The Archivist vs. the Mocha Cake

It’s the final week of the Great Rare Books Bake Off here and I, Haley McGuyre, your humble Collections Management Archivist, have been tasked with Dessert Week. The Show-stopper.

The problem, dear readers, is that I am not a baker. So. Being gifted the dessert week spot is a little intimidating. And to add more excitement to the air, I decided to bring my cake to the family Thanksgiving get-together. So let’s talk about the cake.

The Mocha Cake

The recipe comes from Luncheon and Dinner Sweets, published some time in the 1920s. The book features a wide variety of desserts as well as various auxiliary recipes needed to make any certain dish. Thank god this isn’t a technical and my recipes give me more than “make a custard.”

You may notice, dear readers, that my recipe calls for three additional recipes to be utilized. This is not a mistake (or at least, I hope it won’t turn out to be). I’m good at the non-baking bits so we’re leaning heavily into that area. But I’ve never made a custard, so who knows how this will go.

We’re also going to need some substitutes. Vienna flour refers to a very fine flour used for bread, but Vienna flour itself is not easy to come by stateside. I would recommend a bread flour. Castor sugar is somewhere between your regular sugar and powdered sugar, so I put some regular sugar through a food processor and pulsed a few times. Corn flour is easy to come by, but cornstarch is an acceptable substitute as well. I decided to use fresh coffee for the butter icing and custard. Also, it says to place your cake batter into one mold and then cut it in half once cold. I’m bad at cutting cakes. So we’re gonna use two smaller molds.

At this point, I would recommend finding a pair of wax wings. Maybe your dad can help you fashion some. The sun is coming out, and it’s time to fly!

Doin’ the dang thing

Let’s start with our successes.

I started with the custard because I knew I wanted it to sit in the fridge. I made my castor sugar (just by throwing some “regular” sugar into the food processor and pulsing, without getting it so fine that it creates a sugar “cloud”). I made some fresh coffee with a French press, and from there the recipe was fairly simple to follow. I added both the vanilla and maybe a tablespoon of the coffee. You will notice, though, that the recipe is for a custard sauce, and we need a regular custard. I followed the recipe to its completion and then added more cornstarch. I took about a tablespoon of cornstarch and a third cup of my custard sauce to make a slurry, and then added it back to the rest of the custard. This made it the perfect consistency, with the perfect amount of coffee flavor. Easily the greatest achievement of this venture.

Covering chocolate is a thing, but I already had some unsweetened baking chocolate so I went with that. I would recommend starting with an unsweetened chocolate due to the amount of icing sugar (a.k.a. powdered sugar, a.a.k.a. confectioner’s sugar) that the recipe calls for. I did mine entirely stove top, setting my chocolate in a sauce pan over a very low heat. I used my whisk to keep it moving to hurry along the melting process.

Once its was almost entirely melted and I’d added the little bit of water, I began sifting in my sugar 1/3 cup at a time. You definitely want to sift your sugar, and I would recommend doing a little at a time so you can stop when you get to the flavor you want. I ended up only using about 75% of the powdered sugar called for. The result is a very smooth and glossy chocolate. In your order of events, I would make this just before you get ready to assemble. You don’t want it hot but it will solidify once chilled, and you want to make sure it’s spreadable.

Dear readers, please put on your safety helmets and buckle up for this next part of the ride. It’s about to go downhill at an alarming rate.

Remember our talk on the Vienna flour? And how you should use a bread flour? Yeah. That was a trial-by-fire lesson. My first time around I tried using all purpose. It did not go well. That was a no-go. No rise, a lot of burn. A whooole lot of burn.

Imagine my horror, dear readers, pulling this cake out of the oven. With the weight of sole dessert-bringer for my family’s thanksgiving on my shoulders. Knowing that, in order to remove the burnt bits, I was about to make my flat cake so much thinner. Terror of all terrors, knowing I would have to blog the results. So I started over.

The second time around I used bread flour. It is at this time that I would like to project some blame onto the recipe itself. Did you see the ratio of dry ingredients to wet? It’s insanity! By the time you’re trying to fold in the eggs whites, the batter is the consistency of peanut butter. And I’m talking the fancy kind, before you stir the oil in. Even if you sift the flour, it is no easy feat gently folding egg whites into peanut butter. This is especially heinous because your egg whites are, like, the only rising agent in this recipe. Heinous, I say.

Also, you may have noticed that the recipe says to place your cake in a “fairly quick oven” for 30 minutes. Unless you are my very brilliant girlfriend, this is utterly meaningless upon first glance. It turns out that it means roughly 425° Fahrenheit, except this is also bad advice!! That is way too hot for this very dry cake. Look at how it massacred my first attempt. The second time around I lowered it down to 380° and that was much better. Look at that! Gorgeous and golden. And yet. Still. So. Flat.

Now I must share with you a great shame. I love buttercream. I have made many buttercreams in my life. This is a thing I can usually be trusted with. When confronted with a coffee buttercream, I dove in with confidence and enthusiasm. I saved it for last to end on a high note, even. I didn’t use my own buttercream recipe because we’re using fun old recipes and we can definitely trust them, everything else has gone so well! What could possibly lead me to believe that I should be on my toes here! Let’s fly closer to the sun, surely our wings will hold us up!

I added the coffee early because I couldn’t cream a single egg yolk with the sugar as the recipe instructed (again, I reject full responsibility of these failures). I began adding my butter little by little, and it all seemed to be going swimmingly. Upon tasting the buttercream, though, you could hardly find the coffee. I decided to add more coffee, and some additional butter to thicken it once more. I put it in the fridge to begin assembly of the rest of the cake.

My cake was cooled. The custard layer was easy. The chocolate went on beautifully, like I knew it would. Glossy, thick, gorgeous. And then. It was time for the buttercream.

Zoom in if you dare.

Oh, readers. Prepare yourselves. I am sorry to say that I had no consideration for the chemistry of my buttercream. I always knew coffee would lead to my downfall, but not like this. The extra coffee that I was so insistent on, so sure was needed, added too much acidity to the icing. And the icing broke.

Don’t get me wrong, it tasted great, but the coffee was actively escaping its buttered confines. Putting it into an icing bag was bone-chilling. It became very clear that any design that required a stiff icing was out entirely. Flat decorations only.

The final result tasted great (like I said, very few of my baking failures are downright inedible), but the look left a lot to be desired. I leaned into the spookiness of the buttercream and went with a spiderweb (as Jimmy Buffet would say, it’s Halloween somewhere) which actually ended up looking pretty cool. The cross section did not give the satisfaction I craved, due to the thinness of the cake. The texture was almost chewy? But with the icings and custard, it luckily did not taste dry. The chocolate solidified almost into a magic shell consistently, which we all loved. The custard was really the star of the show here and I will probably use the custard sauce recipe in the future for a bread pudding.

I don’t know who won here between the archivist and the mocha cake, but I’m willing to call it a tie if it will. As always though, it was a lot of fun trying out an old recipe, and my family got a kick out of watching my attempts. It ended up being one of the most fun parts of the holiday, and my sister even asked me to make it for her birthday in March (hahahahahahaha, No.) Dear reader, if you’re thinking about trying out an old recipe, either from one of our rare books or one of your own, I cannot recommend it enough. If nothing else, it will make a great story.

Thank you again for joining us here at FSU’s Special Collections & Archives for our annual Great Rare Books Bakeoff! We hope you have had as much fun reading and participating as we have. Don’t forget to share any of your own GRRBO creations on social media with the hashtags #thegreatrarebooksbakeoff and #fsuspecialcollections.

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