Shameful secret time: I’m not a huge fan of chocolate cake. I never, ever order it in coffee shops or help myself to a slice of it at parties, because it’s ALWAYS a disappointment. Either it’s dry and scratchy, or it’s oily, and either way it tastes nothing like chocolate. Plus it’s generally slathered in frilly faux-cream rosettes and sprinkles and those sticky red pseudo-cherries that stain your fingers, which I’m pretty sure is an cosmetic attempt to hide the sadness that is the cake. Usually I’m happy and grateful to eat whatever’s put in front of me but I am not afraid to unleash my inner Cake Snob when it comes to chocolate. Anyhoo, this is the only chocolate cake I ever bake and the only one I’ll eat without a grimace.
It all came together several years ago in this bizarre cross-country series of events, summarized thusly:
I met a lovely woman from Singapore in South Africa, who later married a lovely Swiss man and they sent me a beautiful hamper of really spectacular chocolate which arrived on the same day that I found a recipe for a French chocolate cake. It was just absolutely meant to be. I feel it in my waters, even.
(I don’t know what that means but I read it in Sophie Dahl’s debut novel The Man with the Dancing Eyes, and it stuck).
This cake has very few ingredients, mostly chocolate – meaning it truly tastes like chocolate, and is not just a brown cake which tastes exactly like the plain white one next to it, only more “dusty” from the cocoa. It has no leavening agent other than pure air bubbles, and it can easily be converted to gluten-free for the Celiacs (doesn’t it sound like maniacs almost?) in your life.
It is truly the ugliest cake in the world. Looks-wise it’s the runt of the cake litter; no-one ever picks it out of a lineup – which is a good thing (more for me!). This is the Ugly Duckling of Cakes. It behaves kind of like a soufflé, forming a delicate meringue-like top crust which collapses in on itself. I’ve found that the closer down to sea-level I am, the more the cake collapses – cupcakes practically form a little bowl, which is perfect for holding a wodge of whipped cream, but can be slightly more challenging to eat in a lady-like manner. Don’t even consider trying to cover it neatly in icing (it will just crumble and collapse); it responds best to cream or light-as-air buttercream piled up top with artistic abandon.
It’s light as a feather, and melt-in-the mouth fine-textured but outrageously chocolatey at the same time; best of all it is that it gets along so well with other flavours – I’ve added ground dried chilli (a friend told me that it tasted familiar, then eventually identified the flavour as “heartburn”), peppermint essence, espresso powder, all to delicious effect.
To make one U.G.L.Y. chocolate cake (you ain’t got no alibi) of the Gods:
- 100g best possible dark chocolate – 70%. Only the best, mind. Rubbish-in rubbish-out theory applies.
- 100g unsalted butter, softened. Don’t you dare insult this cake with margarine *fixes stern eye on you*
- 3 large eggs, room-temperature
- 100g sugar
- 50g cake flour or corn flour
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius, and grease a baking tin well with soft butter. Get into all those nooks and crannies! (Doesn’t “cranny” sound like a rude word to you? *tee hee*).
Melt the butter in the microwave, then break the chocolate into it and stir until it’s smooth and glossy and beautiful. When it resembles Taye Diggs, you know you’ve got it right.
Allow the chocolate/butter/Taye mixture to cool while you whip the eggs and sugar together to form a lighter shade of pale, aerated, volumised foam. I guess since I used a human reference for the chocolate, I should use one here too… aim for a 1980’s hairdo. I’m thinking the entire female cast of Steel Magnolias right now. Frothy, fluffy, and quadruple its usual volume.
When you are absolutely sure that the butter/sugar foam is ready, beat it five minutes more anyway. Immediately trickle in the Taye mixture as well as the sifted flour and watch it all sink straight down, then oh-so-gently fold it all together with a spatula. Gently, like it is a fractious colicky baby you are trying to put to sleep (except so much better in that it is edible and won’t be ruthlessly extracting money from you for the next 20 years). It doesn’t have to be perfectly uniformly blended – a bit of streakiness like in the photo is perfectly fine. Gently ease the batter into the prepared tin, then gently slide it onto an oven rack. Do not go banging the baking tin all over the place, because you will knock out all those precious air-bubbles.
Give it 20 minutes in the oven or until a poke with a toothpick comes out clean; you will notice that it rises promisingly – yep, it’s too good to be true.
Remember once the cake is safely stowed away in the oven to lick the spatula as well as the mixing bowl before anyone else gets to it. Best part about being the baker, in my opinion.
When it’s ready, gently remove the cake from the oven – see that strange feathery crust on top? It’s all gonna collapse in a moment. Regardless, leave it to cool in the tin to firm up some before very carefully turning it out.
The cooled cake will look sad and despondent. It will be cracked and fissured and scarred. It will look like the ugly step-sister of those colossal 5-storey-tall over-embellished chocolate cake monstrosities at your local supermarket, but it will kick every other cakes butt in the taste department. Don’t bother trying to prettify it – it can be beautiful in its own right. Usually I just give it a dusting of icing sugar, but it is great with a drizzle of white chocolate and fresh raspberries, or a really light (1980’s hairdo!!) white chocolate buttercream. I guess this cake should serve 8, but don’t plan to share it amongst more than four people so that everyone can have seconds. It’s that kind of cake.