Sunday, April 20, 2008

Best chocolate cake

Often, when trying to illustrate to friends how Americans differ from the French, I explain that if you are in Paris, strolling down a grand boulevard, and you have a sudden craving for mousse au chocolat and salade verte, you can duck into the nearest cafe and you will have an absolutely perfect mousse, and your perfect salad will be composed of pale green butter lettuce dressed with mustard vinaigrette; then, let's say that you resume your stroll and within a half-hour, you are assailed by another craving for mousse au chocolat and salade verte: again, you duck into the nearest cafe, chosen at random, and you will discover that the mousse and the salad that the waiter sets before you will be identical to the offerings at the last cafe. Now, if you repeat this procedure at five or six different Parisian cafes, chosen at random, in every case, your mousse au chocolat and your salade verte will be perfect, and perfectly alike. However, in America, if you were to try the experiment here, the mousse would be raspberry-flavored in one spot, garnished with mint leaves or sticky syrups in another, or laced with Kahlua or Cointreau in the third...and your salad could be composed of just about anything, from iceberg to hearts of palm, dried cranberries to bits of meat, shredded cheese to banana slices. None of these dishes would be perfect -- all of them would leave you wanting, either because the chef used inferior or ill-tempered chocolate in the mousse, or cheap corn oil in the salad dressing, or any one of the innovations would have taken away from the perfection. France is a country where people still believe in the ideal and pursue it in earnestness. In America, we believe in self-expression, novelty, invention.

Well, the following recipe is the result of months of experimentation -- not to find the cake that best expresses my soul, not to innovate on the theme of the chocolate cake, but simply to find the perfect chocolate cake. Here are my results:

6 oz first quality unsweetened chocolate (I use Lindt or Ghiardelli's)
3/4 cup strong coffee or espresso (decaf okay)
1/4 cup rum or cognac (this is okay, even for kid's cakes -- the alcohol bakes off)
3 1/4 cups of cake flour, sifted (measure after sifting)
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tablespoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 tablespoon sea salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened to the consistency of mayonnaise
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
6 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk

Butter and flour three 8" round cake pans. Then line the bottom of each with an 8" circle of baking parchment (not waxed paper!) -- butter and flour again. Preheat the oven to 345ºF. Melt the chocolate in the coffee and liquor -- so not overheat! Mix until smooth and set aside to cool to room temperature. Sift together the sifted cake flour, the cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and sea salt. Set aside. Cream the butter on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. While the butter is still beating, add the two sugars, one tablespoon at a time. When all the white and brown sugar are incorporated, scrape down the sides of the bowl and then beat for another 30 seconds. Add the vanilla and beat until mixed in. Then, with the mixer still beating, add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl with each addition. After all six eggs have been added, scrape down the sides of the bowl one more time, then beat for an additional 30 seconds. With the mixer on medium speed, slowly pour in the melted chocolate mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. When the batter is a uniform brown color, add one third of the flour mixture. Mix only until the flour is incorporated. Add half of the buttermilk. Mix again, just until incorporated. Add the second third of the flour mixture, do a minimum of mixing, add the remaining buttermilk and mix as little as necessary. Add the rest of the flour mixture and fold it in with careful, broad strokes of a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, just until the batter is of a smooth, even consistency. Divide the batter between the three prepared cake pans and bake in the center of the oven -- after 25 minutes, begin testing the cakes with a toothpick (stick it in the center of one of the layers) every five minutes until the toothpick comes out clean. Cool the layers for fifteen minutes in their pans. Then use a butter knife to cut around the edges of each pan and carefully tip them out onto a baking rack to finish cooling. Ice with chocolate ganache:

8 oz first-quality semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate (Lindt or Giardelli's are both good)
6 oz heavy whipping cream.

Break up the chocolate and place it in the bowl of your food processor. Process until the chocolate is in small pieces. Heat the cream to the boiling point. With the food processor running, pour the hot cream through the feed tube of the processor. The ganache should form right away. Use it immediately, while it is still hot. Pour it over the bottom layer of cake (already transfered to a plate), place the next layer on top and pour ganache over it, then place the final layer and pour a generous amount of ganache over all. Use a small metal spatula, or the back of a spoon, to spread the ganache drippings over the sides of the cake until it is evenly coated.

If you have leftover ganache, and you really have no idea what to do with it (and no kids to enlighten you), you can cool it in the fridge, roll it into small balls and then roll each ball in cocoa -- voilà, truffles!

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."