Friday, January 17, 2014

French chocolate cake, and Chocolate 101

This cake, and most of the information on its prime ingredient (gathered in the days when I was's Chicago Baking Examiner -- I do hope they've since found another one) comes from the very beautiful Chocolate and Coffee Bible, by Catherine Atkinson, Mary Banks, Christine France and Christine McFadden (Hermes House, 2002). The cake is delectable, even though -- or because? -- it is not our typical American, lofty and bread-like, filled and frosted birthday treat. Rather it's a flat, dense, silky feast of chocolate, "classically slim" in shape as the authors assure us, resembling both a cream pie and fudge but more elegant than either. You will bake it in a 9-inch-round cake pan lined with buttered parchment paper. When it is done you will decorate it by laying narrow strips of fresh parchment paper over the top, sprinkling on powdered sugar, and then removing the papers to reveal a random geometric pattern. Chic.

French chocolate cake
  • 9 squares bittersweet chocolate
  • 1 cup sweet butter
  • scant 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp brandy or orange liqueur (I used a combination of coffee and whiskey instead)
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 Tbsp flour
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 9 inch round cake pan, line the bottom with parchment paper, and grease the paper.

In a heavy saucepan, over low heat, melt the butter, chocolate, and sugar together. Remove from heat, allow to cool slightly, and stir in the brandy.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs lightly and then beat in the flour. Add the chocolate mixture. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Place the pan in a large jelly roll- or roasting-pan. Fill that pan with boiling water so that it comes about an inch up the side of the cake pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the edges of the cake are set, but the center is still slightly soft.

Take it out of the water bath and allow to cool for a few minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and peel off the parchment paper from the base. When the cake is completely cold, lay on those strips of parchment paper, dust with powdered sugar, and remove the papers to display the chic-ness. used to ask its contributors to write occasional "101" articles, introducing readers to the basics of whatever one's chosen subject was. So I did some brief research into fundamental baking knowledge, answering questions like "What is sugar?" or "What is flour?" (You might be surprised at the entry-level specifics of this last. I learned there are reasons why white flour is better than other kinds, however much we scoff at it today as unhealthy.) Naturally it was necessary for la Baking Examiner to grapple with the question "What is chocolate?" And by sheer good luck, now that I wish to transfer this information to my readers here, I am able to add what you might call an heirloom photograph of the source of this divine product, an actual cacao tree. My charming niece snapped the photo in a backyard in Peru, and posted it on the blog she kept while she visited that country. Herewith do I shamelessly pilfer it.    

The sheer joy of armchair travel -- now I need not go to Peru, either.

We see above that the cacao tree, theobroma cacao, produces large pods directly from its trunk and branches. The pods contain cacao beans tucked in a sweet surrounding white pulp. When the pods are ripe, harvesters pull them off the tree, cut them open, and remove the beans.

My research told me that the beans are placed, along with the pulp, on mats of banana leaves, where they  ferment and dry in the sun. This opening move in chocolate production seems suspiciously low- tech considering all the chocolate that must be made to satisfy the world's demand. However. I believe it will be enough for our purposes to understand what's in the pod, and what happens to it next. After their alleged banana-mat siesta the beans are exported, then roasted, blended, and ground, to be further transformed -- in many efficient, high-tech ways, I would think -- into the candy or baking ingredients we recognize.

It's also helpful to know that the cacao bean contains a large amount of natural fat, much as olives contain a lot of olive oil. This fat posed a problem for chocolate lovers from the days when tchocolatl was a cold, greasy drink for Mesoamerican royalty, up until the 1820s, when a Dutch chemist named Van Houten used a hydraulic press to finally free the crushed beans of their viscous but valuable burden. The cakey residue of defatted beans, when it is ground still more, becomes cocoa powder; the fat is cacao butter. Cacao butter alone, mixed with sugar, milk, and flavorings, is white chocolate.

When the ground cacao bean powder and the cacao butter are kept together they constitute "cacao solids," and the more of them a chocolate product contains, the higher its quality will be. Good bittersweet chocolate may contain 60 percent or more cacao solids. A mass-produced milk chocolate candy bar might be composed of 65 percent sugar, 20 percent milk, and the rest some cacao solids and lecithin. Lecithin is a vegetable fat replacing the cacao butter, which is used not only for making white chocolate, but is also sold to other manufacturers for other purposes. Think soaps and hand creams, for instance. 

I gather that there are some people who don't care for chocolate. At the risk of sounding insufferable, I must say I cannot imagine what it must be like to be such a person. Surely chocolate is one of the most perfect gifts, so delicious, sensuous, indulgent, joyous, refined, frivolous, civilized, one could go on and on, -- ever bestowed upon guilty man by an all-too-beneficent Creator. And the gift is so companionable, too. Everything goes with it, whether nuts or warm spices or coffee or caramel or liquors or cream or fruit or bread. The next recipe I want to try from our Bible is "Brioches au chocolat," eggy yeast rolls each baked with a square of chocolate inside. It will take me right back to memories of shock and delight at my high school French teacher's telling us all that, after lycée, French kids have a 4:00 p.m. treat of pain au chocolat, another variety of bread oozing melted chocolate.

And talking of companionability, do we entirely agree -- whether we are kids or not -- that eating chocolate brings on the same happiness, even euphoria, as falling in love? The authors of the Chocolate and Coffee Bible speak, on "Chocolate and the mind":

Some medical experts believe that the theobromine and caffeine in chocolate are the cause of its so-called addictive properties, but it may well be the presence of another substance called phenylethylamine [an endorphin also naturally present in the human body]. ... Levels [of phenylethylamine] in the brain have even been found to increase when we experience the state we refer to as 'falling in love,' which is no doubt why we experience that heady feeling when we eat good chocolate.

Now I'm not quite sure I follow this logic. If what we feel when we bite into even a very good piece of chocolate is the same as what we feel when we are in love, we all must have awfully anemic love affairs. I adore chocolate, but a man is not a truffle, nor vice versa. I'm more inclined to accept the theory, on the next page of the Bible ("Chocolate and love"), that once the Spanish conquerors of Mexico took a look at Montezuma's harem and his tchocolatl consumption, "there was no stopping" the rumor that chocolate was an aphrodisiac. Even if we are all too smart to believe that, it seems chocolate's resultant, so pleasing association with romance will never pall. Perhaps both are linked simply because both are the most perfect gifts, delectable, sensuous, etc., ever bestowed on guilty man, etc. How extraordinary that one doesn't need them, really ....

If I have forgotten anything major involving the companionability or other joys of chocolate, I am amenable to instruction. Perhaps the dear things who fancy they don't like it at all can be taught, likewise. We might start here, at Vosges Haut Chocolat: a chocolate shop happily combining a French name and a Chicago home. Heads up to the new Baking Examiner.

More and more chocolate: 

Peace Love & Chocolate, blog run by Katrina, proprietor of Vosges Haut Chocolat -- enjoy the video of the whisking up of a chocolate salad dressing. Chocolate, vinegar, olive oil, and salad greens, with fresh figs and cheese? I am not sure even I am amenable to that much instruction. Pretty music by The Marshmallow Ghosts.

How to make a pain au chocolat from scratch, at Dinner with Julie.

Chocolate around the world, a new exhibit at Chicago's own Field Museum.

Chicago Chocolate [Who knew that Chicago was such a chocolate capital?]

The Chocolate Cult

David Lebowitz -- the sweet life in Paris always includes some chocolate.

Van Houten

Shop for French chocolate at

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