I’m interrupting my latest discoveries series with a chocolate cake recipe. As far as I’m concerned, a brilliant chocolate cake makes a fantastic interruption to pretty much anything. This does also tie into my new discoveries because it is taken from a book in the Penguin Great Food Series. The book is A Little Dinner Before the Play by Agnes Jekyll, who is described by Bee Wilson in this weekend’s Guardian Review as a “very grand food writer of the early 1920s”.
I’ve enjoyed reading it because Jekyll’s little mini essays were published in The Times in the 1920s, and her writing is a window into the “high society” of that time. My day-to-day life now in London now doesn’t exactly call for her culinary advice on what to do “For Men Only”, “Country Friends to a Christmas Shopping Luncheon” or “Food for the Punctual and Unpunctual”, but actually there is a lot to be found in its pages that is both new and inspiring.
In the chapter called “Tea-Time and Some Cakes” I came across the recipe for Super-Chocolate Cake. Preceding it was a recipe for Brown Flour Biscuits and Jekyll introduced the pair by saying the first was for “the dyspeptic guest who never eats anything at tea”, while the chocolate cake was for “the robuster one who occasionally eats too much”! If only all recipe books were written like that. (NB Definition of dyspeptic: a person who suffers from indigestion or irritability.)
The recipe appealed to me because by far my best chocolate cake to date is an adaptation of a Mary Berry cake, in which the eggs are separated and whipped; there is only a small amount of flour, and ground almonds is a key ingredient. This combination has always made for a very rich, moist cake, but the super chocolate cake recipe seemed to take that one step further with double the number of eggs and ground almonds, and more chocolate. Having made it, I can say this is a very light chocolate cake and well-worth making. The mixture before it goes into the tin (below) has a real chocolate mousse-like texture because it is so full of air.
The biggest challenges were that she didn’t make it clear exactly when the eggs should be added or give a cooking time. She also recommended baking in a “slack” oven! I went for Gas Mark 4 and that seemed to work.
1/2 lb butter at room temperature
7 eggs, separated
1/2 lb dark chocolate
1 tsp vanilla essence
1/2 lb sugar (add a tablespoon extra if you have a sweet tooth)
4oz ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder
drop of cherry liqueur (Maraschino or Kirsch)
Grease and line a 20cm springform cake tin and pre-heat the oven to Gas Mark 4
Make a bain marie of a pan barely simmering water with a heatproof dish set in the top. Make sure the water doesn’t touch the dish and that it sits comfortably – you don’t want steam in the melting chocolate. Break the chocolate into chunks and add to the dish, keeping an eye on the water, so the chocolate doesn’t burn. [Of course another option is the microwave.] Using electric beaters whisk up the softened butter to a pale, fluffy cream.
Beat the egg whites to soft peaks. (Use a clean bowl and beaters, as you don’t want any fat to come into contact with the whites, or they won’t rise properly. Likewise, separate the eggs into a cup first because you don’t want any egg yolk in there.) Then beat the egg yolks for as long as you can. See consistencies below:
By now the chocolate should have melted. Let it cool a little before beating into the butter.
Beat together along with the vanilla essence. Then, sift in the flour, sugar, baking powder and ground almonds. Sift gently and from height to get plenty of air into the mixture. Fold together with a metal spoon and spoon into the cake tin.
Bake in the pre-heated oven for 45 minutes if you want a slightly damp, brownie-like consistency in the middle or 1 hour if you want it to be completely risen.
Melt whatever is left of your chocolate along with some maraschino and ground nut oil to make a smooth, shiny icing for the top.
Here is the original recipe for reference:
“Half a pound fresh butter beaten to a cream, 7 eggs (yolks and whites beaten separately, and the whites stirred in the last thing), 1/2 lb. best vanilla chocolate grated and heated in oven, then beaten up in the butter with 3oz dried flour, 1/2 lb. sifted sugar, 4 oz. ground almonds, 1 teaspoonful of sal volatile. Bake in a slack oven, then ice with thin soft icing flavoured with maraschino. If ingredients are thoroughly beaten up it will be very light.”
That last piece of advice I found to be very true. Not quite so useful, perhaps, is her next bit:
“Lest this last calls for a reproach from the thrifty , here is a nice useful cake suited to the Rector’s 5 o’clock call, or the ladies of the local political organisation in conclave, and good for the office luncheon tin or the fisherman’s basket next day.”!!