Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Family Heirlooms: The Nameless Cake with Seven Names + THE Chocolate Torte

Back then, when there was no digital and film was expensive, we took photos sparingly and with a lot of thought. We took photos mainly on special occasions: holidays, vacations, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, graduations and reunions. When we bought a new car. When the first color TV arrived. When Dad returned from his business trip to Italy and brought me a new dress, patent leather Mary Janes and a doll, we walked to a park across the street and took photos.

And although film was expensive, somehow Dad always had his camera ready beyond the celebratory occasions, eager to capture the tiny everyday moments when no one is pretending, and no one wears expensive garments and patent leather Mary Janes, and there are no monuments in the background. The tiny, precious moments that complete the big puzzle of family history and stay with us for a lifetime and beyond. Such as a photo of me wearing a diaper and a T-shirt, holding a hotdog and a gigantic piece of chocolate cake, and seriously devouring both. This made it straight to the history box, and became known as the first recorded encounter between me and The Cake.

And ever since, the Cake and I were inseparable. The Cake was the guest of honor at my birthdays, every single one of them until I crossed the ocean forever. We attended the first grade together. We celebrated our first A. We graduated. Many times. We got diplomas. Became adults. The night before I got married, I baked the Cake and decorated it with candied violets from Dean and DeLuca. The Cake welcomed Miss Pain to this world and ever since, the two of them, Pain and the Cake are inseparable.

Yet, I never knew its real name. In my Mom’s cookbook it was categorized as the Vienna Torte, although we knew that such torte does not exist. Most often we called it the Black Torte. Sometimes we called it the Half Half Torte -- the rationale will become obvious once you read the recipe. Occasionally, it was the Double Chocolate Torte, then the Triple, the Flourless Chocolate Cake, and Death by Chocolate. But most of the time we just called it the Cake.

Just like with many of my mom’s recipes, no one could recall where it came from. Mom vaguely remembers getting the recipe through a friend of a friend. The cake arrived under the name the Chocolate Torte, but Mom saw a bright future for her new acquisition and named it after Vienna. And what a Vienna cake it was, for it evoked the spirits of the magnificent tortes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the era of grand cafes, and most importantly, it appeared to be a twinlike to the legendary Sacher Torte -- at least on the outside. Inside, it was a different story altogether.

Inside, the cake was quite a character. It refused to follow any norms, it defeated all pastry making conventions, and yet, it stood there, one of a kind. The essence of it is a cream made by cooking sugar, egg yolks, butter and chocolate. The cream is then divided in half, one half becomes the dough the other becomes the frosting. In researching its origins I failed to find any other torte made in similar fashion. I failed to find any cue that would trace it back to Austro-Hungaria or any other country or cuisine for that matter. I even failed to find a single recipe like mine. Having spent several days searching the web in multiple languages, pages and pages and pages of “chocolate cakes”, the only thing I learned was that searching for a chocolate cake on the World Wide Web is a Sisyphean task. In my opinion it is worse than the Sisyphean task, and had the ancient Greeks known how many chocolate cake recipes existed in the cyberspace, they would have made Sisyphus google for the right one, instead of rolling that boulder up the hill.

And therefore the cake remains anonymous. I bet it knows. It knows it is the one and only and that it needs no name. It has rightfully deserved to be called THE Cake.

The Cake

for the cake  

* 12 egg yolks
* 8 egg whites
* 9 oz (250 g) semisweet chocolate, shredded or chopped into small pieces
* 9 oz (250 g) butter, cut into small cubes
* 9 oz (250 g) granulated sugar
* 3 tbsp finely ground walnuts
* extra butter and some flour for greasing the pan

for the chocolate glaze 
* 10 oz (280 g) dark chocolate couverture (alternatively, use dark chocolate plus two tablespoons of butter, see note)


* 9" round cake pan 
* bain marie (double boiler), or a small pot nested on top of a larger one (see note)

1. Two hours before baking remove the eggs from the fridge and allow them to come to room temperature. Separate yolks and whites. Reserve four whites for a different use.

