Hóng Pútáojiǔ Chocolate Birthday Cake

This one had been sitting around in my drafts folder for ages, neatly cut and pasted but never attempted.  It just seemed so incredibly decadent that I knew a) I had to make it and b) it had to be for a damned good reason.

I mean, after all, this is a freaking chocolate cake with a great big slug of red wine as its liquid. How awesome is that?

I had originally planned to be all authentically Sino-centric, using corner shop Great Wall 50rmb plonk (dire!) but the astral recipient of this here cake deserves much, much better. Or at least as better as I can afford during my time of semi-unemployment.

Nothing but the best.

Last night, my insomnia kicked in full blast. Technically it isn’t insomnia if you have nowhere you need to be the next day, but regardless of how it may be defined, I was still wide awake at 3am, as my circadian rhythms are wont to be when left to their own devices.  I was lying in the dark, bored of reading, uncertain what to do next, when suddenly a name was shouted out by some sort of disruptive brain-pixie inside my head. It was a name I hadn’t heard in a decade, the name of a woman I once shared a dire, crowded, chaotic hostel room with for many months in London in the late 1990s.

We drank awful Tesco’s no-name plonk together and stayed up ’til late many, many nights, talking, telling dirty jokes, swearing like sailors. At one point, we were in France together, experimenting with appalling French supermarket wines.  The worst, if I remember correctly, was one we bought from a fast food chicken joint, which she renamed Cock Fart. I don’t remember the real name. I suppose it had something to do with coq, given that it was a fried chicken place.

She knew her wine, had managed a wine bar back in Australia, and for a while worked in a wine shop in the Fulham road in London. I sometimes popped in after work and she snuck me behind the counter to try samples of wines I could never afford. At that time, I was an underpaid care-worker for Hammersmith/ Ravenscourt Park social services, collecting pension payments, filling prescriptions and dressing forgetful octogenarians for a living.  My boss was the majestic Gaye Black, formerly of the seminal London punk band, the Adverts, who still dressed in black and had great piercings even though she worked behind the desk of a council office. I think I was about 24 years old. It was a good time of my life, even though I was remarkably broke and lived in an overpriced, over crowded dump. Having Elly around just made everything that much better.

And so, last night around 3am, her name was shouted out by that mysterious brain pixie. I’d lost touch with her almost immediately after I left London at the end of 1999, just as I’d lost touch with most of the people I knew at that time. A few times over the past decade, I’d googled her name and nothing had come up. She was one of those rare people who seemed to have left no digital trail and I admired that. This time, however, at 3am, bleary eyed, I typed in her name and, by gum, she now had a Facebook account. I sent a friend request then turned out the lights again and tried to sleep.

In the morning, I woke to a note from her- an amazed, excited, incredulous note. After a decade, our conversation had resumed.

And tomorrow is her birthday.  Quelle coincidence.

Elly, this cake is for you. I used the best French red I could find and I made the mascarpone myself (technically it’s just super thick ricotta but hey, close enough). Happy birthday!

Here’s the cake and how you make it.

From Smitten Kitchen- Red Wine Chocolate Cake
6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup (179 grams) firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup (50 grams) white granulated sugar
1 large egg + 1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
3/4 cup (177 ml) red wine, any kind you like*
1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla extract
1 cup + 1 tablespoon (133 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (41 grams) Dutch cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (this is a great place for that fancy Vietnamese stuff you stashed away)


What you need for cake

For the record, I don’t have any vanilla extract. I have the beans, as you can see above in the little glass jar next to the baking powder, but I’d forgotten to set them soaking in booze. They’re up in the cupboard now, knee deep in a very small jar of gin (I know, it should be vodka or brandy but we don’t have any), getting ready for next time.

This recipe is a basic chocolate cake, quite straight forward, with the exception of the wine. It adds a really lovely scent to the cake, not too boozy.  If you happen to have an electric mixer, your arms will thank you. I creamed the butter and sugar myself and it was a bit of a work out. However, I’ve been so lazy lately that I probably needed it.

Creaming butter and sugar is much easier when you have appliances
And this is what it looked like with the egg added
The butter and sugar and eggs and wine were creamed and my arm muscles were jelly.
And then I ignored her directions and just dumped all the dry ingredients in at once
Look! Cake! I don't think it's supposed to be cracked like this...

