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Deep, dark inspiration

High-cacao chocolate gives creative chefs a reason to get intense about cake -- and make an all-time favorite even better.

September 17, 2003|Susan LaTempa | Special to The Times

Is there any dessert more beloved than chocolate cake?

It's the bestseller on sophisticated menus, and the staple of children's birthday parties. It's the decadent treat worth breaking your diet for, and the comfort food that you never tire of. We've adored it -- in all its many forms -- for more than 400 years, when the first recipes for chocolate cake were written down in northern Italy.

Back then, a torta di cioccolata might have been embellished with almonds or hazelnuts. A hundred years later, a German prince's pastry chef added apricot preserves to make the Sacher torte. In early 20th century America, devil's food cake was so popular that every home cook had a much-treasured recipe with some secret ingredient, be it mayonnaise or Coca-Cola. Adding a little something special to chocolate cake seems to be as irresistible as the dessert itself.

Today's chefs are carrying on the tradition, partly inspired by a new generation of high-cacao chocolate. This extra-dark chocolate has a bitter edge that blends well with a whole range of spices, herbs and other ingredients. When you order chocolate cake for dessert, you never know what you're going to get -- tall and fluffy or dense and fudgy, sweet and silky or chunky and bitter? -- because chefs keep reinventing this already fabulous invention.

Some tinker with the cake, some with the icing or filling.

At Engine Co. No. 28, for example, the classic double-chocolate layer cake created by founding executive chef Ed Kasky has a silky ganache filling and frosting. The recipe updates the all-American chocolate cake with the addition of a flavor-intensifying ingredient: coffee. (The current executive chef, Kenneth McCaskill, says that pastry chefs have been known to substitute espresso for even more intensity.)

This cake calls for three kinds of chocolate: cocoa powder, chopped semisweet chocolate and chopped bittersweet chocolate. It's a moist, richly flavored cake. Enjoy it with -- what else? -- a cup of strong coffee.

The cake created by pastry chef Julie Hewitt of Restaurant Halie in Pasadena is deliciously intriguing -- a dense truffle-like cake, with a bright hint of herbaceousness.

"I was in the kitchen trying to imagine what I could combine with chocolate," explains Hewitt, "and I was going to chop some chocolate. I borrowed a knife from a prep cook who was chopping fresh bay laurel leaves and the aroma just hit me. Then it was, 'What if I put it in the ganache?' "

Hewitt, who previously worked under Sherry Yard at Spago, tweaked a chocolate truffle cake recipe to develop an almost-flourless, not-too-sweet, very sophisticated dessert. At Restaurant Halie, it's served with blackberry compote and blackberry ice cream. We liked it naked, and thought a glass of Port would make a fine partner.

The Love Goddess Cake is a real discovery, made by Patti Peck, executive chef at Edendale Grill in Silver Lake (who credits chocolatiers Julie Lang and Katrina Markoff).

On the most basic level, it combines the light, sweet texture of a towering chocolate layer cake with a subtle kick of chile. But that description doesn't come close to capturing the effect. On first bite, the chiles' heat is subdued, and you get a delicate cake with a surprising depth of flavor. Then, seconds later, there's a sensation of fireworks.

"I like the complexity of flavor," says Peck, "The Old World ancient ingredients." She suggests serving it with a coffee-flavored tequila liqueur to continue the roasted flavors.

*

Chocolate cake with bay laurel

Total time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, plus chilling time

Servings: 8 to 10

Note: From Julie Hewitt of Restaurant Halie.

Chocolate-laurel ganache

1 cup heavy cream, divided

1/3cup chopped fresh bay laurel leaves (about 10)

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (preferably 64% cacao) finely chopped

4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into small pieces

1. In a small saucepan, heat one-half cup of the cream with the chopped laurel to a simmer. Turn off the heat and steep for 30 minutes. Return the mixture to the heat. Add the remaining one-half cup cream and bring to a light boil, then remove from heat. Strain out the leaves and discard.

2. Pour the cream over the chopped chocolate. Let the mixture stand for 5 minutes. Whisk to melt the chocolate, then whisk in the butter, one piece at a time, until smooth.

3. Pour into an 8-inch springform pan and use a spatula to smooth the top. Allow to cool slightly at room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

4. When the ganache is firm, release it from the springform pan and cut it into small triangles. Place in the refrigerator. (You will have some of this ganache remaining after making the cake; it makes a good snack.)

Cake

9 ounces bittersweet chocolate (62% cacao) finely chopped

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, chopped

3 eggs, room temperature

4 egg yolks, room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup pastry flour

1 tablespoon cocoa powder, for garnish

1 tablespoon powdered sugar, for garnish

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