Pepper. White pepper and cayenne pepper.

These are the "secret" ingredients in this cake which is now at the top of my favourites list. I have already made this more than once and ask people to guess the secret after tasting - though so far no one has quite pinned down the source of this glorious dark, moist, spicy cake's distinctive, addictive flavour explosion.

This appeared in the Cook's Illustrated, November / December 2017 Issue and is also available online if you subscribe to the America's Test Kitchen online site. (BTW - this is not a sponsored post, but you’d do well to subscribe to their newsletters. Eventually you will get a great offer for digital access - and then you can live, and cook, happily ever after!) As usual, they tested the dickens out of this so it's foolproof, though I have shared one modification - and all my tips.

The icing is out of this world and like nothing I have ever seen, made or tasted before. Apparently it is an old-fashioned recipe called "ermine frosting" described by the Culinary Alchemist site as smoother than silk. You could use this on many other cakes that come out of your kitchen.

Since it was the show-stopper for Xmas dinner, I did a bit of make-ahead - see Notes (below).

Getting Ready:

  • If you plan to ice the cake on the same day you bake it, note that you should start the icing first. The first step in the icing requires a two hour cool down. During that time you can bake the cake.

  • Note that I list several things as "day before" - I love to do that kind of prep. It makes baking day feel more like a "cooking show", where all things are ready and assembly is simple and quick.

  • purchase white pepper if you don't already have some (you only need 1/2 tsp)

  • prep icing dry ingredients (could be done day before)

  • mix dry ingredients for cake (could be done day before)

  • cut rounds of parchment paper (here's how) for baking tins - you'll need 4 rounds of parchment, but only two tins; if you have four 8" inch round pans - yippee - but the assumption is that you only have two (could be done day before)

  • grate fresh ginger (could be done day before; refrigerate)

  • chop 1/4 cup crystallized ginger - optional, see Assembly step below; (could be done day before; store in sealed container)

  • grease and flour 8" round baking pans and line with parchment circle. (See above. ATK assumes we only have 2 x 8” pans, and will repeat the bake, but yay if you have 4 pans)

  • bring butter (for icing) to room temperature

  • bring eggs to room temperature

  • brew one cup of coffee (for the recipe, not for you)

  • preheat oven to 350 F

You can, if you wish, prepare the cake itself with just hand whisking - or use a stand mixer. You'll need two bowls - one for dry and one for wet ingredients, which are then combined. They assume most people will not have 4 cake tins so they suggest making two layers at a time, then repeating.

Frosting: Step 1
1 ½ cups (10 1/2 ounces) sugar
¼ cup (1 1/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
3 TB cornstarch
½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups milk

Frosting: Step 2 (later, see below)
24 tablespoons (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a medium saucepan, whisk together the dry ingredients. You can even do that the day before.

Whisk in milk slowly until smooth and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture boils and becomes thick. That could take 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat.

The above mixture now has to totally cool down - for about two hours. Transferring it to a wide bowl helps the cooling process. 

If you haven't already done so, cut up the butter and bring it to room temperature.
Meanwhile, mix and bake the cake.

1 ¾ cups (8 3/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
¼ cup (3/4 ounce) unsweetened cocoa powder
2 TB ground ginger
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¾ tsp salt
½ tsp ground white pepper
⅛ tsp cayenne pepper

Sift together flour, cocoa, ground ginger, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, pepper, and cayenne together in large bowl. (Sifting is important since cocoa is sometimes a wee bit lumpy.)

1 cup brewed coffee
¾ cup molasses
½ tsp baking soda

1 ½ cups (10 1/2 ounces) sugar
¾ cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs, beaten
2 TB finely grated fresh ginger

You can whisk by hand or use a stand mixer. In a separate bowl, whisk together coffee, molasses, and baking soda.

To the above coffee mixture, add sugar, oil, eggs, and fresh ginger and whisk until smooth.

Combine this wet mixture with the mixture of dry ingredients, whisking until fully combined.

(Remember, ATK assumes you have only two baking pans, so to get four layers you have to repeat the next step.) Pour 1 1/3 cups batter into each prepared pan. (If you only have two 8" pans then that's all you do for now.) Bake on an oven rack at medium position at 350 F until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 12 to 14 minutes - though in my oven I had to go to 16 minutes. (The tops of the cake will be shiny and may appear to be wet.) Let cakes cool in pans on wire rack for 10 minutes.

Invert cake layers onto a wire rack (or your wide open palm) and peel off the parchment; re-invert cakes so that the shiny side is up and the other side is on the cooling rack; why? the shiny side sticks to the cooling rack making it hard to remove it when you are ready to ice. After the first bake, wipe pans clean with paper towels - though I sometimes just wash them. Once again, grease / flour the two pans and line with fresh parchment. Repeat the baking / cooling process with remaining batter. Let cakes cool completely before icing.


Frosting: Step 2
Cooled milk mixture from Step 1

24 TB (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, cut into TB size portions

2 tsp vanilla extract


So, the cake layers are cooling and now you finish the icing.

Two choices here. ATK suggests using a stand mixer / paddle, to beat the butter on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Then add the cooled milk mixture and vanilla, and mix on medium speed until combined, increasing speed to medium-high and beating until the frosting is light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes.

I prefer the approach outlined by Culinary Alchemy where you begin by beating the cooled milk mixture and vanilla first, and then with the mixer on medium-low speed, dropping in the softened butter one tablespoon at a time until incorporated. That might take about 2 minutes. Then increase the speed to medium-high and beat the frosting for another 5 minutes. It should be light and fluffy.

Assembly. Place one layer on your platter, spreading it with 3/4 cup of the frosting. Repeat with the other layers, and spread remaining frosting over the top and sides. Garnish the top with ¼ cup chopped crystallized ginger (optional - but it really adds to the eating experience). I even think it might work to sprinkle some of this onto one of the other layers. ATK suggests refrigerating this for 30 minutes until the icing is set, but I have never done that. ATK says it can be made and refrigerated, covered, for two days - I have done that, but give it a really long time to come to room temperature before serving - otherwise your guests will not experience the icing as silky and soft.

Notes and Tips...

  • White Pepper - I always have this on hand so it hasn't been a problem. Not sure if black pepper would work - perhaps an issue might be that it can be more coarse, whereas white pepper is quite powdery.

  • Molasses - use "fancy" molasses, the kind used for baking - not blackstrap which is too bitter.

  • Make-ahead - ATK says it can be made and refrigerated, covered, for two days - I have done that, but it needs a really long time to come to room temperature before serving - otherwise guests will not experience the icing as silky and soft.

  • For KB Recipe Attribution Practices please click here.

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