dulce de leche, to taste, or other frosting fodder of your choice
About 1/4 c confectioner's sugar, if you want
Place the egg whites and sugar in a big, wide bowl that is much bigger than you think you need, has a nice smooth bottom that you can completely reach with a whisk, and is heavy enough for you to beat it for almost an hour without it jumping all over the place. Place that bowl over a pot of simmering water (double-boiler style), and whisk the egg whites and sugar constantly while they cook, until the sugar is completely dissolved (test by rubbing some between your fingers. If it's completely smooth, it's done). It will take about 10 minutes, and the egg whites will look nice and smooth.
Remove the big bowl from the heat and get ready to whisk a lot. This part of the recipe is going to suck a lot if you do it by hand. You have to whip the egg whites into a relatively stable foam. If you use a Kitchen Aid, you’re done when the bowl is cool to the touch and the mixture has tripled in size, about 15 minutes. That’s not going to happen if you do it by hand. The bowl will cool long before the mixture triples, so you have a choice here. Either take steroids and beat the crap out of it for a solid 15 minutes until it triples in the right time, or put the bowl back on the heat for a few minutes now and then to keep the egg whites warm and able to be whipped more. If you get it to about 2.5 times the original volume, that’s probably as good as it gets by hand.
Next, add the room-temperature butter piece by piece, waiting until each piece is completely incorporated before adding the next. You don’t have to beat it as hard as you did when it was just egg whites, but don’t go easy on it either. It will take some time, and it may turn into a soupy, curdled mess. Just keep adding the butter until it is gone. After all the butter is added, you can (if you want) add the powdered sugar to stiffen it up. Or you can put it in the fridge for 15 minutes, come back and beat it more until it stiffens. Or you can do both, which is what I did, and I got a perfectly delicious, light and fluffy frosting.
Finally, you can beat in the dulce de leche or any other flavoring until fully incorporated. Then go ice your arm.
Chocolate Custard – recipe completely made up on the spot so as not to waste anything
Note from Whisk Kid - I, in my fancy schmancy American kitchen, took the liberty of adding about 1/4 cornstarch to the mixture after it was thoroughly heated and stirred until thickened. Sorry, P - My custard was just not setting up!
5 egg yolks – hm, where did those come from?
1 c (200 g) sugar
1 c (240 ml) milk, divided
2 spoonfuls of unsweetened cocoa powder
Place the egg yolks, sugar and about two tablespoons of the milk into a big bowl set over simmering water and whisk constantly. In about 10-15 minutes, you should reach a ribbon stage, and the mixture will have thickened considerably.
Add the milk and the cocoa powder, then take the bowl off the simmering water and put it on low heat, because that’s quicker. Whisking constantly, cook and reduce it for about 15 minutes until it becomes very thick. Pour it into a container and cool it in the fridge for some time before using.
Split the cake into as many layers as you want; I used 4, but it depends on what size container you use. Set the first cake round down on a piece of (clean, new) cardboard cut from a box. Place that on an upside-down metal plate and keep it there with a couple pieces of tape, and place that on an upside down bowl. That will serve as your turntable for decorating.
Spread a thin layer of the chocolate custard on the first layer, then a thicker layer of the frosting on top of that. Cover with the next cake round and repeat. When you put on the fourth cake round, don’t add any custard (save it for later), but instead add a thicker-than-normal crumb coat. That way, you won’t have to trim the sides. Refrigerate for 15 minutes, remove, and then apply the final coat. Decorate as desired.