Thursday, December 07, 2006

Chocolate Queens: Two Decadently Versatile Cakes

I invited a dozen women to my house last month, and promised to educate them about (and entertain them with) chocolate. I couldn't have been more excited about the event until the day arrived and I realized that I was also responsible for feeding this discerning group. I'd been in this position before: I had just a few hours to produce something impressive. This kind of last-minute job is the bread and butter of caterers and pastry chefs, but I'm a nonprofessional baker--and a rather messy one to boot. But I put on a strong face, grabbed my untouched copy of Alice Medrich's Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate, and got to work.

Medrich's tone is so soft and modest that you wouldn't know she had been a driving force behind the American artisanal chocolate revolution thirty years ago. Her recipes are quite approachable and intended for the home baker. Still, some of the photos of chocolate ripples, piped meringue, and spun sugar seemed like recipes for something other than success in such a short time.

Then I found a cake I could relate to, called the "Queen of Sheba." "At twenty-seven, I was working too many hours, overwhelmed by the response to my little chocolate truffle and dessert shop. Newspaper food editors were calling regularly, especially at holiday time..." writes Medrich. "I didn't have time to create and test new recipes for every newspaper. In desperation, I typed out my Queen of Sheba recipe, substituting walnuts for almonds, rum for brandy and adding minced dried apricots." I'm twenty-eight, not twenty seven; the response I'm getting is to my blog (I did own a shop, but I sold books not chocolates, and I got out of the retail business over a year ago); and any regular calling going on is initiated by me, not the food editors I'm talking to. But this was the cake for me. And I could see that the Queen of Sheba would be both versatile and decadent enough to work.

Two weeks after I baked my first Queen of Sheba, I found myself hosting another dinner party. Again, I waited until two hours before my guests arrived before worrying about their expectations. The Queen had been a success so I knew that whipping up another was a possibility. But I also knew that my recipe experiments are incredibly popular with regular visitors to this blog, and I hadn't tacked up a recipe here in months. Now that I was back in the kitchen, I couldn't stop at just one cake. So I sought out another new recipe--one with the simplicity and flexibility of Medrich's signature creation, but with ingredients measured in metric units. Jill Dupleix's "Persian Brownies" worked perfectly. I found the straighforward recipe--with just a touch of implied exoticism--in the Australian food magazine Delicious.

These two recipes (both variations on the flourless chocolate cake) are easy to throw together and have enough flourish to make any party seem worthwhile.

Queen of Sheba1
Serves 12 to 14
6 ounces bittersweet 66% to 70% chocolate, coarsely chopped
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3 tablespoons brandy
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pure almond extract (optional)
1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) unblanched whole almonds
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Powdered sugar for dusting (optional)
Lightly sweetened whipped cream or Cocoa Bean Cream

An 8-by-3-inch springform pan or cheesecake pan with a removable bottom

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 375F. Unless you are planning to serve the cake on the pan bottom, line the cake pan with a circle of parchment paper.

Place chocolate and butter in a medium heatproof bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir occasionally until nearly melted. Remove from the heat and stir until melted and smooth. Or microwave on Medium (50%) power for about 2 minutes, then stir until completely melted and smooth. Stir in the brandy, almond extract, if using, and salt. Set aside.

Meanwhile, pulse the nuts and flour in a food processor until the mixture has the texture of cornmeal. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with 1/2 cup of the sugar until well blended. Stir in the chocolate mixture. Set aside.

In a clean dry bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar at medium speed until soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted. Gradually sprinkle in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat at high speed (or medium-high speed in a heavy-duty mixer) until the peaks are stiff but not dry. Scoop one-quarter of the egg whites and all of the nut mixture on top of the chocolate batter, and, using a large rubber spatula, fold them in. Scrape the remaining egg whites onto the batter and fold together. Turn the batter into the prepared pan, spreading it level if necessary.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted about 1 1/2 inches from the edge emerges almost clean but a toothpick inserted in the center is still moist and gooey. Set the pan on a rack to cool. (The cooled torte can be covered tightly with plastic wrap, or removed from the pan and wrapped well, and stored at room temperature up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months.)

