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Variety is the slice of life

Sunday, February 10, 2002

By Catherine S. Vodrey

When a friend of mine -- not a baker -- first heard of my intention to write a book titled 'Chocolate Cake,' she cracked sarcastically, 'I see ... a book with 10 recipes!' Little did she know the range of cake I could make fit into those two words," Michele Urvater says, laughing.

'Chocolate Cake'

By Michele Urvater.
US Broadway Books. $35.


Urvater's new cookbook, "Chocolate Cake," is subtitled "150 Recipes from Simple to Sublime." It briskly trots the globe from Austria (Walnut Chocolate Torte) to France (Reine de Saba, or Queen's Cake) to Mexico (Aztec Devil's Food Cake) to Hungary (Rigo Jancsi). Naturally, there are scores of prototypically American cakes too, from Pillsbury Bake-Off finalists to cheesecakes and beyond.

Urvater, who was raised in Europe, has a healthy appreciation for baked desserts of every stripe. Her interest in baking was intense and early. When she was 6, her most treasured toy was a miniature baking set, "complete with little 1-inch round baking tins, tiny boxes of cake mixes, and colorful jimmies! To this day, I recall how ecstatic I was when those perfect Lilliputian cakes emerged from the oven."

Her own experience and love of baking have been nearly lifelong, but Urvater understands that this isn't true of everyone. "I think the idea that cooks are 'born, not made' is true to some degree, but there is an awful lot which can be learned -- technical skills and so on. Years of experience, of course, deepen the skills. But there's an artistic quality, too -- something about how to put flavors together, which is innate and not learned. Baking, however, because it is more scientific and formulaic, really can be learned. I have great hope for novices, because the skills are definitely learnable!"

Urvater says that, generally speaking, European cakes tend toward the dense and bittersweet, while American cakes tend toward the fluffy and sweet. It's her feeling that for American cooks, an excellent introduction to a European-style chocolate cake is her Souffled Chocolate Cake. "This cake -- adapted from 'Cooking the Nouvelle Cuisine in America' -- was created by Bernard Loiseau, a Michelin three-star chef in France," Urvater explains. "This is my favorite of all flourless chocolate cakes because it is perfectly balanced in terms of both texture and taste." Indeed, the cake is the perfect marriage of light/rich, dense/fluffy, sweet/bittersweet.

Urvater came to write her cookbook in a roundabout manner. After spending years working as a chef, being host of television programs on cooking and so on, she enrolled in New York City's famed French Culinary Institute. After earning her FCI diploma as a pastry chef, she had a new, more specialized outlook on her work.

"Getting a professional degree is very different from general knowledge about cooking, acquired over years," Urvater says. "What was most striking about my FCI work was how much I learned about decorating techniques and confectionery skills. Learning skills on how to create gum paste flowers, marzipan roses, pulled suga, and chocolate decorations was completely new to me."

Despite her considerable expertise, Urvater doesn't scare off the home cook who has never made anything other than a boxed mix before. In fact, the book is a calming presence in the kitchen. "Chocolate Cake" is arranged so that the easiest cakes are in the beginning. One wonderful recipe called Wacky Chocolate Cake is an excellent start for any beginner and is particularly well-suited to a child baking with minimal adult supervision. Urvater notes that all the cakes have a degree of difficulty indicated (one star denotes easy, two stars intermediate and three stars advanced).

Urvater is relaxed about her chocolate choices. She prefers bittersweet chocolate to any other kind, but admits that when it comes to unsweetened chocolate, "Any one of the national brands is acceptable. At various times I have used Baker's, Nestle's and Hershey's unsweetened chocolate. I tend to buy the cheapest one."

What kind of niche does a book like "Chocolate Cake" occupy in a world where anyone can pick up a very decent cake at the bakery or even the grocery store? Urvater has firm convictions on the subject.

"I believe people are cooking less and less, but I think people will always bake for pleasure. I notice that my 19-year old daughter and her friends don't cook much, but they do love to bake every now and then, and have been that way since they were very little. Also, because of America's sweet tooth, you always see more baked goods at country fairs, bake sales in every school across the land, and on and on. Home baking is definitely here to stay."

Catherine S. Vodrey, of East Liverpool, Ohio, bakes a homemade chocolate cake for every family birthday.

All recipes from "Chocolate Cake" by Michele Urvater (US Broadway Books, $35).

Souffled Chocolate Cake

Flourless chocolate cakes are just about the only desserts described by an ingredient they do not contain. Michele Urvater lists this cake as serving 8 to 10, but because it's so rich, we think you can easily get 16 servings out of it.

9 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped 1 stick plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch chunks
6 large eggs, separated
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch, sifted
Confectioners' sugar

Melt the chocolate and butter in a mixing bowl or the top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water. Stir occasionally and when the mixture is just melted, transfer it to a clean bowl. Whisk to combine, and set it aside to cool to room temperature.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a round 9-inch-by-2 1/2-inch springform pan.

With an electric mixer on medium speed, whip the egg whites with the salt until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and whip until they are semistiff. With the machine running, slowly add the granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, and beat until the egg whites are stiff and glossy.

In a separate mixing bowl, break up the egg yolks with a fork, then pour them over the egg whites and fold the two together gently with a rubber spatula.

