German chocolate: More than just a cake

Special to The Times

GERMAN chocolate cake looks pretty good for 50 -- the combination of tangy-sweet layers and nutty custard is as irresistible as it was when the recipe was first published in a Texas newspaper back in the Eisenhower era. If it were a Reese's cup or an Oreo, German chocolate cake would be into its 10th reincarnation by now.

But this is one venerable dessert that needs an homage more than a makeover. If you take the same concept, with essentially the same ingredients, you can produce any number of variations with just as much extravagant flavor and texture but with 2.0 attitude.

The cake is one of the great American desserts, despite its name, that comes from the brand of chocolate rather than any homeland. Sam German was the chocolatier who came up with the formula for sweet chocolate that the Baker family sold; the green boxes in the baking aisles of supermarkets today still say "Baker's German's." The name of the genius who first thought of making a cake with the chocolate, and layering it with custard flecked with coconut and pecans, is apparently lost to history.

All that's certain is that the result is essentially a torte that's as American as apple pie.

You can replicate it just by following the recipe on the chocolate box, maybe tweaking it by adding vanilla at the end for maximum impact and using kosher salt for more flavor in both the cake batter and the custard. Substituting heavy cream for the original evaporated milk in the custard produces an airier, better-tasting custard too.

But why stop there? You can easily transform the cake into brownies, pudding, cookies, crepes and other desserts that are German in name only And rather than reinventing the wheel, the simplest way to do that is by adapting recipes for other chocolate wonders, and adding the custard in some form to make the dessert properly over the top.

German's is much sweeter than most chocolate, more like regular chocolate chips, and its effect is comparable to substituting a Dutch process cocoa such as Droste for Hershey's. Depending on the recipe, the sugar should be cut back by one-fourth.

The most obvious makeover is cake into brownies, and one obvious way to do that might be to bake the custard between layers of brownie batter. But an Alice Medrich recipe for bittersweet black bottom pecan praline bars was inspiring -- the topping bakes right into the fudginess. I added coconut to the topping and made the bottom using half a batch of a favorite recipe, Jack Bishop's fudgy double mocha brownies from his little book "Something Sweet."

German's chocolate substitutes for the semisweet Bishop prescribes, and of course the Kahlua and espresso powder in the original are omitted. You can cut and eat the brownies right away, but they are better covered for a few hours or overnight and then tucked into; the brownies get gooier, the top crumbles less.

Cookies are even easier, and when I went trolling through cookbooks from the cake's apparent birthplace looking for "German," I came across a recipe from a pecan dealer for brownie drops using the right chocolate. The cookies are impossibly rich to begin with, but with a schmear of the custard, they are an altogether different experience.

My usual crepes, when given the German chocolate cake treatment, turn the outside in: The crepes themselves are made with melted chocolate, enfolding the custard filling, then topped with just a drizzle of melted chocolate and cream.

The crepes are not as light (or dull) as regular crepes; they are denser and sturdier, to the point that you could almost serve them as dessert tacos without the sauce (or make them silver-dollar-size to pass out at parties).

But the richest way to honor the original dessert is with pudding: Add custard to pots de creme and you reach the same edge of excess. The base is key -- at first, I tried adapting lame pudding recipes made with cocoa before stumbling across a sensational recipe by Rose Levy Beranbaum in one of Marcel Desaulniers' many chocolate cookbooks.

With some adjustments for scale, the recipe simply calls for melting chocolate, whisking in egg yolks, adding scalded cream and milk and cooking until thickened.

And while the pudding is drop-dead rich all on its own, the layers of custard take it to another level of intensity.

Countless other recipes could be given the German chocolate treatment. But as one last reason for tweaking the classic, consider this: As baked from the recipe on the box, German chocolate cake is a pretty hefty investment.

You need a whole box of the chocolate (which, interestingly, costs more than Lindt these days), nearly a pound of butter (a substance that might as well be solid gold lately), eight eggs, a whole bag of sweetened coconut and nearly half a pound of pricey pecans. And that's without counting all the sugar and vanilla and buttermilk (for which you will buy a quart to use a cup).

With the economy sinking like a poorly blended torte, a little nip and tuck is a good thing.

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German chocolate cake as pudding

Total time: 25 minutes, plus chilling time

Servings: 6

8 ounces Baker's German's or semisweet chocolate, broken into squares or coarsely chopped

2/3 cup whole milk

2/3 cup heavy cream

4 large egg yolks, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch of kosher salt

Scant 1/2 cup custard for German chocolate cake (see recipe)

1. In a large metal bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, melt the chocolate, stirring often. Remove from the heat.

2. In a medium saucepan, bring the milk and cream just to a boil. Remove from heat.

3. Whisk the egg yolks into the melted chocolate, then gradually whisk in the milk and cream. Return the bowl over the simmering water and cook the pudding, stirring often, until it thickens, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla and salt.

