This week’s podcast is a little different. It goes into a deep dive on what exactly is an American chocolate cake and shares some technical facts as well. I’d love to know if you’d like more of this! Please comment below or send me an email: thenextdeliciousthing at gmail.com.
- The top American chocolate cake was from Harrods.
- I also loved the box of mini cakes I bought from Reemies Cakes.
- I sat by the window in streaming sunshine and thoroughly enjoyed a morning bun and coffee from Elder Press cafe.
- The Lemon Bar from Bake Street was exquisite.
- Dinner at vegan Asian fusion restaurant, Alter London.
Read The Next Delicious Thing podcast transcript here..
Hello, and welcome to the fourth episode of the next delicious thing. Thanks for listening!
I’m Jennifer Earle and I’ve been working in the food industry for more than 16 years. I’m a London local and I love to try food at every opportunity. This is a podcast where I share the foods that I think you should be trying to bring more joy to your life. Because what is life without joy? And what is an easier way to get joy than eating delicious things? Okay, maybe hugging a friend or family member, but sometimes it’s easier to get the food.
So, this week, I want to tell you about chocolate cake. In one day, I ate more than 13 different chocolate cakes. Well, I didn’t quite eat them all. I tried them all and I had a good go at eating them all. I also want to tell you about a vegan restaurant that I had dinner at, a super flaky, scrumptious morning bun and a lemon bar.
I promised that these episodes would be 5-10 minutes. However, I got really excited about food geekery this week and have gone on a long tangent about American chocolate cake. So I hope this is interesting to you, you can let me know, send me an email or message me on social media. If you are not super interested, then listen to the first bit and you’ll hear my chocolate cake recommendations. Then you can skip to 13:30 and you’ll get my other recommendations for this week. You will also find them on thenextdeliciousthing.com.
I think food history is fascinating. So I hope you do too. Please do let me know what you think. And now, on with the show…
The reason I tried lots of chocolate cake was in the name of research for a client. The focus was American chocolate cake, which led to the question how is American chocolate cake different to British chocolate cake? Dear listener, I thought I would do some research and help to figure out exactly what the differences are and why. I’m going to share some of the history of cake and the differences between chocolate cake in the two countries and give some background to exactly what red velvet cake, devil’s food cake and a classic American chocolate cake should be. I’m not going to tell you all of the 13 cakes that I tried, because, well, that’s what people pay me for. But I will tell you that I prefer a British chocolate cake! One of the best American chocolate cakes was, unsurprisingly, from Harrods.
Typical American chocolate cake and typical British chocolate cake differ in ingredients, method, texture, and taste. So, quite a lot.
The texture or crumb of an American chocolate cake is typically much lighter, airier and bouncier compared to a softer, slightly firmer British chocolate cake which
is a bit more dense and more likely to break off into crumbs.
The fat, the liquid and the type of cocoa used is different in both. The typical American chocolate cake is made with oil and the wet ingredients so the oil, eggs and the butter milk or milk and added vinegar are stirred into the dry ingredients which is typically cocoa, flour, sugar and baking powder. Then it’s baked. The typical British chocolate cake is based on our classic sponge method where butter is beaten with the sugar until pale and light and fluffy. Then the eggs are whisked in. Whisking is a really hard word to say. 😂
And finally the milk, then the flour and the cocoa, are alternately and gently folded in a little at a time. That term “folding in” will now always make me think of David and Moira trying to cook dinner in that episode of Schitt’s Creek. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a very good one.
So, to recap, it is butter versus oil, milk versus buttermilk – or milk plus vinegar – and then a resulting much more liquid batter. So, the cake in the US, versus Britaiin, has a more liquid batter. It is kind of what we here in the UK would expect from a sweet muffin recipe. And then: the cocoa.
