Warm chocoate cream cakes

Individual warm chocolate cakes, those delicate mounds of dark chocolate goodness that run onto your plate when pierced with a fork — they've virtually disappeared from restaurant menus. And I can't say I'm disappointed. They were everywhere in the nineties. I couldn't open a dessert menu without seeing a "signature" warm chocolate cream topping the list. How could it be a signature dish when it was featured on every menu in town?

Some chefs embellished the hot chocolate creams with more interesting elements than others (I was a sucker for the peppermint ice cream the accompanied Rialto's warm chocolate cream one winter). Even so, I got tired of funneling ramekin after ramekin of chocolate cream mix into the oven when I worked pastry service at the restaurant. Why wouldn't the guests branch out and try something new? A luscious fruit pie or elegant opera cake, a slice of pecan pie studded with dried cranberries, or a vibrant lemon tart?

Rant over. I must admit that I chose the warm lava cake at the Nasher Musem Cafe last week. Having just been diagnosed with shingles (don't look it up until you've finished reading), I swung by the cafe and decided to drown my sorrows in something sugary.

Dark Chocolate Lava Cake with Amarena Cherry Gelato sounded pretty good. Time to get over my dessert issues and enjoy. Sadly, this was not the best warm chocolate cake I've had. The chocolate wasn't particularly tasty or rich and the cake was slightly overcooked, so there wasn't much chocolaty goo to go around. But scooping the warm chocolate crumbs onto a spoon with a bit of cherry gelato, well, that was quite nice. Dessert and a handful of prescription drugs made me forget my sorrows for a while.

Making hot chocolate creams at home is a snap. If you're not afraid to offer them at a dinner party (maybe it's old enough to be retro rather than blase?), try my favorite version, taken from Jody Adams, chef of the restaurant where I once worked. This recipe appears in her cookbook, In the Hands of a Chef, a fabulous book that encourages people to spend more time in the kitchen.

Oh, and the next time you check a restaurant menu, know that warm or hot chocolate cake, hot lava cake, hot chocolate cream — these are usually the same thing. Just check with your server.

Hot Chocolate Creams from Provence
Adapted from In the Hands of a Chef
Serves 4

9 tablespoons of unsalted butter
2 teaspoons of unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 pound of semisweet chocolate, chopped into 1-inch pieces
4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
6 tablespoons of sugar

Note: The chocolate mixture can be made a day ahead (we did this at the restaurant); prepare and refrigerate. Let it come up to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease for 4-ounce ramekins with 1 tablespoons of butter and then dust each with 1/2 teaspoon of flour.

Melt the chocolate 8 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan over low heat.  When the chocolate begins to melt, remove from the heat and beat until smooth. (If making ahead, cover and refrigerate for up to one night. Bring to room temperature before continuing.)

Beat the eggs and sugar in a large bowl until the sugar dissolves and the eggs are foamy. Fold this mixture into the eggs.

Pour the chocolate mixture into the prepared ramekins. Bake for 12 minutes, or until just set — the centers will be slightly liquid. Let stand for 3 to 4 minutes, then turn out onto warm plates and serve.


Curried chickpeas with coconut

A couple of weeks ago I toured my friends' new house. They recently built a stunning contemporary near Duke University — glass walls, high ceilings, gleaming surfaces — and filled it beautiful furniture and fantastic artwork. The house is thoughtfully situated on a wooded lot, taking into consideration the way the sun hits the building throughout the course of a day. The home has a geothermal heating and cooling system. And a lap pool.

I wanted to move in.

Instead, I got to eat dinner, a wonderful Indian-inspired meal that included chicken, rice, and all the condiments one would expect (mango chutney, spicy cilantro sauce, raisins). My hands-down favorite, however, was something Martha whipped up on her own, without a recipe: curried chickpeas with tomatoes and coconut. She was kind enough to share her recipe with me, though like many confident cooks, she doesn't follow written directions or measure. The dish changes a little bit each time she makes it, depending on her mood and the intensity of spices used.

I made a version of Martha's dish last week, and recently enjoyed leftovers for lunch. I think it's best served with a little plain yogurt — a nice cooling element against the Indian spices. I added a fresh ginger, diced jalapeno pepper and cayenne powder to her recipe, and as always, I eyeballed the amounts used. Please add them judiciously and taste as you go.

