Indian summer continues on in full swelter here in the bay area. It’s honestly the hottest it’s been here for the last six months: the mornings start out promisingly grey and overcast, and then by mid-morning it’s just cloudless sky and shimmering heat. Not-so-little-Isabelle is growing out of her summer t-shirts and shorts, clothes I thought I could safely pack away by now but instead I’m desperately hoping will still fit until cooler weather finally arrives.
Despite the fact that fall never arrives quite timely here, my cravings are already shifting towards the dark, rich, and decadent.
Thus, this ultra rich blackout chocolate cake with an equally lush salted caramel buttercream, and a layer of sautéed apples to firmly ground it in fall. Chocolate and caramel is a classic, cozy combination; adding the apples was more of an experiment on my part, but I guessed the apples + caramel connection would pull all the components together. The gamble worked: it tastes like a caramel apple wrapped in chocolate, sweet and tangy and chocolatey all together. The topping of whipped cream and brûléed apples adds the final counterpoint to balance all the richness below. It feels luxurious and indulgent, the way you want your fall desserts.
Since this cake is so rich, I’ve rendered it as a 6 inch cake. This midnight black cake is inspired by the traditional Ebinger’s blackout cake and other oil-based cake recipes; the oil and sour cream in this recipe give it that addictively moist yet tender crumb. The husband has gone on record saying it’s his favorite chocolate cake of all the ones I’ve made. Its smooth chocolate flavor serves as a dark undercurrent beneath a sweet-smoky caramel buttercream flecked with sea salt. I did a version with confectioners’ sugar for this cake, which is a little simpler if you’re pressed for time, but honestly this swiss meringue version doesn’t take that much longer, and now that I’ve made both, I think this one is worth the extra effort on the stove.
I love any kind of baking apple; Granny Smith works here, or Honeycrisp is a personal favorite. The sautéed apples are simple enough, but the brûléed apples were inspired by a recent visit to Bluestem, a local restaurant, where I got to taste their new fall dessert menu. I love all the different layers of sweet in this cake, from fruity to caramelized to fudgy.
Now that I’ve spoken so glowingly of our never-ending summer, I’m positive things will take a turn and we’ll have rain clouds hovering over us next week. One can hope. In the meantime, stay cool – or stay warm, as the case might be, wherever you are!
- 3/4 cup (94 g) all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup (150 g) sugar
- 1/3 cup (28 g) cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon espresso powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup (115 g) sour cream
- 1/2 cup (120 g) hot water
- 1/3 cup (73 g) canola oil
- 1 large egg, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Salted Caramel Buttercream
- 1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
- 1/4 cup (60 g) water
- 1/2 cup (120 g) boiling water
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon heavy cream
- 1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
- 2 large egg whites
- 3/4 cup (170 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 medium baking apples like Granny Smith or Honeycrisp
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1-in pieces
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 cup (115 g) heavy cream
For the cake:
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray two 6-in round baking pans with nonstick spray and line bottoms with rounds of parchment paper.
- Whisk flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, espresso powder, and salt together in a large bowl.
- Add the sour cream, water, oil, egg, and vanilla extract and stir together to combine into a smooth batter.
- Divide between the two prepared pans and bake for 20-24 minutes until tops are set and a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
- Remove from oven and cool on wire racks for 15 minutes before unmolding. Let finish cooling on wire racks.
For the buttercream:
- Place the 1/2 cup sugar and 1/4 cup of water in a saucepan. Cook on medium heat until sugar melts and comes to boil. When the syrup becomes dark golden, remove from heat and add the 1/2 cup boiling water. Add in the sea salt. Let syrup cool to room temperature before using.
- Combine the final 1/2 cup of sugar and egg whites in a medium heatproof bowl and place over a pan of simmering water.
- Whisk the sugar mixture constantly over heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture looks smooth and shiny, about 3 minutes. Continue whisking until temperature of mixture reaches 160 degrees F using a candy thermometer.
- Remove mixture from heat and pour into a stand mixer bowl. Whisk on medium speed for about 5 minutes until the mixture has cooled.
- Switch to the paddle attachment and with the speed on low, add the butter a few pieces at a time, beating until smooth.
- When all the butter has been added, add in the vanilla and the caramel syrup and beat the buttercream on medium-high speed for about 6-10 minutes until it is very thick and smooth.
- The buttercream is ready to be used. Place a piece of plastic wrap against the surface until you are ready to use it to prevent it from drying out.
For the apples:
- Peel and core the apples. Put aside half an apple for the topping. Cut the remaining apples into 1/2 inch cubes. Melt butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the apples and sauté for about 8 minutes until the apples are semi-soft.
- Add sugar, flour, and cinnamon to the apples and stir to combine. Cook until mixture begins to bubble, then turn heat to low and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Transfer filling to a bowl and let cool.
- Place one cake layer on a cake round or plate. Place buttercream into a piping bag fitted with a 1/2" star tip and pipe filling over the cake layer.
- Spread about half of the apple filling over the buttercream. You can save the rest for another use (it's great warmed over vanilla ice cream).
- Place the second cake layer on top. Whip cream into soft peaks and spread over the top.
- Slice the reserved apple half into thin slices. Spread out on a baking sheet and sprinkle generously with sugar. Using a handheld kitchen torch brûlée the sugar until the apples look glazed. You can also place the sheet under the oven broiling unit if you don't have a torch.
- Serve immediately. Or, you can refrigerate the cake with the whipped cream for a day. Be sure to cover it so it doesn't pick up any flavors from the refrigerator. Bring the cake out about 15 minutes before serving to let it come to room temperature.