Thursday, April 24, 2008

Flourless chocolate cake

I don't have a picture of the cake for you this week - before I could even whip out my camera, the whole thing practically evaporated in front of my eyes. Really, I was lucky to grab a bite.

It all started with Passover. I'm not going to recount the story, other than to say that this holiday is special to me in particular because my family came here as political refugees from the former U.S.S.R., seeking, like so many other Russian-Jews, to escape religious persecution in what is now Ukraine. As a child, one is supposed to be insulated from racism and anti-semitism and live in the happy world of toy cars, dolls and play-doh, but I wasn't so lucky. I remember being called nasty names and a kid throwing rocks at me (until I threatened to get my older cooler guy friends to beat him up) because being Jewish meant that I was somehow inferior, dirty and should be ashamed of myself and my family. So Passover, during which we say the words "we were slaves, and now we are free," resonates very strongly for all of us who were lucky enough to make it to the U.S. During the Seder, Jews dip herbs in salt water to remember the tears and deny ourselves bread, the most basic of foods, to remember the pain of our ancestors and of all the people in the world who suffer under oppressive governments. The pain, for my family, is recent enough so that there is no chance we can possibly forget about it, and thus, the words "and now we are free" are particularly sweet.

In olden days, Passover meant that you really couldn't eat much of anything - European Jews especially like to make it difficult on themselves by removing from their diet not only any kind of grains and yeasts, but also rice and corn products. Aaah! That's like in 80% of my food! Of course, now, supermarkets have gotten so sophisticated that there are Kosher for Passover cakes, cookies, even PASTA and bread. For me, that takes away the whole point of the holiday, that of denying yourself something that is important and ever-present in our daily diet, so that you can take yourself out of the present time and feel a connection with the past. Most people I know don't feel this way, but I do, and I try to walk around the "Kosher for Passover" aisle that beckons with egg noodles and matzah cake meal.

So I flipped through pages and pages of posts on Passover desserts; I opened magazines that gave me tempting names like "Apricot-orange Passover cake with chocolate glaze"; I wandered aimlessly around my kitchen, surveying my ingredients and waiting for a flash of brilliance. Mmmm... yeah, right. I finally just gave up and decided on my old nemesis - the flourless chocolate cake. You see, I must be one of the only people on the planet who is not that crazy about chocolate. All the flourless chocolate cakes I've ever had at restaurants have been the consistency of a brick, or at best, reminded me of a truffle (which, while is certainly wonderful in a small candy, gives me the shakes when presented in the form of a block of chocolate that stares at me from the plate). So I've never made a chocolate cake - any kind of a chocolate cake. Not even a chocolate glaze or filling, nothing. To me, cooking with chocolate is intimidating, to say the least.

With wilting enthusiasm, I clicked through pages of flourless chocolate cake recipes until I came to Epicurious, my last and best resort when it comes to recipes. I closed my eyes and pointed at the page. I read the ingredients - butter, chocolate, eggs, sugar, vanilla extract (not technically Kosher for Passover, but I could omit that)... okay, okay, I think the ancient Jews might have had all of these on hand, right? What especially enticed me was the whipping of the egg whites and folding them into the cake before baking. I felt like this might take care of some of my "brick" fears and well, I could just tell my mom that the cake had egg whites, thus obscuring the exact proportions of butter/chocolate/sugar (that, if she knew, she would have a heart attack about).
I was very skeptical of the whole process of melting the chocolate and the butter, but it did all come together in the end and I even enjoyed stirring the dark, velvety mass, sneaking a few strawberries from the refrigerator and dipping them on the side of my spatula. I didn't have a spring-form pan, so I just baked it in a regular cake pan lined with parchment paper. It came together beautifully and puffed up like a souffle (oh, how much, self control it took not to eat it right then and there!), but then deflated to lovely, un-intimidating proportions. I packed my other dessert (more on that later), whipped some cream (Land O'Lakes, kosher for passover, if you want to know) and with fingers crossed, I brought the whole thing to my mom's house. In the loud, wonderful chaos that followed (as per usual during our family gatherings), I really didn't have time to worry about my cake, and by the time dessert came about (hurry, hurry, cut and plate the cake! make tea for your grandfather! wipe the invisible spots from the dessert spoons! put the fruit on the table!) I was resigned to the idea.

