Last week, I spent a few days in the Florida sunshine. I returned to New York, facing down a dreary stretch of cold, rainy weather—within minutes of landing on the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport, it was already hard to remember the sensation of soft, still-warm evening breeze on my skin. Of the sting of hot water hitting sunburn in the shower. Of the humidity that hangs in the air, like hot breath on you. Of palm trees and iced coffee and peeling ripe citrus poolside, the juice dripping down your fingers.
As much as traveling is nice (and sometimes just necessary), I’m always comforted to arrive back to my house. To my kitchen. To my bed. There’s a gentle and comforting rhythm to look forward to when I have time without traveling. A cadence to the day that requires little thought or effort.
The flip side of that is partly what makes traveling so nice. There’s no routine! Each corner of the day holds a new surprise, ready to be unwrapped. Breakfast might be a slice of crusty sourdough toast, spread thickly with cumin-scented avocado mash and topped with a fried egg—its edges crisp and lacy from olive oil, eaten at a low picnic table in the sunshine. Or it might be a gorgeous platter of cheesy scrambled eggs eaten in a swanky hotel restaurant with cool marble floors and a towering ceiling.
Dinner presents a similar slew of adventures. One night it’s at a bustling craft brewery/restaurant tucked into an unassuming wedge of real estate between a dry cleaners and a Thai takeout spot. Inside, the long polished wooden bar gleams and a little table by the window beckons. The chefs are James Beard Award nominees and the accolades are quickly proven worthy: a miniature cast iron skillet comes to the table piled high with blistered shishito peppers, slick with oil and dotted with flaky salt. Underneath is a pale green swipe of creamy spring pea hummus. I pop one pepper in my mouth, then another, and another. I can’t place one of the flavors: something sweet and delicate that hums persistently at the corners of my mouth. I poke at the plate, searching for it, then delightedly exclaim: “honey!” once I recognize it.
I like the idea of a secret ingredient like that—one that enhances the main flavor of a recipe in a subtle (and nearly impossible to detect) way.
In the case of the honey-slicked shishito peppers, a little bit of sweetness emphasizes the smokiness from the grill marks, the flakes of sea salt, and the savory hummus.
But you can use this lesson in myriad ways while cooking and baking: consider what element of your dish you want to amplify, and choose an ingredient that supports or balances it. It’s counterintuitive, but think of it like a seesaw: if you want sweet to taste sweet, add a dash of salt. If you want to tease out something creamy, add a tiny bit of something crunchy. If your main ingredient is fatty and rich, a splash of acid will offset it nicely.
Those are broad illustrations of the idea, but to get more specific, there are some partnerships that you can reliably turn to as a way to dial up a dish. A common one: salt + caramel. Or basil (herbaceous) with strawberry (sweet). Toss roasted bitter greens with a splash of maple syrup.
And when you comes to chocolate, you have a slew of options to make even so-so quality chocolate taste richer and deeper and fuller.
You can add a little espresso powder—a trick I faithfully employ with every chocolate dessert I bake. Just a pinch intensifies the flavor of chocolate without imparting any coffee taste.
Another great trick is to swap some, or all, of the dairy in your recipe for coconut milk. If your recipe is something decadent and fudge-tasting, you won’t detect any coconut flavor, it’ll just add a lusciousness to the texture of cakes or quick breads or brownies, and an almost imperceptible richness. You can’t put your finger on why the crumb of a chocolate cake with coconut milk is so much more plush than others, but you can tell.
So, have at it! This recipe—for an extremely fudgy four-layer chocolate cake—makes use of this secret ingredient method.
Four-Layer Secret-Ingredient Chocolate Fudge Cake
Makes one 4-layer cake
For the cake
2 cups (397g) sugar
2 cups (240g) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 cup (64g) cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon espresso powder (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (99g) vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cups (150g) boiling water
1 cup (114g) canned full-fat coconut milk
For the frosting
3 3/4 cups (368g) confectioners’ sugar
1 cup (85g) cocoa powder
8 tablespoons (113g, 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup (227g) heavy cream
For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease, line with parchment, then grease again two 8" round cake pans (make sure your pans are at least 2” deep, as the cakes will be thick since you’re slicing them both in half).
In a small bowl, whisk the cocoa powder into the boiling water and set aside.
Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl.
Add the eggs, oil, vanilla, coconut milk, and cocoa/water mixture. Mix until smooth and well-combined.
Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans.
Bake for about 35 to 40 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and let cool in the pans for at least 10 minutes, then flip them onto a wire rack to finish cooling.
Once the cakes are completely cool, slice them in half horizontally. I like to freeze my cakes for at least 30 minutes at this point to make them easier to frost, but this is totally optional.
To make the frosting: Whisk together the confectioner’s sugar and cocoa powder.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the sugar, cocoa powder, and butter. Beat until the butter is in small bits (sort of sandy-looking), then add the vanilla and about 3/4 cup of the heavy cream. Beat until the frosting comes together, adding more cream as needed. ‘
Frost the cake using a thick layer of frosting between each of the four layers, then generously frost the top and sides.