Saturday, February 12, 2011

The French Chef Brings a French Masterpiece

Neither elegant nor provincial, Julia Child is a woman whose merits will outlive many generations. Her efforts brought otherwise unheard of techniques to everyday cooking, and has inspired some of today’s greatest culinary minds. I have always had a particular affinity towards Julia: her profound understanding of the French style combined with the humility of a New England domestic gave her cookbooks their irresistible charm. The ending of Julia's memoir, My Life in France, beautifully captures her (and my) idea of a life worth living: "...the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite - toujours bon appétit!" Having successfully tested several of her savory dishes (most notably the Coq a Vin), I was pining for an opportunity to try one of her sweeter classics. Such an opportunity arose when a colleague of mine suggested a dinner party to celebrate America’s first culinary star, and asked that I provide the dessert. Given that the main course would be Julia's celebrated bœuf bourguignon, and that there would only be 7 or 8 of us, I needed a dessert that was rich yet modest. 
I have a small confession: I own over 40 cookbooks, and close to 100 cooking magazines, and almost ALL the recipes I use are from online!? Don't get my wrong, a number of my inspirations have been derived from this massive collection, but I then search for modified versions online. This is both a waste of valuable resources and of shelf space. As such, I have vowed to reference my books more often (especially considering half of the baking blogs I peruse cite these very books themselves). This dinner party was the perfect opportunity, seeing as how I own several Julia Child cookbooks (her most famous depicted in the photo above). Flipping through the pages of my personal favorite, The Way to Cook, I found just the cake: Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba) Cake.
This single-layer cake was perfect: a gorgeous texture, with the melded flavor of chocolate and almond, infused with hints of coffee, then topped with a creamy layer of whipped ganache. Julia speaks of the beauty of French cakes, and how their simplicity is a remarkable contrast to the overbearing desserts of American households. She loved this classic so much, that it makes an appearance in three of her books. This cake sounded so simple and elegant that I had to make it...then I realized how this cake was anything but simple.
I highly recommend a thorough review of the recipe, from start to finish, before proceeding. There are a number of steps and techniques (and LOTS of mixing, shown above) that will be impossible to carry through without a full understanding of what comes next. All ingredients and tools should be pre-measured and organized, so that there is no pause during preparation. I thought I had botched the entire cake when I missed a step, yet quick thinking and careful supervision saved it. The result: one of the BEST chocolate cakes I have ever made. In other words, this cake is well worth the patience (Note: I have modified this recipe so as to make it slightly less intimidating - Julia's processes are great, but streamlining is a possibility, and will still provide a fabulous cake!) 
Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba) Cake
Adapted via The Way to Cook, by Julia Child
Yields: 6 - 8 servings

   - 3 ounces sweet baking chocolate (I used Ghiradelli 60% Cacao)
   - 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate 
   - 2 tablespoons dark rum or strong coffee (I used coffee) 
   - 4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
   - 1/2 cup sugar
   - 3 egg yolks

   - 3 egg whites (a scant 1/2 cup), at room temperature 
   - 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
   - A pinch of salt 
   - 2 tablespoons sugar
   - 1/3 cup blanched almonds pulverized with 2 tbsp sugar (in a blender or processor) 
   - 1/4 teaspoon almond extract (vanilla can be substituted, but not recommended) 
   - 1/2 cup plain cake flour (scooped and leveled) in a sifter/sieve set on wax paper

For starters: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, and set the rack in the lower middle level. Butter and flour an 8- by 1 1/2-inch cake pan; set aside. Set out all the ingredients and equipment listed (CRUCIAL!) Break up the chocolate into a small heatproof bowl and add the rum or coffee; set above a pan filled with 2 to 3 inches of water; bring to a simmer - stir until the chocolate is smooth and glistening.

For starting the batter: Butter, sugar, and egg yolks. Cut the butter into pieces and cream it in the mixing bowl. When soft and fluffy, add the sugar and beat 1 minute, then beat in the egg yolks one at a time

For egg whites: (Note: Julia recommends wiping the mixing bowl with vinegar and salt prior to beating the egg whites - this aids the emulsification process - not necessary, though; she also recommends the egg whites be at room temperature). Using a giant balloon whip, or a hand-held electric mixer, or a mixer on a stand, start beating the egg whites at moderately slow speed until they are foaming throughout – 2 minutes or so. Add a pinch of salt (unless you have rubbed the bowl with salt before you started in,) and add cream of tartar – a stabilizer. Gradually increase the speed to fast (moderately fast if you have a heavy-duty mixer) and continue until soft peaks are formed. Gradually beat in the 2 tablespoons of sugar and continue until stiff shining peaks are formed.

For finishing the batter: At once blend the warm, smoothly melted chocolate and the coffee into the yolk mixture, then the almonds and almond extract. Stir a quarter of the egg whites into the chocolate to lighten it. Scoop the rest of the whites over the chocolate and, alternating with sprinkles of flour, rapidly and delicately fold in the egg whites.

For baking: bake the cake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees F. Immediately turn the batter into the prepared pan, tilting it in all directions to run it up to the rim all around, and set it in the preheated oven. When is it done? The cake is done when it has puffed to the top of the pan and a toothpick plunged into the cake 2 and 3 inches from the edges of the pan comes out clean. The center, however, should move slightly when the pan is gently shaken. (Chocolate cakes of the French type should not be cooked dry.)

Remove the pan to the rack and let cool 15 minutes; unmold onto the rack. Let cool completely – 2 hours – before serving or icing.

Ahead-of-time note: May be wrapped airtight and refrigerated for 2 to 3 days, or may be frozen for several weeks. That limit is for the safe side. (Anne - I made my cake a day ahead of time, having placed a layer of parchment on the top of bottom of the cake, then wrapped it in parchment paper). French chocolate cakes are at their best when served at near room temperature – chilled, the chocolate is partly congealed rather than being softly yielding. 

For icing and decorating the cake: You may serve the cake simply with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar, or with the soft chocolate icing described here and a design of whole or shaved almonds on top. 

Soft Chocolate Icing
For an 8-inch cake
   - 2 ounces sweet chocolate (I used Ghiradelli 60% Cacao) 
   - 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
   - 1 1/2 tablespoons rum or strong coffee
   - A pinch of salt
   - 3 ounces (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature

Melt the chocolates with the rum or coffee as instructed in “For starters” above. When smooth and glistening, beat in the salt, then the butter one tablespoon at a time. Beat over cold water until firm enough to spread. Turn the icing on top of the cake; spread it over the top and sides.

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