Alice Medrich's Buckwheat Squash Loaf with Cranberries

Buckwheat squash slice

Good morning, everyone! Ooh, this week is starting off well. The sun is shining, I'm about to turn a pound of butter and an equal amount of raisins into Stollen for the book, and I have a cake discovery for you, a wondrous, light, delicious cake discovery. I am so, so excited for you!

Friday evening was the first time in ages that I'd some time to myself in the kitchen. Hugo was asleep, Max was out with a friend, and I was finally - finally!!! - all on my own with nothing to do. I roasted a squash, I boiled broccoli rabe, I cooked fish for dinner. It was quiet, it was heaven. And when the squash was roasted and beaten to a purée, I set to making this cake. This wonderful, tender darling of a cake that I plan to make again today and then again mid-week, since that seems to be about the pace that we are consuming it at. (It is marvelous for breakfast.)

Alice Medrich's Buckwheat Squash Loaf

I first spotted the recipe on Megan's blog in early November. She got the recipe from Alice Medrich's newest book, Flavor Flours, a baking book that happens to be gluten-free but is really more focused on the tastes and textures that different flours bring to the table. The original recipe is made with buckwheat and rice flour, regular sugar, pumpkin purée and raisins (or currants). But when Megan made it, she swapped in dark brown sugar for the regular sugar, added chocolate chips instead of raisins and topped the loaf with pumpkin seeds. And when I saw the recipe, I knew instantly I'd fold in frozen cranberries instead of raisins or chocolate, use butternut squash purée instead of pumpkin, and leave off the pumpkin seeds, but keep Megan's brilliant muscovado sugar swap.

Without further ado, I'd like to present to you the newly-christened Buckwheat Squash Loaf with Cranberries.

(NB: No matter what it's called, I LOVE IT SO MUCH I CAN'T WRITE THIS POST FAST ENOUGH.)

Buckwheat squash loaf

If you are a fan of buckwheat flour - and you know who you are - then I practically guarantee that you'll love this cake. Its strange and stony flavor is one of my very favorites. I used a medium-grind buckwheat flour that I had in the pantry, which resulted in a cake that crunched ever-so-subtly in my mouth. But the cake crumb is so velvety and fine that it practically quivers. It's quite something. I pulled the cake out of the oven right before bedtime and let it cool in the pan overnight. Early Saturday morning, the first fat slices I cut for myself were just on the right side of damp. The dark brown sugar brings moisture and depth to the cake and those sour, brilliantly pink pockets of cranberry against the velvety, spicy crumb were exactly right.

I know these kinds of superlatives can be so annoying, but I just scrolled through all my posts from 2014 and must tell you that it is my favorite cake of the year. I love this cake. I love it so much. I hope you do too!

Buckwheat Squash Loaf with Cranberries
Makes one 9-inch loaf
Adapted from Alice Medrich's Flavor Flours

8 tablespoons (1 stick/115g) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup (190g) muscovado (dark brown) sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup (120g) white rice flour
1/3 cup (40g) buckwheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup (170g) squash puree
1/2 cup (55g) fresh cranberries

1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a loaf pan with parchment paper.

2. Combine the butter, sugar, and eggs in the bowl of the stand mixer and beat on medium speed with the paddle attachment until lighter in color, about 2 minutes. Alternatively, use a handheld mixer and beat for 3-4 minutes.

3. Add the rice and buckwheat flours, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, pumpkin puree and beat on low speed until smooth. Fold in the cranberries.

4. Bake the loaf for 45 -50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool the loaf in the pan for 30 minutes before using the parchment as a sling to unmold the cake and let cool completely on a rack. The cake keeps for several days on the counter, wrapped loosely in parchment or plastic wrap.


Jane Hornby's Malted Chocolate Birthday Cake

Malted Chocolate Birthday Cake

On Friday afternoon, Hugo and I were hanging out at home when talk turned, as it so often has lately, to cake. "CAAAAYKE, mama, ja?" So I said something responsible and mom-like, like, "well, it's dinnertime soon, so there's no cake today. But tomorrow is Saturday! So we can make a cake tomorrow." To which Hugo responded, "Ja! But no baby cake, mama. BIG CAAAAYKE."

(NEVER GROW UP, HUGO, PLEASE AND I PROMISE I WILL MAKE YOU BIG CAAAAAYKES FOREVER AND EVER AMEN.)

Luckily for us, we were invited to a friend's surprise birthday party the next day and I'd volunteered to make the birthday cake anyway. Ever since receiving Jane Hornby's cookbook, I'd been itching to make her malted chocolate birthday cake. Finally, I had the chance.