2. Beat the yolks with sugar until creamy.

3. Heat the double boiler. When the water in the larger pot starts to simmer, pour the egg mixture into the smaller pot, add the chocolate and butter, and set the pot over the simmering water. Heat the cream slowly, stirring constantly until the butter and chocolate have melted. Do not let the cream get too hot as it can curdle.

4. Cook the cream over the simmering water while stirring constantly. It will take about twenty minutes to cook, give or take, this will entirely depend on the size of your pot and the amount of cream. At around fifteen minutes, start watching. There is a point when the cream will become viscous and begin to feel “heavy”. It will start pulling away from the sides of the pot, and if you drag a utensil through it, you will see the bottom of the pan for a while. These are all signs of “doneness”. At that point remove the pot from the heat and place it in cold water to cool. Mix from time to time. When the cream is completely cool, mix it well and divide in half.

5. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease the pan well with the butter and flour. Shake off the excess flour.

6. Beat the egg whites until stiff. Slowly beat in three tablespoons of grated walnuts. Fold the egg whites into the chocolate cream (the first half) and mix gently until fully blended. (My mom used to say that one should always stir in the same direction, because changing directions will disturb the batter.) Transfer the batter into the bake pan and if needed, smooth the top. Bake the torte until  toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes.

7. Remove the torte from the oven and allow it to cool. Use a small knife to ease the torte from the sides. Invert the torte to remove from the pan, and then invert back to its original position. When the torte is completely cool, coat it with the other half of the chocolate cream all over the top and the sides. Make sure you do a neat job here and create uniform surface, because it the torte is not even, it will affect the quality of your glaze. Place the torte in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or overnight.

8. To glaze the torte, remove it from the
refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature. If the torte is cold, the chocolate glaze will harden much faster and will be very difficult to work with. Place the torte on a wire rack over a baking sheet. Grate or finely chop the couverture. In the double boiler over simmering water, melt two thirds of the couverture carefully until the instant read thermomether registers 104°F. (Make sure you are using a very small pot/saucepan for this task.) When to couverture has melted, remove the saucepan from the heat and slowly add the remaining couverture, small quantities at time. When all the couverture has dissolved, place the pot over the simmering water again, and heat the couverture carefully until it reaches 89°F. Remove the couverture from the heat and pour it onto the torte. Spread the couverture over the top with one or two strokes of the palette knife and then spread evenly around the sides.

9. When the glaze has set hard, carefully slip a large palette knife under the torte to release it and place on a cake plate.  

Serves 12 

A note on double boiler: If you do not have bain marie  -- I own a tiny double boiler for melting chocolate, but don't have one large enough to cook the cream -- fill the larger pot with about three inches of water, and place the smaller pot on top of it securely. I use two Le Creuset Dutch ovens (9x11” oval on top of the 13” round one), as they give extra stability.

A note on couverture: When on a mission to achieve sleek glaze, I like to use couverture instead of baking chocolate. Couverture is high quality chocolate used in patisserie and confectionery. It contains extra cocoa butter and therefore, flows more easily. It also has nicer shine compared to chocolate found in candy bars. Needless to say, it is more expensive too. In the spirit of full disclosure, for us plain vanilla home cooks, the perfect glaze is a slippery slope and a royal pain in a particular body part and I make an attempt at it only when I am dying to impress. Such as, when writing this post. Another downside of trying to look professional is that you will have to melt far more chocolate couverture than needed, because in order to get smooth surface one must pour pretty substantial quantity of chocolate over the cake. I do not blame you if you find this whole couverture business way too discouraging. But no worries, there is much simpler solution. Just get about 7oz of dark chocolate and melt it slowly, with about two tablespoons of butter over low heat in double boiler. Pour the chocolate directly over the torte and let it drizzle down the sides. Leave the sides unglazed, except for the drizzles. Moreover, you can always top the torte with grated chocolate to cover the imperfections. On the other hand, if you are attracted to the process of tempering chocolate, here is a nice article by Jacques Torres in Food & Wine.

A note on ingredients: You are permitted to cut corners with the couverture, but please do not do so with your choice of chocolate. Please don't, because this cake will be only as good as the chocolate you put into it. I like to use Lindt or Callebaut for the torte, and Callebaut or Valhrona for the glaze.


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