Monday, November 12, 2012

Chocolate Juniper Cake with Milk Jam Sour Cream

I tend get my hackles up over use of the word "special." It so often smacks of faint praise, or overcompensation. It's possible I'm a bit of a hater. But recently my friend Brian helped me come around. As good friends and neighbors, we end up eating a lot of meals together (and sharing too-good-not-to-bring-next-door bites of many more). And there have been times during these meals where he'll just pause, savoring everything about a singular mouthful, and then pronounce it special.

Maybe it's the fact that Brian's a particularly dear friend, or the total wide-eyed sincerity with which he shares this reaction. Whatever it is, it's helped me get over my surliness and embrace the word. Because he's right. Some things truly are special. Like this cake.

I first saw this cake posted on Bon Appetit, and figured that it was the sort of thing best left to the professionals. But then I saw it on a beloved blog, and thought perhaps it was within the mortal realm. And then I made it, and I shared it with my neighbors, and we moaned out some expletives about how holy crap good it was.

Amazingly, it's not even all that complicated. The cake itself is just a simple two-bowl chocolate cake — you don't even have to remember to soften butter or anything. But there are a few simple steps that take it beyond. First off, the cake is scented with juniper berries (thankfully sold in bulk at the local natural market down the street), which manage to both deepen and cut through the chocolate with their unique woodsy vibe. Then you make a sauce that manages to be both milky-sweet and rich and tangy at the same time. And then — even better — you firm up the cake in the freezer, dredge it in sugar, and give it a quick pan-fry to yield a delicately caramelized crust. The end result makes you question all of your previous cake-making. Why isn't chocolate always paired with juniper? And milk jam sour cream served on everything? And seriously why isn't every cake caramelized prior to serving? None of these tweaks is all that difficult, and all are within the grasp of pretty much any cake-baking home cook. And the end result is really, really special.

Chocolate Juniper Cake with Milk Jam Sour Cream

adapted from Oxheart, via Bon Appetit 
serves ~10 (you can also halve the recipe and bake in an 8-inch pan instead)

2 heaping teaspoons juniper berries
1 3/4 cups flour
1 2/3 cup sugar (plus more for caramelizing the cake)
1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp cocoa powder
2 tsp coarse salt
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 cup buttermilk (if unavailable, substitute soured milk)
3/4 cup neutral oil, like vegetable or grapeseed
2 large eggs

Milk Jam Sour Cream:
1 cup sour cream or creme fraiche
1-2 Tbsp sweetened condensed milk (if you'd like to make your own milk jam, boil down 2 cups milk with 1 cup sugar until you're left with a darkened, sweetened cup, ~45 minutes — and, as a bonus, leftover milk jam or sweetened condensed milk keeps for a while and is great stirred into your coffee)

To make the cake: Preheat your oven to 350° Farenheit. Grease a 9x13 pan, line the bottom with parchment and grease again, then dust everything with flour. Set aside.

Heat a dry skillet over a medium heat, then dry-toast the juniper berries until they become oily and fragrant (this will barely take a minute). Let cool slightly, then grind in a spice grinder.

In a large bowl, sift together the ground juniper berries with the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, salt, and baking soda. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, oil and eggs until well combined. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, and fold or whisk until just combined (don't over-mix). Quickly transfer to your prepared pan, smooth the top if needed, and bake until a tester comes out clean, ~35-40 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool, then transfer to the freezer until solid, at least two hours and up to three weeks (if the latter, wrap well in plastic).

To make the milk jam sour cream: Stir the sweetened condensed milk or milk jam into the creme fraiche/sour cream to taste — you want something that's lightly sweet, but still quite tangy.

To finish the cake: Remove the cake from the freezer, turn out onto a cutting board and discard the parchment. Trim off the edges, then slice the cake down the middle, so that you have two rectangles of about 4-inches in height, then slice each rectangle crosswise into 1 1/4-inch bars.

Pour out some granulated sugar onto a plate, grab a pair of tongs if you've got them, and heat a pan over a medium heat (the recipe recommends nonstick, but I did this with a regular steel pan and it was fine). Roll each cake bar in the sugar, so that they're well-coated with a thin-yet-thorough dusting. Working in batches, transfer the cake slices to the skillet. Let caramelize on each side, turning to expose the next side when the side in the pan has melted and caramelized (once your pan is hot, it'll take less than 30 seconds per side). You can also caramelize the short ends if you are quite obsessive, but it's not necessary. Serve straight from the pan, with a dollop of milk jam ladled over the top.


  1. I am totally making this. and making the Milk Jam from scratch (I've wanted to do that since reading Paul Virant's book...). and, wouldn't you know that I picked up juniper berries at my co-op on a whim not long ago? Perhaps in wistful daydreams of gin, or something. I love that this is frozen too. Perfect spontaneous dessert!

  2. Your description of this cake kept taking so many twists and turns -- chocolate cake... ho hum. But with Juniper berries? And a tangy sweet milky sauce? And -- pan fried?? This recipe is like the food lover's equivalent of a thriller novel! I wouldn't have tried it based on the name alone, but after reading your post, I'm hunting for the juniper.

    1. I totally agree that this dessert is thrilling. Find that juniper!

  3. Thanks for the recipe
    it’s look amazing