Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Absence makes the heart grow fonder: eat some chocolate cake!

Well, this working girl has been...working. Like a 14th century peasant wrestling to survive starvation during a country-wide famine I...

...Um, broad, ridiculous exaggeration. However, sixty-plus hours a week is not my idea of a Roman Holiday.

In order to meet the demands of the working single woman, I was forced to step away from my usual active social life and interests this summer. Though this was a different direction than I had intended to take, it has been a good experience. For one, such absences made my heart grow fonder. I found out what I was really missing, as well as what I could live with less of. Besides giving up contact with most of the beloved people in my life, I also had to forgo many of the large and little acts I enjoy. One such act was baking.

I hadn't baked anything inspiring in months. No 3- and 4-layer cakes with fancy buttercreams and metallic copper dust, or homey little desserts swathed in a pool of heavy cream. Let's just say, this long summer absence not only made my heart grow fonder but my waistband looser. 

And then I remembered: Fellowship group was Thursday night at my apartment. There was this recipe for chocolate cake that kept surfacing in my mind. It was for Julia Child's Queen of Sheba Cake...

The recipe both intrigued me and scared me. It's not a traditional American cake with frosting and crumbs. What if I hated it? What if it was a waste of perfectly great (read: expensive) chocolate? I decided I wouldn't know until I tried it. If it was disappointing (or absolutely terrible), I could always serve tiny pieces drowned in several vast scoops of vanilla ice cream

Julia Child, you publish no terrible recipes (except for calf's foot aspic. Gross).  I made the cake in under 30 minutes. I had a few bumps. I forgot the flour and had to add it after I had folded in the egg whites. (This is a no-no in the baking world, if you didn't know already; doing this deflates the leavening action of the egg whites) I didn't have unsweetened chocolate so I used all bittersweet and lessened the sugar. And I baked the entire thing in an 8-inch square stoneware pan.

Despite the bumps and the fact I had been out of the kitchen for some months, when I took my first bite of that cake, it was pure bliss. As the recipe note said, the chocolate texture is softly yielding: somewhere in-between a brownie, torte, and macaroon. Such a cake is too sophisticated to be paired with icy cold milk, like my usual chocolate layer cakes. You're better off pairing it with really strong coffee (espresso!) or tea. The icing was lovely. But next time I want to experiment and top the cake with a thin layer of ganache.

I have never tasted anything like this before. I am totally in rapturous love with this cake, and I will definitely be baking Queen Sheba in my oven again. (Yes, I intentionally worded it like that. Tongue-in-cheek!)

Here's the recipe, with my alterations.

The Queen of Sheba or  Reine de Saba

adapted from The Way to Cook by Julia Child

My note: there are no other leaveners, such as baking soda, in this cake. It's all in the egg whites. So be patient and whip it good.

Use a round 8" by 1 1/2" deep pan [I cheated and used a square 8" pan; it worked just as well.]

The chocolate
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (at least 60% or darker)
2 tablespoons dark rum or strong coffee

4 ounces (1 stick) softened butter
1/3 cup sugar
3 egg yolks

The egg whites
3 egg whites
A pinch of salt
2 tablespoons sugar

The flours
1/3 cup blanched almonds pulverized with 2 tablespoons sugar in food processor/blender

1/2 cup plain bleached cake flour
    OR  1/3 cup all-purpose flour

The method
Butter and flour your cake pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, and set the rack in the lower middle level.

Pulverize your blanched almonds and sugar until they are a nice, fluffy powder. Do not over-pulverize. Set aside.

Chop or break chocolate into small pieces. Place in a tall bowl or saucepan and add the rum or coffee; cover the pan with some foil. Pour 2 to 3 inches of water into a larger pan and bring to the simmer. Remove from heat and set the smaller saucepan/bowl inside the water-filled pan. Let sit for five minutes, stirring chocolate-coffee mixture occasionally. It should soon be warm and completely melted, about 5 minutes. If it's not, return it to the heat for a bit.

Cut the butter into chunks and cream it in a bowl. When soft and fluffy, add the sugar and beat 1 minute, then beat in the egg yolks one at a time.

Using a spotless, clean bowl and beaters -- absolutely no exceptions! -- begin beating the egg whites at moderately slow speed until they are foamy – 2 minutes or so. Add a pinch of salt. Gradually increase the speed to fast (or high) and continue until soft peaks are formed. Gradually beat in the 2 tablespoons of sugar and continue until stiff shining peaks are formed. The peaks should stand straight up when you pull your beaters out of the bowl and hold them upside-down.

At once blend the melted chocolate-coffee mixture into the creamed butter-yolk mixture, then add the almonds and almond extract. With a larger rubber spatula, stir a quarter of the egg whites into the chocolate to lighten it. Scoop the rest of the whites over the chocolate and, alternating with sprinkles of flour, rapidly and delicately fold in the egg whites.

Gently spoon batter into prepared pan and carefully smooth the surface flat. (Don't mix it too much or you'll lose the air from the beaten egg whites.) 

Bake 25 minutes at 350 degrees F. The cake is done when it has puffed to the top of the
pan and a toothpick inserted into the cake 2 and 3 inches from the edges of the pan comes out clean. The center, however, should move slightly when the pan is gently shaken. (Chocolate cakes of the French typeshould not be cooked dry.)

Remove the pan to the rack and let cool 15 minutes; unmold onto the rack. Let cool completely – 2 hours – before serving or icing. [I didn't unmold it. And I let it cool maybe 30-45 minutes, then I iced away!]

Serving note: French chocolate cakes are at their best when served at near room temperature – chilled, the chocolate is partly congealed rather than being softly yielding.

[Julia's notes:  May be wrapped airtight and refrigerated for 2 to 3 days, or may be frozen for several weeks. That limit is for the safe side. However, during the taping of our videocassettes in California we made quite a number. I took two home to Massachusetts and didn’t serve one of them until a year later – delicious.]

Soft Chocolate Icing
2 ounces sweet chocolate
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
    OR 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate [that's what I used]
1 1/2 tablespoons rum or strong coffee

A pinch of salt

3 ounces (6 tablespoons) unsalted softened butter

Melt the chocolates with the rum or coffee as instructed for cake above. When smooth and glistening, beat in the salt, then the butter
a tablespoon at a time. Beat over cold water until firm enough to spread. Turn the icing on to of the cake; spread it over the top and sides. [I just spread it on the top.]

Garnish with blanched sliced almonds and edible bronze dust, if you're feelin' swanky.


  1. Keturah, this sounds like an excellent indulgence that I might have the courage to make some day. I have also not been baking or cooking very much lately, so I definitely know your situation right now. Also, this is so well written, it made my mouth water!

  2. Oh, Beth! Thank you for your kind words! It was yummy, indeed. Do make it, you won't regret it. It really is an unforgettable cake. I want to make one right now :-)