The cake itself was nice and simple to put together; actually, it just the thing to do with a child whose skillset just about encompasses whisking. And the cake baked up perfectly, moist and fragrant. As Hornby promises, it's not too rich but still pleasingly chocolatey. The malt flavor is very subtle, giving the cake and the icing only the faintest toasty flavor. If you didn't know what to taste for, you might not even taste it. But for malt-lovers among us, it's a lovely hint of a thing to taste and gives the whole cake a slight lift out of the dark depths of chocolatiness.

Jane Hornby What to Bake and How to Bake It

But the real reason this cake was a total home run and up on this blog now for posterity is the icing. The gorgeous, silky, dark and lovely icing that I literally licked off every single part of the whisk and then the spatula and then the bowl. (For your information, I do not normally lick anything related to baking, ever. I don't know why, I just don't. It sort of grosses me out. BUT NOT THIS TIME OH NO SIRREE BOB.)

First of all, what I loved about it is that it's not a buttercream. Too buttery, too rich, too slick and oily in my mouth, buttercream is just not my thing. (I recently discovered the beauty of Swiss buttercream, when I wrote a piece in the September issue of Harper's Bazaar Germany about fancy cakes, but unless I'm making the kind of cake that's supposed to look better than it tastes, I steer clear of buttercream.) This icing is more of a butter-enriched ganache, but lightened with milk, so it's spreadable and swishable and doesn't land in your belly like a 10-pound bag of bricks.

Plus, it's cinch to make - you make a milk, malt and cocoa paste, then beat in soft butter and confectioner's sugar before beating in melted chocolate. The icing is silky-smooth and a little runny as long as it's still hot, but as it cools, it gets firmer and swoopier. It's lovely.

Also, delicious.

I can see it swirled onto cupcakes and smoothed onto vanilla cake, even possibly used as a sandwich cookie filler. You can play a little with the proportions (less sugar, vanilla or peppermint flavoring instead of malt, more cocoa solids in your chocolate or less) or leave it just as is. I used less sugar than the original and a higher percentage of cocoa solids in the chocolate and got a slightly grown-up icing that all the adults at the party swooned over. (Hugo ate his piece happily enough, but was totally distracted by the discovery of blue M&M's on his piece. He ate them with much the same expression on his face as a roomful of scientists witnessing the Mars landing.) At first I thought that the yield of the icing was too much for the panful of cake, but I piled it all on anyway, and I'm glad I did.

***

In other news, I'm so honored to be giving an hourlong talk at the Apple Store in Berlin this Wednesday evening at 7:00 pm. I'm going to be talking about how I started my blog and what it was like when I was blogging anonymously at the beginning, how I found my voice and then an audience, how the blog grew over the years, and how I've stayed inspired. There will also be an audience Q&A. Click here to register (filter for "events" and you'll see mine). Hope to see you there!

Note: This post includes affiliate links and I may earn a commission if you purchase through them, at no cost to you. I use affiliate links only for products I love and companies I trust. Thank you.

Jane Hornby's Malted Chocolate Birthday Cake
Adapted from What to Bake and How to Bake It
Makes one 9 x 13-inch (23 x 33cm) cake
Notes: The recipe below reflects a few changes I made to the original recipe. I reduced the sugar in both the cake and the icing slightly and I upped the percentage of cocoa solids for the chocolate in the icing a little bit too. If I were making this for a children's birthday party, I'd use the original amounts of sugar (300 grams in the cake and 250 grams in the icing) as well as a milkier chocolate (50% instead of 60%). You will notice I did not include the conversions to imperial; I just don't have the time at the moment. My apologies. A kitchen scale will set you back between $10 and $30, or else the internet can help you out with the conversions.
One last thing for Berliners: To find malted milk powder (Horlick's brand), go to The India Store on Potsdamer Strasse. 

For the cake
140 grams unsalted butter, room temperature
350 grams all-purpose flour
25 grams cocoa powder
2 tablespoons malted milk powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
275 grams light brown sugar
300 ml milk
150 ml vegetable oil
1 teaspon vanilla extract

For the icing
200 grams dark chocolate, about 60% cocoa
120 ml milk
25 grams cocoa powder
2 tablespoons malted milk powder
140 grams soft butter
200 grams confectioner's sugar
A handful of Smarties or M&Ms for decoration, optional

1. Heat the oven to 180°C (350 F). Line a 9 x 13-inch (23 x 33 cm) cake pan with a piece of parchment paper. Melt the butter in a pan and set aside to cool slightly.

