Monday, February 16, 2009

Picnic with Albertine (III): Chocolate Cake

The girls all preferred sandwiches and exclaimed at seeing me eat only a chocolate cake, with its Gothic architecture of icing, or an apricot tart. But sandwiches of Cheshire cheese and lettuce, untried and unknowing fare, had nothing to say for themselves. Whereas cakes were privy to much, and tarts were talkative. In cakes, there was a cloying creaminess, and in tarts, a refreshing fruitiness, which were aware of many things about Combray and about Gilberte, and not just the Gilberte of Combray days, but the Gilberte of Paris too, for I had renewed my acquaintance with them at her afternoon teas

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 482-3

What surprised me in baking this cake was that no baking powder is used in the recipe. In making her preliminary remarks on “five usually good and typically French cakes,” Julia Child indicates that without the use of baking powder, the “lightness [of the French sponge cake] is due to the careful folding of perfectly beaten egg whites into the batter” (668). In addition, instead of the typical usage of cocoa powder found in many chocolate recipes, Julia Child only uses 3 ½ ounces of semisweet baking chocolate combined with two tablespoons of coffee to flavor the cake. From my past experience of baking various chocolate cakes from various recipes, Julia Child’s minimalist list of ingredients reminds me not of typical French baking but of the importance of using ingredients with higher quality if baking or cooking with small amounts of simple ingredients.

With that in mind, I impulsively selected Ghiradelli at the grocery store. Though not a fancy-schmansy French brand, this famous San Francisco chocolatier at least seems (or sounds) better and more sophisticated than Baker’s—the brand that is often considered as grandma’s all-American choice. Therefore, if such a down-to-earth version of chocolate sponge cake can be described as a part of haute cuisine in French cooking while the baker is just an ordinary home cook, my selection of Ghiradelli as the major chocolate ingredient in this recipe, at least in hope, would make the whole cake more special.

Different from Julia Child’s steps for unmolding the cake, I not only followed her steps in buttering and flouring the cake pans, but also consulted with my experience of making Ina Garten’s coconut cake recipe and added a piece of greased and floured parchment paper at the bottom of the pan to guarantee the perfect unmolding of the cake.

Like many other cakes, the chocolate cake came out oven puffed. After resting on the cooling rack for 20 minutes, it came out of the pan successfully to cool completely on the rack. What differentiates this cake from other chocolate cakes I have baked in the past is the lightness of the cake’s texture. The airiness of the texture created by the egg whites and maintained throughout baking by the stable heat source proves to be similar to the process of making a soufflé. However, such lightness in texture does not sacrifice the flavor of the cake. In contrast to the light and spongy texture of the cake, the taste of the cake is intensely chocolaty. Such a chocolate flavor is hardly found in most chocolate cakes I used to make, in which the chocolate flavor came from the sweetened icing while the cake itself didn’t have much taste at all.

The crunchy texture and vulnerably flakey surface crust of the cake, due to the puffed meringue, sent my tongue through some sort of adventure. Simply, I was never sure when the extremely thin and fragile meringue would break and dissolve in my mouth. Once it did break and irretrievably melt in my mouth, there was the sensation of sweet fluff followed by a faint bitterness from the chocolate cake. Such uncertainty was inevitably combined with the relentless desire of tasting even more. Even with the fear of destroying the perfect crust, ethereally sweet, the tongue still reaches out to explore the bitter sweetness, to reach out, to feel.

My own experience of tasting the cake seems to echo the narrator’s experience in playing the game of ring-on-a-string. Like the narrator’s desire being conjured up by a piece of paper from Albertine which read “I like you,” our tongues also accept the invitation of the chocolate cake—the creamy, bittersweet aroma from the cocoa oil that combines with the doughy smell from the flour, butter and eggs. The narrator’s clumsiness at not being able to snatch the ring put himself at the center of all the participants. Such a position could be easily interpreted as shame; however, like our tongues which nervously and joyfully explore the thin crust of the meringue on the cake, the narrator is also enjoying and exploring the opportunity or the rupture where he can touch Albertine’s hand in the game. Just as the meringue dissolves in our mouth and we taste the unavoidable bittersweetness of chocolate, so does the narrator experiences the sweetness of touching Albertine: “In that moment of intoxication, I sensed a tiny squeeze of Albertine’s hand on mine, a faint caress of her finger between my own, and I caught a wink from her that she meant to be barely perceptible” (499) and the bitterness from Albertine’s furious stage-whisper: “Take that thing, would you! I’ve been trying to pass it to you for about half an hour!” (499)

Such bitterness shamed the narrator: “Abashed and deflated, I lost my grip on the string…I had to go back into the middle, where, as the shuffling hands did their frantic shuttle around me, I stood desperate and despised, the butt of all the girls’ scorn, trying to laugh it off when I felt like crying…” (499). From then on, as we know, the narrator never gives up the chance to get closer to Albertine. Thus, the bitterness turned into the addictive sweetness which keeps attracting the narrator to Albertine, even though as Françoise later mentions, “That girl will bring you nothing but grief” (The Prisoner 99). Like the narrator, I, as the taster of the cake, also kept coming back to more servings of the bittersweet cake even though there was always another inner voice which kept warning me about irresistible indulgence; in my case, of accumulated calories.

Le Marquis [Chocolate Sponge Cake]
(Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child et al.)

A round cake pan 8 inches in diameter and 1 ½ inches deep
3 ½ ounces of semisweet baking chocolate
2 tablespoons strong coffee
A small covered pan
A pan of simmer water
A wooden spoon
3 ½ tablespoons softened butter
A wire whip or electric beater
3 egg yolks
A 3-quart mixing bowl
½ cup granulated sugar
3 egg whites
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
A rubber spatula
1/3 cup cake flour
A cake rack

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter and flour the cake pan. Measure out the ingredients.

Place the chocolate and coffee in a small pan, cover, and set in the larger pan of simmering water. Remove pans from heat and let chocolate melt for 5 minutes or so while you proceed with the recipe. Then beat in the butter.

Beat the egg yolks in the mixing bowl, gradually adding the sugar, until mixture is thick, pale yellow and forms the ribbon.

Beat the egg whites and salt together in a separate bowl until soft peaks are formed; sprinkle on the sugar and beat until stiff peaks are formed.

Fold the tepid chocolate and butter into the batter, then fold in one fourth of the egg whites. When partially blended, sift on one fourth of the flour and continue folding, alternating rapidly with more egg whites and more flour until all egg whites and flour are incorporated.

Immediately turn batter into prepared pan and run it up to the rim all around. Bake in middle level of preheated oven for 25 minutes, or until cake has puffed ¼ inch above rim and top has cracked. A skewer or straw should come out clean when plunged 1 ½ inches from edge, but should be slightly oily with a few specks of chocolate clinging when plunged into the middle area.

Let cool 10 minutes; cake will sink slightly. Run a knife around inside of pan, and reverse onto a rack. Let cool 2 hours before icing.

You may serve the cake with a sprinkling of powdered sugar, or fill with butter cream and cover with the chocolate-butter icing on page 684.

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