One of the best things about encouraging people to improvise in the kitchen is to hear how they monkeyed with one of my recipes.“Wow”, I think, “I never thought of that!” Like my friend Ellen using an herb sea salt, fragrant with dried rosemary, thyme and lavender, instead of kosher salt in a chocolate cake recipe she’d found in one of my books. Ellen said she was about to add the salt to the batter when she saw the package of herb salt on the counter. She ground the coarse gray sea salt with dried herbs in a mortar and threw in a tad more than the recipe called for (to account for the herbs). The cake was a big hit and now has become HER chocolate cake recipe, with roots going back decades.

The cake was, in fact, an improvisation on a recipe I learned years ago when I worked at the Soho Charcuterie as a pate chef (the baker’s work station was in my sightlines). The Charcuterie’s Chocolate Globs – a rich chocolate batter laced with nuts and chocolate chips and dropped onto a cookie sheet – had been adapted from a recipe by Maida Heatter.

When I scrutinized the Charcuterie recipe, I realized it was essentially a brownie recipe with a little more liquid. So, I shifted the balance of flour and sugar to bring it back into brownie-dom, only I used Valhrona 70% cacao chocolate and baked the batter (actually slightly underbaked it) in a round pan, so I could slice the cake into wedges. What is as easy to make as a pan of brownies – is essentially a pan of brownies – became a rich, intensely chocolate “gateau” of dinner party caliber. I spiked it with black pepper, but other possibilities would work well: Earl Grey tea, Mexican cinnamon, curry powder, lavender, orange zest, pistachios…( Ellen made me her chocolate cake and the herbs totally work. But once you know the basic recipe, you can take any liberties you want to.)

Ellen Silverman
Ellen Silverman

Recipe: Essential Chocolate Cake for Improvising

This rich, intensely chocolate cake is the perfect dinner party dessert because it is both so easy to make and seriously delicious. Like a little black dress, the recipe can be improvised on endlessly to create different effects. Add exotic flavorings such as freshly ground pink or black peppercorns, ancho chile, Mexican cinnamon, curry powder or garam masala(about ¼ teaspoon); dried, unsprayed lavender flowers or herbes de Provence (½ teaspoon, crumbled), or ground Earl Gray tea (2 teaspoons). Or stir ¾ cup coarsely chopped nuts such as roasted pistachios, hazelnuts or pecans into the finished batter. For chocolate almond cake, add the barest whisper of almond extract (a scant 1/8 teaspoon) and chopped toasted almonds (Spanish Marcona almonds are sensational).

Serve the cake with whipped cream or creme fraiche.

Makes one 8 -inch cake that will serve 8 people. (For a dramatic 10-inch cake double the recipe and use a 10-inch cake pan or springform pan)

Butter and flour for coating the pan

8 ounces bitter -or semi -sweet chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), coarsely chopped
(fresh, fragrant chocolate is essential)
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or half vanilla extract and half Cognac
1/2 cup sugar
1 or 2 teaspoons cocoa powder

Position the rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350′. Rub the inside of an 8-inch cake pan or a springform pan with butter. Swirl a few teaspoons of flour around to coat completely. Invert the pan and tap out the excess.

Combine the chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. (Or, alternatively, combine in a medium, heavy saucepan and set on a flame tamer/diffuser over very low heat). Stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl; whisk well and set aside.

Combine the eggs, vanilla extract in a large bowl. Whisk until foamy. Add the sugar and whisk until light and frothy, 1 minute. Blend in the chocolate mixture. Add the flour mixture in 2 batches, whisking to blend completely each time.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake 22 to 25 minutes until a skewer inserted 1 inch from the edge comes out clean. When inserted in the center, a bit of moist batter will cling to it. Do not over bake.

Cool the cake on a rack 10 minutes, then invert onto a plate. Invert back onto the rack so the shiny side is up. Cool the cake completely before sliding it onto a serving plate. Sift the cocoa over the top.

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10 replies on “Essential Chocolate Cake for Improvising (recipe)

  1. Wow, just found this recipe and I plan to make it once before July 4, and then again for that day. My dad always broke the law and laid in fireworks to do for all the neighbors to enjoy. July 4th he would hose the backyard down, place chairs and picnic benches everywhere. Mom make chocolate cake. They invited all the neighbors so no one would call the police. This is a huge, essential memory from my childhood. P.S. We would drive north to another county to get fireworks, and THAT always involved hero sandwiches in a nearby beach town. Ah, California.

  2. Suelynne, THANK YOU for sharing that story of your July 4th celebrations that included all the neighbors. We love that your courageous dad put on his fireworks show ANYWAY (hosing the backyard down for safety), and the memory of the hero sandwiches on the foray to buy them. Really great. I hope the cake recipe becomes part of your July 4 tradition.

  3. chocolate cake always reminds me of the coziest, warm, smiling-by-yourself memories: helping my mom bake a cake and be rewarded with licking the bowl. as a child very few moments made me feel closer to my mom as this one, and there’s nothing sweeter than seeing the same excited, happy eyes in my nieces faces.

  4. I was listening to American Public Radio when you were on, and wanted to try this recipe, however, when i was baking it however, my batter was very dry and when baked tasted like bitter cake crumbles rather than a smooth batter. Any thoughts as to why this happened? It seemed like there needed to be more moisture.

  5. Sorry your cake didn’t work out. Assuming you measured the ingredients right, most likely you invadvertently overbaked it. The instructions say very explicitely to err on the side of undercooking. A friend once way overcooked the cake and it came out pretty much as you described. It’s basically a brownie batter – except better chocolate, lots of butter, little flour – so difficult to mess up, EXCEPT if you cook way too long.

  6. Precisely what truly inspired you to post “essential chocolate
    cake for improvising (recipe) | The Improvised Life”?
    Igenuinely enjoyed reading the post! Thanks a lot -Terra

  7. My cake turned out much like Chrys’, dry and crumbly. When inverted from a springform pan’s base it broke into four chunks, although it did not stick to the pan. I followed the recipe exactly, except I used sifted unbleached all-purpose flour. The cake baked 22 minutes. However, I baked at 7000′ elevation and probably should have modified the recipe per

  8. Yeah, at that height you definitely should have modified the recipes. It’s been tested and used MANY times with great success… around sea level. (:

  9. I don’t know why it took me so long to try this recipe, but I did, and, oh wow, was it amazing. I guess I thought since you modestly (but accurately) describe it as brownie recipe, I thought “well I’ve got a great brownie recipe, why try a new one disguised as a cake.” But some friends invited me for an impromptu dinner last night, and I wanted to take something suave to go alongside some vanilla ice cream I needed to get out of my freezer. This came together almost as easily as my usual brownie recipe. I took it to my friend’s house where it looked a bit understated sitting next to a blowsy looking coconut passionfruit cake from the legendary Tartine bakery. My friends were in a mood, so it took a while for everyone to relax and start having fun. But that cake, oh that cake–it made the party. The taste was intense but not overwhelmingly rich, the texture was silky and by comparison the Tartine cake was bland and, dare I say, a bit dull.

  10. Louisa, thank you for one of the most wonderful, and wonderfully written, testamonials ever. Such a story..I totally can “see” the “blowsy looking coconut passionfruit cake”, that was, “dare I say, a bit dull.” I laughed out loud AND am so happy to hear the chocolate cake make the party.

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