Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Speaking of Devil's Food...

I've been pretty excited about this announcement for a while, and I'm glad I finally get to post it. Two weeks from today will be the March PLUG meeting. As I promised to Tuxgirl, I will be attempting to build a cake in the shape of Beastie, the BSD mascot. I like to try to cordinate these things with PLUG meetings, so that I don't have a whole bunch of cake go to waste.

Of course, you know that Jayce^ (the PLUG president) has something really keen lined up for this meeting, so you'll want to stay tuned to their website to see what it is. Life isn't all cake, and neither are PLUG meetings. We get the side benefit of keen open source presentations too. So everyone mark your calendars and be sure to make it out to PLUG on March 14 at 7:30pm. Bonus: the Northern Utah Perl Mongers (NUPM) meets at 6:30pm at the same place, and I know that James will have something good as well.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Devil's Food Cake

It took a little trial and error, but I finally got a chocolate cake recipe that I'm happy with. I might even go so far as to call it a devil's food cake, since that was the original intent, and some of the ideas came from devil's food cake recipes.

Regardless of where the other ideas came from, the recipe that this was based on was my brownie recipe, which was in turn based on a classic brownie recipe from Food Network's site. The reason I decided to base mine off of a brownie recipe was simple: I wanted chocolate. I wanted intense chocolate flavor, and outside of chewiness, that's what brownies are all about.

I did look at several real devil's food cake recipes before I started, and one interesting one used whipped egg whites as a leavener. I thought it was interesting, so I tried it out with my brownies. I also used cake flour instead of all-purpose or bread flour, since I was going for a tender, rather than chewy texture. I also realized that the recipe yielded a dense batter, which would be difficult to leaven with egg whites, so I added a little whole milk to thin things out a bit.

What I ended up with was a nice, round brownie that was still a little chewy, and only slightly thicker than the original recipe. Looking at the recipe, I realized that it needed a few things. First of all, it needed more leavening. I decided to pull out the stops and use chemical leaveners (baking soda and/or powder) in addition to a few more egg whites. I also needed more flour, for more structure and volume, and a little more liquid. Taking a cue of other devil's food recipes, I decided to use both baking soda and baking powder in combination with buttermilk. The acidity of the buttermilk would react with the baking soda and cause a little more rise, and the added moisture would help with the fluidity of the batter. I also decided to add a little salt to help with the chocolate flavor. Speaking of the chocolate flavor, I decided that it was still way too intense for somebody to finish off a full slice of cake. Good for a little brownie, not so much for a larger cake slice.

I present to you the new ingredient list:

2 cups cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
5 oz unsweetened baking chocolate
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup buttermilk
6 egg yolks
6 egg whites, at warm room tempurature
1 teaspoon warm water
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Preheat the oven to 375F. Prepare a 10-inch round cake pan (preferably 3 inches tall) and a cake heating core. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a bowl and set aside. Melt the chocolate and butter together over a double boiler, and then remove from the heat. Mix in the white and brown sugar, and then the vanilla, buttermilk and egg yolks slowly.

You could add the dry ingredients at this point, but the baking soda would start to react to the buttermilk immediately. I decided to wait a moment. Clean the beaters with soap and warm water, making sure there is no trace of fat on them, and rinse them off. Beat the egg whites, warm water and cream of tartar together in a metal bowl until they form medium peaks. The warm water and cream of tartar should help with this.

You need to work quickly at this point, since those egg whites are probably already starting to deflate. Mix the dry goods into the chocolate mixture. This will go a lot quicker than you'd think. Then stir in about 1/3 of the whipped egg whites. This will lighten the batter a little. Fold in the next 1/3 of the egg whites, and then the last 1/3. Carefully pour this into your prepared cake pan. Make sure to use the heating core (as per the included directions)! This cake is leavened partially by egg whites, just like an angel food cake, and it needs a little extra heat in the center. But since it has a lot of other things in there for structure, you shouldn't have a problem with greasing everything.

Bake that cake for about 40 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick in the center (between the heating core and the side of the pan) comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minues before inverting out onto a cooling rack to finish cooling.

