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The World’s Easiest Chocolate Cake

The trouble with labor saving devices is that often they create labor. Take, for example my electric stand mixer. My mother used have one called the Mixmaster. It sat on the crowded countertop in our kitchen and was rarely used, unless my grandmother wanted to whip up one of her sponges.

It took up so much space. My own very heavy mixer sits in a cabinet with pull out shelves. I had those installed to make it easier to lift out the mixer but it is so unwieldy that pulling it out is like wrestling with an elephant. So it was with joy that I found this recipe for the most delicious chocolate cake, made with three pieces of equipment – two mixing bowls and a whisk. And of course a baking container. I use a spring form pan sitting on a cookie sheet to catch spills. My go-to cake pan is usually the spring form. It prevents bits of cake from refusing to come out of the pan and makes a pretty presentation.

I’m making this cake for my birthday this week. Credit for the recipe goes to Helen Goh – and to Yotam Ottolenghi for his adaptation, which appeared in The New York Times, 19 September, 2017.

Helen Goh was born in Malaysia but grew up in Melbourne, Australia, my home town.

A psychologist by training, Helen leapt into running a café without any experience and taught herself to bake. This fudgy chocolate cake from her tiny café, Mortar and Pestle, was deemed “the world’s best chocolate cake” by an enthusiastic journalist. Not one to sit on her laurels, Helen then went over to one of Melbourne’s best restaurants, Donovans, where she was pastry chef for several years. Now, she works for Ottolenghi in London. She introduced him to Australian patisserie and has a book called Sweet.

What You’ll Need:

THE CAKE
2 sticks plus 1 1/2 tablespoons butter at room temperature and cut into 3/4-inch cubes. If you use butter to grease your pan, you’ll need a little more. (Butter is recommended over spray.)
7 ounces dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa solids), chopped into 3/4-inch or smaller pieces
1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso coffee granules
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons self-rising flour, or, if you can’t find it in the supermarket, whisk together 1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour and 2 3/4 teaspoons baking powder and use this mixture instead.
⅓ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt

THE CHOCOLATE GANACHE
7 ounces (70 percent cocoa solids), broken or chopped into 3/4-inch or smaller pieces
¾ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature

THE ESPRESSO CINNAMON MASCARPONE CREAM (not necessary but the final splurge)
1 ½ cups plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
¾ cup mascarpone
 Scraped seeds of 1/2 vanilla pod or 1 tsp. vanilla
2 ½ teaspoons finely ground espresso
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 ½ tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

THE CAKE
Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-inch spring-form pan with butter and line with parchment paper.

Sift flour, cocoa powder and salt together into a bowl and set aside.

Dissolve the coffee granules in the boiling water.

Put the butter, and chocolate in a large metal bowl and pour in the boiling hot coffee. This will help liquefy everything so you can mix until it is all meltingly combined.

Whisk in sugar by hand, making sure it all dissolves.

Add eggs and vanilla extract and whisk again until smooth.

Pour the dry ingredients gradually into the melted chocolate mixture, and whisk till smooth and liquid.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean or almost so. I was alarmed to see that the top had cracked, but Helen says this is normal. Remove the cake from the oven and let cool. After 20 minutes release the spring of the pan or remove from the layer cake pan. Let cool overnight.

THE GANACHE
Chop the chocolate very fine and put into a heat-proof bowl. Or, if you have a food processor or blender, use this to mix until fine, then dump it all into the bowl.

In a small pan over medium-high heat, mix the cream and corn syrup. Just before it comes to a boil remove from the heat.

Add the hot cream-corn syrup mixture to the chopped chocolate, and stir with a wooden spoon till it is almost melted. Then add the butter. Stir again till smooth. Or if you are using the chocolate-filled blender or food processor, pour in the hot cream-corn syrup. Process for 10 seconds, then add the butter and whirr again till smooth. That’s Ottolenghi’s suggestion, but I wanted to use as few utensils as possible. I used the wooden spoon-in-bowl method and it is one less item to wash, for one thing. Chocolate, hot cream and warm butter make a lovely, easy to mix combination.

