Monday, February 26, 2007

Another Birthday, Another Cake (with a Side of Pork)

As soon as I saw Le Fondant au Chocolat de Tante Amélie on Chocolate and Zucchini, I knew that I would have to make it for L.'s birthday. L. had not been terribly specific about what sort of birthday cake she wanted, except to say that she didn't want a cheesecake because A. had had a cheesecake for her birthday. She mentioned either an ice cream cake or a cake made with Oreos, and I countered by saying that I could make a chocolate cake and serve it with cookies & cream ice cream. That suggestion satisfied everyone.

The cake that Clothilde passed along is not quite flourless, but it's close. The gold standard of flourless chocolate cakes is the Chocolate Oblivion Truffle Torte from Rose Levy Beranbaum's Cake Bible, but the Fondant Amélie looked like it would be almost as good and significantly less trouble. I love taking some trouble with a cake, but I knew there was no way that I'd have time to pull off the COTT. It is something of a production, and it's a little hard on even my nerves, and I'm really not easily rattled in the kitchen.

Just how difficult it is to make me upset when I'm cooking was amply illustrated Friday night when I got home very late and still had to make the FA. I was very, very tired, and my judgment was obviously not what it should have been. I followed the instructions fairly precisely, and everything was fine until I went to turn the cake out of its pan.

I had decided to use a ten-inch cake pan in the hopes of producing a slightly more dramatic cake. I had forgotten, however, that I don't have an unlimited supply of plates that will hold a cake that big, and when I finally located the one I wanted, it was an inch or two wider than was entirely necessary. When I inverted the plate onto the cake pan and then inverted the cake pan (righting the plate) and the cake slid out, it was not centered on the plate.

I am, I assure you, more than experienced enough in baking (I have used a bain marie on countless occasions) to understand that a cake made with little flour is very tender even after it has fully cooled, let alone when it is still quite warm and has just come out of the pan. Again, I must plead exhaustion. In any case, rather than enjoying the asymmetry of the cake on the plate or sticking the cake in the refrigerator and centering it the next day, I put the cake pan back over the cake, turned it back over, shook it, centered the pan on the plate, reversed it again, and removed the cake pan.

I had succeeded in folding the center of the cake so that it now looked something like a football with a big ridge in the center. So I tried the entire process again, and this time the cake ripped into a few pieces.

I will confess, reader, that at this point, I was sufficiently distressed to utter a mild sigh. And then I said, "I guess I'm making another cake tomorrow." Then I got out a spoon and ate a few bites (fabulous), scraped the rest into a bowl, covered the bowl with plastic wrap, and put the whole thing in the refrigerator. (There is nothing quite like opening your refrigerator and realizing that you have about three cups of the thing that fudge only dreams it could be, waiting for you to nibble on it.)

In part, I was undisturbed because I had suspected from the time I scraped the batter into the prepared pan and stuck it in the bain marie that the finished product would not really be a suitable birthday cake for L. The principal problem is size. It is, of course, in the nature of a French cake not to be tall, but the Fondant Am&elie is positively Napoleonic. This complex was only enhanced by my choice of a ten-inch plate. The finished product could not have been more than 3/4 of an inch thick, and while I do not subscribe to the typical American notion that a birthday cake needs to be five or six inches tall, I did want a cake rather than a thin tart.

I also felt, having tasted the cake (fabulous! Vive Bonaparte!) that it was perhaps a bit rich for L.'s tastes, even though I planned to serve it with ice cream. So I decided to use a smaller pan and to increase by half most of the ingredients, with a larger increase in the amount of flour, to provide slightly more structure. The final result? Fabulous. Probably not quite as fabulous as the first, but still terrific, and more appropriate to the intended audience, though it was still so rich that I had to cut very small pieces.

In future, I am likely to use Clothilde's proportions, perhaps with the addition of a tablespoon of liqueur. But I will almost certainly bake it in buttered ramekins and serve individual portions in the ramekins. Perhaps with the addition of some crème chantilly.

The method is really the same as Clothilde's except that because I was adding liqueur, I had to put it in sometime. So I whisked it in at the end of the five-minute chocolate-cooling period (i.e., before whisking in the eggs and flour). Otherwise, follow her instructions, but be sure to use a nine-inch pan and the following ingredients:

9 ounces water
9 ounces sugar
9 ounces bittersweet chocolate
8 ounces butter
2 T. Grand Marnier*
3 eggs
5 ounces all purpose flour

The cake will take about fifty minutes in the bain marie to achieve a dense but moist and fully cooked texture on the sides and a gooey center. The center of the finished cake was somewhat gooier than is traditional with, say, a reine de saba, but I prefer mine that way. You can cook it a bit longer, if you like, but if you leave it in the oven until the center is perfectly dry, the outside will be overcooked, and, really, who doesn't like gooey chocolate?

Because I started the second cake at 4 pm on Saturday and L.'s birthday dinner was for 7 pm, I used a springform pan (I wrapped it in heavy aluminum foil so water wouldn't get in) and, after letting it cool for half an hour, I covered the cake with foil and refrigerated it. Then shortly before serving it, I made and poured on some apricot glaze. I put it back in the refrigerator for a few minutes then applied the icing from a plastic tube. Oh, the humanity.