2. Mix the flour, cocoa, malted milk powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Add the sugar and break up any lumps with your fingers. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients. Whisk the milk, oil and vanilla into the melted butter and pour this mixture into the well.

3. Using the whisk, mix the wet and dry ingredients together slowly. Once combined, give the batter a good beating until smooth and evenly blended. Pour into the prepared pan.

4. Bake for 30 minutes, until the cake has risen, is firm and slightly shrunken from the sides. A skewer inserted into the center should come out clean. Leave in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack and cool completely.

5. For the icing, break the chocolate into a heatproof bowl and place it over a pan of barely simmering water, making sure the bowl doesn't touch the water. Let the chocolate melt, stirring once or twice until smooth. Alternatively, microwave in 20-second bursts, stirring each time. Leave to cool a little.

6. Heat the milk in a small saucepan or the microwave until steaming hot. Sift the cocoa and malted milk powder into a large bowl, then slowly stir in the hot milk to make a smooth paste. Leave to cool for a few minutes.

7. Now add the butter to the paste, sift in the confectioners' sugar, and beat together with an electric mixer until very creamy. Follow with the melted, cool chocolate, and beat to make a silky, soft icing.

8. Decorate the cake with the M&Ms or Smarties, if desired. The cake can be made up to 2 days ahead and kept in a cool place, well wrapped or, if frosted, loosely covered on its board.


How to Make Crostata

How to Make Crostata

Hello from the rolling Montefeltro hills! The verdict so far is that things are blissfully as they always are here: lazy, sunny, delicious, mosquito-filled.

We have not done much since getting here. Which is sort of the whole point, of course. There have been a few dinners with friends, an excursion to the beach or two, and there has been beer with lunch and dinner almost every day so far (we are nothing if not livin'-on-the-edgers).

Also, there has been a lot of crostata. Crostata is the very first thing I ever learned to bake. For a long while, it was the only thing I ever baked. It is, to explain, a jam-filled tart of sorts, except the dough is sort of cakey as well as crusty. It is eaten for breakfast and for dessert. It can be filled with any jam you like, though we are partial to sour ones like plum or sour cherry. A grade-schooler can master it and it requires nothing besides a countertop and a baking pan. I make one every couple of days since that's about how long they last.

In the grand tradition of Italian desserts, crostata is a little dry and almost aggressively simple. I would urge you to resist attempts to fancy it up.

I suppose it will be the first thing I teach Hugo how to bake one day. He is showing more and more interest in what I get up to in the kitchen these days. I plop him on the counter next to me and he watches as I knead pizza dough or helps measure oats when it's time for oatmeal. For now, though, he's content just eating crostata. And I'm happy to still be the one tasked with making it.

How to Make Crostata

A few notes on the recipe:

1. I've given you both metric and US measurements, but I haven't tested it with the US ones yet.

2. If you have access to Italian "00" flour, you can use that instead of all-purpose. If you don't, no sweat.

3. The baking powder here in Italy is conveniently flavored with vanilla. If you happen to have access to Pane Degli Angeli baking powder, you need half a packet. If not, use 3/4 teaspoon (8 grams) of regular baking powder and then add either a spoonful of vanilla sugar or of vanilla paste/extract.

4. The eggs here are smaller than in the US, so I've noted "medium" eggs. If you can't find those, you can use large but you may need to use a bit more flour as you go.

5. The butter must be very soft to be able to be quickly incorporated by hand into the dough. Let it sit out overnight before making the crostata.

6. My favorite jams in crostata are sour ones. Sour cherry, plum and apricot are all great choices. But you should feel free to choose whatever jam you like. You can even divide the crostata in half and fill it two different jams for variety. As for other fillings, there is such a thing as Nutella crostata, just FYI.

Crostata
Makes one 9-inch tart

200 grams / 1.5 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
50 grams / scant 1/4 cup sugar
8 grams / 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
Grated peel of 1/2 organic lemon
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla paste or extract if not using Pane Degli Angeli baking powder
2 medium eggs, room temperature
50 grams / 3.5 tablespoons unsalted butter, very soft
About 1/2 jar sour cherry or plum jam

1. Heat the oven to 180 C / 350 F. Dump the flour onto your work space and make a well in the middle. Sprinkle the salt, sugar and baking powder into the well, making sure to sift out any lumps in the latter. Add the grated lemon peel and vanilla flavoring, if using. 

