March 24, 2012

A Chocolate Cake, Perfect for Wooing

(This is a sad story. But it ends with chocolate.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately, or the loss of love—what shifts when a relationship comes to an end, how this idea, of an end, is even possible where there has been love. I’ve done some research, to see what the authorities have to say on the topic. I’ve learned that love is not supposed to alter (“Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds,” Shakespeare), or if it alters it should be of a positive nature (“Never again would birds’ song be the same. / And to do that to birds was why she came,” Frost), it should be monumental and encompassing (“Your presence here is like the city, / like quiet Kiev wrapped in sultry sunbeams… ,” Pasternak), it has the effect of both illuminating and annihilating (“If the moon smiled, she would resemble you. / You leave the same impression / Of something beautiful, but annihilating. / Both of you are great light borrowers,” Plath), and it should long to be memorialized (“You, and only you, I shall glorify in my poems, / As a woman has never been able to do,” Akhmatova).

I also learned that there is a lot of disagreement on the subject, and that the topic of love covers a lot of ground. Love is supposed to do many things, and it’s supposed to do them all at once. It’s supposed to make you weep and it’s also supposed to give you a happiness that is beyond bliss. (I think I’ve been in both of these states in my life, the latter being the more desirable, for obvious reasons.) It is supposed to give you the expansiveness of a whole world contained within a room, between two people, and it can also make you as small as a microcosm, reduced to some diminished version of a former self. In short, love is full of contradictions. It is not as simple as one hopes and imagines that it will be. But it is also, and at the same time, more simple, I think, than can even be described.

If you read between the lines of this entry, and also here and here, you can figure out what’s happened of late, and why love has been on my mind in the way that it has. The story is a sad one and, like all sad stories, deeply personal. It begins with happiness and ends with something else, if an end there be. It rises and falls and twists and turns and heaves in tumult and hope. It is full of contradictions. And there is no one authority on the subject that can really make sense of it (however much I would like to believe that the answers to all of life’s mysteries lie in the pages of Akhmatova). It is fraught and it is also hopeful.

I’m learning a lot.

There is one thing that is constant in all of this. And it’s to do with my kitchen. No matter what, and above all else, the kitchen soothes—it turns out results that are playful and unexpected, and consistently good, even when they’re somewhat bad, because there is only so much that can go wrong when a handful of good ingredients is involved.

And if there was a single culinary project that was going to speak to love, I think it would be this one. It’s a “she” by nature; it’s regal and elegant, but also simple and understated. It’s dark and moody but also luscious and tender—as the best love stories often are. It’s full of contradictions—light and dark, moist and firm, dense and ethereal. And I think it would be pretty safe to say that it would be the perfect thing for wooing, if you were in the market for such a thing.

It’s Julia Child’s Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba). It’s a cake that’s also like a love story.

I’m not sure what possessed me to make such a cake at a time like this. Maybe it’s that optimistic thing that keeps haunting me in irritating ways. But I devoted last weekend to the project. I told friends (and strangers) about it (this made me accountable to myself). I worked through the recipe in my mind. I imagined the bowls of ingredients spread out, and I thought I could, at one point, taste the delicate nuances of the glaze. I lived through it in an imaginary capacity first, and then I took on the project in real life.

It started with the purchase of a new 8-inch round cake pan and a hurried trip to the grocery store, in the rain. It ended in my kitchen, sipping coffee and licking the glaze off a butter knife. Still later it carried me to a friend’s studio (where we swapped cakes), and then to work, where I relished sharing it with my colleagues, and now, at last, to here—to this little internet space that I have carved out for myself.

The cake begins simply, as all cakes do, with the creaming together of butter and sugar. If you do this by hand, as I did, this is also great tension relief. The mixture becomes paler and paler in color the longer you work it, and it takes on a lightness that you won’t think possible when you begin (particularly if it’s just you and your wooden spoon in there, creaming away). To this, you add egg yolks. Then you mix in chocolate that has been melted in strong coffee or espresso, ground almonds, almond extract, and flour (sifted flour if you, unlike me, are capable of attentively following directions). You then gently fold in egg whites that have been whipped to soft peaks. This is the only leavening that the cake requires.

Once baked and cooled, the cake is then glazed with Glaçage au Chocolat (translated by Julia, somewhat unromantically, as Chocolate-Butter Icing). It’s not an icing, it’s really more of a glaze that can be spread with a knife rather than poured. Most importantly, it is fragrant with coffee; and even more importantly than this, it enrobes a cake that is moist and soft in the center, and that yields toward the edges to a fine, nutty crumb—complex and also perfectly simple.

The key to this cake is to try not to over-bake it. In fact, you should lean toward taking it out before you are really sure that it is finished. The middle will jiggle very slightly while the outer edges will be set and beginning to crack on the surface. This is the kind of contradiction you are looking for here.

I recommend having this with a small cup of coffee or espresso. If you have a candle on your table, light it. And it wouldn’t hurt to think about a loved one either—be they near, far, or in some previous chapter of your story.

