Monday, July 12, 2010

The Best Chocolate Cake Ever. Seriously.

I can think of very few people who don't like chocolate cake. And certainly, there are tens of thousands of recipes for chocolate cake. Central to the flavor is the kind of chocolate used. Some recipes call for unsweetened cocoa, which is usually sifted together with the other dry ingredients before combined with the wet ones (butter, eggs, milk and often some kind of flavoring). I have always tended to gravitate toward recipes that use squares of chocolate, which are usually melted in a double-boiler (By the way, there is no need to go out and spend good money on a double-boiler. My mother improvised and so do I. All you have to do is use a large saucepan for the water and put a smaller one with the ingredients on top. Voila!)

I have experimented with my fair share of chocolate cakes. But I came across one that I really think takes the cake. I know, I know -- that was bad. But I couldn't --or rather, chose not to-- resist.

One day I became determined to make a chocolate cake, and decided that I wanted something "different." I had no idea what that really meant. But I sat patiently on the floor near the bookcase and pulled out a number of cookbooks. Cookbook by cookbook, page by page, I painstaking went through at least 7 or 8 cookbooks.

One of my mother's oldest cookbooks is Julia Child's seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My mom's copy was published in 1971; it was one of her cooking bibles. I picked up the cookbook last and looked for a recipe for chocolate cake; Julia did not let me down. There, on pages 677 and 678, was her recipe for an "extremely good chocolate cake" as she referred to it.

I read through the recipe and immediately noticed two things that made it different from most other chocolate cake recipes with which I was intimately familiar. First, there was no baking powder or baking soda, which are typical leavening agents. Rather, the recipe called for egg whites beaten into stiff peaks. I was immediately intrigued!!! Not only do beaten egg whites make batters rise; they also make them light and fluffy. Immediately, I could see and taste feather-light chocolate cake. The second thing that struck me about the recipe was the use of pulverized almonds. I was hooked. Chocolate and nuts pair naturally. I could picture almonds mixed into a rich chocolate mixture, lightened by egg whites.

Surely, this recipe was a winner! It absolutely was. I have made it with and without icing. It's so rich that it really does not need the icing, but I'm providing the recipe for the Chocolate-Butter Icing. I like to garnish the iced cake with whole almonds in a design. It adds a nice extra touch.

Make sure that you don't overbake the cake. The center should be slightly underdone.

I have made this recipe at least 4 times and each time, I receive rave reviews. It is rich, moist, flavorful, attractive to look at, and elegant served on nice china. I love it served with tea as it balances the richness of the cake nicely.


Reine Be Saba (Chocolate and Almond Cake)

A round cake pan 8 inches in diameter and 1 1/2 inches deep
4 ounces or squares semi-sweet chocolate melted with 2 Tb rum of coffee
A 3-quart mixing bowl
A wooden spoon or an electric beater
1/4 lb. or 1 stick softened butter
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 egg yolks
3 egg whites
Pinch of salt
1Tb granulated sugar
A rubber spatula
1/3 cup pulverized almonds (I use a blender to do this.)
1/4 tsp almond extract
3/4 cup sifted cake flour returned to sifter

Butter and flour the cake pan. Melt the chocolate over almost simmering water. Measure out the rest of the ingredients.

Cream the butter and sugar together for several minutes until they form a pale yellow, fluffy mixture.

Beat in the egg yolks until well blended.

Beat the egg whites and salt in a separate bowl until soft peaks are formed; sprinkle on the sugar and beat until stiff peaks are formed.

With a rubber spatula, blend the melted chocolate into the butter and sugar mixture, then stir in the almonds, and almond extract. Immediately stir in one-fourth of the beaten egg whites to lighten the batter. Delicately fold in a third of the remaining whites and when partially blended, sift on one third of the flour and continue folding. Alternate rapidly with more egg whites and more flour until all egg whites and flour are incorporated.