For those of you who licked the batter off of the spatula or the beaters, you may notice that it tastes a lot like chocolate pudding. With all that chocolate, egg yolk and milk, who's surprised? When the cake is baked and cooled before consumption, you'll find that it has decent structure that is generally only found in drier cakes, but a level of moisture that far surpasses them. In short, despite the relative expense of such an eggy recipe, this cake should be perfect for sculpting 3D cakes, as seen on TV (and in the Tutorials area of this blog).

My attempt with this recipe yielded a cake that looked like it had fallen in the center, because I did not use a heating core. Still, the cake was easily leveled and delicious when frosted with cream cheese icing. For my fellow chocoholics out there, I imagine a good chocolate frosting would do you good as well. Whatever you do with it, don't waste a good cake. Your mother would be disappinted in you.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Gross Cakes

Somebody has an even sicker sense of humor than I do. While I was looking around in Google for anything about modelling chocolate, I ran across a site called theyrecoming. Not realizing what I was about to get myself into, I clicked the link. What I found were some cakes that are not for the faint of heart:

Thorax Cake
Zombie Cake
Killer Rat Cake

Even better, this person posted photos of how she put them together. I suppose these would probably be better posted around Halloween time, but knowing my memory, I'd just forget them by then. But hey, Valentines Day is all about hearts too, right?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Musings on Ubuntu

I remember some years ago, I saw a t-shirt online that said something to the effect of, "Debian: The OS Your Mother Would Use If It Were 20 Times Easier". Imagine my surprise when some few years later, Debian was made 20 times easier and called Ubuntu.

The Debian community has long been known for having one of the most stable and secure, if also less intuitive distributions of Linux available. Those who ventured into that realm generally did so either with immense prior Linux knowledge, or were slapped down by the intensity of that world like a small child biting into its first habanero. If they could handle the heat, then they had an arsenal of raw open source power at their fingertips, and I'm entirely certain that they loved it.

I don't suppose I should have been surprised when I heard rumors of Debian developers at an open source conference wearing t-shirts that said "F*** Ubuntu". Could it be that Debian devs don't like having that power available to the mass public? Perhaps they feel that the Average Joe isn't privileged enough to have access to their previously elite world.

I overheard a discussion in high school between a friend of mine and the school's photography teacher, both shining examples of what was coming to be known as Generation X. The teacher, who looked so much like a skater than few students not in his class knew he was a teacher, was arguing about the elitist Cure fan. The Cure's Wish album had only recently been released, and the teacher argued that die hard cure fans liked to talk about how the Cure had finally sold out, and that Wish was proof positive. The Head on the Door, they argued, was a good album. That was years before Wish, before they so obviously sold out. What these fans were trying to say was not that the Cure were selling out, but that they (the fan) were smart and had authority to call judgement because of their massive knowledge of Old Albums (TM). These same people called The Head on the Door the sellout album when it came out, and noted how superior Three Imaginary Boys was. My friend exclaimed, "hey, but I like The Head on the Door album!" The teacher replied, "sure, you do now because it's an Old Album."

Is this the same mentality that Debian developers have? Are they mad at Ubuntu because it undermines their perceived eliteness? Or are they merely trying to increase their standing with the rest of the Linux community, and perhaps the tech world as a whole? Perhaps they're jealous that Ubuntu has suddenly achieved so much popularity so quickly, and it probably chafes a little that they did so building on the backbone that the Debian community has worked so long and hard to perfect, only to discover that they missed a crucial element: ease of use.

The Ubuntu community has done something that is completely foreign to so many open source developers. They have embraced new users, and even gone so far as to release free CD's to anyone that wants one. Sure, you can download the latest release. But if you don't have the bandwidth for the download or the money to buy blank CD's, they're more than happy to send you out one for free. User groups are popping up all over the place with a new purpose in mind: to help new Ubuntu users become more comfortable with their new environment, and provide the kind of support that normally runs upwards of $90/hr for Windows support.

