Authors’ Note: Here’s another missing scene from Christmas in Always Darkest.
Sugar and Spice
Chris let himself inside the apartment to a delightful aroma for the fifth day in a row. Also for the fifth day in a row, he found Ben in the midst of bowls, cups, pans, general stickiness, and culinary disarray, frowning at the result of his messy efforts.
Chris chuckled softly as he dropped his messenger bag full of papers to grade on their table. “What’s wrong with this one?”
“I don’t know, but it’s not right.” Ben shook his head and cut a slice of the still slightly warm cake, put it on a plate, and handed it to Chris. “You tell me.”
Chris took the plate over to the table and dug into Ben’s latest effort at recreating the chocolate spice cake he liked so much from the bakery around the corner. He chewed and swallowed, smile spreading as he did so.
“Ben, I don’t know what you’re agonizing over. This is wonderful. And I honestly think your citrus frosting is better than theirs.”
Ben smiled at that. “Yeah, I’m happy with the frosting.” He shrugged, taking another bite of it himself and chewing it thoughtfully. “But the cake still isn’t where it needs to be. It’s not chocolatey enough. All I can taste is the spices.”
“Since you’re making it for the Sinclairs, maybe you should get Mal’s opinion.”
Ben shook his head. “It’s supposed to be a surprise.”
He finished his disappointing piece of cake, proving himself immune to Chris’s encouraging words about how good it was.
It was good.
But it wasn’t good enough.
Mal had tasted the bakery cake and loved it. He wanted the one he made for her and her family to blow the bakery out of the water. He couldn’t have really said why it was so important to him, but it was.
When he finished his slice, he sighed. “Will my music bother you if I crank it while I clean up all this garbage?”
“Not at all. I’m going to head into the living room and grade these papers. They’re my last batch to hand back before Saint Auggie’s goes on break.”
Ben pulled up the Celtic punk station on his music app, cranked it full blast, dropped his phone into a clean coffee mug as an impromptu speaker, and put the cake away. Then he started digging himself out of the mountain of dirty dishes with methodical intensity, while half singing along to Flogging Molly’s If I Ever Leave This World Alive. He was lost in his task, and in the music.
A little later, as he finished drying the last of the dishes, and was getting ready to wipe down the counter, Mal’s hand on his elbow startled him into almost dropping a pyrex measuring cup.
“Hey!” he grinned, recovering quickly. “I thought you had to work at the gallery this afternoon.”
She smiled, picking up the damp cloth he’d dropped and wiping the counter down for him. “Dad’s on a maniacal cleaning spree at home because my uncle’s coming for the holiday, too, so he let me off the hook. Figured I’d surprise you and maybe we could walk up to the bookstore and do a little Christmas browsing.”
Ben started putting away the dishes. “Sure. Lemme just finish cleaning up my mess.”
Mal leaned against the counter. “Whatcha making?”
Ben didn’t look at her, just kept doing what he was doing. “Nothing really.”
“Liar,” she teased. “You’re up to something.”
He put away the last bowl and turned. “You’re spooky good at that, you know.”
“What?” she grinned. “Knowing when you’re up to something?” He nodded. “I’m not really that good. You just can’t look me in the eye when you’re not being honest and when you’re doing it because you’re being sweet, you blush. A lot.”
He pulled an indignant face. “I wasn’t even looking at you! How do you know if I blushed?”
She grinned mischievously. “It hits the back of your neck and your ears first.”
He laughed, and this time he knew it was obvious he was blushing because he could feel the heat of it.
“Can’t keep anything from you can I?”
And I’d really rather not.
Like she could read his thoughts, she said, “Why would you want to?”
It was said with a smile, a light teasing tone, but it made his stomach drop a little. He had to tell her the truth of himself soon. He should really buckle down on his research about how to defend her from the Fallen so he could finally be really honest. He met her eyes and made himself smile. “I guess I wouldn’t. But it was supposed to be a surprise for Christmas.”
She took the few necessary steps to wrap him into a hug. “I do love surprises. Early surprises even more so.”
He hugged her back, then pulled the cake out of the fridge. “I was trying to make the spice cake we like. I keep screwing it up though.”
“It looks pretty great to me,” she said honestly.
“Yeah, looks aren’t the problem. You want to try it? Then you’ll see.”
“I never don’t want cake, Ben. It’s one of my primary character flaws.”
He laughed and cut her a slice. “You want some coffee, too?”
“I better not. I haven’t been sleeping well. Don’t want to make it worse by being dumb and overcaffeinating.”
She got a fork out of the drawer and scooped up a bite while they stood right there at the kitchen counter. Her eyes rolled back in a look of pure bliss. “Oh. My. God. Ben, this is soooo good.”
That she liked it made him smile, but still, he shook his head. “I think it’s not chocolatey. The spices come on too strong. The one from Buttercup’s is like a really good bar of dark chocolate, plus the spiciness. That’s part of what makes it good.”
She took another bite of the cake, thinking she could personally eat her weight in what he’d made. But if he wasn’t happy, she wanted to help. “What kind of recipe did you use?”
Ben dug out the cookbook he’d borrowed from the library from the drawer under the microwave. “It’s a red velvet cake. I just left out the food coloring. I figured it’d be good with the cream cheese frosting.”