Did you know that readily available cocoa in the US is different to what we have here in the UK. It’s all down to a process which is known as Dutching. This is where before the cocoa powder is extracted from the cocoa bean. The beans go through an alkalising process. It’s known as Dutching rather than alkalising because the process was invented by Conrad van Houten, a Dutchman. It was invented in 1828 when he was trying to work out how to separate the cocoa butter from the cocoa mass (the ground cocoa beans) so that cocoa drinks didn’t have globules of fat in it as it got cold. I know that sounds kind of gross. If you imagine gravy when it cools and it gets that layer of fat on the top, that was what was happening in cocoa drinks because no one had figured out how to extract the cocoa butter from a cocoa bean, and a cocoa bean is about 50 to 54% fat. So when you grind the beans to mix them with water or milk to make a drink, you have a separation of fat eventually as it cools, depending on how well it has been whisked to begin with, but regardless it naturally starts to separate.
The first chocolate bar wasn’t actually invented until 1847. So in 1828, this was very desirable to be able to remove the fat so a drink could be just made from the cocoa powder, which is what is left after most of the cocoa butter is removed.
It’s possible you’ll recognise Van Houten as an American brand of cocoa. I don’t believe it has anything to do with the original Conrad van Houten, but his name has lingered.
These days, most cocoa in the US is pretreated still, to give it a neutral pH – around 6.8 or higher if you are interested in the geekery – rather than cocoa’s natural acidic pH, which is around 5.2. This alkalisation process does several things apart from altering the pH, which in itself is quite important for recipes and I will come back to that later.
The alkalisation makes the cocoa more soluble in water – generally considered a good thing for bakers. It makes it darker in colour. This is also often appealing for bakers and manufacturers as darker brown makes people think that the food is more chocolatey. Then, on the flip side, alkalisation reduces the phytochemicals which is what gives cocoa its antioxidatory benefit – health benefits, essentially, it also reduces the caffeine content by about two thirds and it removes a lot of the interesting and enjoyable flavours from the cocoa.
It’s the colour and the flavour of the cocoa that really make the difference in taste between American and British chocolate cakes. The pH makes a difference to the ingredients needed to make the cake rise which is why cakes made with American cocoa – typically dutched – will have buttermilk or vinegar to provide the acid that’s missing from the cocoa powder, needed to make the baking soda react and produce the leavening effect so the cakes will rise.
British people will often find a standard American chocolate cake not chocolatey enough. Sometimes this is compensated for by a rich chocolate frosting and, eaten together, the overall flavour is delicious. This was the case in the best of the American-style cakes that I managed to find in London, as I mentioned, the one from Harrods. The open crumb, bouncy texture of the cake was very mild in flavour. The fudgy ganache coating which was on the top, the sides and in between the layers, was rich and delicious and made the overall eating of the whole cake very, very enjoyable.
If you’re looking to try an American-style chocolate cake in London, most of the cupcake shops have a recipe that is much more like an American chocolate cake than a British chocolate cake. They use oil rather than the butter as it extends the shelf life and makes it feel much fresher when you’re using small cakes rather than large ones.
In searching for chocolate cakes in London that Americans loved I asked the Americans that I know – thank you Scott, Jeanne, David and Hanna! One of them directed me to a company called Reemies Cakes which turned out to be much more traditionally British, but it was nonetheless delicious. Here’s the caveat to say that, for Americans, a Devil’s Food Cake is much more like a British traditional chocolate cake. It’s made with butter rather than oil. And the cake itself is much more chocolatey in flavour than the typical chocolate cake.
Some recipes for Devil’s Food Cake – just as some recipes for British chocolate cake – have actual chocolate in the batter, and not not just cocoa. Hanna Gellar shared an interesting fact that the Devil’s Food Cake was supposedly a reaction to the Angel Food Cake, which is a fatless white cake. It’s called an Angel Cake in part because of the pale colour, partly for it airiness and also because it was fatless. The butter-rich, intensely indulgent chocolate cake of the Devil’s Food Cake was its perfect counterpart.
While I’m on this geekery cocoa chocolate journey, I wanted to share a few other facts that I found interesting about cocoa and other American chocolate cakes.
Regarding cocoa: there are levels to the Dutching (or alkalising). You might have heard of, or seen, black cocoa. Black cocoa is heavily dutched, and it has very little flavour and 90% fewer phytochemicals than standard cocoa. That’s the cocoa that used to make Oreos. It removes so much flavour that the quality of the original cocoa beans is pretty irrelevant, which makes it perfect for big corporations, but not so delicious for the rest of us.
