Thursday, January 27, 2005

Let them eat cake, part I 

Thirteen years ago, a friend of mine inherited a very large dining table from her mother. Although the table, made of bog oak, had no leaves, it comfortably seated 14 people. In honor of the arrival of the table in Houston from her late mother's home in California, my friend Robin and her husband Jeff held a very fancy dinner party for seven couples. For the next several years, what became known as the Bog Oak Dinner was an annual late-January tradition.

As Robin and Jeff were wine enthusiasts, they selected a different wine to go with each course of a five-course meal. As they didn't much like to cook, they assigned each couple one course of the meal to prepare. (The seventh couple didn't cook either, but they always brought marvelous bread from a nearby French bakery.) The second year of the Bog Oak Dinner, my then boyfriend and I were assigned dessert. I knew that the dessert wine would be a lovely old port; something in a dark chocolate seemed the perfect accompaniment.

I wanted to bake something - a cake or a torte perhaps - but I didn't know where to begin looking for a recipe. My college roommate Becca was known as the baker in our circle of friends, so I called her. I described the dinner, and told her that I wanted to bake the perfect, elegant dark chocolate cake to go with port.

Becca's response - in her clipped Bostonian accent - was brief: "Maida Heatter."

"What?" Those words made no sense to me.

"Get one of Maida Heatter's dessert books. My wedding cake? That was one of her recipes. She's wonderful. And you'll love reading her. Hold on a minute -" Becca's wedding cake had been both elegant and delicious; I continue to be amazed, not that she was able to create such a cake, but that she baked it for her own wedding. "- OK, this is the book you want: Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. If you don't find that one, then her Best Dessert Book Ever should have something. Pick one of the chocolate cakes that doesn't have much flour; they're all good."

I went to the bookstore the next day, bought both books, and started reading. Becca was right; these were books to be kept on one's bedside table and savored before bedtime. I read every recipe in the section of the chocolate dessert book titled "Cakes Without or Almost Without Flour," and selected three to test. This was the first of the three.

Torta di Cioccolata

8 ounces (1 2/3 cups) blanched almonds
7 ounces (7 squares) unsweetened chocolate
1/2 pound (2 sticks) sweet butter
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
4 eggs (graded large), separated

Set oven rack 1/3 up from bottom of oven; preheat to 300 degrees. Butter an 8- or 8-1/2-inch diameter, 2- or 2-1/2-inch high springform. Line the bottom with a round of baking parchment cut to fit; butter the paper.

Coarsely chop the chocolate. In a food processor or blender, grind the almonds and chocolate together to a fine powder. The danger, of course, is that you will end up with something like almond nutella. Do not overgrind.

In a large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter. Add the sugar, beat to mix. Add the egg yolks, beat to mix. Add the nut and chocolate mixture. Beat on low speed to mix.

In another bowl, with clean beaters, beat the egg whites until they hold firm peaks, but not until stiff or dry. Stir about 1/4 of the beaten whites into the chocolate mixture, then fold in the remaining whites. Turn into the pan; smooth the top.

Bake for 45 minutes. Allow the cake to cool to room temperature before removing the sides of the springform and inverting the cake onto a plate.

Sprinkle the top of the cake with powdered sugar, if desired. Serve with lots of cold whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

I bought baking parchment and an 8-inch springform pan. (The 6-inch and 10-inch springforms came home with me as well; never let it be said that I go into such endeavors halfheartedly!) I invited several friends over for dessert on a Sunday evening. On Saturday, my mission of acquisition yielded baking chocolate, almonds, butter, eggs, whipping cream and a nice bottle of port. After lunch on Sunday, I baked the torta. While it cooled, I napped, dreaming lovely chocolate-scented dreams.

To be continued... really...