Have Your Cake
Any way you slice it, chocolate wins the day
By Sam Gugino
|How to Get It|
|Food and Wine Matching|
|Discuss Food and Wine With Other Readers|
|Other Tastes Columns|
|Other food-related Special Features|
At the legendary Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia, the three layers of chocolate sponge in their classic chocolate génoise are moistened with aged dark rum, covered with whipped chocolate buttercream and garnished with bittersweet chocolate fans. "It's the most popular of our desserts," says Robert Bennett, who has since finished his 14-year stint as the restaurant's pastry chef.
At Bradley Ogden's Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, Calif., the signature beet chocolate cake has been on the menu since the restaurant opened in 1989. The beets intensify the chocolate flavor and give deeper color and more moisture to the cake, which is layered with chocolate ganache and served with chocolate malt ice cream.
Clearly, favorites tend to stick around. When the American pastry revolution took off in New York City in the early '90s, a chocolate cake emerged that since has become a new classic: the molten-center chocolate cake. "It started at Jo Jo's, and it knocked us all out," says Wayne Brachman, pastry chef for Tapika, Strip House and Michael Jordan's steak house restaurants in New York. "We had never seen anything like it before. It was packed with [French chocolate maker] Valrhona chocolate, which was just being introduced at that time. Then we all had to have Valrhona."
While some put ganache (melted chocolate and cream) or chocolate truffles inside a normal cake to achieve the molten center, Gale Gand, executive pastry chef and co-owner of Tru and Brasserie T restaurants in Chicago, says the true molten cake is really just a cake with an underdone center. While every other menu seems to list one these days—"it's like Caesar salad," Gand says—pastry chefs are giving the molten chocolate cake new twists. Brachman's version at the Strip House has a center made with gianduja (a sensuous hazelnut-flavored chocolate) and is wrapped with filo dough. "Like a chicken Kiev, but hold the chicken," he says.
The retro-foods movement has brought back the 1950s Chocolate Blackout cake, for which Ebinger's Bakery in Brooklyn, N.Y., was once famous. This is a devil's food cake layered with chocolate pudding and covered with cake crumbs. "Transplanted Brooklynites I've made it for have been brought to tears," Gand says. "The key is to eat it the same day or the pudding soaks into the cake and the layers become undefined."
In 1832, Franz Sacher, a chef to Austria's Prince Metternich, created what has become the most famous chocolate cake of all-time, the Sacher torte. "Sacher torte is beloved for the rich chocolate of its basic cake and the glossy, intense bittersweet frosting, which is poured over a thin apricot-jam glaze," write Marcia and Frederic Morton in Chocolate, an Illustrated History.
Today, when his customers want a full-throttle chocolate cake experience, they ask for a Sacher torte, says François Payard, owner of Payard Patisserie & Bistro in New York. "But mine is different. The Viennese was just sponge cake and no layers. Ours is layered with ganache and raspberry, not apricot," he says, adding French bravado, "Ours is better."
While all these popular cakes are miles apart in style, one thing they have in common is higher quality chocolate than was available in the days of Ozzie and Harriet. Ogden uses Valrhona chocolates, while Bennett prefers chocolate-maker Barry Callebaut's Cacao Barry, also made in France. Most of us were raised on the cheaper milk chocolate found in candy bars, but today chocolate manufacturers are providing a greater range of choices. High quality chocolate now comes in different strengths, based on higher or lower percentages of cocoa. "People are becoming more aware of high quality cocoa," says Condra Easley, co-owner of Pâtisserie Angelica in Santa Rosa, Calif. "They come in and ask 'Is that 70 percent [cocoa]?'"
Some chocolate is now also varietal, made from cocoa beans of a single origin rather than a blend from several places. Single-origin beans can give the chocolate a more focused flavor, and character reflecting a region's terroir. Bennett uses Indonesian Valrhona Manjari chocolate (with one of the higher percentages of cocoa, at 64 percent) in a mousse, which is mixed with crème brûlée for the filling of one of his cakes. "It's a very fruity chocolate, which plays off the creaminess of the crème brûlée," he says.
A good chocolate cake should have an intense, high quality chocolate flavor without too much sweetness. And the cake should also be light on its feet, even if it weighs a ton. "It should be sort of ethereal. You should be waiting for the next piece," says Marcel Desaulniers, author of Death by Chocolate Cakes and chef and co-owner of The Trellis restaurant in Williamsburg, Va. His seven-layer Death by Chocolate cake keeps the customers coming back, even though it weighs a pound a slice.
Most bakeries and pastry shops don't ship chocolate cakes due to the belief that they won't hold up in transit. Some only do it for special occasions; like Payard, who sells mail-order flourless chocolate cakes for Passover. But Phyllis Trier, owner of Bittersweet Pastries in Orangeburg, N.Y., says it's all in the packaging. "I've seen very fragile mousse cakes that travel well if they're packaged right," she says.
To find out how a well-traveled chocolate cake tastes, I tried six, all of which arrived in fine condition. My favorite was the luxurious Classic Chocolate Truffle Cake from Bittersweet Pastries for its intense chocolate flavor nicely accented with coffee. The Harvard Square from L.A. Burdick in Walpole, N.H., is more brownie than cake, but oh what a brownie! And the rustic looking Cardinal Sin from Pâtisserie Angelica was just creamy and chocolaty enough to merit ordering again. But the next three were not. Though smooth and light, the Triple Chocolate Torte from Fran's Chocolates in Seattle, Wash., tasted rather commercial, with an almost artificial fruitiness. Chocolate Velvet Mousse Cake, a chocolate mousse filled behemoth from Balducci's in Farmingdale, N.Y., had more weight than taste. And Williecake from Issimo Bakery in San Diego, Calif., was more fudge ball than cake.
I happen to think coffee or tea (Darjeeling would be my choice) are just dandy with chocolate cake, and sweet Madeira and Port (tawny with a nut-filled cake, ruby with raspberry filling) are also good accompaniments. Though orange and chocolate are frequent partners, I found Grand Marnier too alcoholic. The big surprise was how well ice wine and a frothy Asti went with chocolate cake. It may seem like an odd combination, but then, who would have guessed that chocolate could pair so brilliantly with beets?
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of the recently published Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock.
Celebration Specialty Foods
Santa Monica, Calif.
Dean & Deluca
Fran's Chocolate, Ltd.
L.A. Burdick Chocolates