Alice Medrich feels uneasy. She's concerned the elegant photographs in her book "Cocolat" (Warner Books, 1990: $35) will intimidate people. "I don't want them to see the desserts as so perfect they think they could never do that, because they can with my help."
Take the marbled glaze pictured on her version of Queen of Sheba cake, for example. At first glance it's hard to fathom the technique used to create this effect, but Medrich's instructions in the chapter on finishing techniques reveal it's really very easy. She demonstrated this procedure along with two others on a recent visit to The Times Test Kitchen.
Most chocolate tortes rise like a souffle while baking, then fall in the center as they cool, explained Medrich. Because of this, the cakes must be leveled prior to glazing. Before removing the torte from the pan, run a small metal spatula between the cake and pan sides, then simply press the raised edges down with your fingertips (Step 1) until they are level with the center.
Place a cardboard circle on the torte, release the sides of the springform pan and invert the torte so the bottom becomes the top. Remove the pan bottom and the paper lining (Step 2). If the cake is still uneven, level it again by pressing the top firmly with the bottom of the empty cake pan.
These tortes may be served plain, but they can also be decorated with a variety of techniques--most of which are interchangeable.
Medrich suggests using stencils as one easy way to finish a dessert. Powdered sugar, cocoa, ground cinnamon, pulverized nuts or grated chocolate make good dusting materials, alone or in combination.
Doilies are often used as stencils, but Medrich also includes directions for making custom designs. In the section of additional tips, she recommends using a very fine strainer and gently tapping it on the side (Step 3) to control how heavy the dusting material falls. The stencil must be carefully removed (Step 4) so as not to smudge the design.
When cakes are to be finished with a glaze, they must first be crumb-coated. This is a thin layer of cooled chocolate glaze spread over the torte (Step 5) to smooth the surface, fill cracks and "glue" on loose crumbs. The crumb coat will not be glossy or attractive, warns Medrich, but it provides a smooth, even undercoat for the final glaze.
Refrigerate the torte about 10 minutes, or just until the crumb coat is set. If the coating becomes too cold, it will dull the final glaze.
Meanwhile, rewarm the remaining glaze in a barely simmering water bath for a few seconds, stirring gently until the glaze is perfectly smooth. It should be between 90 and 92 degrees and the consistency of heavy cream.
Center the crumb-coated torte on a platter or turntable. Have ready a clean, dry metal icing spatula. Pour all the glaze in the center of the top of the torte (Step 6). Working quickly, use two or three spatula strokes to spread the glaze over the top and let it run down over the sides (Step 7). Turn the platter or turntable as you spread the glaze.
Use the spatula to scoop up excess glaze and cover any bare spots on the sides. Jiggle or rap the turntable gently to settle uneven glaze or spatula tracks. Do not respread or resmooth once the glaze has started to set or the finished torte will show spatula marks and dull streaks.
Once the torte is glazed, slide a wide spatula underneath and remove it to a rack to dry at room temperature. Keep the torte as level as possible while lifting and transferring so the wet glaze on top doesn't shift before setting. The glaze will set in 10 to 20 minutes.
Marbling the top requires some advance preparation so it can be done quickly, before the glaze sets. Melt one ounce of white chocolate and one ounce of milk chocolate in small bowls in a barely simmering water bath. Place each in a small paper cone.
Snip the tips of the cones with a sharp pair of scissors to make a small opening, just large enough to allow the chocolate to flow when the cone is squeezed. Have a fine artist's brush or a thin wooden skewer handy.
As soon as the torte is glazed, pipe loose loopy scribble over the cake (Step 8). Both colors may be done at the same time, or pipe first with milk chocolate and then overlap with white chocolate.
Using a series of bisecting strokes, draw the brush across the edges of the cake (Step 9), letting each stroke cross over the previous one, continuing around the cake and gradually moving in toward the center. Finish the sides by pressing on coarsely chopped hazelnuts (Step 10).
For an alternate finishing technique, the melted chocolates can be piped in a zigzag pattern. Beginning at the center, pipe five free-form milk chocolate figures around the cake, then overlap with five made from white chocolate (Step 11).
CHOCOLATE HAZELNUT TORTE
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
6 ounces unsalted butter
4 eggs, separated
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup ground toasted hazelnuts
1/4 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
Powdered sugar, optional