5 weeks ago
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
I have to admit that I was more than a little bit dubious when I first read the recipe for this week's TWD pick, Chocolate Armagnac Cake. I loved the fun story behind the cake, of course -- Dorie was fired from her first real professional kitchen job for swapping out the whisky and raisins in the restaurant's wildly popular chocolate cake with armagnac and prunes, which Dorie calls "the world's most misunderstood fruit." Well, I'm not proud of it, but I will stand up and be counted among the world's prune misunderstanders. It seems like any fruit that is most commonly mentioned in the context of ". . . it comes in a blue bottle, and if that doesn't work, try some prunes" is just begging to be misunderstood.
So I wasn't really fired up about the prunes, but given the great story behind this cake, I wanted to stay as close to Dorie's subversive version as I could. Therefore, I reluctantly settled on prunes pretty early in the process. Unfortunately, I could not get Armagnac; in fact, my liquor store guy had never even heard of it, which is sort of like the hardware store guy not knowing what needle nose pliers are. In spite of this, I will continue to patronize this store for all of my bizarre cooking liquor needs, because the proprietor is friendly, eager to sell me the airline-sized bottles rather than going for the up-sell, and willing to not recognize me no matter how many times I go in there, which helps alleviate my Catholic guilt over being in the packy in the first place. With Armagnac being a no go, I settled on an orange-infused cognac:
which I figured could also be used to make a killer margarita sometime.
So I procured the key ingredients for this cake, but I was really worried that the prunes in particular were going to distract from the chocolatey goodness of the cake. I tend to get easily distracted when something/someone has a really distinctive characteristic that you wouldn't expect that thing/person to have. For example, I have an old school friend who bears an uncanny resemblance to Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He was a really cool guy (still is, I'm sure) -- fun, interesting, witty -- but whenever I found myself in a conversation with him, he would be talking away and I would just stand there thinking "you look exactly like Flea." Which would cause me to miss most of what he said. So I was worried that the prunes would be to this chocolate cake what T's resemblance to Flea was to T.
The new chocolate and peanut butter?
And, of course, nothing is ever easy around here, so I had a couple of speed bumps on the path to making the cake. I made a shrimp dish for dinner the night I made the cake -- the same shrimp dish that I dropped earlier in the week -- and this time I did not drop it, but I did burn really inconvenient parts of my hand when I grabbed the skillet handle (which had been in the 400 degree oven) with my bare hand after setting it down on the counter. That made things like holding a knife or stirring anything rather painful. Then I realized that our long lighter was out of fluid, so I couldn't set the prunes on fire. So I made a grocery list and asked David to run to the store for me. I love that this man doesn't even bat an eyelash anymore when I tell him I need a few more things in order to make my cake, and hand him a list that reads:
In fact, he will usually be proactive and say "okay, are you sure that's it? You're all set on vanilla? Gauze?"
Time to make the cake! Not many dry ingredients in this one - just 2/3 cup of ground pecans, 1/4 cup of flour and a little salt. But Dorie wastes no time getting the ol' adrenaline pumping, because once that stuff is all mixed together, it's time for the pyrotechnics! The prunes get cooked in a little water to soften them up, and then add the liquor to the pan and ignite. I was nervous -- for years I operated under a no-flambé rule in my kitchen. While my hubs is very supportive of my passion for cooking, I think he has witnessed one too many "incidents" over the years to be able to feel really good about the idea of me taking a match to highly flammable substances around high heat sources. But I ended up setting some brandy on fire in conjunction with coq a vin a few months ago, and while it did produce spectacular flames that scared the hell out of me, no harm was done, so the flambé moratorium was lifted.
This time, I experienced an odd combination of disappointment and relief when my prunes burned in a decidedly non-spectacular manner:
It clearly did what it was supposed to do -- it burned a low, blue, contained flame in the pan for several minutes. It was kind of like watching Britney when she's on the wagon -- I'm GLAD she's on the wagon; that's where she needs to be; I hope she stays there forever. But admit it -- it's not as interesting to watch.
After firing up your prunes, you proceed to dirty up more bowls than you even knew you had in your kitchen. There's the bowl for melting the chocolate and butter. The bowl (or two) for separating your eggs. The bowl for whisking together the egg yolks and sugar. The bowl for whisking together some egg whites. It is kind of hard not to think "Holy bowls! This better be one darn good cake!" (Don't worry -- it is.)
After mixing together the chocolate/butter mixture with the egg yolk/sugar mixture, the prune/booze mixture, and the ground nut/flour mixture (which had all been in different bowls up until this point), you add in some egg whites that you've been whipping up in another bowl until they hold "firm, glossy peaks." I went through my usual egg white whipping thought progression: "that looks glossy but not firm. Is that firm? It is not holding a peak. Wait, yes it is. But it's not glossy. Did I just blow right past glossy? %^@$!."
Folding in the egg whites:
Ready to bake:
The glaze is a combination of bittersweet chocolate, butter and confectioner's sugar. Mine seemed more like a frosting than a glaze (I followed the recipe exactly), and the consistency was more "spreadable" than "pourable." But I thought it was perfect -- I would not change a thing.
Wow. What can I say about this cake? It is amazing. I have enjoyed almost all of the Dorie recipes I've made since I've been in TWD, but every once in a while we make one that leaves me in a complete state of disbelief that I produced something so wonderful in my own kitchen. The French Pear Tart. The Tall & Creamy Cheesecake. And now this cake. If I ordered this in a restaurant, I'd have to drop out of the conversation when this cake arrived, because I would be able to speak of nothing other than the awesomeness of the cake, which would annoy my dinner companions (especially since I would not be inclined to share). My first instinct is to want to compare this to the the Devil's Food White Out Cake that we made a couple of weeks ago because they are both chocolate cakes. That is not really a fair comparison, though -- while they both have chocolate in them, they are completely different cakes. The Devil's Food cake is a traditional party cake with a crumbly texture. This armagnac cake is an extremely dense, rich, decadent, fudgy cake. It is really most reminiscent of a flourless chocolate cake.
I worried about the prunes for nothing. While I knew they were there, they just added a nice textural element and some subtle flavor interest to the cake. I could not taste the alcohol at all, which for me is a good thing -- I've come to realize that I generally do not enjoy a strong alcohol flavor in my desserts. I think the various flavors all came together beautifully to produce a truly fabulous, special dessert. Dorie was obviously far too good for the restaurant that canned her, and this cake proves it beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The wonderful Lyb of And Then I Do the Dishes chose this cake. Lyb, you certainly picked a cake worthy of your blog name! But believe me, this cake is worth every bowl you'll have to wash, and then some. If you are looking for a really amazing dessert for the chocolate lover in your life, look no further. Thank you for this awesome pick, Lyb!