November 19, 2011

Chocolate Cinnamon Cake

When I was about seven or eight, I helped my mom bake a cake. I can't remember what kind it was - German chocolate or cream cheese spice cake or one of those really decadent, vaguely-holiday cakes. Maybe it was a birthday cake. In any case, I do remember that it was my grandmother's recipe and it called for "a box" of powdered sugar. We didn't know what the box meant. Was it big or small? Did it matter if we had a bag instead? After a moment of hesitation, my mom picked up the phone and dialed. The conversation went something like this:

Hi. Can you tell me how much a box of powdered sugar weighs? (silence) So it's a pound, right? (silence) Great, that's what I thought. Thank you!

Until a few years ago (embarrassingly, yes), I thought that she had called a hotline for weights and measures used in baking. I imagined that someone on the other side of the line was able to help any baker with whatever questions he or she had about measuring. If my over-analytical mind had just put two and two together I would have realized that she actually had called my grandmother, the recipe's author. (I mean, of course she did.) My grandmother had probably copied the recipe from one of her favorite cookbooks and assumed that she might be the only one using it. Her frame of reference was for her and for her family, and of course she never needed to define for herself what she meant by a "box." A box was a box.

I bought two of those pound boxes today at the grocery, Domino powdered sugar for $.99 each. It reminded me of this early baking experience and inspired me to make this gorgeous chocolate cinnamon sheet cake. The recipe is old, tried and true, and from Grandmother's recipe book. We made it several times when I was growing up but I can't remember the last time I made it in my adult life. It's a simple sheet cake, warm with cinnamon and spread with a simple, butter-based frosting. Perfect for any season and after any meal.

Chocolate Cinnamon Cake
2 cups sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour (King Arthur)

1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup water
4 tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa (or other high-fat cocoa)
1/2 teaspoon salt

2 beaten eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla (Madagascar bourbon)
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 heaping teaspoon cinnamon (Vietnamese or Chinese cassia is ideal; I used Morton & Bassett San Francisco cinnamon, which is less spicy but gets the job done)

Preheat oven to 425 F. Grease and flour a sheet cake pan (I used 9" x 13").
Sift sugar and flour through a fine-mesh sieve; set aside in bowl or stand mixer. 
In a saucepan, add butter, water, cocoa and salt. Bring to boil and pour chocolate mixture over flour and sugar. Add eggs (one at a time, just until the yolk disappears), vanilla, and cinnamon. Whisk baking soda into buttermilk until dissolved and add to cake batter. Beat until smooth.

Pour batter into greased pan. Lower oven temperature to 400 F. (Ovens commonly lose about 25 degrees every time the door is opened.) Bake 30 minutes. Let cool about 30 minutes more.

Chocolate Pecan Frosting
1 stick unsalted butter
4 tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa
5-6 tablespoons milk

1 pound box powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans

In a saucepan, bring butter, cocoa, and milk to a boil. Remove from heat and add powdered sugar and vanilla. Beat until very smooth. Stir in pecans and pour immediately over warmed cake. Enjoy while watching Saturday football or listening to Brahms, your choice. Pin It

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