Rarely does a cookbook come around that’s so enchanting, it’s hard to put down.
Warren Brown’s ‘‘CakeLove’’ is that book this year.
The recipes are intriguing, some of the ingredients elusive, but my heart is set on a singular aim: to try every cake in the book.
Rum runner is in the oven, chocolate pound cake will be next. Under my belt are LCD (lowest common denominator) vanilla pound cake, cranberry-lemon pound cake loaded with chocolate, Chiapas pound cake, pumpkin-clove pound cake, gingerly (made with three types of liquor, 2 inches of fresh ginger and a whole lime), maple pound cake, chocolate butter cake, Mr. Banana Legs, mojito pound cake and hazelnut spice sponge cake.
Brown’s book is a tour of how to bake from scratch. It’s for anyone who knows that love and baking go hand in hand because making a cake is more than careful measuring and following directions.
‘‘Baking a cake isn’t a cakewalk,’’ writes Brown in the book’s introduction, ‘‘but it’s not rocket science either.’’
This attorney turned self-taught cake baker combines unusual ingredients for the unique flavors in his book. Sassy, for example, features a half cup of mango puree, plus orange and lemon liqueurs and orange oil. Mojito pound cake uses oven-dried mint and limoncello to mock the flavors of the Cuban cocktails. Maizing incorporates an ear of fresh corn.
Brown’s methods create a crumb that is dense, creamy and soft-textured. A liberal use of liqueurs achieves a depth of flavor that conventional recipes and cake mixes can’t duplicate.
The directions are explicit and Brown explains why he uses the ingredients he does: unbleached all-purpose flour for its mild nutty flavor and the structure it gives cakes; potato starch because it’s lighter than cornstarch and yields a softer cake.
The many photos take the guesswork out of baking from scratch and help gauge the balance between overworking or underworking a batter.
Brown’s story is as fascinating as his cakes. He made good on a 1999 New Year’s resolution to learn how to bake.
‘‘Until then, I had complete fear of flour,’’ he says in the introduction to ‘‘CakeLove.’’ He opened his CakeLove bakery in 2002 in Washington, D.C. Since then, he has opened more shops, appeared on ‘‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’’ been profiled in People magazine, hosted Food Network’s ‘‘Sugar Rush’’ and written ‘‘CakeLove’’ (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $27.50).
CHOCOLATE-APRICOT POUND CAKE
Makes: One 12-cup Bundt cake 2 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour (12 ounces) 1 tablespoon potato starch 1/4 teaspoon baking soda 1/4 teaspoon salt 3/4 cup dried apricots (6 ounces) 2 tablespoons extra-fine granulated sugar 2 teaspoons cornstarch 1/2 cup 60 percent bittersweet chocolate pistoles (4 ounces) 1/2 cup sour cream (4 ounces) 1 tablespoon half-and-half 1/4 cup amaretto 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature (5 ounces) 2 1/4 cups extra-fine granulated sugar (18 ounces) 4 large eggs
Pulse the apricots, sugar and cornstarch in a food processor to chop the fruit into -inch pieces. Add the chocolate and continue to pulse two to three times for three seconds each or until the chocolate is broken into small 1/2-inch pieces. Set aside to combine with the other dry ingredients.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (conventional) or 335 degrees (convection). Set the rack in the middle of the oven. Set out the ingredients and equipment.
Sift the flour directly into a bowl on a scale for accurate measuring.
Measure the other dry ingredients into a separate mixing bowl, add the flour and whisk for 10 seconds to blend. Set aside.
Measure the liquid ingredients into a separate bowl, whisk to combine and set aside.
Measure the butter and sugar into separate bowls and set aside.
Crack the eggs into a small bowl and set aside.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar on the lowest speed for three to four minutes. Note that this combination won’t become very aerated because of a lower butter and sugar ratio. The extra fat and sugar in the chocolate means we need to use less during the creaming process.
With the mixer still on the lowest speed, add the eggs one at a time, fully incorporating after each addition. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl.
Add the dry ingredient mixture alternately with the liquid mixture in three to five additions each, beginning and ending with the dry mixture. Move swiftly through this step to avoid overworking the batter. Don’t wait for the dry or liquid mixtures to be fully incorporated before adding the next. This step should take a total of 60 seconds.
Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl all the way down. Don’t miss the clumps of ingredients hiding on the bottom of the bowl. Mix on medium speed for 25 to 30 seconds to develop the batter’s structure.
Spray Bundt cake pan well with a nonstick spray. Fill the pan about three-quarters full by depositing the batter with the rubber spatula in small clumps around the prepared pan instead of by pouring it into one spot. Level the batter with the rubber spatula.
Bake 12-cup Bundt for 45 to 50 minutes. Once the edges of the cake are browning and the surface appears dry, test for doneness by inserting a bamboo skewer in the center of the cake. When the skewer shows just a touch of crumbs except for the smears of melted chocolate, the cake is done. Remove the pan from the oven and place on a heat-resistant surface or wire rack.
Once the cake has cooled for five to 10 minutes, remove the cake by inverting the pan onto a flat surface. Allow it to cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes, before glazing.
Alcohol-free variation: Omit the amaretto and vanilla. Add the seeds of 1 vanilla pod to butter and 1 tablespoon alcohol-free almond extract.
Combining dried apricots with bittersweet chocolate against a pleasantly moist yet crunchy butter cake is sinfully satisfying for anyone close enough to catch a whiff of this cake fresh out of the oven. Not too sweet, this batter is quick to mix and a perfect treat for starting or ending any day.