Recipe: Melissa Clark's Tiny Valentine’s Day Cake for Daniel (Devil’s Food Cake with Brown Butter Rum Crunch Frosting)

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I acquired my first 6-inch cake pan when I made the wedding cake for two friends in graduate school. It was a casual affair, a quick jaunt to City Hall followed by a reception at someone’s apartment. My job was to make a chocolate, tiered cake with white buttercream, covered in flowers.

At this point in my baking career I’d never quadrupled a cake recipe, never cut dowels to stack cake layers on top of each other, and had never tried to frost anything more ambitious than a birthday cake. 

But I bumbled my way through it, obsessively reading and rereading the assembly instructions in Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible, and making sure to have a lot of extra icing and big bright flowers on hand for disasters. 

Well, let’s just say that first cake was a good lesson in why professionally made cakes cost what they do. Even my ugly duck cake was scarily time consuming, especially because I’d forgotten to mix the baking powder into the first batch of batter I put in the oven. Then, for all my best efforts, the poor cake was lopsided and hunchbacked, its pristine white icing strewn here and there with nubby black crumbs that I couldn’t mask, and covered, willy-nilly, with slightly wilted Gerbara daisies. The maid of honor said it was rustic and homemade-looking, and I know she meant it as a compliment. Luckily, it hardly mattered. The bride and groom stopped at a bar on the way to the reception, and drank so many congratulatory shots that when they finally showed up, they barely noticed the cake, which all the tipsy guests devoured with their hands when we ran out of forks. 

Since then, my friends have divorced and remarried, and I have drastically improved my cake-making skills (and plastic fork buying skills). I’ve made four more wedding cakes (never my own, by the way) and all were lovely and not at all lopsided, if still pleasingly homemade-looking and rustic.

All this to say that those 6-inch cake pans that I bought for a wedding cake back in my student days have gotten good use, and not just for wedding cakes. I also love using them to bake tiny little layer cakes to feed four to six. Or in this Valentine’s Day recipe, two, with ample leftovers for breakfast the next morning.

Chocolate Cake:

2/3 cup very hot coffee or water
1/3 cup unsweetened, Dutch-process cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
4 large egg yolks (save whites for the buttercream)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoon baking powder
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 cup chopped Sweet and Spicy Candied Pecans or purchased toffee bits

Rum Buttercream:

4 large egg whites
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 sticks butter (12 ounces), at room temperature, sliced 
3 tablespoons good, aged rum

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour two 6-inch pans, or spray with baking spray. Cut parchment or waxed paper rounds to fit in the bottom of the pans, lay them down, and grease the paper.

2. In a small bowl stir together coffee and cocoa until smooth. Stir in salt and let cool until barely warm to the touch. Whisk in egg yolks and vanilla. 

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, and baking powder.

4. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter until fluffy. Add the sugar and continue to beat until very light, about 5 minutes. Beat in a third of the cocoa mixture followed by half of the flour mixture and beat well. Scrape down the sides of the mixer and beat again. Beat in another third of the cocoa mixture and then the remaining flour mixture. Scrape the sides again and add remaining cocoa. Beat until smooth.

5. Divide the batter evenly between the two cake pans and smooth the tops. Bake until the tops of the cakes are no longer shiny and wet looking, and a cake tester inserted in the center emerges clean, about 25 minutes. Cool on wire racks before umolding.

6. To prepare the buttercream, put the egg white, sugar, and salt into the metal bowl of your mixer (or any metal bowl if using a hand held mixer). Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Place the bowl of egg whites over the pot and whisk until the sugar is dissolved and the eggs are warm to the touch. Use pot holders if necessary to hold onto the bowl.

7. Remove the bowl from the heat and beat the eggs with an electric mixer until they are thick and cool, about 5 minutes (see What Else? For tips). Beat in the butter, bit by bit, until the mixture is smooth and fluffy and buttercreamy. Beat in the rum. Use immediately, or store at room temperature for up to 24 hours. You might have to beat it again before using.

8. Slice the cakes in half horizontally, and sandwich the layers with buttercream and some of the chopped nuts or toffee bits. Ice the cake, then cover with more of the nuts or toffee. 

What Else?

- If you don’t want to use toffee bits or candied nuts in the cake, you can use plain toasted nuts (any kind you like, hazelnuts are nice with rum) instead. Or leave out the crunch altogether, this really doesn’t need it.

- You can adapt any 9-inch cake here, just divide the batter between two six-inch pans, and reduce the baking time. A half batch of most icing recipes will give you more than enough to mask any crumbs that stray into onto the surface. 

- Of if you’d rather, bake the batter in a 9-inch pan, reducing the baking time slightly.

- One thing I learned from that first wedding cake experience was to lock the crumbs onto the cake by sealing it with a thin layer of icing before adding the rest. To do so, remove about a third of your icing to separate bowl, and use that to apply the first layer of frosting. When all the crumbs are locked into that first layer of icing, clean your spatula and apply another, clean layer of frosting on top. If you have the time and fridge space to chill your cake layers in between icing layers, definitely do so. It will make everything neater and easier.

- Large, colorful flowers still work as a distracting, pretty decoration for the cake, especially on Valentine’s Day.

- The biggest thing to pay attention to when making a meringue buttercream, which is technically what this recipe is, is the temperature of the ingredients. The butter really needs to be soft, pliable and at room temperature. Not melty, not hard and cold. So make sure to take it out of the fridge an hour before you plan to make this. If you’ve only got half an hour, you can cheat by slicing the butter into slices and spreading those out on a plate. They will warm faster this way. Don’t use the microwave unless you are very careful because chances are the butter will melt.

Then there is the temperature of the egg whites. They must be completely cool, not warm, when you add the butter. Basically in order to form the most stable emulsion, which is what a buttercream is, you want the butter and the egg whites to be the same temperature. If one is too cold, the mixture will curdle. If one is too hot, the mixture will melt into soup. If you do end up with liquidy, thin buttercream, set if briefly in a bowl of ice water, then try beating again. If everything gets curdled, set the bowl in a bowl of very warm (not hot) water and them try beating again. You can usually rescue broken buttercream but it will take some doing.