FOR THE PAST DECADE, Valentine’s Day has meant curling up with my husband and a chocolate cake, which I always bake. If my cakes have occasionally been dry, well, that’s what whipped cream is for.
Two years ago, perhaps on the heels of one of those dry cakes, my husband bought our cake. Did I take umbrage? A little—until I tasted the layered chocolate-buttermilk wonder filled and frosted with a lustrous chocolate ganache. It had come from Criollo, a bakery (now closed) in Northeast Portland, and was so moist and light that I had to have the recipe. Fortunately, owner and baker Melissa McKinney was willing to part with it.
“I’m a big believer in sharing recipes,” said McKinney, now the pastry chef at Roux. “Besides, every baker in Portland already has it.”
To hear McKinney tell it, the cake started its life at (now defunct) Ron Paul Catering & Charcuterie. “I was sous-chef there in 1995, and Melissa Carey-Ragland, who now owns Lagniappe on Alberta St, was the pastry chef. She taught me how to make it.” Carey-Ragland got it from the pastry chef at Zefiro.
When McKinney joined the pastry team at Bluehour in 2000, she found pastry chef Mandy Groom Givler, who later baked for Ripe, making the cake. “They were also using it at Bittersweet, which makes wholesale desserts; at Rivers, which is now Aquariva; and they make something similar at Elephants Delicatessen. And I make it at Roux, special-order,” she says. “I’ve frosted over 15,000 of them in the past 10 years.”
So what gives this recipe such staying power? It’s the oil, says McKinney. “Oil makes a moister cake, and allows it to last a week, whereas a layer cake made with butter becomes dry the next day.” Plus, the hot coffee elevates the cocoa’s depth and complexity. The cake is versatile as well: The batter can be stored in the fridge for several days; stout can be used in place of coffee; it can even be made vegan (McKinney suggests using egg replacement and vanilla soy milk). And the layers can be filled with whipped cream and fresh berries instead of ganache.
When I ask McKinney how the cake might best be presented on Valentine’s Day, she thinks for a moment, and then suggests, “Naked?”