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Makes 10 to 12 servings
For a few years now I've been a judge at the Whirlpool Accubake Unique Cake Contest, which is similar to the Pillsbury Bake-Off. A chocolate cake with a pecan and butterscotch toffee topping called Chocolate Coffee Toffee Cake by Elizabeth Kirsch from Pennsylvania won first place in 2002 and the $10,000 prize, which she donated to Heifer International. Elizabeth told me she made her cakes in glass canning jars and would tuck one into her husband's business trip luggage so he wouldn't miss his favorite cake while he was out of town. This simplified version of her cake would be perfect to take to a picnic or even a backyard barbecue.
Ten to twelve 1/2-pint canning jars
Rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan
For The Cake
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
2/3 cup sour cream
2/3 cup brewed coffee (I just use the morning’s leftover coffee)
For the Praline Topping
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup pecan halves or pieces
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place 10 to 12 1/2-pint glass canning jars on a rimmed baking sheet, evenly arranged with space between them. (If you have a Silpat liner, place it under the jars to prevent them from sliding around.)
To make the cakes, in a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat the butter until smooth. Add the brown sugar and eggs and mix until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the vanilla, cocoa, baking soda, and salt and mix until combined. Add half of the flour, then half of the sour cream, and mix until combined. Repeat with the remaining flour and sour cream. Drizzle in the coffee and mix until smooth. The batter will be thin, like heavy cream.
Pour the batter into the jars, filling them halfway. Bake until the tops of the cakes are firm to the touch, about 25 minutes.*
To make the topping, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, then add the brown sugar and 1?2 cup water and stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar is dissolved, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the powdered sugar until combined, then return to the heat and bring to a boil. Stir in the nuts.
Pour the praline topping over the cakes to cover, working quickly, because the praline hardens quickly as it cools. Let the cakes cool completely if they aren’t already, before screwing on jar lids.**
*The cakes can be made ahead, cooled, covered, and kept at room temperature for 2 days or in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
**The finished cakes will keep for up to 4 days at room temperature.
Makes one 8-inch charlotte, or 6 to 8 servings
No one makes charlottes anymore, which means they're destined for a comeback. A charlotte is a dessert formed in a high, straight-walled mold lined with ladyfingers, cake, or sliced bread and filled with either cooked fruit, such as apples, or a vanilla Bavarian cream like the one I'm using here. Made in one large mold (you can find charlotte molds in good cookware shops), it's a regal-looking dessert that makes an unusual yet light ending for a special occasion.
• Charlotte mold, 8-inch springfoam pan, or souffle dish
• Parchment paper
• Instant-read thermometer, optional
• 1 (7-ounce) package store-bought ladyfingers
• 2 (1/2 pint) containers raspberries
• 4 cups whole milk
• 1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
• 1 tablespoon powdered gelatin
• 2 tablespoons cold water
• 12 large egg yolks
• 1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
• White chocolate curls (see below)
• Powdered sugar
If you have a charlotte mold you do not need to line it. Otherwise, line an 8-inch springform pan or souffle dish with parchment paper using a circle for the bottom and a strip 4 inches wide around the sides. Dab a little softened butter or a spritz of nonstick cooking spray in the pan to anchor the paper. Generously spray or grease the parchment or charlotte mold. Stand the ladyfingers up around the insides of the pan.
Pick over the raspberries, setting aside the best ones, a little less than 1/2 pint, to make a circle around the edge of the finished charlotte.
Have ready near your cooktop a large bowl. Fill the bowl three-quarters full with ice and cover the ice with water.
Bring the milk and vanilla bean to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. As soon as it comes to a boil, turn off the heat and let the vanilla steep in the milk for 10 minutes.
Gradually sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a small bowl and set aside for the gelatin to soften.
In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the granulated sugar for about 1 minute to combine and then gradually pour in the hot milk, whisking continuously. Return the mixture to the saucepan and, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, cook over medium heat until the sauce has thickened and is 180°F on an instant-read thermometer, being careful not to overcook it or it will break. (If you don't have a thermometer, test the mixture by dipping a wooden spoon into it, and then running your finger down the back of the spoon. If the stripe remains intact, the mixture is ready; if the edges blur, the mixture is not cooked enough yet.)
Immediately stir the softened gelatin into the custard until it's dissolved and then strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a medium bowl. Put the bowl of custard into the bowl of ice water and stir frequently until the custard starts to cool and thicken.
Fold in the less-than-perfect berries (don't worry if the berries break up a bit) and then pour the custard into the pan lined with the ladyfingers. Spread the top of the custard to smooth it. Cover the charlotte with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator to chill for at least 4 hours.*
To serve, trim the ladyfingers even with the top of the custard. Put a serving platter upside down over the pan and quickly invert it. Remove the mold and parchment. Arrange the reserved raspberries around the edge of the charlotte and pile white chocolate curls in the center. Dust with powdered sugar and cut into wedges for serving.
Making Chocolate Curls
To make beautiful chocolate curls for decorating desserts, the two keys are to use a block of chocolate and have it at barely above room temperature. If it's too cold it will break into shards as you peel it. At the restaurant we leave the chocolate block near or over a warm oven. At home you could warm it with a hair dryer set on low, or try wrapping it in a tea towel and warming it with the heat of your hands. Use a vegetable peeler and pull across the side of the block so the chocolate comes off in curls. Place them on a plate and refrigerate until you need them.
* The charlotte will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.