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Tomato Soup Chocolate Cake

For years, friends and family have been telling me that I have to try this.

Their arguments have been: it's easy, and the soup makes the cake moist and rich as well as bringing out the taste of the chocolate.

That first one I dismissed immediately. Tripping and falling is easy. That doesn't make it worth doing.

Moist and rich and extra chocolaty, on the other hand, are definitely worth working for. A bit of salt makes chocolate taste more intense, as anyone who's made a cup of cocoa from scratch and left out the all-important sprinkle of sodium can attest. So I decided to give the chocolate-tomato combo a shot.

I started with the simplest recommended method. I bought two boxes of chocolate cake mix. One, I prepared according to the directions on the box. I mixed the contents of the other with a can of undiluted tomato soup, a teaspoon of baking soda, and a couple of eggs.

I wanted to do a blind taste test with my son, but it was impossible. I made the cakes cupcake-style, and the tomato soup ones didn't rise nearly as high as the conventional, and were darker in color to boot. Knowing, then, that we were doing so, we each tried a bite of one of the tomato cakes plain, then with a little buttercream frosting.

Actually, I was the only one who got to the frosted one. My son bailed out, and I can't say I blame him. Cake mix cakes may or not be your idea of gourmet baking, but to me the ordinary ones tasted fine, while the tomato-enhanced cupcake I attempted to finish had a rusty aftertaste. There was no perceptible difference in moisture or texture, and the chocolate flavor was if anything overwhelmed by a dull and distinctly tomato-flavored tanginess.

Well, this was cake mix. Perhaps I couldn't say I'd given it a fair test until I'd tried it with a real cake baked from actual ingredients.

My own favorite chocolate cake recipe calls for a cup of buttermilk. A can of tomato soup, uncanned, is about a cup of liquid. Seemed like a fair trade to me.

Once again, I baked two cakes. Once again, my faithful taste-tester and I tried sampled the results.

I will say that the tomato taste was more subtle in this from-scratch creation. But it was still there, bumping rudely into our attempts to enjoy the chocolate flavor like a drunk trying to take cuts in line.

The cakes were equally moist, which makes me think that anyone who is so desperate for a yummily damp chocolate cake should just find a really good recipe, use buttermilk instead of plain, and not stint on the eggs and oil. If you want an extra-chocolate taste, use more chocolate and a little less sugar.

Again, though, this might not have been a completely fair trial. My cake recipe hadn't been created with tomato soup in mind. I found one that had.

It looked decent -- lots of cocoa powder, shortening, eggs, vanilla, and of course that undiluted can of tomato soup. I assembled it with care, baked it as directed, and let it cool, then frosted it.

It was moist. So much so that when I tried to cut a slice, the thing split in half as if I'd hit an invisible fault line. The crumb was wonderful, as was the color.

But still, there it was: that faint, metallic, but definite hint of tomato.

I threw the rest of the piece in the trash, cut myself a generous slice of what was left of the just plain chocolate cake I'd baked as a control to compare the tomato stuff to, and settled down to thoroughly enjoy the real thing.

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