Photographs by Meadow Linn

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bake Your Way to Success

They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Although this may be true, I’d like to offer an alternative: “Bake for your boss and keep your job.”

In June I left a great job teaching French to 8-12 year olds at Viewpoint School in Los Angeles. It was a hard decision to give up steady income, delightful students, and supportive colleagues and move 230 miles north to launch myself into the unknown. I decided, however, to take a leap of faith and follow my passion for eating and living well.

I was encouraged to stay at Viewpoint, but the jury is still out on whether this had more to do with the four years I spent singing and dancing with French students or with my baking skills. I have a recipe (which I am sharing with you) for a chocolate cake that will make you want to create a national holiday in its honor.

My reputation for baking chocolate cake started exactly four years ago. November 10th is the birthday of the benevolent Head of Lower School at Viewpoint School. To celebrate, a Third Grade teacher organized a surprise party. Feeling especially motivated, I volunteered to make the cake.

I had started working at this school only two months earlier and had encountered a world quite different from my previous teaching experiences. Up until that point, I had only taught upper levels of French in very small boarding schools. At the school where I worked in Maine, I scrubbed toilets and showers with my students before heading to the classroom to discuss Existential French theater. At Viewpoint, not only were there no morning chores, the trash bins were magically emptied and the boards and desks wiped clean every evening by the housekeeping staff. I had swapped Camus and Sartre for “The Color Song” and grammar books for stickers and bulletin board trim. This was an exciting new challenge, but every adventure has its ups and downs.

As I navigated this new world of elementary school teaching, I had some missteps. On the first day of school, I misunderstood the protocol and assumed a 5th Grade teacher would escort her students back to the homeroom at the end of my lesson. Not wanting to alarm the student in case there had been a natural disaster or national emergency (my mind went a little wild!) that had prevented the teacher from coming, I held them through lunch and made up crazy activities for them to do while we waited for their teacher.

Another time, wanting to conserve energy, I turned out the lights when I left my classroom to do some photocopying. The Head of Lower School came to talk with me, saw that the lights were out, and assumed I’d had enough and gone home in the middle of the day.

Halloween of that same year I had been so excited to have Trick-or-Treaters at my apartment that I purchased enormous bags of candy (mostly gum that looked like eyeballs so I wouldn’t be tempted to eat them). Only two kids came to the door of my small Santa Monica apartment. With pounds of unwanted candy, I went to school the next day with visions of being the cool teacher who tossed candy to students who correctly answered questions. The school had a no gum policy, which I had conveniently forgotten until halfway through the lesson. At the end of the class, I stood at the door with a trashcan in hand and had each kid spit out his gum.

The Head’s birthday was the week after this Halloween incident. Since I loved to bake and couldn’t help wanting to make a good impression after this somewhat tenuous entrée into elementary school teaching, I went home and got to work on making the cake. I decided to bake a chocolate stout cake from an old issue of Bon Appétit magazine. It is an amazing recipe. I wish I had come up with it. If I had, I have no doubt that I would be famous and simply living off the royalties (if there were such a thing for recipes…).

I awoke early on the morning of November 10th to ice the cake with a deliciously decadent ganache. I had recently read that using a hairdryer would make the icing shiny and give it a professional gloss. So, I got out my hairdryer and started coiffing the cake. The only problem was that I was too ambitious. The frosting quickly went from sleek and shiny to extremely slippery as it melted from the heat of my hairdryer. The three layers of the cake started sliding in three different directions, and I had to contort myself to prevent absolute disaster. Somehow I managed to stab it with bamboo skewers in enough places that it held its shape, and I was able transport it to school.

The cake was a huge success. The Head told me that I could work at Viewpoint for as long as I wanted if I promised to make the cake every year. She held her end of the bargain, but I believe I still owe her two cakes…

I’m including the recipe below with heaps of gratitude to Bon Appétit magazine and the Barrington Brewery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, who originally created this recipe. If you only bake one thing in your life, make this cake. It is full of rich chocolatey goodness, yet it is not overly sweet. When you serve this cake, you will make so many new friends and perhaps even guarantee your job.

Chocolate Stout Cake

12 servings (These are huge servings)

2 cups stout (such as Guinness)
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process)

4 cups all purpose flour
4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 large eggs
1 1/3 cups sour cream

2 cups whipping cream
1 pound bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped

For Cake: Preheat oven to 350ºF. Butter three 8-inch round cake pans with 2-inch-high sides. Line with parchment paper. Butter paper. Bring 2 cups stout and 2 cups butter to simmer in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add cocoa powder and whisk until mixture is smooth. Cool slightly.

Whisk flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in large bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat eggs and sour cream in another large bowl to blend. Add stout-chocolate mixture to egg mixture and beat just to combine. Add flour mixture and beat briefly on slow speed. Using rubber spatula, fold batter until completely combined. Divide batter equally among prepared pans. Bake cakes until tester inserted into center of cakes comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Transfer cakes to rack; cool 10 minutes. Turn cakes out onto rack and cool completely.

For Icing: Bring cream to simmer in heavy medium saucepan. Remove from heat. Add chopped chocolate and whisk until melted and smooth. Refrigerate until icing is spreadable, stirring frequently, about 2 hours.

Place 1 cake layer on plate. Spread 2/3 cup icing over. Top with second cake layer. Spread 2/3 cup icing over. Top with third cake layer. Spread remaining icing over top and sides of cake.

Much gratitude to:
•The RSVP section of Bon Appétit magazine, September 2002

•Barrington Brewery and Restaurant
420 Stockbridge Rd.
Great Barrington, MA 01230

Happy Birthday Claudia!


  1. You are hysterical. I can't stop laughing out loud...

  2. I love to read all ! I always get surprised by your new adventures. You are so creative. You are just amazing! Continue le bon travail!