Thursday, September 17, 2009

feels like fall

What an incredible autumn morning. This weather feels like no September that I can recall. Certainly not any September this far north. While I dream of butternut squash soup and cinnamon spiced things, I figure I might as well enjoy these warm, lazy mornings and make something special. So I am slowly baking a chocolate cake and leaving it as a surprise for a friend who put me up for the night. It's a getting random things done sort of day, so I get up early, clean her kitchen (which she will love even more than the cake, I imagine) and then get down to business.
This recipe came to me from a wonderful cookbook called The World Food Cafe, by Chris and Carolyn Caldicot. These two have traveled the world, seeking out authentic, inspired vegetarian dishes from Africa, India, and Asia. They have a restaurant in London that is spoken very highly of in online reviews from veggie sites, and I am eager to try the place myself next time I am in town. The Caldicots round out their beautifully photographed cookbook with a recipe that seems to come somewhat out of the blue. At the very end of the dessert seciond, before the ingredient guide and index there is a recipe for French Chocolate cake, or flourless chocolate cake. This cake, they write, is a staple for dessert in their resto, and so they thoughtfully listed it in their book. And lucky for me they did!
The cake is beautiful to will into its practically perfect existence. Simple, pure ingredients will always improve the quality of the dish being prepared, so I would always recommend substituting organic, locally, and or ethically produced food. Chocolate, butter, sugar, and eggs are just a few things that you are going to have on hand in your kitchen anyway. So why not try to be conscientious about where they come from. The bottom line of this aside is this: every little bit helps and the cake will taste better using better ingredients, not to mention the feeling such efforts instill in you.
Now, returning to the cake. watching the chocolate and butter melt and combine in a double boil gives you the indication that what you are making here is something special. The velvety mixture that results is every bit as decadent as the cake will be. Today I whipped the egg whites by hand, with a little help from my friends when my arms got too tired, which is in itself a magical sight to behold. Watching a substance change its constitution in front of your eyes is like watching a baby take its first steps (I imagine) and even though electric beaters get the job done faster, hand whisking will give you an appreciation for what those egg whites have just been through in order to puff up and remain suspended in stiff peaks. Adding sugar and yolks creates a rich, dense, custardy mixture. Then the chocolate and butter are combined with the egg and sugar. Darkness and light mingle together, swirling and marbling around the bowl as they combine and incorporate, fusing bittersweet chocolate with granulated sugar and eggs and milk. The whole mess goes into a greased spring-form pan and down into the hot oven.
While the cake does its thing I make notes on what's just occurred. I walk in my friend's garden, examining late summer tomatoes and basil. I clean up after myself, taking secret glee in cleaning the dishes in my own special order, knowing that I'm doing something nice for someone and she doesn't even know it. I sit and think and sip tea, watching over my beautiful cake as it does something amazing. With about ten minutes to go, I look inside the oven and see that the cake has been utterly transformed over the last hour of baking. From its humble start as a few simple ingredients, into a rich, liquid, velvety batter, to this puffed up, important, remarkably metamorphosed object in the presence of heat and time - I realize how baking is both science and wonderment all at once - to ultimately form cracks along its puffed up surface. These cracks will later become delicious when I take the cake out of the oven and the chocolate tower descends into dense, sunken secrets. This is not a souffle that wants to stay puffed for presentation's sake. This cake longs to retreat into the depths of the pan, sinking deeper into itself, into the dark chocolate places. This is a cake for an autumnal afternoon.

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