Cover the ganache in the bowl with plastic wrap, allowing the plastic to touch the top of the ganache.

Set aside until it has set. For a thin layer to spread over the cake, pour it over while still liquid. For a thicker ganache with a spreading consistency like a regular frosting, leave it for about 2 hours at room temperature.

The ganache can be stored at room temperature for 3 days or kept in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

1. If you insist on the final touch, whipped mascarpone and cream flavored with espresso, cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar, you may have to resort to the electric mixer. Place all the ingredients in the bowl of the mixer and beat until soft peaks form.

2. Peel the parchment from the cake and discard. Transfer to a serving platter and spread the ganache, if using, on top of the cake. Slice into wedges, divide the cake among plates and, if using, spoon the mascarpone cream alongside. With or without icing, the cake will keep well for 4 to 5 days in an airtight container.







Without A Mother

The recent New York Times Op Ed by Hope Edelman hit a chord. Entitled “I Couldn’t Say ‘My Mother’ Without Crying” the article’s theme is that “There’s no quick fix for childhood grief.”

Hundreds of people commented and September 1’s letters column was full of responses.

I look forward to reading Edelman’s new book The Aftergrief. It’s not a happy subject. But it is one that has always been at the back of my mind. Why am I interested? I did not have the misfortune of losing my own dear mother when I was a child.

But she did.

My mother lost her own when she was twelve years old. Her mother, Stella, died of lymphoma at the age of thirty-six. On the cusp of adolescence, my mother and her younger sister had to go and live with their grandmother. While loving, “Gran” was old fashioned and weary after raising her own brood of ten.

Years later my mother told me, tears in her eyes, that she and her sister were not allowed to go to their mother’s funeral, and stayed home alone. When he returned from the burial, their father built a big bonfire in the back yard and burned all their mother’s clothes. And the next day at school, they entered a culture of silence. Neither teachers nor friends mentioned their loss.

This repression haunted my mother ever after. She lived her entire life hiding her never-ending grief, and her anxiety grew and grew.

People often ask what inspires an author. “Is your story autobiographical?” they want to know. Usually it is not. But I do know that in writing my new novel, now finished and awaiting a published home, I drew on what I knew about my mother’s grief. In my book, my protagonist, Maelle, lost her mother at the age of ten in mysterious circumstances. Sent to live with her grandparents, she, like my mother, entered a culture of silence. No one would talk about why and how her mother had died.

That’s where my imagination took off and I created a mystery and a totally fictional family.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress of my book’s journey to publication.


“Coping” by Brian Leon of Ottawa is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Art of Fiction

Until I started writing novels, I did not realize this. Fiction is made up. It is not autobiography.

I was reminded of this the other day when a friend asked if I had had the experiences I describe in my books. And again, when at a book festival recently, a panel of authors was asked the same question.

No, a panelist replied. I am not a suicide bomber. (One of her protagonists.) No, I replied to my friend. But I had a caveat. When one gets to our age, we’ve had so many experiences, read of so many bizarre situations, have come across so many weird circumstances in the lives of those we’ve met, that “experience” may not be personal, yet it gets immersed in a writer’s thoughts.

How does a writer come up with an idea for a novel?

Camilla, in my novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, is the daughter of a physician who is also a clergyman. I did not know one could be both, but in England, where Lipstick is partially set, it is possible. A few years ago, I met a man who held both jobs simultaneously. What kind of person, I wondered, would choose two professions which embodied so much power over others?

And what, I wondered, would it be like to be the daughter of such a man? How could a daughter ever measure up? And how easily she could be shamed.

So Camilla was born, her conflict driven by the impossible demands for perfection by her father. Worse, her adult life was shadowed by his disapproval of her teenage love affair, making future relationships difficult. How Camilla comes to true adulthood by learning that her father was himself flawed, and therefore able to be forgiven, is how the story plays out.

