When I was little my mother made me give up something for Lent. It had to be something—some supposed personal luxury—which we believed we could not go without. I chose chocolate. Yes, I went all of Lent without any chocolate. And for the last 20-or-so years I have been making up for going 40 days and 40 nights without it. Clearly I learned nothing from the experience.
Just a slice or two of this cake probably makes up for those darkest nights of my despair. This cake is so smooth, so intense, so darkly indulgent, so… wait, what was I saying? If you have any chocolate lovers coming for dinner you can do yourself, and them, the favor of making this cake and getting utterly lost in the rapturous pleasure of dark decadence. It’s like fudge and cake were fused together for a world that knew no dark (chocolate), however those words aren’t enough. Lets just say, speaking directly to those chocoholics out there, looking you straight in your cacao-induced dilated pupils, this is an ethereal level of those miracle beans—nirvana has never been so bittersweet.
But, frankly, this cake is nothing more than a fabulously exceptional flourless chocolate cake with equally good P.R.
There have been flourless chocolate cakes, or something similar, for decades—The New York Times published a nearly flourless cake in the late 60’s. But really the craze for them broke out much later. I know its creators’ intentions were not for that of the calorie conscience but, rather, the chocolate lovers of the world but it was inevitable that with a name that boasts an absence of flour it would soon become fitness fodder. Flour was evil (this was before the gluten plot was hatched). Flour was carbs. Flour was poison. Flour made us fat. Flour was out to get us. We’re not fat—we’re just full of toxins from flour! Suzanne Sommers and Jane Fonda lied to us, the Thigh Master doesn’t work and flour made us fat! It’s not my lack of self control or my internal need for an excess of pasta, real cream and fatty-fatty pork that makes my pants not fit just before a job interview. It’s carbs, wheat, flour that did this to me.
And here your waiter approaches offering a chocolate cake that looks so pitch-black and chocolate-heavy that it cons and urges your mouth into salivation, wallowing in that area that blurs the line between roasted-dry-bitter dark chocolate and sweet-confectionary-achy sweetness and, oh didn’t I mention, was flourless… It’s practically health food.
But this is all a lie. An endless amount could be written about the psychology of health-conscience eating, and there already is. I’m not talking about the stuff that says having a positivity towards your body is the first step towards being healthy—I’m talking about the outright lies that we tell ourselves all in the effort for total health and vanity. What I know is this: a flourless chocolate cake is not made flourless so we can pretend that it is health food. (Though, if you want to lie to yourself then just unread that last sentence… I’m already going to pretend I never wrote it). Keep reading and you’ll see it isn’t. A flourless chocolate cake is made flourless because it creates the fudgiest, richest, deepest chocolate intensity that… Let me collect myself… You get the idea. This isn’t health food; this is a drug. I mean, like, controlled substance, schedule II level (because while it may cause physical of psychological dependency it does have its health merits… if you ask me, anyway). They have become a little passé, kind of like tiramisu—every restaurant has one and they’re all “the best”. The late, and very great Chef Richard Sax once wrote “and when all of the flourless chocolate cakes and chocolate mousse or ganache cakes have come and gone, there will still be nothing like a fudgy brownie, dry and crackled on top, moist and dense within, with a glass of cold milk.” Maybe world-weariness for these done-to-death desserts doesn’t seem revolutionary or particularly culturally aware but considering he passed 20 years ago it goes to show how long they’ve been considered out of vogue. But how fashionable something is shouldn’t determine our making it, at least not at home. Even Chef Sax wasn’t immune to the allure of the twilight darkness of this chocolate-heavy, rich cake, offering up his own recipe in his “Classic Home Desserts” I believe. And really, despite his wise words, a good flourless chocolate cake is like a brownie on steroids.
So, to make this fabulously fudgey cake, start by melting butter and chocolate (a lot of both, thank you) with some espresso powder over a double boiler. You don’t need a fancy double boiler pan like my mom had—which I can’t say I ever remember her using to be honest—just set a heatproof glass bowl over a pot of gently simmering water. Make sure the majority of the bowl fits into the pot and the bottom of the bowl isn’t touching the water. Now is also not the time to skimp on the quality of the chocolate. You really need something that’s 70% cacao solids minimum in order to get all of its dark intensity. I actually like doing mostly 70-72% cacao with a little 85%. Anyway, let this melt gently for about 10 minutes, stirring every so often with a rubber spatula, until its about 90% melted before moving it off the heat and setting it aside to cool. Stir it a little as it cools every so often.
While you wait on the chocolate-butter mixture to cool slightly separate 8 eggs; yolks into one very large bowl (the largest you have—say 4 quarts or more) and the whites into the bowl of your standup mixer (or another large bowl if you’re using a hand mixer).