2. Crack the two eggs into the well and, using your finger, stir them gently to break up and start incorporating into the dry ingredients. Then add the very soft butter and continue to stir until a rough dough starts to come together. Knead gently until it is smooth and uniform. Try not to overwork or add too much additional flour, but don't overthink things either; this is not pie crust.

3. Pull off a quarter of the dough and set aside. Pat the remaining dough evenly into a 9-inch pan and make sure to push the edges of the dough about 1/2 an inch up the sides of the pan to create a crust.

4. Spoon the jam into the crust and spread out evenly. Pinch off small pieces of the remaining ball of dough and roll them out into strips of varying length that you lay on top of the jam to create a lattice top.

5. Put the pan in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, until the tart is browned and the jam is bubbling. Let cool on a rack for an hour before turning out of the pan. Keeps for several days at room temperature.


Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake

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"Who will free apples from the tyranny of cinnamon?" was something I was, no joke, thinking about the other day. "I mean, I like cinnamon," I continued telling myself, as Hugo took a 17th screeching turn around the coffee table (his new thing: racing around it like it's Daytona and he's, um, one of the guys in a fast car), "but why is it in every single apple recipe I come across? Free yourselves, apples!!" I howled silently. And then, because my companion was a crazy-eyed 16-month-old coffee-table-racing machine screaming "hallo! hallo! hallo! hallo!" as he zoomed forward, I howled it out loud too. Good thing toddlers are so easily amused!

And lest you think I have completely lost my marbles, I would just like to take this moment to say that not a few hours later, I finally happened upon a recipe for apple cake with nary a fleck of cinnamon in sight. It was like someone had heard me or something! Or Dorie Greenspan, to be more specific.

The reason I'd been thinking about apples and their everpresent cinnamon fog is because we are drowning in apples at the moment. I have this irritating habit of buying a few at every market we go to,  but Max and Hugo aren't the biggest apple eaters (they're more in the pear/clementine/grape camp), so unless I eat an apple at every meal, I get buried under them pretty quickly.

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And, like I said, while I have no beef with cinnamon per se, it just gets a little tedious to see it in every apple cake under the sun. So along came a fabulous French friend of Dorie's named Marie-Hélène to liberate me both of my moldering apples and my cinnamon resentment.

Marie-Hélène's apple cake is one of those genius recipes that is hardly a recipe, really, but is the kind of thing you need in your arsenal for the rest of your life. The batter is awesomely easy - you only need a whisk and a bowl and a stove for melting butter. The original recipe asks for 3 tablespoons of rum, which would make for a fabulously grownup cake, boozy and moist. But since I was making this for a playdate with a friend and her son, I decided to go with only one tablespoon of alcohol (bourbon, since I was out of rum) and two tablespoons of whole milk. The batter is silky and there's relatively little of it, especially with regards to the mountain of chopped apples that gets folded in. In fact, when you pile it into the cake pan, you'll see it is that holy grail of cakes: more apple than cake. Exactly what I wanted.

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We ate it once it had cooled sufficiently and it was fragrant and delicate and the apples (I'd used a mix of Boskoop and Elstar, I think) were supple and lovely. It was perfect playdate material, though of course I was also already imagining it as a dinner-party dessert, since it was so light and appley. (Though the next time I make it, I will be reducing the sugar by a few tablespoonfuls.) By the next day, the cake had morphed into something almost akin to a clafoutis - the cake bits were more pancakey than cakey and the fleeting flavor of the bourbon was entirely gone. It was just as delicious and very well suited for breakfast.

An apple cake for every time of day! Holy grail indeed. And no cinnamon in sight.

Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake
Makes one 8-inch cake
Adapted from Around My French Table

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
4 large apples (if you can, choose 4 different kinds)
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon dark rum or bourbon
2 tablespoons whole milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
8 tablespoons (1 stick/4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8-inch cake pan with parchment paper.

2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in small bowl. Peel the apples, cut them in half and remove the cores. Cut the apples into 1- to 2-inch chunks.

3. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk until they’re foamy. Pour in the sugar and whisk for a minute or so to blend. Whisk in the rum, milk and vanilla. Whisk in half the flour and when it is incorporated, add half the melted butter, followed by the rest of the flour and the remaining butter, mixing gently after each addition so that you have a smooth batter. Switch to a rubber spatula and fold in the apples, turning the fruit so that it's coated with batter. Scrape the mix into the pan and even the top.

