My mother in Orange County, California used to send her sister Aunt Jan in Seattle, Washington a See’s Candies chocolate Easter egg every year. The eggs were solid chocolate and huge. Aunt Jan recalls that she cut off a piece at a time but that the candy didn’t last very long. When I was a girl, I don’t think I ever tasted one of those eggs, because Mom didn’t buy them for us–just for her chocoholic sister. I remember savoring chocolate assortments from See’s during the holidays, but I don’t remember going to the shop and buying them–I think they were gifts to our family.
If you know See’s Candies, it’s likely that you’ve lived in the western United States, or as they say these days, the left coast. You’ll find a See’s Candies shop with its familiar black and white storefront in malls and thriving city centers. There are even See’s kiosks in many western airports–for those last minute impulse gifts, I suppose. When I pass one of those kiosks I have a Pavlovian reaction–my mouth waters in memory. It’s a good thing they only sell packaged chocolate in the airport, because if there was an old-fashioned service counter, I’d have to stop to sample just the one.
Mom died at 90 years of age in the fall of 2003. Her memorial was a celebration of a loving and full life, a celebration of family. The evening before the church service, one of my brothers and his wife hosted a family party–with pizza from down the street, a huge tossed salad, and for dessert–four pounds of See’s Candies. I know I ate more than my share of chocolate (and so did my Aunt); maybe subconsciously it was to assuage the sadness of Mom’s passing, but consciously I enjoyed every bite. Two days later in another brother’s garage, we were sorting through family photos and mementos, and I spied a box of See’s in my older sister’s suitcase, which she was using as a depository for things she would take back to Minnesota. I easily cajoled her into opening the box and sharing her candy. We all sampled our way through that assortment, enjoying the time together as well as every sweet nibble.
My favorite See’s chocolate is a Dark Bordeaux, with chocolate sprinkles on the outside and a creamy brown sugar center. When the pastry chef in me decided to create a cake that tastes like a Bordeaux—I knew it would be a chocolate cake with a center like the candy. First step, I thought, buy some Bordeaux to decipher the filling and replicate it. So I ordered a pound–online. On See’s website Bordeaux sports a little ‘tm’–it’s a trademark name. I learned that I couldn’t call my new cake Bordeaux.
When the package from California arrived, I closed my eyes, bit into a chocolate and tasted another memory–penuche. I remember eating Mom’s homemade penuche from a spoon as a sugary after-school snack. I once deluded my sister away from my spoon, saying it was peanut butter. She licked peanut butter and I kept the penuche to myself. Penuche (puh-NOO-chee) is a creamy, fudge-like brown sugar candy, with a texture and taste very similar to my favorite candy’s center. I hid my box of See’s Bordeaux in the office closet and savored them quietly and privately, over the span of a month, one at a time. And when the sugar buzz of the candy wore off, I made Chocolate Penuche Cake.
Wedding cake, circa 2003
Chocolate Penuche Cake
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup less 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup cold water
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/3 cup evaporated milk
4 tablespoons (2 ounces) unsalted butter
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Chocolate Honey Glaze:
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon honey
Chocolate “jimmies” (Guittard decoratifs are very good)
To make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Brush a 9-inch round pan with oil and dust lightly with flour, or spray generously with cooking spray. Line the bottom with a circle of parchment or waxed paper.
Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, salt, and baking soda into a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the vinegar, oil, vanilla, and water; then add to the dry ingredients. Mix for 2 minutes–with a hand whisk or with an electric mixer on low speed. Pour into the prepared pan. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until the center of the cake springs back when touched with a finger. Cool completely.
To make the penuche:
Mix together the brown sugar, evaporated milk, butter and salt in a saucepan. Place over low heat and stir a few times until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook until the mixture reaches a boil. When the mixture reaches a boil, let it cook but do not stir, for about 4 minutes. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Sift in the confectioners’ sugar and beat until the frosting cools and reaches spreading consistency, which can take 10 to 15 minutes. Beat in the vanilla.
To make the glaze:
Place the chocolate, butter, and honey in the top of a double boiler, over gently boiling water; upper pan should not touch water. When the chocolate and butter are almost melted, remove from the heat. Stir gently with a wooden spoon until smooth. Allow to cool until just spreadable.
To assemble the cake:
With a serrated knife, split the cake in two layers, keeping the knife level and parallel to the bottom of the cake.
Put the bottom cake layer on a cardboard circle or a flat serving plate. Use a frosting spatula to spread the penuche on the cake. Place the second cake layer on top, pressing gently to flatten.
Frost the sides and top of the cake with the cooled glaze. Sprinkle the cake all over with chocolate decoratifs.
Makes 1 (9-inch) cake.
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