Dymystifying Mona

26 Mar
We have ways of making you talk, Mona.

We have ways of making you talk, Mona.

Thanks to Niko from Damn Cute Bunnies (I love that) for sending in her particular Mona Lisa, Double Chocolate Layer Cake.  Apparently, some have claimed it to be the Best Cake in the Hinternet.  Not that she’s mystified necessarily, but she wants to know if this will turn out to be a good cake–if it is balanced and all the ratios are correct and all the other Cakey Scientific things.

Well, I am quite a fan of Cake, so I thought I would Go the Distance and check out this Storied Gateau.  I won’t print the recipe here, mainly because the link is up there.  See it?  I clicked on the link Niko sent and printed the recipe off, the better to Look at it.  And we’re off.  First, I’m gonna split up the ingredients this way (the ingredients in parentheses don’t really count for this part, since their measurements are so small):

  1. Liquids=1 1/2 cups coffee + 1 1/2 cups buttermilk + (3/4 tsp vanilla) + 3 egg whites
  2. Dry=3 cups sugar (sometimes sugar is considered a liquid, but not in the mixing method this cake prescribes) + 1 1/2 cups unsweetened, not Dutch process cocoa powder + chocolate liquor from the 3 oz. of chocolate + 2 1/2 cups flour + (2 tsp baking soda) + (3/4 tsp baking powder) + (1 1/4 tsp. salt)
  3. Fat=3/4 cups vegetable oil + 3 egg yolks + cocoa butter in the 3 oz. of chocolate
  4. Chocolate (dry + fat)= 3 oz. semisweet

My first thought when I looked at the leavening was, “Whoa, 2 teaspoons of baking soda?!”  Friends, in a “normal” cake, it takes 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda to leaven 1 cup of flour.  Baking soda is Powerful.  Since I don’t see 8 cups of flour, and even when I add in the 1 1/2 cups of cocoa powder I only get 4 cups, there has to be another reason for that much soda.  There is.  Baking soda is a base–it’s probably one of the most basic ingredients in your kitchen, unless you have some lye ly(e)ing around.  It has a pH of about 9 (7 is neutral, if you are far away from your chemistry class in space and/or time and/or care).  And look at all those acidic ingredients:  coffee, chocolate, buttermilk and non-Dutch processed (non-alkalyzed) cocoa powder!  Heavens.  So, the extra 1 teaspoon of soda is basically in there to neutralize the acidity of all of those ingredients, bringing everything nicely more-or-less in balance again.  Then, the baking powder does its leavening thing, but not by much–there’s only 3/4 teaspoon, and baking powder is generally used 1 tsp to 1 cup of flour.  In this cake, the soda is definitely doing most of the leavening work.  By the way, slightly acidic batters will set more quickly, so trying to substitute Dutch process cocoa (neutral pH) for the regular (acidic) will only result in a cake pan of hot pudding and despair.  Unless you want to eat your cake with a spoon.  Which probably wouldn’t suck, unless you wanted to actually slice it.

Now, I’m going to split them up between tougheners/driers and tenderizers/moisteners.  Watch this:

  • Tougheners/Driers=2 1/2 cups flour + 1 1/2 cups cocoa powder + 3 egg whites + chocolate liquor in the 3 oz. of chocolate
  • Tenderizers/Moisteners=1 1/2 cups coffee + 3 cups sugar + 3 egg yolks + 3/4 cups vegetable oil + 1 1/2 cups buttermilk + cocoa butter in the 3 oz. of chocolate

If you take a look at the two types of ingredients, you’ll see that there are waaay more tenderizers than there are tougheners.  So, right away you know that this is going to be an ooey, gooey cake.  Since it is decidedly heavier on the tenderizers, it is not technically “in balance.”  Think of traditional pound cake as truly balanced:  one pound each of flour, sugar, eggs and butter.  Most of us haven’t really had a traditional pound cake.  Neither have I, but Shirley tells me that they aren’t very sweet and are kind of dry with a very tight crumb.  I’m not sure about you, but I don’t want even a pretender to the throne of the Best Cake in the Hinternet to fit that description.  I’m all for moist and sweet when it comes to chocolate cake.

So, after I split up the ingredients and Looked at them, I broke down the mixing method.  I Distilled it.  Here it is:

Step Zero:  Combine hot coffee and chocolate.  Stir until smooth. Roger that.

