February 08, 2014

No less hungry

I’ve made this cake before here, but under very different circumstances. Coming out of a bad breakup, I decided to make the single most romantic cake that I could think of. The answer was obvious: Julia Child’s Reine de Saba. I liked this cake because it was a series of contradictions, as I took the whole venture of love to be. It was not too sweet, nor was it particularly heady. It was complex enough to make your palette inquisitive, but easy enough to go down smooth, happy and unquestioning. I cited some poems in that entry, and then I ate my cake, one slice at a time, for a solid week. When I photographed it, I added an extra teacup to the tableau, for fear of depressing my readers. But in actuality, it was just me. Me and the reine (“queen”). 

This time, I made her with a particular person in mind; someone who you have not yet met on the blog—my guitar teacher, Marcelo. It’s been a good year-and-a-half or more that I’ve been taking lessons with Marcelo, and, although I rarely practice, he seems to put up with me, and more than that, is and has always been a fervent supporter of the blog. Marcelo, I have learned, appreciates good food. He loves to laugh and he loves music. He might not know this, but when I was going through the saddest of times, our lessons were often a grounding element for me. After a few short months, we were sharing stories with each other, and then, before I knew it, we had become friends. 

In all this time, though, that we’ve talked and laughed and looked at photographs of the food I was making for the blog, and in which he sent me links and shared ideas, I had never baked anything for Marcelo. The timing would always be off—something I made over the weekend would be gone by Monday, for the next lesson, or we’d have a break in the schedule, or I would simply forget, or any number of other reasons why we don’t do the things that we want to do, that we, for all intensive purposes, mean to do. I was determined to change this.

Knowing a bit about Marcelo, I settled on making him the Reine de Saba (or, as Marcelo calls it now “the reina.” This cake tends to be the thing that I make when someone is close to me and I want to, in my own way, celebrate them. I brought him half the cake, so as to not overwhelm him. As I was packing it, fitting it snuggly in its parchment-lined tupperware, I wondered if I should make a single cut—one discrete slice—so that he could try it immediately. I wondered for a moment, and then I got distracted and forgot. The cake got packed and so did my instrument and away we went. 

When I arrived bearing cake, we were both happy. Marcelo immediately looked for a knife, or a fork, or any implement at all, so that he could taste it. I scoured my purse in case a previously stowed plastic utensil could be recovered. He went to the front desk and inquired. There was nothing. “How am I going to wait?” he wondered out loud. (THIS, I decided, is the kind of compliment a cook lives for.) We managed to turn back to the lesson, the reina just sitting there, on the piano in the practice room, without an eater. We played Dylan’s “Moonshiner” and talked about my difficulty with the F-chord (still, really, after 10 years). As the lesson ended, back on the hunt for a utensil, I asked Marcelo how long he was going to have to wait. When would he be home so that he could try it?! It was going to be at least two more hours, which we both decided was much too long. And then Marcelo looked at me and said something that endeared him to me even more, something that spoke to me on levels unknown and unuttered: “How can I say this…” he sighed. “I have the soul of a fat boy.” 

Sometimes Marcelo and I are very much alike.

The phrase rung in my ears for several hours, because, as I said, it spoke to something true in me (however funny). We are hungry, and that is why we bake and cook and prepare and eat and share and break bread and toast one other. Some of us are hungrier than others. Most of us are hungry in our souls, and food and love and warmth and friendship all become one. M.F.K Fisher famously expressed this sentiment in words that are so perfect they deserve to be quoted in full: 

“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? […] The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it… and then warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one. […] There is food in the bowl, and more often than not, because of what honesty I have, there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hungers. We must eat. If, in the face of that dread fact, we can find other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it, we’ll be no less full of human dignity.”

To talk about hunger in the soul, of insatiable hunger, or of a hunger that is metaphoric and persistent, is to brush against this fact. M.F.K. Fisher wrote in times of war. We write and think about food in a supposed era of plenty. Yet, we are no less hungry. 

I feel fuller when I share cake. 

Reine de Saba 
(Slightly altered from my previous version, with some important, quality-retaining shortcuts.)

For the cake:

2/3 cup semisweet chocolate morsels
1 tablespoon instant espresso dissolved into 2 tablespoons boiling water
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons
3 large eggs, separated
Scant 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of kosher salt
1/3 cups sliced almonds (with or without skins), ground fine
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3/4 cups all-purpose flour, stirred through briefly with a fork

For the icing:

1/2 cup semisweet chocolate morsels
1 1/2 tablespoons strongly brewed instant espresso
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Notes: Julia Child's original recipe calls for blanched almonds (without their skins), as well as sifted cake flour. I have altered both of those ingredients in this recipe, and found the cake to be just as delicious as when I have stayed true to the original. I used sliced almonds with skins attached, as well as regular all-purpose flour that I did not sift. Instead, run a fork swiftly through the flour before you measure it, to simulate sifting. Another interesting adjustment to note: When I baked this, being still in the middle of a move and unable to find my measuring spoons, I approximated the teaspoon and tablespoon measurements called for here. It was, amazingly, and contrary to what we think we know about baking, totally ok. 

Set a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8-inch round cake pan, tapping out excess. Line the cake pan with parchment across the middle, allowing it to overlap on two "sides." Don't worry about covering the bottom completely.

Place the chocolate morsels in a small saucepan with 2 tablespoons of espresso. Fill another pan with an inch of water and bring it to a simmer. Turn off the heat, and place the smaller saucepan in the hot water. Give it one stir, and then set aside. 

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until soft and fluffy. Beat in the 3 egg yolks. 

In a medium mixing bowl, whip the egg whites: first beat them until they begin to foam, then add the cream of tartar and a pinch of kosher salt and continue beating, either by hand or with an electric mixer, until they form a soft mass. Beat in 2 tablespoons of sugar, and continue beating until soft peaks form. They should hold their shape in peaks that drop off and fold over themselves slightly when lifted with a spatula. 

Stir the chocolate. If it is not completely melted, turn the heat back on under the larger saucepan, and heat over the double boiler until the chocolate is silky and no lumps remain. 

Stir the chocolate into the butter and eggs. Then stir in the almonds, almond extract, and the flour.

With a rubber spatula or a wooden spoon, gently stir in one fourth of the beaten egg whites. The batter will lighten in color and texture. Add the remaining egg whites on top of the chocolate mixture, and fold them in swiftly but gently, until fully incorporated. 

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25–30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted 2 inches from the edge of the pan comes out clean. The center should still be somewhat soft and just set.

Cool on a rack in the pan for 15 minutes, then turn the cake onto a plate and allow it to cool completely before icing (about 2 hours).

When the cake has completely cooled, melt the chocolate with the espresso in a small saucepan over a double boiler. Remove it from the heat. Beat in the butter, one tablespoon at a time, until completely smooth. Continue beating the mixture over a bowl of cold water until it becomes a spreadable consistency. Ice your cake. You may choose to decorate the sides of the cake with sliced almonds, or leave it as it is, as I have this time.