I've been reading Christer Edwards' blog for several months now, and the guy has managed to post some new tidbit of knowledge just about every day. When I started checking out the Ubuntu Utah group, I was welcomed with open arms. Even though I was kind of a pain sometimes when I had problems, people like Christer, and Aaron Topponce have continuously extended their hand in friendship and invited me to bring my computer to the monthly meetings so that they can make sure I'm headed where I want to be going.

Those are today's musings on Ubuntu. I don't know that I've ever enjoyed a computing environment so much, and I don't think I've ever been so productive on the computer. It's a nice place to be.

UPDATE, Feb 19 @ 5:02pm:
Shortly after posting my musings, somebody far more intelligent and informed on the matter than me decided to post his response. I realized at the time that my comments were likely far more short-sighted than I knew, but Hans' response to them made me glad I posted them anyway. All things considered, reading my post and not his would probably be kind of like only hearing half of a conversation and thinking that was enough.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Recipes: Rules vs Guidelines

I was thinking about this on the way to the grocery store this morning. If somebody were to analyze the nature of a shopping list, as I did during the short drive to the store, one might think of it as a set of rules. It's a somewhat vague set of rules, requiring the correct interpretation, kind of like a programming language. Consider the following:

10 PRINT "Hello, I am the TRS-80 Color Computer."
20 PRINT "What is your name?"
40 PRINT "Hello " + A$ + ", how are you?"

This is the kind of thing I did when I was six years old. I thought it was the most brilliant thing in the world, and I copied those four lines out of the book that came with the computer all the time. That piece of BASIC programming code is mostly self-explanatory, but it still requires the proper interpreter. Now consider the following:

a loaf of bread
a carton of eggs
a container of milk
a stick of butter
chocolate cream pie
cream puffs

Let's pretend that this was my shopping list this morning (it wasn't). Knowing that this is a shopping list, most people would instantly understand the rules implied: I need to buy all of these items, and only these items. It's a simple set of rules, but it doesn't tell the whole story. My wife has been asking alternately for cream puffs and chocolate cream pie for a couple of weeks now. Knowing that either would make her happy, I put both on the list with the intention of choosing one or ther other when I got to the store.

While I was walking around the store, my wife called me and reminded me that her family would be stopping by tomorrow, and that maybe we should pick up something special for them. That was when I decided to buy both the cream pie and the cream puffs. On my way there, I walked by the baby aisle and decided to pick up some baby wipes. We won't be needing them for a while, but they were on sale, I had a couple of extra bucks, and we would need them eventually.

As you can see, the shopping list really wasn't a set of rules. It was a set of guidelines. It was a reminder of what I thought I might want to get when I wrote it. And that's kind of what I wanted to get into with recipes.

A lot of people see a recipe as a set of rules. The ingredient list specifies a set of items that must be added, no more, no less. This is all fine and good if you cook at a restaurant, and things like consistency are key to their business. But even restaurants keep in mind instructions like "to taste". Not every stalk of celery is going to be the same, nor every pound of chicken. One batch of soup may end up needing a teaspoon of salt, and the next two or three. When one makes that batch of soup at home, they feel like adding parsnips to it, or swapping out the chicken for beef. The recipe is a guideline that can be used to create a version of that dish that is most appropriate for the moment.

A lot of professional bakeries refer to their recipes as formulas. In the baking world, it's important to be exact, but that's not the only reason they use formulas. There a whole new language that bakers use, whose intepretation can seem pretty arcane. Flour is always 100%, and all other ingredients are compared to flour by weight. One recipe might call for a pound of flour and perhaps 12 oz of eggs. That comes out to 100% flour and 75% eggs.

So if bakers are so exact as to use formulas instead of recipes, then why do they use things like bench flour? Why do they check for things like consistency? Not all bakery ingredients are equal. One bag of flour might contain 12.1138% protein, while the next might have 12.0042% protein and another might have 12.2600% protein. It is darned hard to find two eggs that weight exactly the same amount. Bakers have to watch for these inconsistencies and compensate as necessary. In the end, for all their formulas and equations, bakers still have to rely on guidelines.