Turn the batter in to the cake pan, pushing the batter up to its rim with a rubber spatula. Bake in middle level of preheated oven for about 25 minutes. Cake is done with it has puffed, and 2 1/2 to 3 inches around the circumference are set so that a needle plunged into that area comes out clean; the center should move slightly if the pan is shaken, and a need comes out oily.

Allow cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan, and reverse cake on the rack. Allow it to cool for an hour or two; it must be thoroughly cold if it is to be iced.

Glacage Au Chocolat (Chocolate-Butter Icing)

For an 8-inch cake
A wooden spoon
1 ounce (1 square)semi-sweet baking chocolate
1 Tb rum or coffee
A small saucepan set over not-quite-simmering water
3 Tb unsalted butter
A bowl of cold water
A small, flexible blade-spatula, or a table knife

Stir the chocolate and rum or coffee in the saucepan over the hot water until chocolate has melted into a very smooth cream. Remove saucepan from hot water, and beat the butter into the chocolate, a tablespoon at a time. Then beat over cold water until chocolate mixture is cool and of spreading consistency. At once spread it over your cake with the spatula or knife.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Soup in the summer

With the exception of gazpacho, many Americans don't really think about soup as a summer option. Soups conjure up images of wool sweaters, scarves and cold, snowy days. What could be better on a winter day than a flavorful, hot liquid filled with chunks of vegetables or meat? Soup is the ultimate comfort food on those days when all we can think about is getting inside to a warm house.

But soups are great meal options during the summer. I can hear you thinking: Who wants to eat hot soup during the summer? I just returned from East Asia, where slurping down a big bowl of steaming hot soup is very common. I ate hot soup every day that I was in Malaysia. I even ate it on the plane! Yep, Korean Air serves hot miso soup as part of the meal service. For East Asia, hot soups are just the right thing to eat during the hot weather season. (It's the same idea in many developing countries, such as Jamaica, where hot tea on a daily basis is common, despite the tropical climate.)

Don't worry -- I'm not going to post a hot soup recipe. I just wanted to discuss what different cultures believe about the subject. I have a wonderful cold soup recipe to share. I served sparkling berry soup as a first course during a hot summer day for several friends whom I had invited over for dinner. It was refreshing and quite good.

I can not stress enough how crucial it is to use only freshly squeezed juices. Sure it's more time-consuming, but the difference in taste between fresh and bottled juice is noticeable. As you remember if you read my earlier blog on lemons, I love their taste. I added a little more than the recipe's indicated 1/4 cup. It's a matter of personal taste, I suppose. I used Asti Spumante, which worked fine. Given the ingredients in the soup, I thought that ice cream would be too much. Instead, I used a frozen vanilla yogurt. It was light and also provided a contrast in color. I was so pressed getting dinner ready, that I didn't even bother trying to track down the flowers for the garnish. I used fresh mint, which worked quite nicely.


Sparkling Berry Soup

6 cups stemmed ripe berries such as strawberries, raspberries or blackberries (one kind or an assortment)
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar, or to taste
2 cups Asti Spumante, Champagne, or other sparkling wine
Berry sorbet, frozen vanilla yogurt or rich vanilla ice cream
whole fresh berries for garmish
Pesticide-free non-toxic flowers such as borage, forget-me-nots, violas or violets for garnish (optional)

Serves 6 as a soup course or dessert.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Food Notes from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Greetings from Malaysia!

I am in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, delivering a corporate training. Doing so keeps me occupied from about 7:30am until 5:30pm. What's always on my mind is food! I've written a few posts on the glories of South East Asian cooking. It's quite a treat to actually be in the country that has developed one of my favorite cuisines! The best way to describe it, is China-meets-India. Typical ingredients include dried shrimp, cilantro, garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, chilies of all kinds, and coconut milk. How can you go wrong with those ingredients? You can't! Malaysian food is also hearty. Breakfast consists of rice dishes, sambals, and noodles with fish, chicken and seafood.

