My cousin Cathy emailed me a few weeks ago, with a link to a story on NPR that stirred vivid memories for both of us. It told of a special dark dark chocolate cake that was the signature dessert of a beloved and long-gone bakery, Ebinger’s.
If you grew up in one of the New York boroughs before 1972, no doubt you were familiar with the Ebinger name. The family bakery opened on Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue in 1898; over its three-quarters-of-a-century life span, that 1 grew into a chain of 50 dotting neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn and Queens.
Our grandparents were Ebinger devotees. Whenever Cathy and I went to visit them at their Jackson Heights apartment, we knew we’d be treated to something special that Nana had purchased from the extraordinary bakery: Crumbcake showered with powdered sugar. Butter-rich danish. Yeasted almond rings. Chocolate domed cupcakes. Mocha buttercream torte with its name elegantly scripted across the top.
We’d gather around the dining room table in the morning for warmed coffeecake and milk. In the evening, after dinner, we’d enjoy a slice of one of the Ebinger cakes, sometimes with a scoop of ice cream. In between, that dining room table served as a stage for our art projects. I have a dim memory of us crafting fancy paper hats; Cathy remembers me scrawling “Felix the Cat” (my fave cartoon character at age 7) allover the hat rim.
When Ebinger’s shuttered in 1972, (overexpansion, then bankruptcy) it left a rift in Nana’s world. She had no choice but to buy from the competition, Entenmann’s, and it simply wasn’t as good. Our subsequent visits were always marked with Nana’s lament of Ebinger’s demise, as she served up pieces of the less wonderful confections.
Ebinger’s most famous, and universally longed-for dessert is the Blackout Cake–so-called for its deep dark chocolate flavors, its name further harkening to the wartime blackouts of the ’40’s. The three-layer beauty is distinguished with a rich pudding filling, bittersweet chocolate frosting, and a fourth layer that is crumbled to coat its top and sides.
NPR included a link to the recipe, as published in the New York Times in 1991. It’s been deemed the original. (although I have since found other, slightly different ones, while perusing the ‘net.)
Cathy and I decided to make it—in part, nostalgia, in part, curiosity–next time we got together. Lucky for us, that opportunity soon arrived.
While not difficult to make, you need to allow at least two hours for the project. (For some secrets to great cake baking, check out this link at Cooking Light: 10 tips to ensure the desired results.)
There are three parts to the recipe, with many more steps. Cathy’s husband John, I’m happy to say, documented the process while we cousins collaborated. Cathy whipped up the batter with her old school electric hand-held. I stirred the pudding until it burped and bubbled. We chopped and melted a mound of Belgian chocolate, whisking in as much butter for the silky icing. So much chocolate! So much butter!
And, when the time arrived–cake layers, cooked filling and frosting all sufficiently cooled–we assembled.
It occurred to us that the curious crumbled layer could have been the result of a split layer gone awry: cracking and falling apart. Perhaps the Ebinger baker could not bear the waste, and created the distinctive crumb coating instead. Ingenious!
When at last we sliced and served the cake, (after a marvelous meal, celebrating both Cathy’s and Bill’s birthdays) Cathy glimpsed a snippet of the past, of eating the Blackout cake with Nana at that dining room table.
Post-dessert verdict: What an indulgence. We decided that the name applied to the food coma you enter after eating a piece. Yep, you could black out.
NOTORIOUS LEGENDARY EBINGER’S BLACKOUT CAKE
Serves 12 to 16
1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
3-4 tablespoons boiling water
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup milk
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened slightly
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, separated
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon plus 1 3/4 teaspoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
2 cups boiling water
3/4 cup plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, chopped
4 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup hot water
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter and lightly flour two 9-inch round cake pans.
Place the cocoa in a small bowl and whisk in the boiling water to form a paste.
Combine the chopped chocolate and milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir frequently until the chocolate melts â€” about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat. Whisk a small amount of the hot chocolate milk into the cocoa paste to warm it. Whisk the cocoa mixture into the milk mixture. Return the pan to medium heat and stir for 1 minute. Remove and set aside to cool until tepid.
In the bowl of a mixer, cream the butter and sugar together. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, and the vanilla. Slowly stir in the chocolate mixture. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Using a spatula or a wooden spoon, slowly add the flour mixture to the chocolate mixture. Fold in until just mixed.
In another bowl, whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form. Using a spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the batter.
Divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes. Cool the cakes in the pans on racks for 15 minutes. Gently remove the cakes from the pans and continue to cool.
Combine the cocoa and boiling water in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir in the sugar and chocolate. Add the dissolved cornstarch paste and salt to the pan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat and whisk in vanilla and butter. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, cover and refrigerate until cool.
Melt the chocolate in a heavy-bottomed saucepan set on medium heat, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter, one tablespoon at a time.
Whisk in the hot water all at once and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the corn syrup and vanilla. Cover and refrigerate for up to 15 minutes before using.
Use a sharp serrated knife to slice each cake layer horizontally in half to form four layers. Set one layer aside.
Place one layer on a cake round or plate. Generously swath the layer with one-third of the filling.
Add the second layer and repeat. Set the third layer on top. Quickly apply a layer of frosting to the top and sides of the cake. Refrigerate for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, crumble the remaining cake layer. Apply the remaining frosting to the cake. Sprinkle it liberally with the cake crumbs. Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.