Sunday, March 18, 2007

lighter-than-air chocolate cake

the best chocolate cake, expletive-free

It is clearly some sort of oversight on my part that I haven’t gotten to this before because no annals of my cooking life could ever be complete without at least a single mention of one of the greatest cakes I was introduced to growing up: the Sh*t Cake. The Sh*t Cake, you see, is a lighter-than-air chocolate roll cake with whipped cream that my mother would make each and every Passover. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever made a Yule Log or other such roulade cake knows, they crack and sever easily and often, and can be mighty frustrating because of this. A nice, sweet person like my mother, who otherwise echews displays of gutter mouth might even be so irritated by say the fourth or fifth crack or so to curse aloud while her (frankly, precious) 7-year-old daughter watches, and comes in turn to rename the cake.


But despite the annoyance of making the cake, we still go at it year after year (I’ve made it too, and it has indeed kept its nickname in the process) because the cake is really one of the best in the world. It manages to have an intense, pronounced bittersweet chocolate flavor but none of the heft of your typical flourless chocolate cake (although I love them, they are so often like gigantic truffles and less like something you can eat more than two bites of without running your fork through sauce, fruit or gulping down quantities of water). Besides having no flour, it also has no butter, milk, cream or chemical leaveners. Frankly, if you have a bag of good chocolate pieces, a dozen eggs, some sugar and salt, you could make this right this very moment, though you might need to dash to the store for some heavy cream for whipping. Mwa-ha-ha, consider chocolate cakes as you know them banished.


Many, many egg yolks are beaten to a thick, pale ribbon with sugar and a pinch of salt, melted, cooled chocolate is added and finally a gigantic cloud of furiously whipped egg whites is carefully folded in from a separate bowl, creating an impossibly light batter that is poured into a greased and parchment-lined and greased-again cooking sheet and baked for just 20 minutes. Were you rolling the cake, you’d let it cool (it doesn’t take long) covered with damp paper towels, then sprinkle unsweetened cocoa on it and flip it onto a large sheet of waxed paper before covering it with whipped cream and beginning to alternately curse and pray to the Let My Cake Not Break Gods. But you may have noticed that I skipped the foul language, the sweating and the frustration this time around and make it into a simple layer cake, partly because I find the log version somewhat diminutive (good for eight, maybe ten people but, uh, being a brown log not exactly the most ta-da presentation), partly because there’s something about a stacked layer cake that screams celebration but mostly because I just don’t love my friends enough to sweat, curse and pray over a cake when there is an easier way to go. Obviously.

It was a raving success. Busting out the middle-school math equations involving multiplying things by pi, Alex and I figured that by doubling the recipe, we could make 4 9-inch circles of the same approximate thickness as the roll cake, that is, about one inch. To make the cake assembly easier, I froze the layers until stiff (takes an hour or less), but that was the beginning and end of the trickery. It was a cinch to make, a cinch to put together and oh, you want to hear about the eating? The cake dissolves in your mouth. Dissolves. Ceases to exist in solid form. And that should be all you need to know.

a peek

Lighter-Than-Air Chocolate Cake

My mother’s recipe was clipped from the New York Times in the 1970s, that ancient decade in which I was born, but after finding this version from a 2001 Gourmet Magazine, we concurred that it was the exact same thing. To make it as a 4-layer cake, use the instructions that follow.

Updated 4/20/11 If you’re interested in making the rolled version of the cake, it has a new home. In this separate post, there are overhauled directions and a tip that will virtually eliminate cake cracks. See: Heavenly Chocolate Cake Roll

Just one little structural concern: the layer cake sinks a little in the middle. Nobody will know this once you hit it the layers up with some whipped cream, or once it’s rolled, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. Now get to work!

To make four cake layers:
12 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), chopped
6 tablespoons water
12 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa powder

For filling:
2 cups heavy cream
6 tablespoons confectioners sugar, sifted
4 tablespoons Grand Marnier*

Make cake layers: Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease four 9-inch circular cake pans and line bottoms of circles with a piece of parchment paper.

Melt chocolate with water in a small heavy saucepan over very low heat, stirring. Cool to lukewarm.

Beat yolks, 2/3 cup sugar, and salt in a large bowl with an electric mixer until thick and pale, about 5 minutes in a standing mixer or about 8 minutes with a hand-held mixer. Fold in melted chocolate until blended. Beat whites with cleaned beaters until they just hold soft peaks (you will need an enormous bowl for 12 egg whites).

Gradually add remaining 2/3 cup sugar and beat until whites just hold stiff peaks. Fold one third of whites into melted-chocolate mixture to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly.

Spread batter evenly over four baking pans and bake until puffed and top is dry to the touch, 15 to 18 minutes, rotating cakes between racks to ensure they bake evenly. Transfer pans to cooling racks and if necessary, loosen edges with a knife.

Sift cocoa powder over top of cake layers and place a piece of waxed paper over the top of the pans. Place a baking sheet over paper and invert cake onto it, gently peeling off wax paper lining. Place layers in the freezer for about an hour, until they are firm enough to be carefully lifted without breaking.

Make filling: Beat cream with powdered sugar and Grand Marnier with cleaned beaters until it just holds stiff peaks.

Fill and stck cake: Bring first cake layer out of the freezer and arrange on platter, cocoa side down. Spread one-quarter of filling evenly over the cake. Bring the next cake layer out of the freezer, placing it gently over the filling, again cocoa side down. Repeat this process until all layers and whipped cream are used.

Keep cake in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve it. Two hours should be more than enough to assure that the layers are no longer frozen.

Dark chocolate grated into curls with a vegetable peeler makes for an excellent garnish.

* You can substitute the following for Grand Marnier: 4 tablespoons Cognac and 1 teaspoon vanilla; 4 tablespoons cocoa and 1 teaspoon vanilla; or 4 teaspoons instant-espresso powder or instant-coffee granules dissolved in 4 teaspoons water plus 1 teaspoon vanilla.

To Make a Chocolate Cake Roll This section has a new home: Heavenly Chocolate Cake Roll.


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