Next time you whip out that stroganoff recipe for dinner, or that chicken curry recipe, take a closer look at that list of ingredients next time and maybe even that set of instructions. What do you think you could do differently? Maybe it would taste good with marjoram instead of oregano. Maybe you could use beef chuck instead of chicken breast. Or maybe there isn't really anything you want to do with it. That's okay. Try it out tomorrow. Maybe next time you come back to that recipe you'll have more ideas. Eventually you'll be able to make that dish without needing a recipe at all.

Thursday, February 8, 2007


I don't know who came up with the idea of chocolate-dipped Altoids, but they deserve a raise and a promotion. I even left them a comment on their site saying so. I first saw them last Saturday, and I've already been through three tins. In my defense, I daresay at least 30-40% of them were consumed by my wife or my coworkers. They're so addictive, I may find myself in rehab.

Wendy's is now using Blister in the Sun by the Violent Femmes to hawk burgers. I don't know who decided to use this song, based either on what everything thinks it means or what Gordon Gano says it really means, but I don't see a raise or a promotion in their future.

Speaking of inappropriate songs, we were watching The Office tonight. A full two minutes had passed before I realized that the band was playing Roxanne by The Police at the wedding. But hey, at least in this case, they knew what they were doing, right?

On Ace of Cakes tonight, they mixed luster dust with vodka to paint with it, because the alcohol would evaporate more quickly than water. Does that sound familiar to anyone that read my Black Chandelier Cake Tutorial?

Dangit, I just had to reboot my computer again. Hey, do you want an Altoid?

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Cocoa Content and Percentages

I've been thinking a lot about this lately, what with Valentines Day coming up and all. At the Utah Chocolate Show back in November, I had a chance to learn a little bit about cocoa percentages. Dark is the new chocolate buzzword, and with that comes percentages that we weren't really used to even 10 years ago. Like most of my contemporaries, I grew up with two basic types of chocolate: Hersheys and Nestle. The variations involved things like peanuts and crisped rice.

I have sitting in my home everything from plain "white chocolate" to milk chocolate with 35% cocoa content, to dark varieties at 53%, 62%, 88%, and even "pure" unsweetened 99% baking chocolate. Like a lot of people, I'd always assumed that these percentages referred to cocoa solids. Naively, I'd not realized that "cocoa content" can legally refer to both cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Let me explain with a couple of visuals.

Let's say these are both 70% chocolate. Nice and dark, right? The houndstooth represents the sugar content, at 30%. The polka dots represent the cocoa solids, and the white space represents the cocoa butter. In each case, we have 70% cocoa content. But one of them might have something like 15% cocoa solids, while the other is only 15% cocoa butter. And yet, both are considered dark. It's kind of a dirty marketing trick, isn't it? Even dirtier than me using houndstooth and polka dots in the same image.

There is something else interesting about this. As it turns out, the darker the chocolate, the more structural integrity it has. This is pretty important when you get into things like chocolate sculptures. White chocolate is a lot more versatile in terms of color possibilities, but you would never want to use it for base structure in a large sculpture. Milk chocolate will give you a little more strength, but dark is going to be your best bet.

One last thing that I should mention. The higher the ratio of cocoa solids to cocoa butter, the more viscous the melted chocolate will be. If you have a keen enough eye to pick out which brands are thicker when melted, then you can use this as an indication as to what kind of ratio of cocoa solids to cocoa butter you have.

I wish I had more knowledge about this, but I'm still relatively new to the chocolate scene. I would invite any insight or links that anybody passing by might have to offer me. But I thought I'd throw this out while I was thinking about it.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Black Chandelier Cake Tutorial

Well, I promised some time ago that I would post the tutorial for the Black Chandelier cake. Unfortunately, it's been really busy around here lately. I just put the finishing touches on the tutorial, and I think it is now ready for public consumption. Click here to take a look.

In other news, I saw a massive spike in my stats a couple of days ago. It would seem my Firefox cookies enjoyed another couple of days of popularity on Stumble Upon, and perhaps it was there that they were noticed by Smashing Magazine. Apparently they named that post one of best websites of January 2007. I don't know about you, but I'm kind of excited. This is the first time I've had a website featured somewhere that wasn't one of those "we're featuring you in our book to try and get you to buy a copy" things. Yay me!