the baby & the bourbon cake
Recently, I have become more fanatical about both babies and bourbon. Before you protest that these two things don’t really go together, hear me out.
I’ve always enjoyed a mixed (read: lamely diluted) whiskey cocktail of a winter’s night and had the habit of smelling the sweet heads of other people’s babies in elevators, but I’ve thought of the serious taste for either as a rather adult acquisition. Well, recently, my biological and bourbon clocks seem to have started ticking, and I’ve begun to like them both straight up. For common sense’s sake, I’ll wait awhile on the baby, but the bourbon is floating me right through grad school, and I have just the cake to prove it.
A very dear old friend of mine just had a baby this Christmas. A BABY, FOLKS. (To make it stranger, she is a personal trainer, so she in no way looks like she’s had a baby. Very mysterious.) I have known this girl, who is a year older than I am, my whole life. Our mothers met in a grocery store when her older sister and my older brother were in diapers. Long story short, we shared a childhood’s worth of Halloween parties, craft-themed sleepovers, and long afternoons of humiliation at the hands of our siblings, who orchestrated such games as “Nuns & Rockstars” at our expense (a story for another post, probably), entrenching us in a common little-sisterdom. My boyfriend Jeff and I drove down for dinner on Saturday night, dessert and wine in hand, to meet the little one.
And she is beautiful. Watching someone you knew as a child have a child is pretty incredible. Overnight, my friend and her husband have magically acquired the graceful, loving ease of parents.
Good thing I had her delicious crab cakes to stuff in my mouth at the dinner table (I’ll have to steal and reveal that recipe sometime), since I felt like tearing up at the dinner table just talking about their “little Roo,” as they call her. Okay, so I actually teared up. Then I broke out the pint-sized chocolate bourbon cakes I had brought and insisted on holding the sweet baby all the way through dessert. To her credit, the kid was very cool about the whole thing. As Jeff pointed out, only with babies is it considered a compliment to your personality if you can put them to sleep just by talking at them, which is something I unfortunately do quite a lot.
Here’s the recipe, originally for a chocolate-and-whiskey bundt cake from the New York Times, that I have tweaked both in size and savor. Bourbon, I think, is pretty much the king of whiskies (whiskeys?), and not just because it’s American. KIDDING. Kidding. Anyway, since the boys at this dinner party were from KY and TN, I think they, at least, would agree. I used Bulleit; it has a firm but mellow flavor on its own that complements the chocolate very well and, let’s face it, it’s affordable (thank you Trader Joe’s, for offering this nectar at $17.85 for 750 ml, in other words, a wine-bottle’s worth of bourbon for under 20 bucks).
This ‘half-recipe’ will make about 10 individual ramekin cakes or jumbo-cupcake-sized cakes (I made 6 baby cakes and a mini loaf-pan). The texture is actually pretty light and fluffy – it’s not like these are soggy booze bombs or anything – but they are fairly rich, so this makes a good portion size, and you won’t be stuck with seemingly self-multiplying amounts of leftovers. (You can also bake this in a regular loaf pan or double the recipe for a larger party by using a bundt mold, a round cakepan, or 2 loaf pans.)
- a heaping ½ cup (5 oz) unsweetened baking chocolate or bittersweet chocolate pieces
- 2 T espresso, coffee grounds, or instant espresso powder (I like the grit of real coffee, and you can even use this morning’s wet grinds. Frugality, people. Laziness.)
- 1 heaping T unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 stick (½ cup) softened, unsalted butter
- 1 cup granulated sugar (a bit less if your chocolate is sweetened)
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup bourbon (plus another ¼ cup or so for brushing)
- ½ tsp kosher salt
- 1 T vanilla extract (Trader Joe’s also has a Bourbon Vanilla extract that works well with this recipe. But be warned: they card you for it. Not kidding.)
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice mix
- 1 scant cup all-purpose flour
- a few tsp confectioner’s sugar for dusting
- candied pecans for garnish in winter, or about 2 cups fresh raspberries, blackberries, or sliced strawberries in summer (or in California)
Preheat oven to 325°. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or a small saucepan, stirring occasionally and being careful not to burn, and set it aside to cool. Draw (or boil) ½ cup of very hot water and pour it over the cocoa powder and coffee grinds in a small heat-proof bowl or glass measuring cup. Add the whiskey, salt, and vanilla and set aside.
Use a mixer to beat the butter until fluffy (or take this as an opportunity to get your stress out on that butter with a whisk). Add the sugar and beat again until well-combined. From here on out, you can mix well by hand or continue to use the mixer on a low setting. Just don’t overbeat – it will make the cake too fluffy and dumb down the flavors.
Mix in the eggs one at a time, followed by the chocolate, spices, and baking soda, scraping the sides of the bowl as you go. Mix in 1/3 of the liquid, 1/2 the flour, 1/3 of the liquid, 1/2 the flour, and then the final 1/3 of the liquid.
Scrape into greased-and-floured ramekins or jumbo cupcake holders, placing on a cookie sheet for ease if you prefer. Bake until cooked through, or when a toothpick comes out clean. I actually like this cake slightly underdone in the center – it keeps it moist and fragrantly boozy – oh yes. (The baking will take more like 50-60 minutes if you have made a double recipe in a bundt or round pan or this recipe in a loaf pan).
Cool the cakes for 15 minutes or so, and then remove them from the pan and brush them generously with the 1/4 cup of bourbon, using more if you need to (obviously). When they cool completely, sprinkle them with confectioner’s sugar and top with a candied pecan or serve with fresh berries, depending on the season.
Variations: For a nuttier flavor in winter, use ½ cup ground pecans and ½ cup regular flour, or for you gluten freebies, use a whole cup of nut flour and add an egg for fluffiness.
Bonus: This cake tastes even better on the second day. Throw 2 (tiny) dinner parties! Or have a morally filthy breakfast. Hey, you can add some Bulleit to your coffee and make it happen. Me? I brought the extra to another friend’s house the next night and we ate it after a bottle of wine, at which point I asked her “why I drank half the cake and she only had one piece.” If that doesn’t inspire you to make this cake right now, you’re crazy.