I guess I shouldn't have worried so much (but I'm Jewish, so I worry, I worry! especially about food), my family loved it. It wasn't brick-like at all, not even a little bit. Maybe it was the egg whites that gave it an extra lift and airiness, maybe it's because I whipped and folded the heck out of everything very conscientiously, tiptoeing around the cake as it baked so as not to deflate it, but my grandfather asked for a piece (the last one, the one I was meaning to take a picture of) to take home, and my grandmother -- are you ready for this? -- she asked me for the recipe. I think the ground shook a little; my grandmother NEVER asks for the recipe because she is completely convinced she can do it better (and it's not an idle boast, she can). I was too flabbergasted to reply and she patted me on the shoulder sympathetically, thinking that maybe I was in a food coma or something from the hundred dishes she and my mom made. Of all the food-related things I've achieved in life (whipping egg whites stiff, making lemon curd of just the right tartness and texture, baking bread), I felt that this was the pinnacle, like maybe, I should just put away my tart pans and fold my towel because I'm not sure this sort of thing will ever happen again. Not too shabby for an unassuming flourless chocolate cake, the ingredients of which you can count on the fingers of one hand.

You can find the recipe at Epicurious. I used Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate, omitted the vanilla extract and tossed the idea of the chocolate glaze in favor of slightly sweetened whipped cream and fresh fruit, and served the cake slightly warm. It's not very difficult to make, and it tastes just lovely. After all, Passover is only one part remembering the sufferings - the second part is enjoying our sweet, chocolaty lives. :)


Brentwood Kitchen said...

Oh my, this sounds so divine, I want to insist on a personal order. I love chocolate cake in every form, but this one in particular, just makes my mouth water.

Gretchen Noelle said...

I really enjoyed your post. Personal and from the heart. I was in the Ukraine several years ago and my dream has always been to visit Red Square in Russia. How true that the freedom you and your family must feel can be so well related to the freedom felt at the first Passover.

Linnea said...

Irene, add me to the short list of folks who are not big chocolate fans! And thanks for the post about Passover. I appreciate you candor over your convictions and your faith.

Irene said...

Shoosh, I think I can swing a personal order for the birthday girl...

Gretchen Noelle - Thank you for the kind words. Where did you go in Ukraine? I'm from a small city between Kiev and Odessa (both beautiful cities). The Red Square is... intimidating and a little scary for me, but I've dreamt of visiting St. Petersburg if I ever return to Russia (not very likely at this point).

Linnea - happy that I'm not alone in the chocolate thing, all my friends are chocoholics and I feel left out. I'm not extremely religious or observant, but my faith does mean a lot to me in very personal ways, as I'm sure faith does to most of us, and this holiday in particular just hit so close to the heart.

Anonymous said...

As you know, I worship with my own autographed copy of the Cake Bible. The author, Rose Levy Beranbaum, is also a Red Sea pedestrian, and her kosher for Passover Chocolate Oblivion Torte is THE desert for Passover. And a snap to make (shh, don't tell anybody).

1 lb bittersweet chocolate (for best results, use only the best chocolage available. I use Lindt). 1/2 lb unsalted butter. 6 large eggs.
In a large bowl combine broken up chocolate and cut up butter. Microwave on high power at 12-15 second intervals, stirring each time. Remove while there are still lumps of chocolate and stir until fully melted.
In a large bowl, set over a pan of simmering water, heat the eggs stirring constantly to prevent curdling, until just warm to the touch. Remove from heat and beat, using the whisk beater, until triple in volume and soft peaks raise (about 5 minutes). Fold 1/2 of eggs into choc. mixture until incorporated. Fold in the remaining eggs until no streaks remain. Make sure the heavier mixture at the bottom is incorporated. Add 1 tbs of cognac or the very best of Cassis liquer, mix well. Scrape into a prepared, 8" -9" springform pan, buttered and bottom lined with buttered wax paper, outside of a pan wrapped in a heavy duty double layer of foil. Set the pan into a larger pan (roasting pan), and surround with 1 inch of very hot water. Preheat the over to 425. Bake 5 min. Cover loosely with a piece of buttered foil and bake 10 min. Remove promptly. Let cool on the rack for 45 min. Cover, refrigerate for at least 4 hours. You are done! Serve with whipped cream or raspberry coulis(or both).

Irene said...

Oh YUM (and also *faint* from sheer chocolate overload). And heh heh to "Red Sea pedestrian." I like that almost as much as In The Tribe. :D