Every so often, when the river of life tosses you up on some strange, foreign shore, it then has the kindness to ensure that you’ve washed up near the best sort of locals (the ones that’ll point you to the best bar in town). And so it was several years ago that I was lucky enough to make the delightful acquaintance of some lovely ladies from Baton Rouge. Entrusted to make sure that my industry’s major annual conference went off without a hitch, they managed that task with aplomb and with plenty of energy to spare… which is a good thing since the Ladies know how to par-tay.
I have since had the good fortune to see the Ladies once a year or so, but thanks to the miracles of modern technology (aka Facebook) I get regular updates on their excitingly exotic (for me, at least) goings on down in Cajun country. There always seems to be a celebration or a bake sale or a huuuuge pot of pastalaya a-stir for one cause or another. It was in a post about a bake sale that mentioned a Morganza cake, and how someone should make one as it always sells out.
A cake, you say? That always sells out at Louisiana bake sales? Color me VERY interested. After a little Google-fu, I’d learned that Morganza cake, named after the town (and/or spillway) in Pointe Coupee Parish from whence it came, is a devil’s food cake with a just as devilish praline frosting. Clearly something worth further, immediate investigation. I only turned up one recipe, courtesy of the Baton Rouge Advocate, but that was enough.
Directions in my hot little hands, I made for the kitchen with all due haste. The recipe, though, did leave a few things to be desired, I thought. It called for a cake mix chocolate cake. Oh no, I think not. Pecans were “optional” and I ended up sticking a good 3c in. There was no salt either, an omission that I rectified right quick and really makes the praline sing–even if it’s not strictly traditional. Finally, I tossed a little bourbon into the mix as well… because, well, BOURBON. Duh.
Not wanting to have anything to do with a boxed mix, I turned to Dorie Greenspan for a nicely textured, well-flavored devil’s food cake. Hers gets dotted with chips and split in four before getting frosted with a marshmallow icing, but the moist, tender crumb and deeply chocolate flavor is a perfect foil for the slightly more robust but just as sweet praline frosting.
Having made this twice–once for a crowd of 50 and once for a much more reasonable potluck of eight, I can say that this one is indubitably a keeper. The refrain at the big party went something along these lines: “WHAT is this?!” in very rewardingly awed tones.
Cheers to the Ladies, and I’ll look forward to cutting them a slice real soon.
Yield: 12 servings
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan & Corrine Cook
For the cake
1 1/3 c all-purpose flour
1/2 c Dutched cocoa powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
10 tbs unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 c (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 c sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 oz bittersweet chocolate
1/2 c whole milk, room temperature
1/2 c boiling water
Preheat oven to 350°F and position two racks evenly about 1/3 and then 2/3 from the floor of the oven. Butter the bottom and sides of two 8″ round cake pans, line with parchment, butter again, and then flour–add about 2 tsp of flour to one of the pans and shake it around to lightly coat the bottom and sides. Invert the other cake pan over the floured one, flip them both over and rap smartly against the counter. Remove the floured pan and set aside. There should be enough flour now in the second pan to shake about and coat the bottom and sides as well. If not, at a little more flour. Once well-coated, knock the excess into the sink. Set prepared pans aside.
(Now would be a good time to toast the pecans for the frosting.)
Chop the bittersweet chocolate finely and put in a small bowl. Microwave till mostly melted, about two twenty-second bursts for my microwave, and stir till completely melted. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Yes, SIFT it. Cocoa is notoriously clumpy, and if you don’t deal with it now, you never will. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugars on medium speed till light and fluffy, about 3 min. Add the eggs one at at time, beating for 1 min after each addition. Add the vanilla.
Reduce the speed to low and beat in the melted chocolate, scraping down the bowl to ensure even mixing.
Add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk (in two additions. Mix only till each addition is incorporated into the batter, scraping down the bowl halfway through and then again at the end. With the mixer on the lowest possible speed, slowly stream in the boiling water. Remove the bowl from the mixer and finish mixing with a spatula.
Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and smooth with a spatula. Rap each on the counter sharply once or twice to get rid of any big air bubbles.
Bake in the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the pans top to bottom and back to front halfway through baking. When done, a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake will come out clean. Remove from the oven and place cake pans on cooling racks. After 5 minutes, run a thin metal spatula around the edges of the cakes and turn them out with your hand. Place cakes back on the racks tops up and cool completely.
For the frosting
3 c pecans
1 (12 oz) can evaporated milk
3 c sugar
1 tsp salt
12 oz unsalted butter
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
2 tsp bourbon whiskey
Spread the pecans on a rimmed cookie sheet or jelly roll pan and toast in a 350°F oven until nuttily fragrant, about 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool. Chop and put into a bowl. Shake gently to settle the dusty little nut bits to the bottom of the bowl and scoop off about a cup and a half of the nice clean pieces from the top. Set aside.
In a large, heavy pot (seriously, 4.5 qts or slightly larger; I used an enameled cast iron Dutch oven), combine the evaporated milk, sugar, butter, and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly, till it reaches the soft ball stage (237°F). How long this’ll take will depend on your range, pot, and the temperature of your ingredients. Suffice to say, it feels like rather a while. Persevere, if you don’t take it all the way to 237°F the frosting won’t set correctly.
Once the frosting comes to temperature, remove it from the heat, carefully transfer it to a metal bowl stabilized with a kitchen towel, and mix in the vanilla and bourbon. Stir with a wooden spoon (or, hem, a hand mixer) till cooled a bit, 3-4 min. The frosting won’t increase in volume, and you’re really looking for a happy medium consistency–cool enough to stay on the cake, but warm enough to spread.
To assemble the cake, use a large serrated knife to even off the tops of the cake layers if their uneven or excessively domed. Daub a teaspoon of icing on a prepared cake round or serving plate and invert one of the layers on top. Remove about 1 1/2 c of the icing to a medium bowl and stir in the finely chopped (dusty) pecans. Spread this mixture over the top of the first cake layer, bringing it out to the edges of the cake. (If the frosting, and the pecan mixture in particular, has gotten to cool to spread with a spatula, moisten your fingers and just gently press it out. Alternatively, warm the frosting over a double boiler till it thins to a spreadable consistency.)
Top the pecan mixture with the remaining cake layer. Frost top and sides with the remaining plain frosting, working quickly and firmly as the frosting will stiffen as it cools. Try not to rock your spatula back as the sticky frosting will pull up crumbs if you do. This is most important on the top of the cake.
Again, if the frosting gets too stiff, you can either soften it down a bit in a double boiler or just use lightly moistened hands to sculpt the frosting onto the top and sides of the cake, buffing seams together with your fingers. I’ve done it both ways.
Once the cake is frosted, coat the sides of the cake with the reserved chopped pecans. Let frosting set. Cake can sit out for a bit with no problem, but cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate if keeping for more than a day or so. Let come back to room temperature before serving.