  1. Whisk dry ingredients, including sugar together. This sounds like the start of the two-stage method.  Let’s see what comes next.
  2. Whip eggs until pale and light. This is kind of like the egg foam method.  What is going on?
  3. Slowly add all the wet ingredients, including the coffee mixture, to the eggs.  Beat well to combine. Huh.  My first thought was, “Why am I taking the trouble to whip the three eggs when I’m just going to be deflating them by pouring in almost 4 cups of liquid?” Maybe the answer is “because they told me to,” but that is an answer that will just keep us in the Dark.
  4. Beat in the dry ingredients, including the sugar. Wow, that’s 7-ish cups of stuff to beat in.
  5. Bake at 300F for an hour or so until done. Low oven=gentle heat.  Maybe because this cake is baked in 10″ pans the heat is lower so the outside doesn’t get hard and crusty/burny before the insides have had a chance to set.

So, what they want you to do is whip the eggs, slowly add in all the liquid and then add in the dry ingredients.  Pretty much it’s just three steps.  Honestly, the only reason I can think of that they’d do it this way is to distribute the emulsifiers (lecithin) in the egg evenly.  Since they want us to add liquid next, perhaps even distribution of the lecithin helps to maintain an emulsion when you add in all that liquid.  It’s a thought, but I don’t really know the answer.

Let’s go with the emulsion theory; I rather like it–but if anyone would like to put forth an Alternate Reason, please do so.  Once we have our emulsion of liquidy/fatty items, we’ll beat in the dry ingredients until well combined.  In a weird sort of way, this is like the Muffin Method, but with more mixing of the dry ingredients.  Interesting.  But does that mean we can’t use a different method?  Probably not.

Creaming Method

Step Zero from above

  • cream oil and sugar (it won’t get light and fluffy because the oil isn’t plastic)
  • whisk all dry together
  • whisk all wet together
  • alternate, beginning and ending with dry

Two-Stage Method

Step Zero from above

  • whisk all dry, including sugar, together really, really well.
  • whisk together oil, eggs and chocolate mixture.  Beat into dry for 2 minutes or so.
  • add the buttermilk in 3 additions, mixing for about 20 seconds between each addition

If I have left you confused by all of this blithering, just know that you can apply 3 different mixing methods to the same list of ingredients.  The method you choose depends on the results you’re looking for.  I am hoping that that is a liberating Thing to Know.  I’d go with the creaming method for a sturdier cake (more gluten formation because the flour isn’t coated with the fat at the beginning), the two-stage method for a more tender cake (dry ingredients get coated with the oil at the beginning, limiting gluten production) or the hybrid muffin method that came with the recipe to achieve, and I quote, “…[a] chocolate cake [that] made our staff swoon!”–Epicurious

I’m tired now.  I apologize to those of you whose eyes crossed halfway through.  I apologize to those of you who wanted more complete science.  And to those of you who are beaming right now, you’re welcome.

PS If anyone would like me to break down their own Mona Lisa, keep those cards and letters coming.

16 Responses to “Dymystifying Mona”

  1. Brian J. Geiger March 26, 2009 at 5:57 pm #

    My initial thoughts:

    I like where you’re going with the emulsifiers, though I think the egg whipping is probably as much to ensure that you don’t have bits of egg white on its own inside the mixture. With that mixing method, you’re not going to have much opportunity to combine the ingredients after any given step (i.e. once the wet items are mixed, they won’t have a chance to further mix relative to themselves , only to mix with the dry ingredients. The same reasoning goes for the eggs vs. eggs + liquid).

    Another possibility is that you are incorporating the air into the eggs for leavening. I don’t think that mixing with the liquid will completely release whatever air might have been incorporated into the egg. It’s not like you’d get with a properly folded egg white foam, of course, but it’s probably decently stable with respect to liquid, what with the combination of fat and protein.

    Personally, I would dissolve all of the non-leavening baking powder into the liquids before incorporating it into the eggs. So 1.75 tsp of baking powder or thereabouts into the coffee etc. This would reduce the chance of overleavening the cake. This is an extra step that could be left out, of course, but I imagine you’ll get a better rise out of the cake.

    • onlinepastrychef March 26, 2009 at 6:01 pm #

      Great thoughts, Brian. Thanks for wandering by! I assume you meant the soda rather than the powder, when it comes to dissolving in the liquid. I like it. I find this mixing method a little odd because each type of ingredient is thrown in more or less at once as opposed to adding in stages, or alternately. I’d be willing to give it a shot, though. 🙂

  2. Brian J. Geiger March 26, 2009 at 6:18 pm #

    Yes, soda. I have found that if I get distracted, I tend to mix up words with equal numbers of syllables. Heh.

    It does seem like a recipe that’s geared to make people less afraid to make it in many ways (i.e. don’t bother alternating wet with dry).

    The other odd thing is that they don’t dissolve the sugar into the wet ingredients (i.e. the dissolved sugar method), which would make this recipe very similar to Nigella’s Chocolate Guinness cake.

