Unexpected Sweetness – Sticky Date Cake

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Do shiny new recipe books follow you home like wayward kittens and creep into every room of the house until they reach such epic proportions that they threaten to fall with a terrible splat! into a bowl of cake batter*? Or is that just around this neck of the woods? My name is Sticky Penguin and I’m addicted to cookbooks.
The Other Penguin has taken evasive action in an effort to slow the arrival of further cookbooks (realising that stopping them entirely is likely to be like trying to bail out the QE2 with a tea cup). He arrived home last week with two glossy books of desserts borrowed from the library. A quiet evening of reading and gluttonously plotting baking efforts followed...

Sticky Date Cake, made by the Sticky Penguin from The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle, by Kate Zuckerman

The first of the books was The Sweet Life. Not to be confused with The Sweet Life In Paris, David Lebovitz’s love affair with Paris that guided so much delicious pootling around that city last year, this is a book of desserts by Kate Zuckerman, the former pastry chef at Chanterelle in New York. Sadly, after going in search of the restaurant online in anticipation of trying some of their sweet offerings for myself, I found that after 30 years in business and being among the first wave of fine dining destinations in TriBeCa, Chanterelle had fallen foul of the financial meltdown and closed in 2009.

Zuckerman was named in 2005 as one of the ten best US pastry chefs by Pastry Art & Design and Chocolatier magazines (now combined into Dessert Professional). So she knows her onions. Or perhaps that should be her quinces. And tarts. And chocolate... Best of all, she’s keen to share her knowledge along with her creations. The Sweet Life mixes the how-to of essential dessert basics – browning butter, making caramel, even simply creaming butter and sugar – with recipes applying those skills along with a handful of variations to inspire you to venture into new territory for yourself.

Sticky Date Cake, made by the Sticky Penguin from The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle, by Kate Zuckerman

Many high-profile chefs can be all about personality, whether bubbling with butter and slapdash enthusiasm or instructing with haughty precision. Zuckerman, while leaving you in no doubt of her passion, has a pleasantly conversational tone. She offers the helpful guidance of an experienced mentor standing beside the kitchen bench, ready to let you try to scale new heights but ready with advice before you bite off more than you can chew.

Some people might find the frequent cross references to tips and techniques on other pages of the book an unwelcome distraction. However, I liked that these were largely for extra information, with the method for each recipe all found in one place so avoided the need to flick back and forth with floury hands or at crucial moments. Notes explaining the science underlying the method (written with the input of Kirsten Hubbard, a food scientist) are also a useful resource for those, like me, whose baking experiments begin with “I wonder what would happen if...”.

Sticky Date Cake, made by the Sticky Penguin from The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle, by Kate Zuckerman

The book is grouped into chapters by type of dessert that run the gamut from tarts to ice creams and candies. There are quick options for a last-minute dessert or a rainy afternoon (flourless chocolate bête noir, strawberry-rhubarb crisp), approachable challenges (chocolate caramel tart, prune armagnac creme brûlée) and stand-out-show-off showpieces (cardamom and honey pistachio nougat glacé). Tina Rupp’s photography shows off the detail of a selection of Zuckerman’s recipes – although, for those who use the photo rather than the ingredients to make their selection, be warned that not all of the recipes are illustrated.

In an ever-more-crowded field of dessert cookbooks, The Sweet Life is a valuable guide for those eager to learn new techniques as well as expanding their repertoire.

Sticky Date Cake, made by the Sticky Penguin from The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle, by Kate Zuckerman

Trying to decide where to begin in testing out some recipes, the Date Cake with Toffee Sauce looked like the perfect way to use up a bag of fresh Medjool dates lurking neglectedly at the bottom of the fridge. While the recipe wasn’t a difficult one, I was interested in applying the guidance on effectively creaming butter and sugar to achieve a light consistency and the highly liquid cake batter was a way to put my newly repaired oven** to the test.