On May 6, I was delighted to learn that Lipstick on the Strawberry was a finalist in the 2019 Eric Hoffer Awards. The award highlights excellence in books published by academic, small press, and independent publishers, including self-publishers.

Now on to the next book, which is in the revision stages! That too, started with an idea, and then characters who would not let me alone. More on that in future posts.

Indigo

As part of my foray into the natural world for research for my new novel, the other weekend I learned all about dyeing with colors derived from plants.

I attended the “Indigo Colloquium” at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden.

Why indigo, I wondered as I signed up? What is it about that particular color that attracts such interest?

Turns out indigo is the color of denim. And since over a billion pairs of blue jeans are sold every year, how they are colored is important commercially and environmentally.

Coming at the subject from a level of complete ignorance, I learned that weekend that many plants throughout the world produce the color blue. Remember woad? If you were taught history in the dark ages as I was, you may remember that the Celtic warriors who opposed the troops of Julius Caesar when he invaded Britain terrified the soldiers because their faces were painted a fierce blue from the woad plant.

Woad (isatis tinctoria) is now considered an invasive weed in California. But it can be grown in home gardens to produce the blue dye.

Indigo, however, produces a stronger blue. Hundreds of different plants producing the color indigo are grown throughout the world, and the most popular for dyeing is persicaria tinctoria, otherwise known as polygonum tinctorium. The common term is Japanese indigo.

Indigo is a dye that adheres to the textile without the use of mordants. That’s a fixative produced by alum,iron, copper,or tannic acid often mixed with an acid like vinegar. For that reason, working with leaf-based indigo is safer for the home dyer.

I love the idea that over hundreds if not thousands of years, people have experimented with creating gorgeous color from plants that grown nearby. The process is a series of chemical reactions to release the color from the plant. For the home dyer, this involves heating the harvested leaves in a pot of distilled or rainwater to release the indican in the leaves, and adding a base such as baking soda, washing soda or ammonia to increase the pH to 8 or 9, which helps the hydrolysis of the indican to produce the molecule indoxyl. Then air is introduced to the mix, allowing the indoxyl to combine with oxygen to produce indigo. Finally, in order to make the color water soluble the mixture is reduced over heat with the addition of thiourea dioxide (helpfully available from the drug or craft store as Rit Color Remover). Add your previously wetted fabric to the dye for up to fifteen minutes, lift out carefully and hang to dry. The exposure to air makes the dye color fast and produces the final blue.

The color changes in the dye-in-process are fascinating. The flowers of the plant are actually pink. The composted or heated leaf brew is reddish-brown. Adding the alkali produces a yellow color, and agitating it to add air turns it to green. As the reduction process happens, and you add your fabric, your textile appears yellow green. Taking it out of the dye bath and hanging it up exposed to air turns it first turquoise, then indigo blue.

Indigo can also be produced synthetically. However, this is a petroleum based product (from benzene) and so toxic that synthetic indigo dye is no longer produced in this country. Most of the jeans sold in the world today are colored with synthetic dye made in China.

Some researchers have created a microbiology-based indigo by gene transfer from persicaria tinctoria into ecoli. It may be commercially viable in the future, but so far indigo manufactured through microbiology has not proven cost-effective.

But for now, there’s an opportunity for the revival of dyeing with natural sources of indigo to become a real alternative to synthetic dyes. If enough farmers can be persuaded to grow the indigo plants so that minimal dye batch sizes of consistent color are produced, then clothes manufacturers will be interested.

That’s the hope anyway.

In the meantime, I now know how to work the process of cloth dyeing into my story, in which there’s tension between old ways of doing things as rediscovered by a group of ageing hippies in Northern California, and the encroaching modern world. Can the old be made new again? As I learned, that is very possibly fact, not fiction.