Regarding cakes: as well as the classic American chocolate cake and the Devil’s Food Cake, Americans have two other chocolate cake staples, the German chocolate cake and a red velvet cake. I know the last one is controversially considered a chocolate cake. I will explain.
But first, the German chocolate cake. I’d heard of this from American books that I’d read and I imagined it as Black Forest Gateau. But it has nothing to do with Germany at all. It’s connected to an English immigrant living in the US called Samuel German. He was an employee of Walter Baker and Company in the 19th century. And at that point, they made baker’s chocolate (this time in reference to the usage, not Walter’s surname), which was a solid bar of ground cocoa with no sugar. In 1852, Samuel German formulated a baking chocolate with sugar, which is what Americans would know today as a semisweet chocolate. It was called German’s sweet chocolate, so he got his name on the bar,and eventually became known as German chocolate.
There were many, many recipes that specified this type of chocolate. I guess similar to the way a recipe today might specify that you should use 70% chocolate, it was just to differentiate it from the typical unsweetened chocolate that was in most recipes prior to this.
An American German chocolate cake today is known for having a frosting that includes coconut and pecans on top of and between at least three, sometimes more, layers of the cake, which is a traditional oil and buttermilk chocolate cake recipe.
The first appearance of this combination with the coconut and pecans came in 1956. Rather than the typical buttercream frosting which is used on most cakes today, this was a custard base that was made with egg yolks and evaporated milk.
And finally, the Red Velvet Cake. A velvet cake was given the name because it referred to the smooth and fine crumb that you got from making a cake with oil and buttermilk combination. These have been around for centuries now.
Red Velvet came when the cool science reaction of adding cocoa to the batter where the vinegar reacted with the cocoa and brought out the anthocyanin which is the natural red tones to natural cocoa that hasn’t been alkalised. When it interacts with the acid it becomes even more red, a little bit like how blueberries turn pink when they come into contact with lemon juice. If you haven’t seen that go and make a margarita or something. I just love how cool science is.
Obviously these days you’ll never find a red velvet cake in a shop that doesn’t have added food colouring. Because the actual tint – even if you’re using natural cocoa rather than dutched cocoa – is only very subtly red.
I also learned that traditionally a red velvet cake has an ermine frosting, not a cream cheese one. Which is a shame because frankly that’s the best part. I’m not normally somebody who enjoys the frosting on cakes but in a red velvet cake for me that is the most delicious part. I personally find Red Velvet cakes disappointing because they are neither chocolatey enough nor comfortingly vanilla. Also, I don’t really want to eat that much food colouring. But I do like a cream cheese frosting. Ermine frosting is made from cooked flour and milk, a version of a roux which is then whipped into glossy peaks with sugar and butter. Basically, the flour made the frosting go further with less sugar. So it was done for cost reasons and I guess potentially helpful from a health perspective, but it also made it lovely and white and fluffy. I don’t think I’ve tried ermine frosting knowingly, but apparently it is a little like the fluffy filling of those American classics: Twinkies and Ding dongs. I really like American candy names.
Okay, I think that’s enough about cakes for this week. I hope you’ve enjoyed the geekery. Please let me know if you would like me to do more deep dives on facts behind foods.
There are three more things to draw to your attention that are delicious.
As I mentioned, the flaky and soft and perfect swirl of the morning bun. That was from Elder Press in Stamford brook in West London. Incidentally, they do also make very good chocolate cakes as well.
And a three layered sharp and soft curdy delight of a lemon bar from Baker Street in Hackney. I love this. If you’re a fan of lemon in sweet things, please please go and seek this out.