*What I really wanted here was Chambord, but I somehow couldn't find the Chambord. The most likely explanation is that I've run out of it, but it seems unfathomable to me that I could inhabit a house without Chambord. The liqueur is fully optional; its presence is very subtle here, and many wouldn't miss it. Frangelico would also be nice here.

It's hard for me to believe that I've not previously posted a recipe for smothered pork chops, but apparently I haven't. It's really one of my favorite main courses. I love pork chops, and when you've made this recipe, you end up with about two quarts of gravy, which cannot help being a good thing. For L.'s birthday, I went with a less ambitious menu than I had for A.'s birthday, but I'm sure that no one felt cheated. (To the best of my knowledge, no guest has ever left my home hungry.) Smothered pork chops, mashed potatoes, and broccoli. I knew that L.'s kid-attended birthday party would have ended only two or three hours before we'd be eating, and aside from V. and I, everyone else at the table would have been at the party.

One really ought not rush the preparation of smothered pork chops. In fact, the preparation ought to occur over two days. I did not have this luxury, and as a result, the dinner pork chops, while flavorful, were just slightly tough. The leftover pork chops (I got a package of twelve at Costco) that I chopped up and reheated with the leftover gravy and poured over the potato pancakes that I made from the leftover mashed potatoes, however, were out of this world. So if you're going to make this dish for a dinner party (and you should because it's wonderful and no one expects it at a dinner party), you really should plan on browning the chops and cooking them for a couple of hours on one day, then refrigerating the chops overnight, then finishing the sauce the second day, and then slowly reheating the chops in the sauce. Alternatively, you could start in the morning, use a slow cooker, and cook the chops the whole day. Then you could just pull out the chops, discard the bones, chop the meat (think of pot roast you can eat with a spoon), finish the sauce, and return the meat to the sauce. It's a very informal presentation, but this is the sort of dish that you can only serve to your best friends, anyway. No one else really deserves it.

Smothered Pork Chops

1 T. Olive oil, plus additional for browning the chops
2 medium onions, chopped
1 celery heart, chopped
5 cloves garlic, whole
2 c. chopped carrots or baby carrots
1 14-ounce can of whole or diced tomatoes
1 t. dried thyme
2 cups red wine
2 cans beef broth
12 one-inch thick pork chops
2 T. butter
2 T. flour

Put a stockpot on a medium low flame and add a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the onions, stir, cover, and cook for five minutes on low heat. Don't let the onions brown.

Add the celery, garlic, and carrots, stir, cover, and cook for one minute. Add the tomatoes and thyme, 1.5 cups of the red wine, and the 2 cans of beef broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.

Put a large skillet over medium heat. Spray with a small amount of olive oil. Season the pork chops with salt and pepper. Brown the pork chops for five minutes on each side (you will have to do this in three or four batches, depending on the size of your skillet) and then put them in the simmering liquid. When the chops have all been browned, deglaze the pan with the remaining red wine and pour the deglazing liquid and any brown bits into the stock pot on top of the pork chops. Cover the pot.

Simmer the pork chops, covered, for approximately two hours, or until the chops appear to be losing their attachment to the bones. Remove the chops from the liquid and let cool. Use your immersion blender to puree the sauce. Remove from heat and let cool. Refrigerate the chops and the sauce, separately.

A half hour or so before you intend to serve the pork chops, return the sauce to a large pan and bring to a boil. Knead together the butter and flour (you are making a beurre manié) until they are well combined, then drop the mixture, in several pieces, into the boiling stock. Whisk well, then simmer for a few minutes. Return the chops to the sauce. Cook at a low simmer for about fifteen minutes. Serve the chops coated with the sauce, and pass more sauce on the side. You'll have lots.

Use more or less beurre manié as necessary. Because of the large amount of vegetable matter in this sauce, you could probably get by without any thickener, but a small amount does improve the sauce significantly.

Because A. objects strenuously to the inclusion of mushrooms, I didn't put any in this time. The sauce was thoroughly delicious without them, but there is no arguing that it would be thoroughly deliciouser with the addition of either cultivated or wild mushrooms. Given the long cooking time and the puree, dried mushrooms (some shiitakes, perhaps) would work splendidly.

I will not give my recipe for mashed potatoes here. Everyone has his or her own favorite way of making mashed potatoes, and while I'm quite certain that mine are better than yours (or, really, anybody's), I recognize that you might not agree. I will say that I bake rather than boil the potatoes that I subsequently mash. I will also acknowledge that I use garlic, but that I do so subtly. And that I use entirely unhealthy amounts of both butter and heavy cream.


Anonymous michael ringwood said...

Fabulous cake and thanks for the recipes. I am planning to throw a surprise birthday party for my girlfriend and your blog is sure a a big help.
Happy birthday to your loved one.
You can also drop into my blog on birthday ecards for some beautiful e-greeting cards and other interesting info.

10:19 PM  

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