Friday, April 8, 2011

Cooking by the Book - Double-Shot Chocolate Cake

This is the first post in a new series that I'm going to be putting together on Fridays for a while. As the title says, this series is going to be about cooking things from books - not from recipe books, but from works of fiction!

Basically, my 7 year old has decided to get serious about learning some core cooking skills, and when we were thinking about a fun way to try different recipes and techniques, she hit upon the idea that we could make recipes and dishes that feature in books that we've read, either adult novels or childrens' books.

We're getting the ball rolling with an extremely rich cake, made for my husband's birthday brunch, but next week we're veering back to the nutritious with a recipe from Helen Cooper's wonderful picture book, Pumpkin Soup.

As I have mentioned a few times, I am a fan of mysteries. My favoured sub-genres within the broad church that is mystery fiction are cosies and puzzle / locked room stories, and I also have a fondness for a well-written police procedural. I dislike horror-mysteries and anything too blood-soaked, hence I rarely read modern hard-boiled stories (although, like every other self-respecting mystery fan, I've read my share of the classic pulp authors, and my shelf contains a respectable smattering of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard).

A lot of series cosies - in fact, I'll go out on a limb and say most cosies - have a "hook" of some kind, a unifying theme that links the books other than the presence of the core protagonist/s. This isn't so true of the giants of the Golden Age; Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, and to a lesser extent Ngaio Marsh didn't seen to need such a binding to compel devotion from their readers. Of course, each of these writers had very discernible areas of interest that reappear in their books - Marsh was a theatre person and the theatre motif appears again and again; Christie was married to an archeologist and a round dozen of her books deal with archeological themes. However, these writers didn't set out to write, say, mystery books featuring cats, or mystery books about mystery books, or mystery books threaded through with food.

Food is a very common binding theme in modern cosies. I can recall easily 10 popular series, without even trying, that rely on the fact that lots of people love to read about food and eating, and find it relaxing and pleasurable to do so (it's why cookbooks are called food porn, after all!) One of the most successful of all these food-based series, to my mind, is Diane Mott Davidson's series about Aspen Meadow caterer, Goldy Schultz. The 16th book in the Goldy Schultz series is coming out this year, and it'll certainly be on my list for Christmas.

Goldy Schultz, the narrator and main protagonist, of these stories, is a caterer in a smallish but affluent Colorado town. She's married to a food-loving, gentle and generous cop (Tom Schultz); mother to a teenage son from her first, abusive married (Arch Korman); divorced from the now-deceased cartoonishly-villainous and abusive doctor, John Richard Korman ("the Jerk"); and best friends with a wealthy and hot-tempered woman who was also once married to the Jerk (Marla Korman). Other recurring characters, such as Marla's nephew Julian, who's training to be a chef / caterer like Goldy, round out the series.

The things that I enjoy about this series are:

- The integral role that food plays in the stories. This is a family that is seriously in love with food and its preparation, and an author who knows her stuff in this regard in no uncertain terms. The love of food and the act of expressing loving bonds through food is intertwined throughout each of these books.

- The growth of Goldy's character over the series. Goldy started off as a little mousey and, to be honest, a little too much the V for Victim for my taste, but 15 books later, she's really developed into a well-rounded character. I still think she takes too much nonsense from the other characters, who, with the exception of Tom and Julian, all have the most astoundingly rude dialogue put into their mouths at times. But hey, maybe that's the reality of working in a service industry - having to tolerate the crapola.

- To a lesser extent, the puzzles themselves. They vary widely in terms of cleverness and guessability - some of them feature pretty obvious Xanatos gambits, with Goldy, always, in the role of manipulated pawn, while others are frankly cheats, relying on hidden information that the reader could not possibly decipher. However, the better ones are quite challenging and engaging as puzzles.

One of the better novels in the series, to my mind, is the one that *finally* killed off Goldy's nasty first husband, the Jerk. (He was always implausibly uniform in his bastardry, to my mind, and was getting boring). This book is 2004's Double Shot. And one of the things to love about this book is is extremely wonderful-sounding recipes in it. We decided to have a go at the magnificently described decadent Double-Shot Chocolate Cake.

The beauty of this cake, for me, is that it is gluten free by ingredient, being a flourless cake. It's called a double-shot cake because it has both a large quantity of dark bittersweet chocolate and also cocoa in it - a double hit of chocolatey goodness. As you can imagine, with an ingredient list of butter, chocolate, cocoa, sugar, vanilla and eggs, it is extremely dense and fudgy.

The first step was to melt the chocolate with the butter in a double-boiler (aka one saucepan on top of another, the bottom one filled with water).

My 7 year old broke up the chocolate and cut up the butter for the pan, then asked, "Why don't you just melt in a saucepan?"

"Because it burns, then it stinks," her father replied succinctly. The voice of experience talking there!

While the butter and chocolate were liquefying, the 7 year old greased the pan and cut a piece of baking paper for the base, and I put an inch of water in the bottom of a long roasting dish and put it in the oven. In common with many fudgey cakes, this one cooks in a water bath.

"Why?" asks Miss 7.

"Ummm ... to keep it from drying out?" I guessed. I later Googled it and corrected my mistake; it's because of the eggs, apparently.

"Water baths are often used for egg-based dishes. The proteins in the eggs are very heat sensitive and only need to be warmed to cook thoroughly. They will start to get firm at only 145 degrees. Cooking them with a slow, gentle heat keeps the eggs soft and smooth. "

Next we whisked together the caster sugar and cocoa,

then added the chocolate melted mixture to it. Last, we beat 8 whole eggs until they were foamy, combined with the chocolate stuff and the vanilla, and poured into the pan.

Into the oven inside the water bath for 40 minutes,

then out, cooled, and dusted with icing sugar.

We served it with chantilly cream, which was actually made by one of our brunch guests on the day as I was busying myself with cooking the brunch food.

It was a delicious and fairly straightforward cake, but incredibly dense and rich - a tiny sliver each, drowned in sweet cream, was enough.

All in all, though, a definite win for Diane Mott Davidson - and it has inspired me to try more of her recipes, given how well this one worked!

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