Wednesday 22 August 2012

Blackberry Chocolate Upside Down Cake

In his book “Still Life With Woodpecker,” Tom Robbins describes the rampant growth of blackberry canes in the Pacific Northwest.  In fact, the book’s hero and heroine retire to a house that becomes completely engulfed in them.   They cut tunnels through the canes in order to come and go.

Blackberries have the same rampant growth habit here on Vancouver Island.  Every vacant lot, un-mown field, or untraveled pathway rapidly yields to them.  They seem to spring up from nowhere.

In fact, Himilayan blackberries – the kind that grow with such vigour here – are not a native plant.  They are classed as an invasive species. 

Invasive they are: propagating from seeds dropped by the birds and animals that feed on them, and also by sprouting roots wherever their runners touch the ground.  A single blackberry bush can become huge; a vast sprawling mass of tangled brambles.  

Every year at this time, the blackberries yield up their fruit.  Literally tons of purple-black berries grow here; enough to feed the wildlife and still provide a bountiful harvest for those who care to take the time to pick them.  This time of year finds roadsides, fence lines, and fields busy with pickers, all hard at work harvesting this seasonal bonanza.

The fruit is not easily obtained:  Both the blackberry’s canes and its leaves are defended by strong, recurved thorns that, once hooked on to something, can be very difficult to pull free. 

The berries on the outside of a blackberry bush – those receiving the most sun and the least moisture – are apt to be smaller and drier than those in the center of the bush.  Successful berry picking usually requires working at least some distance into the bush by cutting away or breaking the outer canes.  Even when armed with pruning shears, gloves, long sleeves, sturdy trousers, and protective footwear, a berry picker is likely to return home with at least a few gashes and scrapes to show for their effort.  

Perhaps because it’s so hard won, the fruit from these brambles tastes wonderful. 

We went berry picking last weekend.  In past years, we’ve harvested pounds and pounds of blackberries for the freezer, but we eat fewer of them now.  I have diverticulitis and can’t digest the seeds. Now most of our harvest is made into jellies, vinegars, coulis, and agua fresca.  My husband loves the berries fresh, with cream, though and will also happily eat any baked good made with them.

Last weekend, we went out armed with buckets and pruners and came home with quite a good quantity of berries.  Gentleman that he is, my fella did the preliminary cutting and hacking into the canes, making way for me to follow and pick the lower branches while he picked the berries that were beyond my reach.  

As thanks for his gentlemanly conduct my poor husband came home with several deep scratches and gashes.  Since he had made such a valiant effort on my behalf, I wanted to bake him something special by way of thanks. 

While casting around for ideas, I came across a recipe for Upside Down Pear Chocolate Cake from Epicurious.  I’d printed it out a couple of summers ago and have had great success with it.  Blackberries and chocolate pair well together, I thought.  Why not try making this cake using some of the berries we’d picked?

Sometimes an idea works out even better than you expect it to:  The cake smelled so good that I risked a small piece for myself and I’ve got to tell you, this combination is pure genius.  (No one said I was humble! ;)  Seriously though:  If you have blackberries in your area, you need to try this.  It’s so good!

Begin by generously buttering an 8-inch square pan.

Next you’ll need to make a caramel.  In a heavy bottomed saucepan that has lots of room for it to boil, combine:
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup water

Bring the water and sugar to a full boil.

Put the lid on the pot and let the mixture continue boiling for about two minutes.  The condensation from the boiling water will wash down the sides of the pan, helping to prevent your caramel from crystallizing.

Remove the lid from the pot and continue boiling the sugar mixture hard, until the water evaporates and you’re left with just the melted sugar. 

Continue cooking the sugar until it begins to turn amber. 

Don’t stir the pot.  If you need to move the liquid about to distribute the heat more evenly, pick the pan up by the handle and swirl the contents carefully.  This stuff is kitchen napalm.  You don’t want to get it on your skin.

Once the sugar begins to darken, don’t take your eyes off it.  The line between beautiful amber caramel and burnt sugar is a very fine one; just a matter of a few seconds.

When the caramel is the colour you want it to be, pour it carefully into the bottom of the buttered cake pan.  Let it rest until it cools and hardens.

When the caramel has hardened, you're ready to make the cake batter.  You’ll need:

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup milk

Melt the butter and chocolate together.  I do this in the microwave heating and stirring in 20 second intervals until the chocolate is melted and smooth.

Mix in the sugar. 

The Epicurious recipe says to do this with a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, and to beat until the mixture is light and fluffy.  I prefer to mix my cakes by hand – it helps to prevent over-mixing – and have yet to achieve anything resembling light and fluffy when combining butter, chocolate and sugar.  My cakes turn out fine, regardless.

Once the sugar has been incorporated, mix in the eggs – one at a time – and the vanilla extract.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.

Add about a third of the flour mixture into the chocolate mixture and stir until the flour mixture has been incorporated.  

Add about half the milk and mix again.  

Continue alternating and mixing in the flour mixture and milk, finishing with the last third of the flour mixture.  Try not to over-mix the batter.

Once the batter has been prepared, arrange a single layer of berries on top of the hardened caramel in the cake pan.

Pour the batter over the berries, spreading it gently into an even layer.

Bake the cake on the middle rack of a pre-heated 350F oven for 40 to 45 minutes, until the cake bounces back when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted into the cake at an angle comes out almost dry, with just a few crumbs clinging to it.

Cool the cake in the pan, on a wire rack, for 15 minutes, then invert it onto a cake plate, leaving the pan in place for an additional 5 minutes.

Either my cake cooled more quickly than expected or I accidentally left it for a few minutes too long.  Whatever the reason, some of the caramel didn’t release from the pan.  I didn’t want to waste it so, while it was still malleable, I scooped it from the pan with a fork, bent it into a few twists, and transferred it to a piece of parchment to cool and harden.

When the cake had rested on the plate for 5 minutes, I removed the pan.  It wasn’t as pretty as an upside down cake made with pear slices but it looked pretty good to me.

I served the cake warm, topped with vanilla ice cream and garnished with pieces of the hardened caramel.

The leftovers were stored in an airtight container.  I can’t really tell you how long this recipe will keep because my husband polished off the whole cake (less my small piece) in two days. 

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