And finally the vegan dinner. It was at Alter which is also slightly obscurely located. It is on the first floor of a hotel in Aldgate, about a 15 minute walk from Liverpool Street Station. It is beautifully sunlit by full length windows. Everything there was an explosion of flavour, so much joy and wonder in every dish. I really love eating food that I know I can’t make easily at home and this was that. My one warning is that the menu is pitched as a sharing menu, but it wasn’t actually that easy to share. The bites are in portions of two, which I guess is easy if there’s an even number. The larger dishes had a lot of liquid which inevitably means when you transfer the dishes to your individual bowls, they all kind of meld together. I am still very glad that we shared because I love to taste everything and it gave so much variety and excitement to the meal. If you go you will have a delicious meal if you just choose and eat only your own dishes. Go enjoy however you like it. Quick FYI: this is not a menu with alternative meats. So carnivores tagging along might be disappointed. There were no vegans in my group and we all loved it.
Okay, now I am really hungry. This week I’m going to be going to IFE, the UK’s biggest food trade exhibition. And I’ve also booked an overnight stay in North Norfolk. If you have any recommendations for Norfolk, please let me know.
Remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and visit thenextdeliciousthing.com to get all the links to the businesses I mentioned and receive future lists by email. I paid for everything that I talked about this week, but even when I do get some things to try, I will only ever share them with you if they are genuinely delicious. Until next Wednesday, happy happy eating.
But first I want to tell you about a brand new bakery in Walthamstow in northeast London, which only opened two weeks ago and it is fully vegan. It is called Beaten by a Whisker. It was founded by Laura Almond, she is making sourdough bread but also incredible cinnamon rolls and I have just finished eating a piece of ginger cake, which was laid with peaches and … wow. Honestly, it is incredible, you would not know it was vegan. I feel like, for a long time, a lot of vegan cakes really were quite dense and kind of worthy in the way that they taste. Just a little bit a compromise really, it didn’t feel like you were getting a proper cake. Everything that I tried from Laura: the cookie, the cake, the baked cheesecake and the cinnamon rolls, they all tasted like they could have been made with butter and eggs. I really recommend visiting if you can, I’m going to go back as soon as possible. It’s really inspiring to see somebody just committing to their values and producing something that isn’t trying to convert people. When you walk in there’s nothing that says that it’s vegan, but obviously all of the coffee is served with plant based milk as well. And there’s a nice little mezzanine spot upstairs where you can sit.
There’s another bakery just around the corner that’s been open for about nine months called Weirdough. I picked up a banana chocolate sourdough muffin from them, which was very enjoyable too. I’m excited to go back and try more. Walthamstow is very lucky with the number of bakeries that they have. So I will be reporting on more of them in the future.
Another cafe that I went to visit this week: This is the workers’ canteen of a clothing factory in an industrial estate in Bow in the East End of London. It’s not too far from Stratford and it’s actually only a five minute walk from quite a few stations so it is accessible, it’s just when you start walking towards it you will think that you have gone the wrong way. It is called Polentina and it is inside the Apparel Tasker factory. It is run by Ashley Masserella, who is Italian Canadian, and honestly, it was the best pizza I’ve had in so long. Each day it’s one pizza – a different type every day – and it was so good. I came on a day where it was sliced courgettes (zucchini) with wild garlic pesto and cheese and I loved it. I immediately inhaled a second slice after the first one that I bought. The fennel and orange salad beside it was also delicious and paired perfectly. It might not be super convenient for many of you to go for lunch, especially as it’s only open Monday to Friday, but I believe you can get it delivered if you’re in the area. Ashley also runs wine nights and supper clubs a couple of times a month. So I would definitely recommend looking out for those. If you go, let me know how it is. I would love to hear about it. You can message me on social media: @thenextdeliciousthing.
I also wanted to tell you about this chocolate company. I was made aware of this company by a friend who is as obsessed with chocolate as I am. He suggested that the founder send me a box, which they did. I was unsure of what to expect as they have none of the 14 major allergens in them. It is not just dark chocolate. There is really colourful white chocolate and milk chocolate and it’s all made using rice. Generally that’s not my preference as a dairy alternative because it can be quite sweet. It still is a little bit in this but almost every kitchen, who produces things without certain ingredients will still use those ingredients in the kitchen. So for people who have serious allergies this is obviously a challenge.
