My childhood reading was split between high fantasy, Books For Young Ladies and wilderness survival stories. I wanted to be a Lady. I wanted to wear big boots and be competent in the woods. I wanted to be an elf.
Spoiler alert: None of those things happened.
I’ve lost hope of waking up in Rivendell, but I’m still obsessed with petit fours, those elusive cakes of the upper class. Petit fours are tiny and delicate and complex. They combine my love of fussiness with my worship of tiny baked goods.
These are petit fours:
This is my latest attempt at cake decorating:
Yeah. That’s not going to happen.
But I cope with anger by making tiny fussy things, and boy did I need an outlet. I got one of these calls on Monday morning-my first day of work after a family funeral. Fake IRS guy informed me that I was about to be thrown in jail for tax fraud, and I believed him for about 20 minutes.
Hey, fake IRS guy? Fuck you.
I wanted bitter chocolate and biting coffee and the satisfaction of melting the fuck out of sugar. I wanted to slam things around in the kitchen and risk my life with molten candy. So I made petit foes instead–bitter chocolate and coffee flavored cakes, drenched in homemade caramel syrup and served with a side of justice.
That’ll do, cake. That’ll do.
The base of this recipe is Smitten Kitchen’s Everyday Chocolate Cake. I’d call this a reboot rather than an adaptation, though. The taste is quite different, and my kitchen felt darker and grittier too. The basic caramel recipe came from this epicurious recipe. Makes 36 petit foes.
½ cup butter
½ cup brown sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
½ cup natural cocoa powder (by which I mean, not Dutch processed. The normal Hershey’s stuff is fine.)
3 tbsp instant coffee
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 ½ cups flour
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 ½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water
1 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
High tolerance for weird shit
8 inch square cake pan
Sifter, if you feel like it
Strainer (you might not need it, but I sure did)
Preheat the oven to 325F. Drop your cake butter in a bowl. For once in my goddamn life I remembered to take the butter out of the fridge ahead of time, but I softened it too much. Somehow. I’m just not very good at butter. Anyways, pulverize it with the electric mixer until it’s kind of fluffy looking. Add the sugars and beat for a few minutes more. Throw that egg in and mix it up. Add and mix the buttermilk and vanilla.
I always prefer full fat everything, but it’s the holiday season. Eggnog has conquered buttermilk in the Weird Milk Section of the grocery store, and all that’s left is this sad lowfat stuff.
Fuck you too, eggnog.
At this point, your batter will look weird and lumpy, just like everything else involving buttermilk. You can sift your dry ingredients together if you want, or you can drop them into the wet ingredients. I decided to sift in the coffee, cocoa, and baking powder since cocoa can get a little clumpy in the cabinet.
Stir the batter together manually until it’s the same color and consistency throughout. Grab that cake pan and grease it; then get the batter in. Somehow. I swear up down and sideways that I didn’t overmix the batter, but it was still a sticky, thick pain in the ass. I had to dual-wield kitchen implements to get it spread evenly in the pan.
This quantity of batter made about 1 1/2 pans of cake. The batter was sticky enough that I could just put it in half the pan for the second round, without it spreading to fill the whole thing. Magic. Bake the cake for 14 minutes in the oven, or until a tester comes out clean.
It is totally possible to make caramel and caramel sauces without a candy thermometer. Trust your eyes and your nose, and pick your least favorite fingers to burn while taste-testing. You’ll be fine.
I will warn you, however, that every single stage of caramel making looks more horrific than the last. If you are frightened of aliens, trypophobic, or squeamish, this might not be for you. On the other hand, if you’re mad as hell and feel like shouting obscenities into the void, come with me. I can help.
Put the caramel sugar and water in the pot and mix them up into a vaguely alien-looking slush. Put the pot on over medium heat, and do not stir it. No matter how seductively this weird pallid sludge calls to you, do not touch it.
Here is the basic progression of caramel. Once it reaches a boil, it will take about 8 minutes to reach the dark amber color and caramel taste that you’re looking for. You’ll be able to smell it. You’ll also be able to reach in and taste it, if you’re feeling particularly bold.
1. An appalling stillness
2. An escape attempt up the side of the pot
3. Tectonic shifts
4. The shattering of sanity
5. The rise of the Thousand-Eyed Beast
You’ll notice that in these pictures, there are bits and pieces of sugar crust floating around. That’s because I was weak. I stirred it. Don’t do that. Your caramel will be way less upsetting to look at if you can resist.
The next step is very exciting and involves a lot of hissing and lump-formation. Unfortunately, it also requires constant stirring, so I have no real pictures. Once your sugar-water mixture reaches the color above and smells like caramel, pour in a cup of whipping cream. There will be loud noises! There will be bubbling! Keep stirring! Turn down the heat a little and stir until the massive lump in the middle of the pot dissipates. This took 10+ minutes for me. The sauce will also get darker, thicker, and more delicious. My sauce still had a few sugar lumps after ten minutes, so I just sifted them out at the end.
Turn the heat off and add the butter in. Stir until the butter dissolves and is evenly mixed into the sauce.
Transfer the caramel into a bowl. If you still have lumps, sift them out on the way.
I’m pretty sure those are larval chest-bursters.
I didn’t use my reamer at all, but having it out made me feel safe.
Cleaning up after caramel-making seems like it should be a sticky nightmare, but all you really have to do is dump any implements that touched the stuff in your pot, fill it up with water, and bring it to a boil. The sugar will dissolve and wash away. Anything that can’t be boiled, like my foot, can be swabbed with hot water on a paper towel until it is less sticky and way less delicious.
God damn it, foot. Get your shit together.
I like to have three surfaces for these: a cutting board, a staging plate, and the serving/storage dish. You’ll want to scrape down the staging plate every so often, or else your petit foes will get stuck.
First, flip the cake squares upside down so that the nice smooth bottom part is on top.
In baking circles, we call this cheating.
Trim off the sides and cut the cake into squares, as big or as small as you like. Mine were about an inch and a half square. Transfer them a few at a time onto the staging plate. Grab a spoonful of caramel and pour it over top of each. Try and get caramel down the sides as much as you can.
Transfer the squares out of the caramel swamp and onto your serving/storage container. Scrape the plate down into your caramel container. Repeat.
The Final Product
Everything is bittersweet and covered in caramel and delicious and oh my god I still have all these scraps. I put them in a container with the leftover caramel. The next time I have ice cream, I’ll heat these up and dump them on top.
Best temper tantrum ever.
The Mess Report
Fuck it. I’ll rage-clean tomorrow.
Next time: Spice Cloud Cake