This is not my first trip to Malaysia. I had the privilege of coming here two years ago, around the same time of year. As I walked the streets, I remembered my first experience with food here two years ago. I vividly remember asking the hotel concierge for a restaurant recommendation. My specific charge was, "I want to go to a local Malaysian restaurant. I don't want to eat where the Westerners do." I don't have anything against Westerners. I, myself, am from the West! But I am a bit of a food purist. When I go to a foreign country, I want to enjoy the full benefit and pleasure of immersing myself in the local culture. I don't want to eat McDonald's, Pizza Hut or a cheeseburger when I go abroad. I want to experience local cuisine!

The concierge gave me the name of a restaurant, which was walking distance from the hotel. He assured me with a smile that I would be delighted with the Malaysian food at this place. Needless to say, I was suspicious. Sadly, I was right to doubt my friend at the concierge desk. I set out midday (it took a full night's sleep plus the next morning to overcome jet lag from the 23-hour flight) in search of this authentic Malaysia restaurant. I knew I was in trouble when I entered an upscale high-rise building that was full of Westerners. Surely I was in the wrong place! Upon asking people emerging from the elevator whether the restaurant was in the building, I was told to go to the top floor. I became more suspicious.

I knew instinctively that I was in the wrong place. But i had to confirm my suspicions. I exited the elevator and entered the restaurant. A cursory look at the diners suggested that this was not a local restaurant at all, but one that catered to a Western palette. The host handed me a menu, which featured more continental dishes than Malaysian ones. To add insult to injury, the price for eating at this fine establishment was not cheap! Dinner for 1 would have cost about $40. There was no way that I was going to pay that for non-Malaysian food.
Disgusted, I handed the menu back to the host and took the elevator to the ground floor.

My mission remained unchanged: find a good-quality, local, Malaysian restaurant. How hard could that be? I asked the Westerners whom I found chatting on the ground floor. They looked at me oddly and told me that they couldn't help. Oh, well. I was not deterred. My experience with foreign travel kicked in and my strategy crystallized. I walked over to a section of the street where construction workers were repairing the road. I asked the guys (all local Malaysians) for a recommendation: "Where do you guys eat lunch?" They immediately responded with two suggestions, one of which was walking distance from where I was standing. I should have asked these folks and not bothered with the concierge. At least I got some exercise out of it.

Anyway, I made my way to Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, affectionately known as KLCC. I followed the guys' instructions and took the escalator to the 4th floor and walked to the far end to the food court. This is not a food court filled with chain restaurants. It has about 20 local small restaurants that sell Malaysian, Thai, Singaporean, Chinese and Vietnamese food. I looked at the diners and smiled as I noticed that I was the only foreigner. I breathed a sigh of relief and knew that I was in the right place. I went to one of the stalls on the right and ordered from a menu that had not one English word on it! I pointed, nodded and smiled my way through my order and was thrilled with the experience.

First of all, a huge bowl of curry mee and several little appetizers cost about $3.00!!!! I sat down with my chopsticks and spoon and dug in. The curry mee was rich with coconut milk and a range of spices typical to Malaysian cuisine (cumin, coriander, cardamon, chili powder, etc.). In the soup were prawns, bean sprouts, tiny green beans, fish balls and noodles. It was perfectly seasoned and deeply satisfying.

On this trip, I was armed with this memory. So after I got over jet lag, I made my way to KLCC once again. The experience was the same -- fun, rewarding and very inexpensive. I'm a sucker for curry mee, so I ordered another bowl. I also ordered deep fried wontons filled with a chicken-shrimp mixture and served with a duck sauce. Delicious!!!!!

After I finish writing this post, I'm heading over to KLCC to eat. This time, I'll order something different. Then I'll go to the bookstore and pick out a Malaysian cookbook.

Keep your eyes peeled for posts of recipes from Malaysia.