On Saturday afternoon, we had friends over for lunch and after we'd finished a big pot of Moroccan stew and couscous I'd made, I brought out a cake, a chocolate cake that was almost flourless. Now, I'd set the heat too high when I'd first put the cake to bake in the oven and the top of the cake had burned ever-so-slightly before I'd realized my mistake and turned the temperature down. Also, I'd overwhipped the eggs by a second or two while preparing the batter and an ominous sentence in the headnote of the recipe gave me the sense that the cake was probably ruined already.
So I was feeling a little blue about the cake, if I'm honest. I had Max whip some cream and I told myself just to be cool as I put it down on the table. People were probably too full from lunch to have much dessert anyway.
But a few minutes later, as forks scraped through the first round of slices, the table went silent. The thing was, the cake was sort of incredible. It was rich but not heavy, powerful but not overwhelming. The texture was fabulous - velvety-soft, tasting much like the fudgiest brownie, but light and fluffy as a cake. (Incidentally, I don't think we could have eaten the cake without little dollops of unsweetened whipped cream, which provided a much-needed cooling effect. Proceed without at your own risk.)
My friend Philippe said that he thought it might be the best chocolate cake he had ever eaten. Philippe is half-French, so he knows from chocolate cakes. His wife Yvonne said it was definitely the best chocolate cake she'd ever eaten. Yvonne is a chocoholic, so she knows from chocolate cakes. Their son, Leo, 2 years old, had two whole slices and then practically licked his plate. (I would not have thought this cake would go over well with children, but there you have it, in addition to being French-friendly and chocoholic-friendly, this cake is also child-friendly.)
I found Evelyn Sharpe's French Chocolate Cake hiding out in the pages of The Essential New York Times Cookbook (from this article). It was apparently the first "flourless" chocolate cake the New York Times ever published. It's not really flourless, since it has a tablespoon of flour, but I can imagine you could substitute ground nuts without a problem. I chose it because it took hardly any time or effort (here's the whole process: melt chocolate and butter in a water bath, add egg yolks, plus a spoon of sugar and flour, then beat egg whites, fold into chocolate mixture, put in pan and bake, done).
Amanda Hesser stipulated using high-quality chocolate like Scharffen Berger, with somewhere between 65% and 70% cacao. But I ended up using the totally bog-standard dark chocolate bars you find in the baking aisles of German grocery stores that don't even have a brand-name - here's what they look like. They have only 55% cacao and the cake was inky-rich and dark and wonderful. I actually can't imagine using a higher-percentage cacao. (If you do go the higher-cacao route, then put some sugar in the accompanying whipped cream.)
Everyone followed Leo's lead and had another slice and before I knew it, all that was left was this one little sliver. I took a quick snap of it for you all before it disappeared, too.
And now I'm trying to figure out how to make up for lost time. French Chocolate Cake for Easter? For Hugo's first birthday? For our wedding anniversary? For, just because?
Evelyn Sharpe's French Chocolate Cake
Makes one 9-inch round cake
1 pound bittersweet chocolate (ca. 55% cacao)
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
4 eggs, separated
Unsweetened whipped cream
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Line the base of an 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper.
2. Melt the chocolate gently in the top of a double boiler over hot, not boiling, water, or more speedily in the microwave.
3. Remove the melted chocolate from the heat and stir in the butter, flour and sugar. Beat the yolks lightly and whisk into the chocolate mixture gradually.
4. Beat the egg whites until they hold a definite shape but are not dry and fold into the chocolate mixture. The beaten egg whites should be folded smoothly, quickly and easily into the chocolate mixture. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat; open the oven door, leaving it ajar, and allow the cake to cool in the oven.
5. The cake is best served a little warm with unsweetened whipped cream.