While this cake started as the Fort’s house cake for birthday and anniversary celebrations, customer demand convinced us to put it on the menu as an everyday offering. We still serve a complimentary slice to anyone marking a special occasion at the Fort—and set a ceremonial headdress on their heads, too, as the staff shouts, “Hip, hip, huzzah!” We don’t do anything halfway at our restaurant! We make the cake with some red chile to honor the ancient Aztec tradition of spiking their drinking chocolate with a little heat. This makes sense when you remember that it wasn’t until the Europeans took chocolate back to the Old World that anyone thought to sweeten it. Before then, it was made into a bitter but much appreciated ceremonial brew. You’ll feel a slight burn at the back of the throat when you eat this, but that will quickly turn into a warm glow. The bourbon-flavored frosting adds its own kick.
Ingredients for The Cake
- 1 to 2 tablespoons New Mexico medium ground red chile powder (Dixon is the best), to taste
- 2 cups water
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour (not self-rising)
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup unsweetened, nonalkalized cocoa powder, such as Hershey, Nestlé, or Ghirardelli (do not use Dutch process)
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
Ingredients for The Frosting
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 3/4 cup unsweetened nonalkalized cocoa powder
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
- 4 to 5 cups confectioners’ sugar
- 2 to 3 tablespoons bourbon
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts, lightly toasted (optional)
For the Cake
Preheat the oven to 350°F, and place a rack in the center of the oven.
Butter two 9-inch round cake pans. Lightly dust the sides of the pans with flour, tapping out the excess and line the bottom with circles of parchment or waxed paper.
In a medium saucepan, cook the chile powder in 1 cup of the water over medium heat until simmering. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the vanilla, and set aside.
Using a mixer with a wire whip attachment for best results, combine the flours, sugar, baking soda, salt, and cocoa and beat on low speed until well mixed. Add the softened butter to the dry mixture and beat thoroughly on medium-low speed. The mixture should be a uniform, grainy texture. Raise the speed to medium and gradually add the remaining 1 cup of water and the buttermilk. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Slowly add the hot water/chile mixture and continue to beat just until well combined; be sure not to overbeat. Pour the mixture equally into the pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of each layer comes out clean.
To cool, set the pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Then turn the cakes out onto the rack, remove the paper from the bottom, and immediately invert so that the risen tops don’t flatten. Let the layers cool completely before frosting.
For the Frosting
Combine the butter and cocoa in a large saucepan and melt over medium heat. Stir in the buttermilk. Add the confectioners’ sugar, a little at a time, stirring with a wire whisk between additions. Stir in the bourbon and vanilla and continue to whisk until the frosting is smooth and glossy. The frosting should stiffen as it cools. (In warm weather you may need to refrigerate it.) When it is still warm, but has reached a spreadable consistency, you can assemble the cake.
If necessary, trim the tops of the cakes so that they are level. Place one of the cake layers on a 9-inch round cardboard cake circle. Spread 1 cup of the frosting over the layer. Sprinkle 1 cup of the chopped walnuts, if using, evenly over the frosting. Place the second layer of cake on the frosted base. Use the remaining frosting to cover the top and sides of the cake. Finish the top of the cake by holding the spatula at a slight angle and making several strokes to smooth the top. To decorate the cake, press the remaining walnuts onto the lower half of the sides and on top of the cake. This cake is best when made 1 to 2 days before serving as it gives the flavors time to blend.
*Variation to Make “Red Hot” Chile-chocolate Bourbon Cupcakes
Makes 24 regular cupcakes or 48 mini cupcakes
Preheat the oven to 350F. Mix the cake batter and frosting following the instructions in the master recipe. Place cupcake papers in regular or mini muffin pans. Divide the batter evenly among the cups filling the paper liners to 1/4-inch from the top. Bake on the middle rack of the oven, 20 to 25 minutes for regular cupcakes and 10 to 15 minutes for minis. When done, cupcake tops should be slightly firm to the touch and a tooth pick inserted in the center should come out clean. Cool the cupcakes in their pan for 5 minutes, then transfer them in their paper liners to a wire rack to cool thoroughly. Frost the cupcakes and decorate with red cinnamon candies.
Reprinted with permission from Shinin’ Times at the Fort (Fur Trade Press, December 2010) by Holly Arnold Kinney