Monday, February 05, 2007

Eat Your Cake

Last week, Michael Pollan’s article in The New York Times Magazine had the blogosphere abuzz with its insightful analysis of how Americans eat, why we think about food the way we do, the reasons these viewpoints make us unhappy and unhealthy, and what healthy eating” in America might really look like. The article is memorable for many reasons – the way it chronicles the American obsession with “nutritionism”; its “well, wouldn’t you lie on the questionnaires, too?” approach to undermining the major longitudinal studies that inform nutrition science; and how it clearly articulates our lack of understanding about how foods interact with one another within the context of an overarching cuisine.

As someone who likes to write, the article is also noteworthy because it is so darn well-written. In particular, I love the straight-to-the-point opening sentences: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.”

So, for my post today, I present a pale imitation:

Make this Rooibos-Chocolate Layer Cake. Many times. Mostly for guests. That, more or less, is the short answer to the often overwhelming decision about what dessert to prepare for your lunch or dinner company.

My friend Ruth gave me the recipe for this amazingly moist, delicately tea-flavored cake. Roobios is a tea from South Africa that I’ve written about before, in the context of a refreshing sangria. It adds a similarly round, fresh, ever-so-slightly nutty flavor to this chocolate cake. Ruth says the cake gets better the next day, and even better the day after that. I’ll just have to take her word for it, because the cake is not going to be around our house long enough to verify this discovery. My six lunch guests ate a good two-thirds of the cake yesterday, and my husband devoured a second (large) slice as “dinner.” Cake for dinner? Pollan might not approve.

Rooibos-Chocolate Layer Cake
From my friend Ruth (thanks, Ruth!)
Serves 10

2 rooibos tea bags
250 milliliters / 1 cup boiling water
125 milliliters / ½ cup cocoa powder
5 milliliters / 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
125 milliliters / ½ cup vegetable oil
4 eggs, yolks and whites separated
300 grams / 1½ cups sugar
240 grams / 1 2/3 cups plain flour
15 milliliters / 1 tablespoon baking powder
2 milliliters / scant ¼ teaspoon salt

Icing (half these amounts if making a 2-layer cake, or be prepared to store some leftover icing)
2 rooibos tea bags
400 milliliters / 1 2/3 cups boiling water
200 grams / 1 cup sugar
50 milliliters / 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon butter
50 milliliters / 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
50 milliliters corn flour (a.k.a. cornstarch)
7 milliliters / scant 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tin caramel OR 1 can dulce con leche, made this way

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

Steep the rooibos tea bags for the cake in the boiling water for at least 15 minutes, until the tea is quite strong. In a separate bowl or pot, steep the rooibos tea bags and boiling water for the icing, and keep this tea off to the side until later.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix together the cocoa powder, vanilla extract and vegetable oil until smooth. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar until they are thick and creamy. Add the egg-and-sugar mixture to the cocoa mixture, and mix well. Add the strong tea (for the cake) to this batter and stir.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, add it to the batter and beat well.

Whip the egg whites until they form soft peaks, and fold them into the batter.

Pour the batter into two round, 23-centimeter / 9-inch cake tins. Bake 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cakes comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, prepare the icing. In a small saucepan, heat together the sugar and butter until the sugar has dissolved. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together the cocoa powder and corn flour with a bit of the strong tea you have set aside and stir until it makes a paste. Add the remainder of the tea and stir well. Pour the cocoa-tea mixture into the saucepan and stir. Heat the icing until it thickens. Stir in the vanilla extract, and bring the icing to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove the pan from the heat, and let the icing cool. Place the icing in the fridge to cool completely. Before serving, mix the caramel or dulce con leche into the icing.

Remove the cakes from the oven and let them cool for a few minutes. Then, remove the cakes from their tins and cool them completely on a wire rack.

Here, you can choose to make a two-layer cake, or a four-layer cake. Clearly, to make four layers, you’ll need to carefully cut each round cake in half! Whichever option you choose, divide your icing between your cake layers and the top of the cake. The icing is quite soft, so some will drip down the sides. Decorate with cherries, chocolate curls or fresh mint leaves.


Brilynn said...

I like your verions... Cake making can't be wrong!

Alanna said...

Very funny! I was taken with the article too, perhaps because to date, I've only read 'about' the book? Anyway, we should all be so terse those early words.

Ruth in Zim said...

Yup! Seems like your household took to this cake like mine did! Honest -- it does get better with time! Glad you passed this recipe on.

Jeanne said...

What an interesting idea! I love Rooibos so I'll have to try this. Thanks also for the heads-up on the Michael Pollan article. Very interesting and a lot of what he says could be applied to the UK too. There has been an uproar this week when it was announced that cheese and honey may not be advertised during children's TV programming as they are high-fat and high-sugar foods. But a diet drink with 10 E-numbers and a hefty dose of Aspartame would be OK to advertise to kids. Have you ever heard of anything more ridiculous?

Marieke said...

Now this is a combination that I would never have thought of, but it sounds intriguing and looks delicious. And I totally agree with your article and the comment of Jeanne. I know parents in Holland that do not want to give their children too much sugar but are totally unaware of the amount of artificial sweetner they give them every day. They are totally misled by the 'no added sugar'...

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