It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when the farmer’s markets are filled with local fruits and vegetables that are bursting with color and flavor!
I couldn’t resist picking up red currants; they’re an under rated fruit and I think they always look so gorgeous: like strings of red pearls catching and splaying the sunlight. Put them on anything and it’s going to look good!
I have a couple recipes up on the website from last year that use red currants, like my family’s take on the Dutch classic krentjibrij and this Red Currant and Ras El Hanout loaf cake. I love them both but this year I wanted to come up with something new.
And this is what the end result was: Mexican Chocolate Cake with Sour Cherry and Red Currant Jam.
Mexican chocolate (and in Latin America as a whole) is a whole different beast than the European chocolate traditions many of us are most familiar with. And this stems from the history of cacao, which in Latin America stretches back thousands of years. Evidence suggests cacao was first domesticated around 5500 years ago in South America, and was used before this as a wild food. Cacao beans were used as food, as currency, as part of celebrations and rituals, and as medicine. It was revered as an important gift from the gods.
While domesticated cocoa originates in South America, it quickly travelled north to places like Mexico. And it is this long lineage that informs the differences between Mexican and European chocolate traditions. Mexican chocolate is often rustic, less refined, less sweet, and is mixed with other ingredients and spices such as cinnamon, vanilla, chili peppers or even cornmeal. It is considered more of a food than in the European tradition where chocolate is creamier, sweeter, and considered more of a dessert or treat. Mexican chocolate is truer to the flavors of the bean itself and has a more “explosive” flavor.
From Central America, cocoa travelled to Europe because of colonization (I almost wrote, “…thanks to colonization” but there should never any gratefulness for that monstrosity. Cut that language out!). There, cocoa lost its grounding in the cultures, the places, and the food traditions that had held it for thousands of years. New technology was applied to its processing, new tongues clamored for different uses and different flavors and textures, and today we live in a world where, when chocolate is mentioned, we think of the ‘great chocolate traditions’ such as Belgium before those of South and Central America.
So, I wanted a recipe that did a little subverting, a little reverse adaptation. I decided to start with the Black Forest Cake as a beginning point (a traditional European chocolate cake) and then bring it back to the Indigenous Americas with some of the flavors. In truth, a recipe can’t do all the work necessary to subvert hundreds of years of ongoing colonization but I do think it’s important for us to be thinking about where our food comes from, the legacies of colonization and violence that have often shaped how we eat, and the ways in which we can work to challenge and change these.
So, to the recipe: I wanted to make a cake that played on some traditional Black Forest Cake characteristics but with a tart, spiced twist. Both the jam and the cake have spice additions such as cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and chili peppers – though I use chilies such as ancho that have that earthy chili pepper flavor without much of the accompanying chili pepper heat. You can use spicier dried peppers for more of a fiery kick if that’s what you’re going for.
Instead of sweet cherries, I wanted a filling that was tart, which would help bring out the fruity flavors of the chocolate and would also work to balance the sweetness of the cake: so, I went with a mix of red currants and sour red cherries in the jam. A straight sour cherry jam would work if red currants are not in season. And, on top I went with a bitter-sweet chocolate ganache that adds an extra layer of chocolaty goodness to this all, making it definitely more of a dessert than food, for those who were worrying I was going to go too far!
Ingredients wise, I wanted to use as many as I could from the Americas. For the cocoa in the cake, I used finely grated 100% cocoa solids from the Dominican Republic. I bought it in a large brick and it’s fruity and heavenly; when you smell it, you’re like ‘ah, THAT’s what cacao smells like!” As a replacement, use the highest quality cocoa powder you can find. I also used Mexican vanilla extract that my mother-in-law brought us from her last trip there. Again, use the highest quality vanilla you can find (yes, I know, it’s EXPENSIVE now! But, also, so nice….)
Check out the recipe below and also a couple of shout-outs to where the ideas came from:
The cake recipe was inspired by a recipe from the book, Hartwood: Bright, Wild Flavors from the Edge of the Yucatán, by Eric Werner and Mya Henry with Christine Muhlke and Oliver Strand.
The ganache recipe was adapted from It’s Yummi.
And I was inspired to do a chocolate layer cake with red currant jam in the middle and ganache on top by the legend Nik Sharma of A Brown Table.
Mexican Chocolate Cake with Sour Cherry and Red Currant Jam
This two layered chocolate cake is spiced with cinnamon, allspice, ancho and chipotle peppers, and is divided by fruity, tart red currant and sour cherry jam. It's then topped with a rich, bittersweet chocolate ganache and tart red currant jewels. Rich chocolate flavors are accentuated and enhanced by spices and chili peppers, alongside the balancing brightness of the sour cherries and red currants. It's luxurious and rich without being overwhelming, a chocolate dessert that carries complexity and nuance.
- For the jam:
- 500g sour cherries
- 250g red currants
- 250g sugar
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 inches of fresh ginger, peeled and finely sliced into medallions
- For the cake:
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 cups sugar
- ¾ cup finely grated cocoa solids (or unsweetened cocoa powder)
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon instant coffee
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
- ½ teaspoon chipotle chile powder
- 1¼ cups milk
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 2 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons Mexican vanilla extract
- For the ganache:
- ¼ cup unsalted butter
- ½ cup 2% milk
- 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
For the jam:
I recommend making this ahead of time as it can easily keep in the fridge for up to a month ahead of time (just remember not to eat it with your toast in the morning!)
Pit your cherries and remove the red currants from the stem, and place them into a heavy-bottomed pan alongside the cinnamon stick and the ginger medallions. Add a little water to keep the fruit from burning and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the cherries and red currants are soft and start falling apart. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve it. Boil rapidly until the jam reaches setting point. You can test by putting a teaspoonful of the jam on a cold saucer (I keep it in the fridge) and leaving it to cool. If the jam wrinkles when you push it with your finger, it’s ready. In my case, it took about 20 minutes to set. Jar it in a clean jar or container until ready to construct the cake.
For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans.
In a medium bowl, whisk together all of the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, salt, instant coffee, cinnamon, allspice, ancho powder, and chipotle powder.
In a large bowl, whisk the milk, oil, eggs and vanilla until combined. Fold in the flour mixture, mixing until smooth but not over mixing.
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, then turn them over onto the wire rack and remove from the pan. Let the cake layers cool completely.
For the ganache:
While the cake is baking, make the ganache. Finely chop the chocolate and put it into a medium, heat proof bowl.
In a medium pan, heat the milk and butter until small bubbles form on the edges of the pan. Stir occasionally and do not let the milk come to a boil and scald.
Pour the hot milk mixture into the heat proof bowl with the chocolate and let it sit for a couple minutes. Stir together the mixture until you have a smooth, velvety chocolate mix. It will be a little too runny to use at this point so let it sit on the counter while the cake bakes or, to make it thicken faster, you can put it into the fridge to cool. Stir every ten minutes or so. You're looking for a consistency that allows you to pour and spread it easily but also have some viscosity so that it will 'stick' to the cake.
Putting the cake together
Once your cakes are cooled, place the first cake layer on a cake platter or tray. Then, spread your jam evenly across the layer. I had a little extra jam (which I consider a good thing!) but if you want a thick layer, use it all.
Carefully place the second cake on top of this.
Pour the ganache over the top of the cake and with a spatula or knife, spread it smoothly over the top, running down the edges to cover. Once on the cake, it will cool and harden into a glossy layer.
Decorate with fresh red currants while there is still some 'give' to the ganache, gently pushing the currants into the icing.