“Technique must be acquired, and, with technique, a love of the very processes of cooking. No artist can work simply for results; he must also like the work of getting them...if a man [sic] has never been pleasantly surprised at the way custard sets or flour thickens, there is not much hope of making a cook out of him...” – Robert Farrar Capon
I think of it as the Sunday falter. The way good intentions at the beginning of the day are quickly eclipsed by the growing anxieties of the week ahead. There is no doubt it will all be completed, but how? Even the planning side of me has to admit it can’t predict the details and so I often find myself on a Sunday loop of many attempted activities and only marginal successes to show for them.
So much of it can feel defeating in ways that are not remotely special. I question why I am even writing about it now! But it’s all been part of a larger process of growing up, of not knowing who you are or where exactly it is that you’re going, and of learning to feel confident and comfortable with a portfolio of false starts.
In all seriousness, dear reader, it is under this process of “trying” that I approach this project of writing out my food endeavors. I don’t have a brand or a lifestyle to show you—maybe one is simmering under the lid, but I don’t know what it looks like yet. I’m tired of feeling like I’m “not there yet”, as though after some threshold of work, a switch will be flipped and my unfinished vision will be reality. So I am trying to put what I have out there, thoughts that I know cannot be mine alone, in an effort to learn to love the process. It is telling that I identify as “cook” before I identify as “adult”—my hope is that loving the processes of the former can lead me to comfort in the processes of the latter.
This Sunday was no exception to the faltering rule, though I recognize that falter may be too strong a word. Hiccup? I don’t know. But I tried many tasks, only to find what felt like stagnation: A good run? Nope, walk half of it. Laundry? Preposterous! Cleaning the bathroom? Absolutely not. In the end, I relied on the stereotypical to help me turn it around: flourless chocolate cake. What can I say? I am only human.
As of late, I have had a strong proclivity for Deb Perelman’s recipes (of the smitten kitchen fame). Maybe it is her unabashed quirkiness or even her little quips that sneak their way into her recipes, but I’ve started to default to her for inspiration. Her recipes have the right level of home for me and so, on my half walk/run, I made up my mind that I would tinker with her “tiny but intense” chocolate cake: add some espresso powder for a deeper flavor and make a quick hazelnut praline for texture. Needless to say, my tinkering hit some speed bumps: I spaced that I was multiplying the recipe halfway through, forgot my hazelnuts in the oven while toasting, and despite reading the recipe three times before going to the store, didn’t realize it called for a spring form pan that I don't own. Many expletives and fast saves came from my kitchen yesterday, but the end result was simply sigh-inducing. Effervescent in texture, the cake melts on the tongue with deep chocolate satisfaction. Crunchy, toasty praline offsets the smooth texture and melds seamlessly with a simple and not-so-sweet whipped cream. This is a cake to save any day, regardless of how many times you faltered.
Flourless Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Deb Perelman’s “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook”
Because there are multiple components, this recipe looks like a lot of work. But trust me, it really comes together quickly and you will be proud of the end result.
½ c. chopped hazelnuts, skins removed
1 c. sugar
2 T. fresh lemon juice
9 T. unsalted butter
6 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped fine
4 eggs, separated
½ c. light brown sugar
½ t. vanilla
1/4 t. sea salt
Pinch of cinnamon
½ c. whipping cream
½ T. powdered sugar
Let’s start with the praline. Preheat your oven to 350 degree Fahrenheit. Spread hazelnuts on a sheet pan and toast in oven until fragrant and golden brown, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a heavily greased 8x12 cookie sheet. While toasting, pour the sugar and lemon juice into a saucepan, taking care not to get any sugar crystals on the walls of the pan. Cook over medium heat until the sugar melts and turns amber—don’t stir! Simply swirl the pan halfway through to ensure all of the sugar melts. Once melted, carefully pour the sugar mixture over the hazelnuts. After a few minutes to cool and firm, sprinkle with sea salt. Set aside to cool completely.
On to the cake! Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat and allow to brown. The butter will first spatter as the water evaporates and, as you stir continually to prevent burning, will begin to turn amber. Add chocolate and stir until all the chocolate melts. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool.
Using a mixer, beat egg yolks, brown sugar, and vanilla until well combined (Deb Perelman notes the “icky pale-yellow” color of this mixture and, of course, she is spot on). Slowly beat in the cooled chocolate mixture.
In a clean and dry bowl (with clean and dry beaters), beat egg whites and sea salt until stiff peaks form. Mix in one-third of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten. Then carefully fold in the rest of the egg whites.
Pour the mixture into a heavily greased 9-inch cake pan with a parchment lined bottom and bake in a 350 degree oven for 17-20 minutes. The cake will be done with a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out mostly clean—it is always better to undercook chocolate desserts. They will continue to cook as they cool and you can’t tell doneness based on color. If questioning, remove it!
Run a paring knife around the edges and let cool on a wire rack. Once cool, invert the cake onto the wire rack and invert again onto a serving platter.
Place cream and powdered sugar into mixer and whip until soft peaks form. Pick the pan with your praline off the counter by a few inches and drop it, so that your praline breaks into shards. Garnish your cooled cake with whipped cream and praline.