"One gentleman ate a slice, walked over, gave me a hug, kissed me on both cheeks, and said, ‘That is the best cake I ever had,' " recalls Meg Galus. That could be the highest accomplishment for a chef who declares, "I want to make people happy."
Galus has been fortunate; her first job after French Pastry School in Chicago was under chef Gale Gand at Tru, which has always had a notable dessert program. "I loved it. It was intense but I knew starting out I wanted to be where dessert wasn't an afterthought," she says. "At a lot of restaurants, it is."
NoMi Kitchen at the Park Hyatt, her current home, shares that approach. "It's upscale, but also small and very food-focused," Galus says. Being part of a larger organization affords certain opportunities, as well. The cake incident took place at a pop-up retail store Galus opened in the hotel lobby between Easter and Mother's Day.
Do not assume that her formal training and having worked solely at tony places means that she turns out overwrought desserts. Galus—who says, "I'm from the cornfields of the Midwest"—describes her style as "approachable but refined. I might include an unexpected flavor or texture but nothing shocking."
This cake is a good example of that approach. Chocolate layer cake is a great icon, and people tend to have strong opinions about it. Her approach is simple: "How do we make it the absolute best? Not [with] far-flung ingredients, not new, just best." She deepens flavors by using the best chocolate she can find. The cake is rich, but not too heavy, and the ganache is creamy and mouthcoating.
Just as chocolates from different places have different characters, so too do vanillas. Galus uses three in her vanilla ice cream. "First you get the Tahitian floral, then spicy Mexican, then mellow Madagascar," she says.
Beverage manager Kevin Beary oversees NoMi's Best of Award of Excellence wine list and the bar program. Beary's primary consideration in matching a cocktail is the base: "Alcohol is certainly a consideration. Cognac and Scotch take a little coaxing to not blow out your palate before you get to enjoy the cocktail."
The drink here stems from the recent rediscovery of vermouth by bartenders. "There's a resurgence of fine sweet vermouth, and it makes for a great sipping spirit," Beary says. Two specific products drive the match. "Carpano is flavored with vanilla, so is good with chocolate," he explains. Scotch-based Drambuie also has honey notes and an herbal edge: "I can add a little sweetness and Scotch character, but not overly."
Alone, the drink is sweet and refreshing by turns. Enjoyed with the cake, it will appeal especially to people who love citrus with chocolate.
"You don't need dessert to survive," Galus concludes, "but it is hugely important for pleasure. I love dessert. Plus, I don't want to break down fish every day."
Chocolate Layer Cake
To Make the Cake
2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 large eggs
1 3/8 cup whole milk
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 3/8 cup hot water
1. Preheat an oven to 350° F.
2. Working over a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the eggs, milk, oil and vanilla, and mix on medium-low speed until well-combined. Add the sugar and continue to mix until smooth.
4. Add the dry ingredients and whisk for 5 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl if necessary.
5. With the mixer off, add the hot water. Mix on low speed until just combined.
6. Line a 9-inch round cake pan with 3-inch-high sides with parchment paper, or spray it evenly with nonstick baking spray. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center emerges clean. Cool completely and wrap in plastic, or hold in a cake container until ready to assemble.
To Make the Bittersweet Ganache
3 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup light corn syrup
2 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter
12 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
6 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the cream, corn syrup, sugar, salt and butter. Stir lightly to distribute the sugar, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to keep the sugar and cream from scorching.
2. In the meantime, fill a medium pot half-full with water and bring to a simmer. Combine the unsweetened chocolate and bittersweet chocolate in a large stainless-steel bowl, and place it over the simmering water. Hold the side of the bowl with an oven mitt or towel and stir the chocolate frequently to facilitate even melting. Remove from heat once the chocolate is completely melted.
3. Once the cream mixture reaches a boil, remove it from the heat and pour about 1/2 cup of it into the chocolate mixture and whisk vigorously to incorporate. Add another 1/2 cup of the cream mixture and whisk again to incorporate. Add the remaining cream mixture and the vanilla extract, and whisk until smooth, or finish mixing with an immersion blender if desired.
4. Transfer the chocolate mixture to a glass casserole dish. Press plastic wrap against the surface of the ganache, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.
To Assemble the Dish
Fudge cake (from above)
Bittersweet ganache (from above)
1. Remove the ganache from the refrigerator about 2 hours before you plan to use it to ice the cake.
2. Using a serrated knife, slice the cake horizontally into 3 1-inch layers. Spread ganache in 1/4-inch layer on top of the bottom layer, and do the same with each layer as it's stacked. Use the ganache to coat the sides of the cake completely. (Cover and refrigerate any remaining ganache for up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 2 months.)
3. If desired, create a ripple pattern in the ganache by spinning the cake on a turntable while scraping it lightly with an offset spatula. Makes one 9-inch cake.
Park Hyatt Chicago
800 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago
Telephone (312) 239-4030
Wine Spectator Award Best of Award of Excellence
Restaurant’s Spirits Match “Rhyme and Reason” sweet vermouth and Drambuie cocktail