Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Let them eat cake, part II 

I wrote the first part of this cake series two weeks ago, and I'm just now getting back to it. I think there will be 5 parts; this could take a while. When we last met, I had finished baking Maida Heatter's Torta di Cioccolata, and taken a Sunday afternoon nap.

On Sunday evening (in early January, 1993), several friends came over for Torta di Cioccolata and port. They crowded around my kitchen table, and we chatted while I whipped cream. My then boyfriend Gary opened the bottle of port, and poured it into an assortment of small glasses. I brought out the star of the show, my freshly-baked chocolate torte, dusted with confectioner's sugar. I was tremendously pleased with at least the aesthetics of this foray into baking; my friends oohed and aahed. I was hoping that the torta would taste as good as it looked.

"That cake looks like you bought it," Annie teased. Her husband Jay chimed in, "And your kitchen's too clean - you can't have baked this today."

"I should've left all the dirty dishes in the sink, just to prove it," I laughed. "And then you two could've washed."

I sliced and plated; they passed plates around the table, and spooned dollops of whipped cream onto their cake. We toasted ("to cake, and port, and friends with whom to share them"), and then tasted: cake with cream first, then just cake, then cake with port drizzled on it. The torte was very good: dark, rich, and moist. I thought, however, that it might not be the perfect complement to a good vintage port. My friends agreed much too easily, and strongly suggested that I test another recipe. It was obvious that they just wanted more cake.

Two weeks later (so perhaps there is a rhyme or reason to my pacing of these episodes), I prepared for the second tasting. I baked another flourless cake, also from Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. Like the first cake, this one depends entirely on beaten egg whites for its lift. Unlike its Italian cousin, in which ground almonds do the work of flour, this French "cake" really is a souffle of sorts. Chocolate, butter, sugar and eggs -- what more does one need? Perhaps a splash of liqueur, a bit of salt, but that's all.

Torte Souffle au Chocolat (recipe Maida's, words mine)

4 ounces (4 squares) unsweetened chocolate
6 ounces (6 squares) semisweet chocolate
5 ounces (1 1/4 sticks) sweet butter, cut into 1" pieces
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
7 eggs (graded large), separated
1/3 cup Grand Marnier
Pinch of salt

Set oven rack 1/3 up from bottom of oven; preheat to 300 degrees. Butter an 10-inch diameter, 2-1/2-inch high (or more) spring-form. Line the bottom with a round of baking parchment cut to fit; butter the paper. Dust all over with flour (I like cocoa powder better for this), then invert and tap lightly to remove excess.

Melt both chocolates and butter together in a double boiler over medium. Cover until partly melted; uncover and stir until melted and smooth. Remove chocolate mixture from hot water and allow to cool slightly, uncovered.

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with 3/4 cup plus one tablespoon of the sugar. Beat at high speed until very thick and pale, about 5 minutes. On low speed, gradually add the Grand Marnier, then the tepid chocolate mixture, using a spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl. Beat only until mixed.

In another bowl, add salt to the egg whites with and, with clean beaters, beat until they hold soft peaks when the beaters are lifted. On lower speed, gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar; increase speed until whites hold firm peaks. Using a large spatula, add about 1 cup of the beaten whites to the chocolate mixture, fold in. Fold in another cup. Then fold in the remaining whites, only until the mixtures are blended. Turn into the pan; rotate pan between palms to level mixture.

Bake for 1 hour at 300 degrees; lower oven temperature to 250 degrees and bake 30 minutes more. (When the temperature is lowered, the cake will begin to sink; do not despair.) After the cake has baked for 1 1/2 hours total, turn off the oven. Open the oven door a couple of inches, and allow the cake to cool in the oven.

When the cake has cooled completely, remove it from the oven and remove the sides of the spring-form. Cover the cake with a rack, and invert; remove the pan bottom and parchment, then invert the cake onto a serving plate.

This is one of those cakes that, in Maida Heatter's words, requires camouflage. The top cracks as it settles; it is not beautiful. What to do? Whip some cream, of course!

To be continued...