Serious Eats: Recipes
An Oven-Less Dessert: Steamed Devil's Food Cake
On Friday, the new Brooklyn restaurant where I am the pastry chef, opened its doors for business. Though the open kitchen (responsible for all of our savory dishes) is fully outfitted and operational, we are still awaiting for the convection oven, ice cream maker, and freezer in our basement prep kitchen. Since I knew this may be the case, and with the dramatic temperature differentials and even baking that such equipment out of my reach affords, I had to look beyond many of my usual methods and preparations in order to still create dynamic, interesting dishes.
The restaurant’s cuisine is generally casual—New American with some interesting twists and turns, so I turned to simple, archetypal American desserts for inspiration. Because chocolate dishes are generally the most popular on a dessert menu, that was my first priority. The visual and textural interest of a classic Devil’s food—a rich, deeply chocolaty, velvety moist cake surmounted by a raft of creamy meringue frosting—was an immediate fixation. It is, however, a delicate preparation with a short shelf-life, unstable in the heat and humidity of a restaurant kitchen, unlikely to survive a full service shift. And, the erratic, uneven ovens on the line were less than ideal for cake-baking anyways.
Undeterred, I began tinkering with alternatives. Instead of a volatile meringue, perhaps a marshmallow—little more than a meringue stabilized by gelatin or agar. And instead of baking the cake, maybe I could steam it.
I used honey, instead of the typical corn syrup or commercial invert sugar (sugar treated with an enzyme to preserve its liquid form), in the marshmallow in order to add a level of flavor and fragrance. The tender, delicate, but nonetheless, stable confection became an apt substitute for the traditional meringue frosting.
My first attempt at steaming a standard Devil’s food batter yielded mixed results. The cake was moist and tasty, but it was far too dense. On a hunch, I made the batter slightly more liquid, hoping this would give it more time to rise before the structure was set. That did the trick, yielding a lighter, more open-textured cake.
Gooey, Rich, and Wonderful
Straight out of the steamer, the warm cake was gooey and rich and wonderful. After cooling to room temperature, the cake, while still good, became less exciting. With more tinkering, however, I discovered the cake could return, more or less, to its original state with a second quick steaming, right before serving. Incorporating some finely chopped chocolate (mini chocolate chips in the recipe that follows) before baking it, made for an even chocolatier result. Topping the cake with the marshmallow before this secondary steam yielded a special treat, with about half the marshmallow melting into a beautiful, frothy glaze.
But Still Missing Something
To be a complete dessert, I felt the dish still needed more interest, some contrasts to the temperature, flavors, and texture of the cake. Crunchy chocolate crumbs—something like crushed Oreos—sprinkled atop the warm cake added visual and physical texture. A streak of caramelized honey with toasted sesame seeds grounded the cake to the plate visually, and added a slightly savory, nutty element. What the dish still needed was a cool component to play against the warmth of the cake and perhaps a bit of spice or acidity to balance the richness of the oozing marshmallow and chocolaty cake.
A Ginger Egg Cream to Wash It Down?
After some rumination, I came upon the idea of pairing the cake with an egg cream, a classic New York diner and soda shop concoction that couples seltzer, milk, and a chocolate-flavored syrup for a frothy, lightened-up version of an ice cream float. Though the traditional egg cream incorporates chocolate syrup, I made a bracing syrup with lots of ginger, a touch of lemon and clove, and more honey, caramelized to slightly reduce its sweetness.
The ginger egg cream was the perfect foil to the unctuous cake and marshmallow.
Our first dessert was settled.
Steamed Devil’s Food Cake
About the author: Amanda Clarke is a recovering restaurant pastry chef with a background in architecture. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she writes, tests, and develops recipes and works on freelance food-styling gigs between walkings and feedings of her two dogs and husband.