Her instructions: Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom of a 9-inch round cake pan with parchment, and either butter and lightly flour the parchment and exposed sides of the pan, or spray the interior with a nonstick spray. In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugars and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and yolk and beat well, then the red wine and vanilla. Don’t worry if the batter looks a little uneven. Sift the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and salt together, right over your wet ingredients. Mix until 3/4 combined, then fold the rest together with a rubber spatula. Spread batter in prepared pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. The top of the cake should be shiny and smooth, like a puddle of chocolate. Cool in pan on a rack for about 10 minutes, then flip out of pan and cool the rest of the way on a cooling rack. This cake keeps well at room temperature or in the fridge. It looks pretty dusted with powdered sugar.

My changes: No mixer so I beat it by hand with a fork and spatula. No parchment paper. Wrong sized pan (I think it’s 7″ by 7″) so cake was a bit thicker than planned. A drizzle of oil instead of non-stick spray. No vanilla. Screwed up the adding of the dry ingredients. Baked for 30 minutes but the center was still liquid (probably because my smaller pan made the cake too thick) so added another 8 or so minutes.

1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup (118 grams) chilled heavy or whipping cream
2 tablespoons (25 grams) granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Um, so yeah, this was her topping and it sure does look good. But, um, we don’t have mascarpone cheese, nor do we have heavy cream, nor do I have any machinery with which to beat them into lovely soft peaks.

I made my ricotta as usual and omitted the salt.  One box of full fat milk, most of a lemon. Same as last time. Drained it 2 hours in the sink in cheese cloth until it was nice and thick. To this I added a few table spoons of the lovely date and pepper red sugar I found, which is my current obsession. It’s only 9rmb a bag and is awesome. Very subtle. Integrates well.

Making ricotta again, same-same
Lemon juice and date-pepper sugar for the faux'mascarpone topping
Happy birthday, lady!
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  1. Michi says:

    I love chocolatey cracked cake!!! Yummmmmmmm!! Fall + Winter = lots of baking, hooray!
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    1. MaryAnne says:

      Indeed, hooray! Am aiming for pumpkin recipes next…

  2. Kirstin says:

    I’m very familiar with date sugar, it’s sold in Chinese markets here and is the closest thing to brown sugar available in the entire country (the next best thing is regular white sugar, or three-year-old light brown sugar from crappy US supermarkets have been known to materialize in Kazakhstan from time to time), but date and pepper sugar? Same same? Does it taste peppery? Like chili pepper or black pepper?
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    1. MaryAnne says:

      The date-pepper sugar is really light and date-y, not invasively sweet, and I don’t really detect any spicy pepper so it may be black pepper. It has got a slight edge to it but no heat. The texture is very gentle, very fine, like a step away from icing sugar, or the missing link between granulated and powdered sugars. One of the things I like here is the variety of not refined sugar that’s available- we can easily get very very very dark brown sugar here, which is fabulous in coffee.

    2. MaryAnne says:

      I’m revising my pepper-assessment after careful re-evaluation of its properties as noted in my morning coffee! I think it may be a cayenne/paprika-type pepper, even though it isn’t actually hot and spicy. I can detect an undertone of capsaicin (I think– is it what gives chilis that distinctive edge, not just the heat?).

      1. Kirstin says:

        Ahh, that sounds like it could be interesting in coffee. The date sugar I get here is suuuuuuuper sweet and dark and sticky. I haven’t thought to try it in my coffee yet, but I did recently discover coffee-flavored sweetened condensed milk, and it’s kind of decadent and wonderful.
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        1. MaryAnne says:

          This stuff is quite dry, more like a very fine grind of something like oat bran (a simile that may sound weird but it’s accurate!). It still melts quickly on the tongue, with a distinct date-y aroma and after taste with just a hint of something peppery in the back ground. It’s addictive. Not as dark or rich or sweet as the brown sugar we get here, which is really heavy and clumpy and molasses-y.

  3. Theodora says:

    Actually, after Vietnamese and Thai wine, I find Great Wall almost palatable. Dear god…
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    1. MaryAnne says:

      Ha! They must be super-dire! Great Wall isn’t awful…I’d just rather spend an extra 15rmb for a decent French red. Yes, Great Wall is 50ish and French decent, basic red is just 65. Go figure.

      My ex Chinese prof from my old uni in Canada visited me in Turkey a few years ago during a port-stop on his Semester At Sea gig and told me he was doing a pan-Asian wine tasting tour (Turkey won). He had, believe it or not, INDIAN wines in addition to the usual Chinese, Thai, etc… I had no idea.

  4. Tracyann0312 says:

    It is a delicious cake Mary Anne. I love to eat different kinds of pastry especially cake but I do not know how to bake that is why I end up buying. The cake tastes delicious, thank you for sharing the recipe. I will ask my mom to bake it for me.
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