4. Slide the pan into the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top of the cake is golden brown and a knife inserted deep into the center comes out clean; the cake may pull away from the sides of the pan. Transfer to a cooling rack and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes.

5. Carefully pull the parchment paper - and the cake - out of the pan and let cool on the rack until it is just slightly warm or at room temperature, then transfer to a cake plate. The cake can be served warm or at room temperature, with or without a little softly whipped, barely sweetened heavy cream or a spoonful of ice cream. The cake will keep for about 2 days at room temperature. However long you keep the cake, it's best not to cover it — it's too moist. Leave the cake on its plate and just press a piece of plastic wrap or wax paper against the cut surfaces.


Dorie Greenspan's Cocoa Banana Bread

Cocoa banana bread

Friends, I ask you: do you also have partners who always insist that you keep the kitchen stocked with something that they swear up and down to desperately need, but then never actually eat, leaving you up to your eyeballs in the duly supplied item? For me, or Max, rather, we're talking bananas. Bananas, bananas, bananas. I don't like them and every time Hugo is offered one he takes a big bite before spitting it out theatrically (every time!), and frankly, between you and me, I think Max mostly eats them out of a sense of duty because he thinks they're healthy. But he always asks me to buy some before the weekend when he's due home and then I see them descend into spotted blackness like clockwork when he leaves again.

However, I am not complaining. Because as we all know (don't we?), even those of us who don't like bananas can learn to love banana bread.

Banana bread mise en place

I mean, was ever a more perfect baked good invented? You can freeze old bananas and just defrost them when you're in the mood to bake (or when you need to clear out your freezer). You don't need anything special to make banana bread - if you've got even a pretty minimally stocked pantry, you probably have everything you need for banana bread. And it is gussied up in so many delightful ways. Ginger, coconut, chocolate - all of these things make banana bread sing.

Best of all, you're never really done discovering that banana bread contains multitudes. I mean, just the other day, I stumbled across Dorie Greenspan's version, which features a whole cup of cocoa powder along with chopped chocolate and buttermilk and other delicious things and in one fell swoop, I went from trying to figure out how to use up a glut of plums to making a beeline for the freezer to unearth some blackened bananas so I could get to work.

Cocoa banana bread sliced

Cocoa banana bread is the kind of thing that makes you scratch your head and wonder where it's been your whole life. (I kind of feel that way about most things from Dorie's kitchen.) It's very dark and gorgeous, it's rich and damp, it's wonderful. The cocoa and buttermilk make for a light, devil's food-like crumb, but the banana weighs it down just enough to transform it into something satisfyingly plump. The loaf is enormous (taking over an hour to bake through) and it slices into these wonderfully hefty pieces that are actually very easy to eat. Of course, it's nicest when the loaf is still warm, so you have little pockets of melting chocolate to poke with your tongue. But no one will turn down a piece of this the next day, when the banana flavor settles and flattens amiably and the little chunks of chocolate go faintly chalky again and the crumb turns velvety soft.

So like clockwork tomorrow, I'll be buying more bananas for my husband's return. And I'm actually pretty grateful he keeps leaving them behind.

Dorie Greenspan's Cocoa Banana Bread
Adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours
Makes one 9-inch loaf

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 ripe bananas, mashed
3/4 cup buttermilk
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped, or 1/2 cup store-bought chocolate chips

1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Line a 9×5-inch loaf pan with parchment paper, then place on two baking sheets stacked on top of each other. (This will keep the bottom of the bread from over-baking.)

3. Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, salt and baking soda.

4. With a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter at medium speed for about a minute, until softened. Add the sugars and beat for 2 minutes more. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for a minute after each addition. Reduce the mixer speed to low and mix in the mashed bananas.

5. Add the dry ingredients in 3 additions, mixing only until they disappear into the batter. Still on low speed, add the buttermilk, mixing until it is incorporated. Stir in the chopped chocolate. Scrape the batter into the pan.

6. Bake for 30 minutes. Cover the bread loosely with a piece of foil to keep the top from getting too dark, and continue to bake for another 40-45 minutes (total baking time is between 70-75 minutes), or until a thin knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

7. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for at least 20 minutes before running a knife around the edges of the bread and unmolding it. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up.

 

Evelyn Sharpe's French Chocolate Cake

French chocolate cake
Let's start this week off with dessert first, shall we? I don't think you should live a day longer without knowing about this chocolate cake.

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.)

French chocolate cake slice

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.