Curried Chickpeas with Tomatoes and Coconut
Serves 8

3 - 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 15 oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 28 oz. can peeled, diced tomatoes or 6 medium fresh tomatoes, diced
1 very large white onion, diced
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced
one 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, minced
2 teaspoons ground coriander
3 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons garam masala
2 tablespoons curry powder
large pinch of cayenne pepper
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups unsweetened grated coconut

Heat the oil in a very large skillet or saute pan over a medium-low flame. Add the onions, garlic, jalapenos and ginger, and cook for a few minutes, until translucent.

Add the dried spices and stir, cooking for a couple of minutes, until aromatic. Add the rinsed chickpeas and tomatoes. Cook for about 30 minutes, until thickened, tasting as you go. If the mixture becomes too thick, add a little water.

Add the unsweetened coconut, stir to combine, and cook for another 10-15 minutes.

Season to with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Serve the over rice with a dollop of plain yogurt; freshly chopped cilantro would be a nice garnish.


The homeliest dessert

I was relieved that Sunday night's dinner party didn't take place.

I wasn't happy about the reason why — O was sick in bed — but I was more than a little horrified with the looks of dessert. Amanda Hesser warns of "a slight appearance problem" in the descriptive blurb that accompanies the Huguenot Torte recipe in The Essential New York Times Cookbook, but I wasn't prepared for the forlorn, homely mess that emerged from the oven. The edges were crusty, the top cracked and brown, the center gooey.

The upside: it's mighty tasty, filled with apples and pecans, best served with a large dollop of unsweetened whipped cream.

This is the type of recipe you'll want to have on hand for a quick-and-easy family meal. It's almost too sweet for my taste, but when O pulled himself from bed later that night and wandered into the kitchen, he found a serving spoon, dove in, and declared it outstanding. Then he ate three servings.

I used the ubiquitous Granny Smith apple in this torte, but another tart cooking apple (like the Rome Beauty) would work well. I also toasted pecan halves on a sheet tray in the oven for about 5 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit before adding them to the batter to enhance their flavor. A side note: the recipe claims it serves 6-8, but I would say those are very small servings.

Huguenot Torte
(Apple and Pecan Torte)
Serves 6
Adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook

2 large eggs
1/2 heaping teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup peeled, cored, and diced tart cooking apple (I used 1 large Granny Smith)
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans, toasted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup heavy cream, whipped to soft peak (for garnish)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 9 x 9 -inch or 8 x 12-inch baking pan that's at least 2 inches deep and set aside.

Beat the eggs and salt in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add the sugar gradually, beating steadily.

Fold in the apples and pecans with a spatula. Add the vanilla, flour, and baking powder. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 45 minutes, until sunken and crusty. Serve warm or chilled, with whipped cream.


Things keeping me from the blog + a Greek-style salad

A few things have kept me away from Cackalackyfoodie over the past 6 weeks. I spent some time traveling - sans computer - in the Amazon basin, for example. And I got engaged. To be married. This is no reason to completely neglect the blog, but I hit the ground running when my mother told me how disappointed she would be if I ran off and got hitched without inviting her. I had a wedding to plan.

The good news: most everything is done. As the event draws closer, details will need my attention, but the big stuff is out of the way. I can focus on other, more enjoyable aspects of life! And I can manage to cook now and then, which is good, because I'm tired of eating microwave popcorn for dinner.

I opted for a simple Greek-style salad for lunch yesterday, a beautiful pile of fresh veggies, feta cheese, olives, and pickled peppers dressed with oil and vinegar. It's a nice way to mark the end of summer produce (you can still find a decent tomato or two here in central North Carolina), and it travels well.

I'll try to manage a "real" recipe for my next post, but I've been streamlining my meals recently. Spending hours at party rental stores and florist shops will do that to you.

A Simple Greek Salad

2 large cucumbers, seeded and diced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 red onion, finely diced
a chunk of feta cheese, cubed
a handful of Kalamata olives, rinsed and pitted
5 pickled peppers, cut into thin rings
2 tablespoons of parsley and mint, chopped
sherry vinegar
extra virgin olive oil

Combine the first six ingredients in a medium bowl. Sprinkle with sherry vinegar and olive oil. Add freshly chopped herbs and toss. Enjoy!