    • onlinepastrychef March 26, 2009 at 6:24 pm #

      Et voila–method number 4: Dissolved Sugar Method! I think it just goes to show that, when you know the methods, you can work with almost any list of ingredients. 😀

  3. Niko March 26, 2009 at 7:14 pm #

    Well, I am one of those beaming!! Thank you for dissecting the recipe, Jenni. I ended up making this cake as a practice run for the real thing this weekend. I didn’t have 10″ dia. pans but used 9″ sq. instead. The cake was chocolately but not overly sweet. It was extremely moist, an ooey gooey cake like you said it would be. My problem was it didn’t rise very much and although it was baked long enough, the center caved in as it cooled, cheesecake-like. I think I’ll try the creaming method as you suggested to make a stronger cake. What do you think would happen if I used butter instead of oil? Using the creaming method with butter, would I get better rise and lighter texture?

    For anyone who’s curious what this cake tastes like, it’s a dead ringer for the 6-layer Chocolate Motherlode that Claim Jumper makes.

    • onlinepastrychef March 26, 2009 at 7:28 pm #

      Substituting butter for oil in the creaming method will certainly get you more rise and a bit more of a crumb, although you’ll end up w/a drier product, especially if you have to refrigerate it. Consider subbing out half the oil for butter, but keep in mind that butter has about 16-ish percent water. W/that small amount, it probably won’t matter too much, but just so you’re aware…

      Also check out Brian’s suggestion to dissolve some of the soda in the coffee for acid-neutralization purposes.

      PS Glad you’re beaming 😀

  4. Chef Keem March 26, 2009 at 10:15 pm #

    You’re going to put all your blog posts in a book, right? A huge, ground-breaking, industry-redefining, best-selling book, right? Right?

  5. Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother March 27, 2009 at 6:54 am #

    I wish I had a party coming up that I needed a lot of cake for. I’d love to try all four methods side-by-side and really see what difference it makes.

    • onlinepastrychef March 27, 2009 at 6:59 am #

      I hope it’s a BIG party! 😆 That’s a whole lot of cake goin’ on there, Drew! If you do try it, I will gladly attend your party 😉 I’m especially interested in the dissolved sugar method. I read about it for the first time in Bakewise, but I’ve never tried it. Then Brian mentions it here; I think it’s a viable method for this cake. I really wasn’t digging the “mix in the dry and sugar at the end” portion of the original procedure.

  6. Daily Spud March 27, 2009 at 7:43 am #

    This is like CSI for bakers! I’ll buy that book when you write it and watch the inevitable TV series that follows 🙂

  7. croquecamille March 27, 2009 at 1:29 pm #

    The best chocolate cake I know is mixed by a modified two-stage method: dries are combined, eggs, oil, and buttermilk are whisked in for a while, then the chocolate component (which is a not insignificant amount of liquid) is added all at once and the whole thing is whisked a while longer. The batter is VERY liquid, but the cake is super moist and I’ve never seen it fall.

    • onlinepastrychef March 27, 2009 at 2:11 pm #

      Almost like making brownies–maybe that’s why it’s so moist and wonderful! Mixing methods are so intriguing 🙂

  8. Niko March 28, 2009 at 8:47 pm #

    If you can stand it, I’d like your opinion of this cake, Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Guinness Cake, http://foodpluspolitics.com/2008/03/13/nigella-lawsons-chocolate-guinness-cake/. Is this another cake recipe that uses an odd ingredient for the shock value (e.g., chocolate mayonnaise cake), or does the stout actually help the cake somehow? You don’t have to dissect it completely, I’m just curious what you think of it or if you’ve made it. How do you think it would compare to the Swooning Cake above? Thanks, Jenni.

    • onlinepastrychef March 30, 2009 at 11:28 am #

      I haven’t forgotten about you–stout cake Examination coming up soon 😀

  9. Tangled Noodle March 28, 2009 at 9:55 pm #

    Drew and Chef Keem have the right ideas:when you write that book, Daily Spud and I will grab the first copies. And I would love a side-by-side comparison of all the methods. Thank you for this breakdown – I’m trying to decide which way I’d like to try first!


  1. Water: The Unsung Superhero « Pastry Methods and Techniques - April 2, 2009

    […] But what exactly does water do for us?  Well, water is the Universal Solvent.  I’ve always loved that term–it kind of makes water sound like a superhero.   Anyway, tons of stuff dissolves in water, so adding an ingredient to water is a great way to get it evenly dispersed in a batter.  (There really isn’t any written rule that says you can’t dissolve your salt in the water or milk called for in a recipe rather then adding it in with the dry ingredients).  There’s also the Intriguing mixing method that I just read about a few months ago in Bakewise.  The Food Geek the knows about it, too, because he mentions it in a comment on Demystifying Mona. […]

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