Nigel Slater's Chocolate Muscovado Banana Cake

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I know what you are thinking. You're thinking, does the world really need another recipe for banana bread (cake)? No, it does not. That is you answering, too. I know.

I know because those were my thoughts, too, when I first pulled the baking tin from the oven. Oh, sure, it smelled tantalizing and delicious. Oh, sure, it was all caramelized and softly pocked with melting chocolate. The crumb was soft and yielding. I didn't share it with anyone. But still, it was banana bread (cake). You know? Just a few months ago, wasn't I proclaiming that I had found my banana bread for the ages? Yes. And then I bought myself Nigel Slater's next Kitchen Diaries II, found this and was gone, hook, line and sinker.

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It's silly, really, that I alighted on this recipe, when there are so many other ones in this handsome, inspiring new book, with more interesting ingredients and flavors to fall over. But, people, this cake (bread, WHATEVER) was so good that I, I repeat, didn't share it with anybody. That never happens. Never ever. It was so good.

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What sets it apart from other banana breads is the huge amount of brown sugar in the batter. It entirely replaces the usual white sugar and adds not only to the appealing dampness of the final product, but it also gives the banana bread a depth of caramel flavor and a warmth that I wasn't expecting. It's not overpowering - molasses doesn't waft up from the crumb - but it's more nuanced and delicious. Also, you don't purée the bananas - you mash them with a fork, leaving little lumps and bumps in the batter that give each finished slice tenderness and cozy banana flavor.

The original recipe asks for four to five ripe bananas, to yield a whopping 400 grams of mashed banana, but I only had three bananas and the recipe was perfection. So it's forgiving, is what I guess I'm saying.

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The loaf kept for a good long while, at least a week, though I kept it longer, even snuck it to France in the carry-on and ate a big slice of it on the airplane when we flew down on Christmas Eve. By the time a week has gone by, the meltiness of the chocolate is of course long gone, but what you get instead are these nice little chewy surprises of chocolate while the cake melts away around them.

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I can't wait to get cooking from the rest of the book, which is truly stunning and wonderfully hefty and begging to be curled up in bed with. I just the love the concept so much, getting to accompany Slater as he journals his way through a year of cooking. It's so... satisfying somehow. I love how he thinks dinner can be as grand as a huge roast or as simple as rice and herbs forked together. His taste is always so spot-on. There is so much here to be inspired by:

Celery root salad with sour cream and mustard, threaded with orange zest, or a "little brown stew" of dried mushrooms and chewy spelt grains or beet fritters to be topped with shining shreds of smoked salmon.

Best of all, I like how Slater's emotional life lurks just below the surface. You're never quite let in all the way, but what's going on plays just at the edges of the meals he describes. It's the best kind of cookbook, for me at least.

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A note on the measurements: I usually post the recipes here in United States measures. Every once in a while, I post them in metric, because the particular recipe I've used was in metric. The fact that I don't do the conversions each time never fails to irk at least one of you, darling readers, but please understand that I simply don't have the time. If you like to cook, I highly recommend that you stock your kitchen arsenal with both a little digital scale (I've used one similar to this, purchased at Zabar's for less than $40, for over ten years now) and a set of measuring cups and spoons and a liquid measure (together, these will set you back less than $20) and then you can cook and bake whatever your heart desires without having to do any mathematics or being bogged down with annoyance.

And now I'm off to hunt for, wait for it, salt cod in this fair city of mine. More on that next week!

Nigel Slater's Chocolate Muscovado Banana Cake
Makes 1 loaf cake
From The Kitchen Diaries II

250 grams all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
125 grams softened butter
235 grams muscovado or dark brown sugar
3 to 4 ripe bananas
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
100 grams dark chocolate

1. Heat the oven to 180 C (350 F). Line a standard-sized loaf pan with parchment paper. Sift the flour and baking powder together in a bowl.

2. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat the eggs into the butter and sugar one at a time until fully incorporated.

3. Peel the bananas and mash them with a fork in a small bowl. When you are done, the bananas should still be slightly lumpy and not entirely puréed. Stir the vanilla extract into the bananas.

4. Chop the chocolate finely and and fold it, along with the bananas, into the butter and sugar mixture. Gently mix the flour and baking powder into the banana batter.

5. Scrape the batter into the loaf pan and bake in the oven for 50 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the cake is browned and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.

6. Remove the cake from the oven and let sit on a rack for 15 minutes. Then, using the parchment paper as a sling, remove the cake from the pan and let it cool completely on the rack. When the cake has fully cooled, peel off the paper and use a serrated knife to slice.