Making a Recipe Your Own: Deep Chocolate Cake with Orange Icing

September 17, 2009


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Over the past several weeks, many people have asked us what constitutes an adapted recipe. This is understandable. Very few recipes are not inspired by others -- whether the inspiration comes from a cookbook, a friend, or something eaten in a restaurant. It follows that in recipe writing, the lines between adaptation and plagiarism are often blurry at best. Does leaving out an ingredient and adding another make a recipe your own? How about simply rewording the instructions or introducing a new technique?

Unfortunately, the answers to questions like these are rarely set in stone and often depend on the recipe at hand. In order to provide a little guidance for everyone submitting contest entries, we thought we’d walk you through a recipe that I altered to be more to my liking, which resulted in what we would consider to be a second, original recipe.

When I was growing up, my mother sometimes cooked out of Forum Feasts, a tattered, spiral-bound community cookbook first published in 1968 (back then, a copy cost $4.95 plus 55 cents shipping and handling). In addition to favorites such as Artichoke-Shrimp Casserole, Toffee Squares and Frosted Grapes, my mother often made a recipe called Chocolate Refreshers. These were cakey chocolate bars dense with chopped dates and walnuts and topped with an orange glaze of butter, confectioners’ sugar, orange zest and orange extract.

Forum FeastsWhile I craved these bars for their seductive combination of chocolate and orange, I could easily have done without the fruit and nuts part. I yearned for a deeper, more intense chocolate base to set off that fragrant orange glaze. Referring to my own copy of Forum Feasts, unearthed from a dusty shelf at a used bookstore in Connecticut several years ago, I recently decided to rework the cake by removing the offending (a.k.a. “healthy”) elements and giving it more of a deep chocolate kick. The latter I accomplished by reducing the brown sugar from ¾ cup to ½ cup, using bittersweet chocolate instead of chocolate chips and increasing the amount from six ounces to eight. I also increased the salt a bit, added some vanilla, substituted coffee for the water and used milk instead of a combination of milk and orange juice. Finally, I used a cake pan instead of a jelly roll pan and simplified a few steps along the way.

The orange glaze was nearly perfect as is, but I couldn’t resist a few alterations: I used a bit more zest to amp up the fresh orange flavor and a bit less orange extract; then, for kicks, I added a splash of Cointreau. Instead of cream, I whisked in a tablespoon of mascarpone for richness, plus a tablespoon or two of milk. The extra liquid necessitated an additional 1/2 cup of confectioners' sugar. All this means is that you may be left with extra icing, which is not a bad thing.

Below is the resulting recipe, followed by the original recipe for Chocolate Refreshers.

Deep Chocolate Cake with Orange Icing

Makes about 12 servings

For the cake:

  • 1¼ cup all purpose flour
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ cup packed light brown sugar
  • ½ cup strong coffee (or use instant espresso)
  • ½ cup unsalted butter
  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup whole milk

1. Heat the oven to 350°F, first positioning a rack in the center of the oven. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt and set aside.

2. Combine the brown sugar, coffee, butter and chocolate in a medium heavy saucepan over low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally until the butter and chocolate are almost completely melted. Remove from the heat and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the vanilla and set aside to cool.

3. When the chocolate mixture is about at room temperature, add the eggs and using a wooden spoon, stir well to combine. Add the dry ingredients and the milk in stages, alternating between the two and stirring well between each addition. (The batter should be fairly smooth, but it’s okay if you end up with some small lumps.)

4. Pour the batter into a greased pan measuring roughly 8 1/2” x 11” and bake for 25-30 minutes, until the center of the cake springs back when you press it lightly with your finger and a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Cool completely on a rack.

For the orange icing:

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • 1½ tablespoons orange zest
  • ½ teaspoon orange extract
  • 2 teaspoons Cointreau or other orange flavored liqueur
  • 1 tablespoon mascarpone
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons milk

1. Using a wooden spoon, combine the butter and confectioners’ sugar in a medium bowl. Stir in in the zest, orange extract, Cointreau and mascarpone, and then switch to a whisk to attack any lumps. Gradually whisk in the milk, adding just enough to make the icing spreadable.

2. Spread a thin layer of icing over the top of the cake and refrigerate briefly so that the icing firms up a little. Cut the cake into squares to serve. 

Chocolate Refreshers (from Forum Feasts, courtesy of Mrs. Joseph Sage)

Yield: 5 dozen bars

  • 1 1/4 cup sifted flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 cup dates, cut (8 ounces)
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 6 ounces chocolate bits
  • 2 eggs, unbeaten
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 cup walnuts, chopped

Sift flour, soda and salt together. Combine in a large saucepan the dates, brown sugar, water and butter. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until dates soften. Remove from heat and immediately stir in chocolate bits and unbeaten eggs. Stir well. Add dry ingredients, alternately with milk and orange juice and blend. Stir in nuts. Spead on a 15x10 inch jelly roll pan. Bake at 350° for 25-30 min. Cool and frost with Orange Glaze. Cut into 2 1/2 x 1 inch bars.

Orange Glaze

  • 1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 2 tablespoons soft butter
  • 1 tablespoon grated orange rind or lemon rind
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract or orange extract
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons cream
  • Optional -- nutmeats, cherries, fruits, etc.

Combine sifted sugar with butter, rind and extract. Blend in cream, a tablespoon at a time until you have a good spreading consistency. Spread on Chocolate Refreshers and decorate if desired with nutmeats, candied cherries, or bits of candied fruits.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • wakefieldpro
  • Jennifer Perillo
    Jennifer Perillo
  • Kelsey Banfield
    Kelsey Banfield
  • Helen
  • mariaraynal
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wakefieldpro September 19, 2009
I made the Forum Feast Choco bars as a cake for a large gathering form my husband's birthday. Worked very well, baked in 20 minutes electric oven. Also made the icing with zest from 2 oranges, did not do the cream but mixed with fresh orange juice, very fresh taste and good texture with extra peel. However the icing recipe was not enough to cover the cake well. So I will add another 1/2 recipe for the next batch. Cake is very easy and quick to whip up. Thanks.
Jennifer P. September 17, 2009
Wonderfully done, but now I'm craving that cake. I should no better than to pop in here at 10:30pm.
Kelsey B. September 17, 2009
This is really helpful and a great example since I love the choco-orange combination! I can already see me baking this on Saturday....
Helen September 17, 2009
Having enjoyed this very experiment, I feel everyone should know that it keeps getting more delicious after a day or two, and that I, as a non chocolate-orange lover, truly enjoyed this treat!
Merrill S. September 18, 2009
Right, I forgot to put that part in -- thanks, Helen! This cake stays unbelievable moist, and some of us thought it was even better two days after it was baked! Make sure to cover it tightly in plastic wrap if you're going to make it a day or two ahead of time.
mariaraynal September 17, 2009
Merrill, great step-by-step explanation of revising a recipe, and very helpful. I'm craving deep, dark chocolate after reading your tantalizing descriptions!
Merrill S. September 18, 2009
Thank you! It was fun to do after thinking about it all of these years.
Veronica September 17, 2009
Photo is enough to inspire--gorgeous! And, it sounds like a great adaptation--will try soon!