To serve, slide a slim knife around the inside of the pan to loosen the cake. Remove the pan sides and transfer the cake, on the pan bottom, to a platter, or invert the cake onto a rack or tray, remove the liner, and invert onto a platter. Using a fine-mesh sieve, sift a little powdered sugar over the top of the cake before serving, if desired. Serve each slice with a little whipped cream.

Persian Brownies with Rosewater Cream1
Makes 8-12
200g good-quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), roughly chopped
160g butter, chopped
3 eggs, plus one extra egg yolk
150g caster sugar
1/3 cup (50g) plain flour, sifted
1/2 cup (50g) cocoa powder, sifted
Icing sugar, to dust
Persian fairy floss, to serve
2 tbs edible dried or fresh unsprayed rose petals, to garnish

150g creme fraiche or thick cream
Dash of rosewater

Preheat the oven to 180C. Lightly grease a 20cm-square baking pan and line it with 2 long pieces of baking paper to form 'handles' on all 4 sides.

Place the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water (don't let the bowl touch the water), until melted. Remove bowl from pan and stir gently, then set aside to cool for 10 minutes.

Place the eggs and extra egg yolk in a large bowl with the caster sugar and beat using an electric mixer until pale and thick.

Fold the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture, then fold in the plain flower and cocoa powder until smooth. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, then smooth the surface. Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes until the top has set. Remove from the oven and set aside in the pan to cool.

Just before serving, make the rosewater cream by stirring the rosewater into the creme fraiche.

Lift the brownie out by the baking paper 'handles'. Dust with icing sugar and cut into triangles or squares. Place the brownies on serving plates and top with rosewater cream and Persian fairy floss. Serve scattered with rose petals.


I took Alice Medrich's sense of improvisation to heart. I substituted hazelnut meal for the whole almonds and the skipped the step in the food processor. I casually estimated the amounts of chopped chocolate and butter, instead of measuring. That cut down on the preparation time, but also caused my ingredients to interact in a way I hadn't intended. The cake rose in an uneven wave, and when I removed it from the oven I discovered an enormous gulf in the center, surrounded by several unappealing mounds. But I was able to riff off of some additional ingredients in my cupboard and revive the dessert. I skipped the Cocoa Bean Cream (for which Medrich also supplies a recipe: it's cream infused with roasted cacao nibs, chilled, and then whipped) and spread a layer of thick (unwhipped) Australian cream over the top. Then, in keeping with the cake's Desert Kingdom theme, I coated the usused almonds in warm honey and threw them on top. When the cake's unusual topography failed to disappear, I sliced up an entire punnet of strawberries from the farmers' market and piled them on top too. I was more faithful to the Persian brownie recipe, but I used a round cake pan instead of a square one. Most of the seductive garnishes that the recipe calls for can be found at either a Middle Eastern food store or a gourmet supermarket. I don't know what the true ethnic origins of "Persian fairy floss" are, but I've seen it far more frequently in Australia than in the United States--it's a delicate, upscale cotton candy. I couldn't find the rose petals at the last minute, but I bought some coconut-covered Turkish Delight (lokum) and scattered that around the cake platter. Bright green slivered pistachios would have worked just as well. Both of these recipes have a playful sort of "Arabian Nights" image. However, since chocolate is not native to either Sheba's seat of power in Ethiopia/Eritrea or to Persia/Iran, bakers of these cakes should feel free to substitute whatever cultural symbols they like.

1. Medrich, Alice. Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate. New York: Artisan, 2003. 105-111.

2. Dupleix, Jill. "Arabian Nights." Delicious. August, 2006: 112.


Blogger nightgrapefruit said...

Oooh, those Persian brownies sound amazing. I didn't know non-Persians appreciated the flavor of rose water. Your so cosmopolitan.

2:33 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Persian fairy floss said...

I know hundreds of people have already said this, but I'll say it one more time: your blog is nothing short of spectacular... you are so so talented!! Your images are a true celebration of Chocolate Queens and always put a smile on my face.

3:09 AM GMT-5  

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