My friend Valerie makes one chocolate cake. No, I don’t mean one chocolate cake for school birthday cupcakes and one for grown-up dinner parties, one for wedding cakes and one for really decadent layer cakes, one for roulades and one for a Thursday afternoon, just because. I mean just one recipe. She serves it plain to guests after dinner, she makes it when she hears it’s your birthday and she stacks, and coats it hypercolored frosting and studs it with superheroes for her kids’ birthdays.
It’s incredibly simple, just butter (she’s French, so bien sûr), dark chocolate, sugar, flour, a bit of baking powder and her secret ingredient: water. A spoonful or two here and another there creates a decadent crumb you won’t read about in any cookbook. Sure, you could use milk or maybe replace a spoonful with some kirsch but she does not so I do not. The whole thing, save some hand-whisked egg yolks and machine-whipped egg whites (which gives it an airy lift and almost crackly meringue of a lid), is mixed in the pot where you melt the chocolate. It bakes in 30 minutes, which is convenient when your afternoon is rerouted, and tastes amazing. And I bet she regrets ever giving me the recipe.
Let me explain. If you’ve ever thought that you cannot invite an avid cook to your house for dinner because they will silently judge your efforts, let me dispel this notion: when I’m not the one doing the cooking, everything tastes like the most amazing thing on earth. Maybe it’s tinged with relief that I’m not the one behind the stove for once, maybe it’s because I wholly understand what a big effort cooking can be, or maybe it’s just because you’re an awesome cook whether you believe it or not, but if you bake me a chocolate cake, I want to hug you. I want to run off with the cake.
But when I took it home and made it in my overly self-critical realm, it wasn’t right. Maybe something got lost in translation. Maybe things just don’t taste as good when I’m the one doing the cooking. But I couldn’t resist tweaking it; I wanted it more intensely chocolaty and decadent. So I made it again, with a darker chocolate and a smidge less flour. And I still wasn’t happy. And I made it again, with even less flour and some of it replaced with dark cocoa powder and reduced the sugar a bit. And I still wasn’t happy. And so I made a fourth time, with even less flour, half swapped with cocoa, a touch less baking powder and sugar and 72 percent chocolate and it was really wonderful.
But it wasn’t my birthday anymore. Yes, it’s true: I managed to be so finicky about my birthday cake this year that it came and went without it being ready for the spotlight. Fortunately, my dad was kind enough to have a birthday four days after mine (every year, even!) and so I had a chance to do it up even more fun: stacked and filled with semisweet chocolate whipped cream. Plumes of it. Believe me, you need this in your life.
Two years ago: Chocolate Swirl Buns
Three years ago: Rich Homemade Ricotta
Four years ago: Crushed Peas with Smoky Sesame Dressing
Five years ago: Springy Fluffy Marshmallows
Six years ago: Dead Simple Slaw, 10 Paths to Painless Pizza Making and Pistachio Petit-Four Cake
Seven years ago: Gateau de Crepes
Valerie’s French Chocolate Cake
Adapted from a friend, who is possibly not speaking to me anymore, who adapted it from Marmiton
Because I couldn’t leave well enough alone, this isn’t really Valerie’s cake anymore. I’ve made it more intense, moist and more bittersweet. But I kept my favorite part: the incredible crumb and texture that comes from folding egg whites into this cake. Whipped egg whites are used to make meringues; meringues are weightless in the center and crisp-shattery at the edges — without them, this would be a flourless chocolate truffle cake with a bit more structure; with them folded in, this cake becomes airy and decadent, with a lid you can tap on.
In case you think you’d prefer the original: Valerie uses semisweet chocolate here (55 to 60%), I use bittersweet (70 to 72%). I dropped the flour from 1 cup (125 grams) to 2/3 cup (85 grams) and replaced half with dark cocoa powder. I reduced the baking powder to keep it in line with the new flour level, and dropped the sugar a little too, from 1 1/4 cups (250 grams) to 1 cup (200). The result is a bittersweet (but not aggressively so) and featherlight chocolate cake. If you think you’d prefer it sweeter, use an additional 1/4 cup sugar.
Serves 8 generously, 16 if you, like us, prefer slim wedges of rich cake
9 tablespoons (125 grams) unsalted butter
7 ounces (200 grams) bittersweet (70/72 percent) chocolate, chopped
3 tablespoons water
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup (40 grams) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (about 30 grams) dark cocoa powder, sifted if lumpy (Dutched or natural will work here; I use Dutched)
4 large eggs, separated
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
Two pinches sea salt
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan. Line the bottom of the baking pan with a round of parchment paper.
Melt butter in a large saucepan, 3 quarts is a good size. Once melted, remove from heat and stir in chocolate until melted. Once melted, stir in 2 tablespoons water, then baking powder, flour and cocoa until just combined.
In a medium bowl, whisk egg yolks with sugar, 1 tablespoon water and vanilla, if using, until pale and no longer lumpy. Stir into chocolate mixture until just combined.
In a larger, very clean bowl, beat egg whites and salt until stiff. Gently fold into chocolate mixture until most of the white streaks disappear. Be careful not to deflated cake.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out batter-free. Remove from oven and rest on rack for 5 minutes. Run knife along outside cake to make sure it isn’t sticking anywhere, then invert onto another rack, then back onto a cake plate. Eat warm or cold.
Cake keeps for several days at room temperature, lightly wrapped.
To make a layer cake, as pictured: Several hours and up to a full day before you will fill the cake, make chocolate whipped cream. I used Alice Medrich’s recipe as a base. Heat 1 cup heavy or whipping cream to a simmer in a saucepan. Remove from heat, whisk in 6 ounces chopped semisweet chocolate until fully melted and smooth. Stir in a second cup of cold heavy or whipping cream. Cover dish with plastic and let chill in the fridge for at least four hours and preferably overnight, or up to 24 hours.
To make the layer cake, make twice the recipe above, but divide it into 3 9-inch cake pans. Each layer will bake for approximately 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool completely. I find popping cake layers into the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes stiffens them enough that they are easily lifted and stacked and highly recommend it.
Using electric beaters, whip fully chilled chocolate cream into whipped cream. It will whip very quickly; don’t let it overwhip (it will become rough-looking). If it does, a splash of still-liquid heavy cream whisked in will loosen the mixture a bit again. Set a spoonful of the chocolate whipped cream aside if you’d like to write on the top of the cake. Spread half of the chocolate whipped cream on the first cake layer, then top with the second. Spread second half of chocolate whipped cream on second cake layer, then top with the third. If writing on the cake, place chocolate whipped cream set aside in a sandwich bag with the corner snipped off, or in a piping bag with a small round tip and scribble away.
Keep cake in fridge until needed.