Thursday, January 14, 2010

a beginning

It can be difficult to know where to start.

I'd hoped to skip the arbitrary introductions. There are a number of players in this story of mine, and you're really going to love them: the people, the dogs; my kitchen; the restaurant, too - they'll charm the pants right off of you, I promise. But you'll get to know them, and myself, all in good time. If I'm to do us all justice, I really ought to pace myself.

A recipe for pickles seemed an apropos launch pad (the vinegar, you know - you saw my title, right?), but there's not much growing during a Pittsburgh January that you'd want to preserve for any period of time. I don't have anything in my repertoire that I'd call a "signature dish," nor do I think I could ever pick a favorite. I could have begun this hootenanny with a recipe for something I've been eating a lot of lately, but I doubted I'd impress anyone with bowls of oatmeal or a formula for "salads at the restaurant using whatever I'm not tired of yet." The most recent installment of the latter involved, among other things, ginger, hardboiled eggs, and dried cranberries. The whole mess was surprisingly good, but "tasty" doesn't always guarantee a good first impression.

As I said, it can be difficult to know where to start. But inspiration makes a great diving board, and picking up where inspiration left off is as good a spot to begin as any.

I can't remember, now, how I found Orangette, but I was an instant fan. I'm not much of a baker (as you'll soon learn), and she definitely is, but I love Molly's rustic, charming recipes and her darling self all the same. When her book was released last year, I consumed it in about three hours, and the recipe with which she ended was the first I used. It's a recipe you can also find on her 'blog, a recipe for a chocolate cake that just happens to be the one she served at her wedding. Which she made herself, by the way; I told you she was something.

But anyway, the cake. It is titled, almost irresistibly, The "Winning Hearts & Minds" Cake. If that doesn't inspire you to preheat your oven, I'm not sure that we can be friends. I was so moved to make it, in fact, that I couldn't even wait to run to the store.

And herein lies the reason that I'm sharing this recipe with you on our first meeting.

I need to admit from the get-go, from our first sit-down together, that I am not really a recipe person. I love to cook, and I love reading the recipes of others. I even, occasionally, write my own. But I am imprecise, and prone to bouts of laziness, and rather devil-may-care in my culinary endeavors. Recipes are, to me, generally too restrictive - hence, my poor (and I mean poor) baking skills. I eyeball, I taste, I adjust, tweak, throw caution to the wind. I'm a good cook, I really am. Just not on paper. And this cake proves it - proves the good, the bad, the ugly.

The recipe that Molly gives for The "Winning Hearts & Minds" Cake is relatively simple. Some good chocolate and unsalted butter, melted and blended into some sugar and eggs and the scantest bit of flour, it's almost impossible to get wrong. Below, I give you Molly's original ingredients (the same used in the recipe that's linked above, one that actually deviates slightly from the one published in her book), as well as the modifications that I made on that first go-'round. If you're a recipe person, I beg you to follow Molly's to the letter; her cake will, as its name suggests, absolutely swindle you. If you're a devil-may-care anti-baker, then I happily suggest you read my notes and take your own personal crack at it. Either way, this cake is going to win you over, whether I have or not. Enjoy.

The "Winning Hearts and Minds" Cake
Orangette, 2004

7 ounces dark chocolate
7 ounces unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
5 large eggs
1 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour


4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, plus 3 ounches bittersweet chocolate chips
1.75 sticks unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1.5 cups dark brown sugar, packed
5 eggs
1 Tbs AP flour

When I made this cake, I found myself shamefully short on a few of the ingredients - thus, my cobbled-looking list. Impatience got the better of me, and while I've since made this cake both ways, it's incredible either way and seemingly quite foolproof. Feel free to stick to the tried-and-true, or to deviate a little based upon your preferences and what you have on hand. It's always a good idea, though, to use the best chocolate and butter you can find, as this dense little vixen really showcases those flavors.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Melt the butter in a just-simmering double-boiler. Add the chocolate, and stir until thoroughly melted. [Note: I like to melt the butter first, separately, because I dip a pastry brush in and use it to butter the cake pan, but you wouldn't have to. You could melt it all together if you preferred.] Add the sugar, and continue to stir over the heat until the sugar is incorporated and the mixture is no longer grainy. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes.

Add the eggs [I like to bring them to room temperature] one at a time, thoroughly incorporating each before adding the next. Stir in the tablespoon of flour, and again mix thoroughly.

Pour the batter into your buttered [or otherwise oiled] cake pan, and slide it into the oven. Bake for 22-25 minutes, until the center is just set [it will still jiggle slightly] and the top looks shiny and shatter-y, like the surface of a batch of brownies.

Allow to cool completely before eating. The cake is delicious once cooled to room temp, but even more so after a day or two - and Molly actually thinks the flavor is improved by freezing [thaw before eating!]. Give it a shot, and see what you like. You'll not be disappointed, promise.

I know I keep saying it, but this cake really is delicious - no matter how you prepare it. If you're feeling adventurous, though, I've found that the recipe lends itself well to a number of different flavor variations. Consider adding a quarter cup of peanut butter, a half-teaspoon of powdered chipotle pepper, a full teaspoon of cinnamon, or a tablespoon of instant espresso to the butter-chocolate mixture. All are - one more time - delicious. Delicious.

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