The recipe, with metric conversions and my extra notes and comments, is as follows:

Date Cake from The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle
What you need
255 g / 9 oz fresh dates (I used around 15 Medjool dates)
2 tbsp brandy (the recipe also suggests you could use Grand Marnier)
2 tsp instant espresso powder
170 g / 6 oz / 12 tbsp butter, at room temperature
175 g / 1 cup soft brown sugar (references to cups are US cups, not metric)
4 eggs, at room temperature
220 g / 1¾ cups plain flour
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)

What to do
1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (325°F). 
2. Line a 23 cm (9 inch) square cake tin with baking paper.
3. Halve the dates and remove the pits. Place the dates in a mixing bowl and add the brandy and espresso powder. Add 240 ml (1 cup) of boiling water to the bowl and allow the mixture to steep for 10 minutes.
4. Puree the date mixture in a food processor (or you could use a resilient stick blender, or a stand mixer) - it doesn't have to be completely smooth.
5. Cream the butter for 1 minute in a stand mixer, then add the sugar and continue creaming for another 6 to 8 minutes, until the mixture is light, fluffy and pale. Stop periodically to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
6. Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix on low speed for around 20 seconds after each one. If it starts to look curdled, don't worry about it - it will balance out when the dry ingredients are added. 
7. In a separate bowl, sieve together the flour, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt. Don't add the bicarb soda yet - just in case you were going to plonk in all the dry ingredients, and then go 'bugger' after going back to the recipe (which didn't happen this time...). With the mixer on slow speed, and half the flour mixture to the butter, sugar and eggs.
8. Add the bicarb soda to the date mixture and stir for around 10 seconds. 
9. Keeping the mixer on slow, add the date mixture to the cake batter and incorporate thoroughly. Then, add the remaining half of the flour and spices and mix until combined and no floury streaks remain. Scrape down the bowl, then mix on slow speed for 30 seconds.
10. Pour the batter into the lined tin, and level the top with a spoon or spatula. It's a very runny batter before being baked, just in case you look at it and wonder how it's going to turn into a cake (or is it just me that has those worries, borne of the until-now dodgy oven?). Bake on the centre shelf of the oven, for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the centre of the cake is set when tested with a thin skewer. My cake was done after 48 minutes. Allow to cool in the cake tin, then turn out onto a wire rack.
Note: The recipe book suggests serving the cake with warm toffee sauce, although I think it would be wonderful with custard. A coffee ganache could also be interesting to try. I was taking the cake to share at work, so kept it plain (a sticky cake is so much trickier in that setting), and just sprinkled it lightly with icing sugar. 

Sticky Date Cake, made by the Sticky Penguin from The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle, by Kate Zuckerman
The novelty of an evenly baked cake after a newly fixed oven

The finished cake was the beautiful dark golden colour of a jar of treacle held up to the light. The coffee and brandy introduced deeper, subtler flavours than found in the sticky date cakes and toffee puddings on cafe menus from Double Bay to Dungog. It had a light, almost springy texture. While lovely and moist, no hint of its runny incarnation prior to baking remained. Also, to my enormous delight, the cake rose gently and evenly. Perhaps to truly experience the joy of a functional oven, you need to have suffered five years of grappling with a disgruntled Smeg.

If all new baking efforts turned out as well as the Sticky Date Cake, it would be a sweet life indeed...

Sticky Date Cake, made by the Sticky Penguin from The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle, by Kate Zuckerman

* And I do mean the recipe books here, not the kittens. Although I’d be so happy to have a kitten that I mightn’t mind too much having to wrangle a squirming, biting one in a bowl of soapy water to clean up the result of the splat!
** For those of you familiar with the trials of the Evil Smeg, it has lately had its thermostat replaced, causing great joy and rejoicing in one half of the penguin household, and a welcome break from (quite so many) dark mutterings from the kitchen in the other half.

muppy on June 20, 2011 at 9:21 AM

WHat a fantastic post, you have sold me on the cook book, i like that its readable and has extra tips, maybe i should head to the library.....
my oven is constantly giving me grief am hoping to get a new one in the next couple of years.
I make a very tasty nougat glace, would love to try another recipe. I am not so good at experimenting, definitely a recipe follower.

chocolatesuze on June 20, 2011 at 3:15 PM

i heart dates in cake! definitely one to try!

Anonymous –  on June 21, 2011 at 2:46 PM

Dear Sticky Penguin,

A jar of whipped ginger made it's way into our house yesterday - perhaps a teaspoon or two would add a zing to your date cake?


Mad Bison

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella on June 23, 2011 at 7:28 PM

This looks wonderful and thank you for the comprehensive review on the book. I have to admit I have an entire bookshelf full of cookbook-I need cookbook rehab!

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