This next part is absolutely crucial. You cannot use the same bowl or mixing utensil to mix the yolks and whites. The whites need to be whipped to stiff peaks and any trace of fat (i.e. from the yolks) in the bowl or on the mixer will totally hinder the whites from accepting air. It would be a good idea to err on the side of caution by wiping down the mixing bowl and attachment with a paper towel that you’ve dampened with either a little lemon juice or white vinegar and drying it off with a clean sheet.
And I know a lot of people separate eggs by cracking them and tossing the egg between the two halves of broken shells but I usually end up snagging the yolk on a jagged shard of shell, breaking it into the white. If this happens the egg cannot be used (see above). So, not to gross you out but, I use my hands to separate them. Just crack the egg, dump it into one hand with your fingers separated only ever so slightly and let the white fall between them. If you’re new to separating eggs you may want to let the white fall into a small bowl first and then pour it into your mixing bowl. This way if you do break the yolk the contaminated white will be contained to its own bowl and not ruin all the whites.
(Messy, but effective)
With a whisk, beat 1 cup of sugar into the egg yolks for about 2 – 3 minutes or until they’re a canary yellow color and slightly more voluminous. You’ll know they’re ready when you lift the whisk out of the bowl and the pale yellow mix falls flawlessly off the whisk in an even, thin ribbon. Whisk in some Amaretto, vanilla extract and a pinch of salt until it’s all combined.
As for the Amaretto… you can really use any liqueur you like here, so long as you think it pairs well with chocolate. I know Brandy is the traditional spirit of choice for French chocolate mousse but it’s lacking for me. The first time I made this (many moons ago) I used dark rum, which was surprisingly good. You could use an orange liqueur (I would use Cointreau over generic triple sec only because it has a cleaner orange flavor), coffee or espresso liqueur (like Kamora), hazelnut (Frangelico—c’mon), raspberry (Chambord or any framboises), or cherry (Cherry Heering or Cherry Brandy). You could even do a chocolate liqueur if you wanted, but it may be a little one-noted and I always think that adding it to anything with actual chocolate gives it a faux-chocolate flavor, kind of like chocolate-flavored hard candy.
Now, with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites on medium-high speed for about 5 minutes, or until stiff peaks form (which means that when you pull the whisk out of the whites and hold it upside down a little peak stands up and holds its shape).
While you’re waiting on this slowly add a little bit of the chocolate-butter mix to the egg yolks and beat to combine. You want to add it slowly at first, in batches, so the yolks get used to the warmer temperature of the chocolate. The chocolate is probably cooled enough that you won’t scramble the yolks but it could cause them to start to cook slightly, which would change the texture of your cake. Anyway, once about half of the chocolate mix is in, just pour in the rest, beating to combine. Then beat in ¼ cup of almond meal.
Now you’ll need to fold the whites into the chocolate-base. First, take about a quarter of the whites, plop them into the chocolate bowl and just beat them all together until everything is totally combined. Don’t worry about the whites deflating at this point—this helps to lighten that heavy base and make the actual folding easier.
Once this is done, you gently fold in the rest of the whites. The method is to take a rubber spatula and cut down the center of the bowl to the bottom. Scrape it along the bottom and, in side in a single motion, fold it over on top of the whites. Turn the bowl a quarter-turn and repeat. The idea is to do this with as little folding as you can get away with and as gently as possible. The more you fold the more air deflates from the egg whites. As you may have noticed, there are no chemical leaveners in this so you are relying solely on the air in the egg whites to make this cake rise.
Once it’s all mixed, pour it into a 9” spring form pan (which you’ve buttered and dusted with sugar), even out the top, place it on a baking sheet and into the oven.
It should have risen quite a bit—almost to the top of the pan—with the sides just beginning to pull away from the sides and the slightest sign of a wobble beneath the surface at its center. It should take 20 – 25 minutes (though take care to watch it after the 20-minute mark to make sure it doesn’t overbake or burn).
Let it cool out of the oven for about an hour or so before removing the outer ring of the spring form (when the pan is cool enough to touch with bare hands) and then allow it to cool completely. You’ll notice that all that volume the cake achieved during baking has fallen dramatically and this is what makes this so densely rich—this is what you want. If you were to dig into it hot out of the oven it would probably be something close to a souffle but here you actually want to commit that ultimate culinary heartbreak by letting it fall.
Once it’s totally cool, you can either serve it right away or stash it in the fridge. I actually like putting in the fridge for a little bit so it gets a bit firmer. I just take it out of the fridge and let it sit on the counter for about 30 minutes to an hour before serving so it can come to room temperature a little. Adorn it with a big mountain of sweetened whipped cream, spiked with Amaretto and revel in this criminal cacao confection.