German chocolate cake is an aggravating cake. It's not German (it's named for Sam German). It's barely chocolate (it relies on the low-wattage "sweet chocolate" German developed). It's filled with a sticky mix of pecan bits and coconut flake, which goes on gloppy and goes down chewy. And it lacks frosting.
The playwright who introduces a gun in the first act is advised to fire it in the second. Likewise the pastry chef who calls for a four-yolk filling ought to follow up with a four-white frosting. Any recipe that calls it quits — leaving cake bare and whites idle — should be shredded.
My plan worked. Though it took 16 pounds of butter, 16 trying afternoons and 15 failures.
The nutty expedition deepened my respect for the pastry chef, who must balance delicious and doable. I even came to appreciate that guy German, and the Southern cooks who turned his baking bar into the back-of-the-box classic. By introducing chocolate, coconut and pecan, they knew something startlingly good would happen.
Intensive German chocolate cake
Prep: 1 hour
Bake: 30 minutes
Makes: 1 glamorously tall 9-inch cake
2 cups cake flour
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup boiling water
1. Fluff: Whisk together flour, cocoa, soda and salt. Set aside. Beat butter, sugar and vanilla fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating fluffy after each. Mix in chocolate. Mix in alternating scoops of flour mixture and buttermilk. Thin with the hot water.
2. Bake: Pour into two 9-inch cake pans, buttered, lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees, about 28 minutes. Turn out; cool.
3. Stack: Slice layers in half horizontally. Set one layer on a cake platter, cut-side down. Spread on 1/3 pecan filling. Continue filling and stacking. Cover top and sides with caramel buttercream.
Pecan filling: Melt 1 stick unsalted butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in 1 cup dark brown sugar, 1/4 cup coconut milk, 1/4 cup whipping cream, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 4 egg yolks. Cook, stirring, until thickened, about 10 minutes. Cool. Beat fluffy. Stir in 2 1/4 cups toasted chopped pecans.
Caramel buttercream: Stir together 1/2 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons water and pinch salt in a saucepan. Heat to a boil. Cook, without stirring, until syrup starts to color, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium; stir to a dark amber, 2 minutes. Pull pan off heat; carefully stir in 1/2 cup whipping cream. Cool. Whisk together 4 egg whites and 3/4 cup sugar in a saucepan over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until foamy and 160 degrees. Pour into a bowl; beat to cool glossy peaks, 5 minutes. Beat in 2 sticks softened butter, a few tablespoons at a time. Beat in caramel.