On the subject of comfort food, my mother is really an expert. Sure, I'm biased, but I think anyone who took a bite of her creamy broccoli pasta or had a slice of her potato bread, warm from the oven with a pat of fresh raw milk butter melting on top, would agree. But beyond the broad strokes genre, the real definition of comfort food is unique to each of us—specific and tied to our own particular memories and experiences and places.
One such food that isn't my comfort food, but actually my mom's, is malted milk. In her kitchen, nestled among the spice jars on a crowded shelf, there is always a dusty jar of malted milk powder. It's one of those ingredients that I never recall using, but is omnipresent nonetheless. Every so often, she'd warm some milk and stir in a spoonful of sugar and a spoonful of the malted milk powder. She'd sip it, telling us about how this was the go-to comforting drink when she was little and needed a pick-me-up.
Funnily enough, my dad is the other person with a major affinity for malt powder (perhaps this was a secret underlying twist of fate that brought them together). He loves, loves, loves malted milk balls. Every Christmas, one of us four girls is responsible for wrapping up a box to stash in his stocking, eliciting a hearty "oh ho! Malt balls!" when he opens them. Could he be more adorable?
Although I've never had malt high on my list of comforting foods, I do love the flavor of it: nutty and slightly sweet. I picked up a bag of it (I got it on my last Vermont trip to King Arthur) and have been playing around with adding it to recipes. I've found it works really nicely in chocolate desserts like brownies, although if the recipe is too rich or intense (like a flourless chocolate cake or a brownie made with chocolate instead of cocoa), the malt flavor gets lost. It's a bit too delicate for really sweet or decadent recipes, so it's better suited for things like puddings (yes! Bookmarking this recipe!) or a vanilla pound cake (thinking of adding it to this favorite one) or today's cake recipe.
This recipe comes from Tandem Coffee in Portland (one of my very, very favorite places) by way of an old issue of Bon Appetit. If you're ever in Maine, stop at Tandem. Eat everything. Get one of every seasonal scone flavor. Get the granola. Breathe in the fresh sea air. Wave hello to Briana Holt, the superbly talented baker and general mastermind behind the spectacular recipes at Tandem, all of which always turn out perfectly and garner rave reviews. I've written about her kale and parmesan scones before here, and will soon be sharing another scone recipe, so stay tuned.
The reason this cake works so well with the flavor of malt is that it's a delicate, cocoa-flavored cake rather than a dark, deep chocolate one. The crumb is moist and tender, like those chocolate sheet cakes at the grocery store, and the cocoa flavor is chocolate-y but mellow.
I actually really love the cake unglazed, although the original recipe calls for a chocolate malt glaze. So, you do you! Who's to say you can't glaze your cakes with wild abandon? Not me.
*Note: I buy my malted milk powder from King Arthur Flour online but you can use Carnation malted milk powder from the grocery store. I make my cake in a Bundt pan, because SPOILER ALERT I LOVE BUNDT CAKES, but you can use a 9" x 5" loaf pan or a round pan (or even cupcake pans!) if you like.
Malted Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Briana Holt by way of Bon Appetit
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup malted milk powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg yolk
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup whole milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup coffee, cooled
Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease a 10-cup Bundt pan very thoroughly with nonstick spray or butter.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, malted milk powder, salt, baking soda, and baking powder. Set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, and sugar until very well blended. Add the milk, oil, vanilla, and coffee and mix briefly.
Slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry, folding them in with a rubber spatula as you go, and then stir until the batter just comes together: you don't want to overmix here even if the batter has a few lumps. (That's life! Lumps happen! We're okay!)
Pour the batter into your prepared pan and bake for about 1 hour, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake springs back lightly when you touch the surface gently.
Remove the cake from the oven and let cool for at least 20 minutes before flipping it out of the pan and letting it cool fully on a wire rack.