Reine de Saba (adapted from Julia Child’s The French Chef Cookbook)
(Chocolate, Espresso, and Almond Cake)
Makes one 8-inch cake

To make the cake:

1 stick (4 oz.) softened, unsalted butter; plus 1 teaspoon (for greasing the pan)
2/3 cup semisweet chocolate (chopped from a bar or as chocolate morsels)
1 tablespoon instant espresso dissolved in 2 tablespoons boiling water
2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 large eggs, separated
1/4 (scant) teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup ground almonds (from blanched almonds, without their skins); grind the almonds the day you plan to use them
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, sifted directly into measuring cups (not packed down), plus 2 tablespoons (for preparing the pan)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, with a rack in the middle. Butter generously and then flour an 8-inch round cake pan, tapping out excess flour. Set aside.

Dissolve 1 tablespoon of instant espresso (I used Medaglia D’Oro) in 2 tablespoons of boiling water. Place the chocolate in a small saucepan and pour the hot instant espresso over it. Heat 1-2 inches of water in a medium saucepan until just simmering, and then place the small saucepan inside of it. Stir the chocolate and the coffee until the chocolate begins to melt, and then set aside. It will be completely melted by the time you return to it.

Measure out all of the ingredients for the cake at this stage, before you begin the steps for the batter.

By hand or with an electric mixer, cream together the butter and the sugar until the mixture is fluffy and has lightened in color. Beat in the 3 egg yolks.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they begin to foam; then add the scant 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar and a pinch of salt and continue to beat until the egg whites begin to “hold their shape in a soft mass”; as soon as this happens, beat in the 2 tablespoons of sugar and continue beating until the whites form soft peaks (Julia suggests that you will know they are done when “you can lift a bit with a rubber spatula and they hold their shape, dropping off into a little point with a curling tip”).

Return to the chocolate, and stir it to make sure that is it smooth and completely melted. If it is not, return it to the double boiler (bringing the water back up to a simmer) and stir until just melted (but not very hot).

Add the chocolate to the butter, sugar, and egg yolk mixture, and stir to combine. Add the ground almonds, almond extract, and flour.

Stir in one fourth of the beaten egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten the batter. Then, using a rubber spatula, add the rest of the egg whites on top of the batter, and begin folding them in, as Julia advises “rapidly and delicately.” You want to draw the rubber spatula through the batter to the bottom of the bowl, drag it towards you, and then swoop it back upwards, folding the batter over the egg whites little by little each time. Continue folding, rotating the bowl every so often, until the batter is blended. It will be a lovely, milk chocolate color at this stage.

Turn the batter out into the prepared pan, and gently smooth out the cake so that it reaches all of the edges and is evenly distributed.

Bake the cake for 25-30 minutes. (My cake took something like 31-32 minutes, but this will depend on your oven.) You should begin checking it at 25 minutes, being careful not to over-bake it. Julia advises that a toothpick inserted about 2 1/2 inches from the outer edge should come out clean, while the center should still jiggle slightly when the pan is shaken.

Cool the cake in its pan for 10 minutes, then run a knife along the edge to loosen it, and turn the cake out onto a rack (this is done by placing the rack over the pan, and then flipping both rack and pan so that the cake is inverted). Turning the cake out onto the rack was more difficult than I expected, but be patient and eventually it will come.

Let the cake cool for 2 hours before icing.

To make the Glaçage au Chocolat:

1/2 cup semisweet chocolate (chopped or as morsels)
1 1/2 tablespoons brewed instant espresso
6 tablespoons softened, unsalted butter

Place the chocolate in a small saucepan.

Brew a mug of instant espresso: Dissolve one heaping teaspoon of espresso in 1/2 to 3/4 cups boiling water. From this, measure out 1 1/2 tablespoons of the liquid and pour it over the chocolate.

Place the saucepan with the chocolate and coffee over very low heat, and stir, beating in one tablespoon of the butter at a time. Beat this mixture until it is perfectly smooth.

At this point, the mixture will likely be completely melted and very liquid. To make it a spreading consistency, place the saucepan in a larger pan with 1 to 2 inches of cold water and stir the chocolate mixture until you feel that it could be spread with a knife; it should still be glossy in appearance. (I added an ice cube to my pan of water at this stage, which quickened the process; but be careful not to make it too firm—it firms up very quickly, once it begins to happen.)

Ice the cake evenly with the glaçage. Then decorate with sliced almonds along the edge of the cake, applying each slice by hand. You can also place the almonds in a ring along the outermost edge of the cake, but on its surface, if you like. This is how my mom used to do it.

Once you have sufficiently admired your work, you may cut yourself a slice of cake, and enjoy.

Poems cited in this entry:
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”)
Robert Frost, Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same
Boris Pasternak, You’re Here, trans. J. M. Cowen
Sylvia Plath, The Rival
Anna Akhmatova, I Will Leave Your White House, trans. Judith Hemschemeyer


  1. Oh, Vera. So lovely and subtle and elegant. Just like you. Keep writing, as I am already an avid follower.

  2. Debasri, Thank you for this lovely comment. I'm so glad you like it. And thanks for the little writing boost, it helps. xo