Snow Days

Winter has much of the nation still in its grip. My many years in Boston, where snow and ice slushed and slicked the city till well into March, inspired the snow scene in Lipstick on the Strawberry. In this excerpt, my protagonist, Camilla, has just had a disastrous date.

I took the train to my stop and scurried down the two blocks to my apartment building. Dirty mounds of ice lined the street, partially obscuring the fire hydrants, so I panicked for a second about the possibility of fire in my neighborhood and wondered how quickly firefighters could knock off the ice to open the flow of water. I stumbled and nearly fell as a rocky mound impeded my way, ruining my dress shoes as I clambered over it. Trembling as I fitted the key in the lock, I slammed the door behind me and leaned against it, breathing heavily. In a few seconds, my hands and feet began to sting as the blood vessels expanded in the warmth of the foyer. Pain needled my extremities, then seemed to extend into my brain. Tears sprung into my eyes, and I knew I would just have to endure the agony until it passed.

Those needles in the fingers and toes I remember so well. While the snow scene might represent Camilla’s mood at the time – alone, frozen, frightened, – a month or so later she’s in a garden.

A gentle breeze carried the sweet scent of grass as the air warmed around us. Across the green lawn, a cherry tree spread its arms wide, clothed in a crinoline of the palest pink blossoms. Renewal. It could happen. Did.

Redemption. Another chance. All along, under the frozen earth, the ground is being prepared for warmer days, better times. Blossom will hang from the trees like confetti. It will happen.

February holds the promise of spring. Savor the cusp of the season with a book. Lipstick on the Strawberry is on sale for 99¢ through March 1.

Lipstick on the Strawberry-

Kindle Edition
iBooks Edition
NOOK Edition

Women’s Fiction: The Power of Sisterhood

The Women’s Fiction Writers Association is a nation-wide, online group offering connection, classes, critique groups, and other helpful programs for authors. It also offers two annual competitions: The Star Award for published books of women’s fiction, and the Rising Star Award, for unpublished novels. Last year I was a judge for the Rising Star Award and enjoyed it so much that I volunteered to judge this year’s Star Award. It’s a lot of reading, but that’s what I do.

This week, I’m teaming up with two other Arizona based members of WFWA to offer a 99¢ ebook sale of our books. My novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, is on sale through March 1, and Susan Haught’s and Katie O’Rourke’s books will go on sale February 19-25th. I’ll interview these writers this week on my blog.

Happy reading!

Some Thoughts on Strawberries

Lipstick on the Strawberry – the ebook: 99¢ Valentine’s Sale!


Maybe it is its red color, but I associate Valentine’s Day with the strawberry. The taste, a combination of the sweet and the tart, might be a truer metaphor for relationship than gooey chocolate.

Toward the end of last year, I planted strawberries. Previously they had done well when planted in a pot, but this new year’s bunch appeared slightly chewed by an inhabitant of the in-ground bed. The insect abandoned the fruit after a couple of munches. Served it right for not waiting till it reached full, juicy ripeness.

My photo shows the strawberries in their bed, ripening. In my novel, Hannah, a food stylist hired by my catering protagonist, Camilla, startles her at the job interview by seizing a lipstick and swiping an unripe strawberry with it. I wrote the scene before I had a final title for my book. But, I realized, this is a metaphor for the story. The perfect exterior is a façade, hiding something not quite so ideal underneath. That’s what Camilla finds when she goes home for her father’s
funeral, meets her first love, and tries to mend bridges with her distant, diffident siblings. Her father’s rejection of her as a teenager led to a lifetime of self-doubt, but his death uncovers secret after family secret.

The ebook sale of Lipstick on the Strawberry starts Friday, February 15th (I know, the day after Valentine’s, but my publisher always has sales start Fridays). I hope you’ll enjoy my bitter-sweet story, as you savor whatever Valentine’s has in store for you.

And in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day on Thursday, I’ll be publishing some strawberry recipes from Camilla’s recipe index. Enjoy!