The founder of this company, Alessandra Bester, is a single mum and her son has autism and epilepsy and various allergies. So she created this business for him really because he couldn’t have so many of the foods that were available, particularly treats. It’s really wonderful to see what she’s done and also to see that it’s a company that employs people who are often excluded from traditional employment: carers, mothers and people with autism … and they are really impressive. They are beautiful to look at, the whole box is just stunning. And I particularly liked the raspberry and the coconut ones. If you know anyone who has allergies or special dietary requirements, then it’s called NoNo Cocoa. After “no no” being what her son would say. The link to this will be on thenextdelicious thing.com/blog, of which the direct link will be in the show notes.
There’s one more quick thing I’m going to tell you about and then I have a couple of minutes where I want to talk to you about about vegan and plantbased and meat alternatives and I’d be really interested to know your thoughts as well.
You all must know Yotam Ottolenghi. I feel like he needs no introduction as the powerhouse of recipe writing and several restaurants and bakeries. He is a legend. One of my favourite things when I walk past his shops that I struggle to avoid buying, and I didn’t avoid it this week, is his Chocolate Cherry Tart. It is a sweet pastry shell filled with chocolate ganache and a coulis of cherries and usually topped with sweet mascarpone and raspberries or cherries. It is delicious. If you are walking past and tempted, please buy one.
The final thing for this week is not really a recommendation in the same way that the other things that I’ve mentioned are but I’m really curious to know your thoughts and also if you have any suggestions.
The rise in interest in vegan and plantbased foods and in products available is almost stratospheric. Between October 2019 and October 2020 Deliveroo saw the number of vegan orders increase by more than double: 115%. There were 600,000 people registered to participate in Veganuary in January 2022. Currently 31% of people consider themselves either flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian or vegan. The majority of these are flexitarian but it does still indicate a massive increase in interest. And 65% of people – according to Mintel – report that they are considering earing less meat.
So, I am doing some research into alternative meats and because of this I bought a selection of items from Neat Burger. Neat Burger is a small chain of vegan and plantbased restaurants in london, of which there are currently 9 and they have big plans to expand. It was founded by Sir Lewis Hamilton and four friends in 2019. If you weren’t aware, Sir Lewis is a vegan and has been for around 4 years. His dog is also vegan and he credits it with transforming his dog’s health.
They started the business with a really passionate mission to change the way we eat. They wanted to provide an option for people who wanted to reduce their meat intake – or cut it out altogether.
It very much seems to be trying to emulate the McDonald’s menu. So there are nuggets, burgers and in January 2021 they launched a “Filet No Fish”. This is the one that I was particlarly impressed by.
I spent three years working in McDonald’s UK head office as a food developer so I designed burgers and McFlurry and other things. It was kind of outstanding how much the wholse sandwich – the Filet No Fish – was reminiscent of the Filet O Fish at McDonald’s. The fish replacement in particular was really fishy and the texture was flaky. It wasn’t as firm as the McDonald’s real fish and definitely not as white. It was kind of grey, but the whole eat of the burger was really impressive.
The Filet No Fish was made by Jack and Bry, a relatively new business also founded in 2019, who provied plantbased meat alternatives all made using jackfruit. Jack and Bry was founded by two women: Bryony Tinn-Disbury and Jennifer Pardoe.
Neat Burger got a huge round of funding in October 2021 and they have big plans to expand. They will be opening 11 more restaurants and 16 kitchens for delivery only and they are also looking to expand so their New York restaurant will be opening soon. It is more expensive – at £6-9 per burger – versus the average high street option from Burger King, KFC or McDonald;s – but they are planning to launch a £1.99 burger that will directly compete with the big boys. That will be interesting to watch!
If you have recommendations for any companies that you think are doing really kind of mind bending things with alternative meats, please suggest them to me I would love to know and I will do my best to share them on a future episode.
That is it for this week. It is a pleasure talking to you. As always, I can’t wait to speak to you again next Wednesday. Remember to subscribe and go to thenextdeliciousthing.com And you can receive this list by email. I hope you find some food that brings you joy. Until next time, happy eating!