Sift the cornstarch over the mixture and fold it into the eggs, then pour this mixture over the chocolate and fold until blended. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, set the pan on a baking sheet to catch any drips, and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the center jiggles slightly when you shake the pan.

Remove the cake from the oven, and cool it to room temperature in its pan on a wire rack. Run a knife around the cake to loosen it from the sides of the pan. Open the lock and lift the cake up and out of the form, leaving the cake on its metal base.

Just before serving, dust the cake with confectioners' sugar passed through a sieve (or through a stencil if you want a decorative look). Serve the cake at room temperature, but store in the fridge tightly wrapped in plastic for up to 4 days. If you must store the cake first, remove the cake from the fridge 1 hour before serving. Makes 1 9-inch, single-layer cake to serve 12 to 16.

Wacky Chocolate Cake

My 7-year-old, Henry, and 4-year old, Lillian, made this cake all by themselves recently -- really! All I did was sift the ingredients and read the directions out loud. It's a good, plain, basic chocolate cake that uses no bowls and just one pan. This is an excellent choice for anyone with an egg allergy since it's a rare cake that doesn't call for eggs. -- Catherine Vodrey

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon white or cider vinegar
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup water

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease an 8-inch square pan.

Sift the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt directly into the baking pan. Add the sugar. With your finger, poke 2 small holes and 1 large one in the dry ingredients. Into one of the small holes, pour the vanilla, into the other small hole the vinegar, and pour the oil into the large hole.

Pour the water over all the ingredients and stir the ingredients together with a table fork, taking care to teach into the corners, until you can't see any more dry patches and the batter looks fairly well homogenized.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is springy and a tester inserted in the center comes out dry. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack, then cut and serve it from the pan. Bakes 1 8-inch square cake, to serve 8 to 12.

Chocolate Almond Biscuit

Michele Urvater notes that this intensely flavored dessert makes an excellent base for iced petits fours. If you don't have superfine sugar, you can make your own by whirling regular granulated sugar through the food processor for a couple of minutes. We found that it helped to grate the almond paste before using.

1/2 cup (4 ounces) almond paste
1/4 stick unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted
4 large egg yolks
2 large eggs
1/2 cup cornstarch, sifted
Scant 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
5 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup superfine sugar
1 tablespoon sugar

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Line the bottom of a 12-inch-by-16-inch by-1-inch half-sheet pan with buttered baking parchment, or line it with a nonstick baking mat.

In an electric mixer fitted with a paddle, beat the almond paste with the butter and confectioners' sugar until smooth. Add the egg yolks and whole eggs and beat for a couple of minutes, or until light and airy. Beat in the cornstarch and cocoa.

With an electric mixer on low speed, beat the egg whites with the salt until frothy. Increase the speed to medium and whip them until semistiff. Gradually add the superfine sugar, about 2 tablespoons at a time, and beat until the egg whites are stiff and glossy.

With a rubber spatula, fold the whipped egg whites into the almond paste mixture. Gently spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan, reaching into the corners and making certain the batter is level.

Bake 18 to 20 minutes, or until the top feels firm and the edges begin to draw away from the pan's edges.

Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack. Sprinkle a piece of parchment or a cloth towel larger than the cake with the granulated sugar, and invert the cake onto this. Remove the pan and peel off the paper or the towel. The cake is now ready to be cut into strips or other shapes. Makes one 12-inch-by-16-inch sheet cake.

Dieter Schorner's Chocolate Gateau Filling

Dieter Schorner, formerly the chairman of the pastry department at the French Culinary Institute, developed this recipe when he was chef at Manhattan's Le Chantilly. Use it to fill your favorite 9-inch chocolate cake.

2 cups heavy cream
12 ounces bittersweet or semisweet
chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons dark rum

In a small saucepan under low heat, bring the heavy cream to just under a boil. Pour it over the chocolate in a mixing bowl. Wait 30 seconds, then blend the cream and chocolate together with a whisk and mix until smooth. Chill, stirring occasionally, over a bowl of ice until the mixture feels cold but is still fluid.

To make the rum syrup, bring 1/4 cup water and the sugar to boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and transfer to a clean bowl. Whisk in the rum and set aside.

With an electric mixer fitted with a whip attachment, beat the cream and chocolate on medium speed for a few minutes, or until lightened in color and thoroughly whipped. (It will never be as fluffy as whipped cream.)

With a serrated knife, slice a cake layer horizontally so that you are left with 2 layers total. Set one of the layers on a cardboard round cut slightly larger than the diameter of the cake. With a brush, moisten this with 1/2 the rum syrup, then spread it with a layer of the whipped chocolate. Top with the second layer, moisten it with the remaining rum syrup, and spread the top and sides with the remaining filling. If you have enough filling left over, put it into a pastry bag and do decorative piping over the top or edges of the cake. Makes 1 9-inch, 2-layer cake to serve 12.

Chocolate Water Icing

This extremely simple icing is only as good as the chocolate you use.

1 pound semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup minus 1 tablespoon very hot water

Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler or a mixing bowl set over simmering water, stirring occasionally until the chocolate is completely melted. Remove from heat.

Add the hot water and immediately blend with a whisk, beating vigorously. Set the mixture back over the simmering water and finish blending with a wooden spoon until smooth. Use while tepid. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

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