4. Divide half of the pudding among 6 custard cups or cappuccino cups. Top each serving with a scant tablespoon of the custard. Top with the remaining pudding, then with a teaspoon-sized dollop of the custard. Cover with plastic wrap and chill before serving.

Each serving: 486 calories; 7 grams protein; 32 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 38 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 212 mg. cholesterol; 75 mg. sodium.

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German chocolate cake as crepes

Total time: About 45 minutes, plus resting time

Servings: 4

4 ounces Baker's German's or semisweet chocolate, broken into squares or coarsely chopped, divided

1/2 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup whole milk

2 large eggs

1/4 cup heavy cream

Butter for pan

Generous 1/2 cup warm custard for German chocolate cake (see recipe)

1. For the crepes, place 2 ounces of the chocolate in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Add one-half cup water and heat, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is completely melted. Cool slightly. In a blender, combine the flour, salt, milk and eggs. Add the chocolate mixture, and blend to make a smooth batter. Strain the mixture into a small bowl. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour.

2. Make the sauce: In a metal bowl set over simmering water, melt the remaining 2 ounces chocolate with the cream. Keep warm.

3. Heat a crepe pan or 9-inch skillet over medium heat. Brush very lightly with butter. Add about 2 heaping tablespoons of the crepe batter to the pan and swirl it to make an even crepe. Use a rubber spatula to smooth the edges. Cook 1 1/2 to 2 minutes until set, then flip over and cook a minute or so longer. Turn the crepe out onto a plate lined with wax paper. Repeat with the remaining batter, layering the crepes between sheets of wax paper.

4. To serve, place a crepe on a dessert plate and spoon a generous tablespoon of the custard filling along one half. Fold over and repeat with a second crepe on the same plate. Drizzle a little of the chocolate sauce over (add more cream to thin it if necessary). Repeat with the remaining crepes, filling and sauce and serve.

Each serving: 505 calories; 9 grams protein; 41 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 35 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 182 mg. cholesterol; 243 mg. sodium.

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German chocolate cake as cookies

Total time: About 45 minutes

Servings: Makes about 5 dozen cookies

8 ounces Baker's German's or semisweet chocolate, broken into squares or coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon butter (plus extra for the baking sheets)

2 large eggs

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons custard for German chocolate cake (see recipe)

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a metal bowl set over simmering water, melt the chocolate with 1 tablespoon butter, stirring until it is completely smooth. Cool slightly.

2. In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs until light and frothy. Gradually whisk in the sugar until well blended. Add the chocolate mixture and whisk until well blended. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt and gradually whisk into the egg mixture. Add the vanilla and mix well.

3. Drop the batter by teaspoons onto greased baking sheets. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, until the cookies are set and crackled on top. Cool on baking sheets before "frosting" each with one-half teaspoon custard.

Each serving: 53 calories; 1 gram protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 12 mg. cholesterol; 17 mg. sodium.

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Custard for German chocolate cake

Total time: 15 minutes, plus cooling time

Servings: About 2 cups

2/3 cup heavy cream

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, cut into 1/2 -inch pieces

2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup sweetened coconut flakes

3/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans

1. In a heavy saucepan, combine the cream, sugar, butter, egg yolks and salt. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, about 4 to 5 minutes.

2. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla, coconut and pecans. Let stand, stirring occasionally, until cooled to room temperature and thickened, about 30 to 45 minutes.

Each serving: 96 calories; 1 gram protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 8 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 27 mg. cholesterol; 28 mg. sodium.

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German chocolate cake as brownies

Total time: About 50 minutes, plus cooling time

Servings: 16

Note: This is modeled on a recipe by Alice Medrich

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, divided, plus extra for greasing the baking dish

2 ounces Baker's German's or semisweet chocolate, broken into squares or coarsely chopped

1/3 cup sugar

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/3 cup plus 1/4 cup flour, divided

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

1/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup sweetened coconut flakes

1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Thickly butter the bottom of a 9-inch square baking dish.

2. In a metal bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, combine the chocolate and 4 tablespoons butter, stirring occasionally, until both are melted. Stir in the sugar, egg and vanilla and blend well. Add one-third cup flour and one-half teaspoon of the salt and mix well. Scrape into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

3. For the topping: Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter. Add the brown sugar and the remaining one-fourth teaspoon salt and mix well. Stir in the egg yolk and vanilla and mix well. Combine one-fourth cup flour and baking soda and stir into the batter. Blend in the coconut and pecans. Drop the topping evenly over the prepared base to cover it.

4. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until the topping is well browned. Cool on a rack before cutting into squares. (If you cover the pan for at least 4 hours or overnight, the brownies will be more gooey and easier to cut.)

Each serving: 165 calories; 2 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 11 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 41 mg. cholesterol; 87 mg. sodium.

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