“It is good.” She looked over the recipe, chewing her lip in what Ben already thought of as her ‘thinking’ expression. “But that’s probably why it’s not as full of chocolatey goodness as you want it to be.”
“Huh? There’s loads of cocoa powder in it.”
“Well, yeah, but natural cocoa powder is still pretty acidic. So it’s more like coffee. Sort of fruity and earthy, but not really deep down chocolatey. You want to use a recipe with Dutched cocoa.” She started flipping through the book. “Here’s one. This one ought to be perfect for you.”
He nearly laughed when he saw she’d landed on a recipe for devil’s food cake. Then he frowned. “How do you know? You can’t even boil water! Or have you been fibbing to me?”
“Oh, no, no fibbing here. I suck at cooking. But as you may have noticed since I’ve been helping you pass your class, I kick ass at chemistry.”
“You do at that.” She was eyeing the cake next to him, so he cut her another piece. “Why is this one going to be different?”
She got a giant forkful of more cake. If he didn’t want this one, she was going to take it home with her for sure. “Dutched cocoa is processed with alkali. It makes it darker and richer and more what you’re thinking of as chocolatey.”
He laughed a little. “And you know this because…?”
“The process was invented by a Dutch guy named Johannes van Houten in 1828. I read about him in a science text a long time ago in a unit on acids and bases. I thought it was cool.”
“It is cool,” Ben said almost skeptically. “If it works.”
“Oh, it’ll work.”
He grinned. “I’m used to being the history nerd in this relationship, you know.”
“It’s science history. And we both know that’s not exactly your thing.”
He laughed. “I guess not. But…”
“Look, what have you got to lose by trying it?”
“Nothing I guess. The worst it can be is terrible.”
“That’s the spirit!”
“Spirit of what? Murphy’s Law?”
“Independent scientific inquiry.”
“Well, if it’s for science, I’ll have to find time to try it.”
“I’ve got nowhere to be. You’re always telling me I need to learn to cook. Let’s give it a shot.”
An excuse to spend the afternoon in close quarters, working side by side, sounded like Heaven to Ben. If it fixed his chocolate problem, more’s the better, he thought.
Several hours later, the two of them sat in a half doze on the couch, full of cake. And victory.
“You’re going to put Buttercup’s out of business, Ben.”
“I don’t need to put anyone out of business. But I’m not gonna lie, I feel better about having something impressive to bring over to Christmas at your place. Especially now that there’s going to be extra family there.”
He laughed like it wasn’t a big deal, but she heard the slight nervousness in it.
“I keep telling you, they’re gonna love you.” He shifted slightly next to her, but didn’t contradict her. “But if bribery is needed to make it happen, that cake definitely seals the deal.”
“So long as it’s the holiday you want, Mal, I’m good with anything that happens.”
“It will be, Ben.”
She twined her fingers with his as she picked up the remote.
As always, it wouldn’t be a Demons Run Lit Christmas without some holiday goodies. Here’s the recipe that Ben was hoping would keep a couple of angels from smiting him on the spot Christmas morning. Readers of Always Darkest know Mal was right, Ari and Davi liked Ben just fine. But we’re not going to pretend this cake didn’t have something to do with it.
Chocolate Spice Cake
1 cup boiling water
⅔ cup Dutch-process cocoa, plus extra for dusting the pan
1 tbsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp ginger
⅛ tsp clove
1 ¼ cups packed dark brown sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup vegetable oil
½ cup sour cream
2 large whole eggs
2 large egg yolks
Prepare a regular sized bundt pan (you can use any pan you like, but we think this one looks the most festive). We like using shortening to thoroughly grease the pan, and then we dust it with cocoa powder instead of flour so it doesn’t leave weird white marks all over your cake.
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.
Combine the boiling water and cocoa powder in a small bowl.
Whisk until smooth.
Combine your dry ingredients in the bowl of your stand mixer (if you don’t have one, use a bowl that will be big enough for all your ingredients to come together in). Dry ingredients include spices, baking soda, and flour.
Whisk to combine.
In a separate bowl or pitcher (to make pouring easier), combine your wet ingredients. Wet ingredients include brown sugar, oil, eggs, egg yolks, and sour cream.
Whisk to combine.
Turn your mixer on low and slowly pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Once combined, slowly add the cocoa mixture until that’s fully incorporated, too. Scrape down your bowl as needed.
Pour the cake batter into your prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the thick part of the cake comes out clean. 35 to 45 minutes.
Cool for about ten minutes in the pan, then turn it out onto a cooling rack or plate to cool completely.
Citrus Cream Cheese Frosting
8 oz unsalted butter, softened
8 oz cream cheese, softened
4 cups powdered sugar (give or take)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp orange extract
Zest and juice of 1 orange
(If you want, you can add cinnamon to this as well, or use cinnamon and colored sugar to decorate)
Sift the powdered sugar. Set it aside.
Using your electric mixer with the whisk attachment, beat butter and cream cheese until thoroughly creamed together. Add the orange zest and blend it in. Turn your mixer to low, and add the powdered sugar a ½ cup at a time until your frosting is smooth and creamy. Blend in the vanilla and orange extract. Thin the frosting to your preferred consistency with the orange juice, adding a little at a time.
Frost your cooled cake with as much of this decadent mix as you like.
If any angels show up, feed them some to make up for your misdeeds.