Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

I was about to make my tried-and-true Essential Chocolate Cake for an impromptu birthday dinner when I discovered two big problems. First, I remembered that the birthday girl, who loved chocolate, often made this very same recipe and did it really well. And second, I only had ingredients for half a recipe. What could I do to make a chocolate dessert special enough for the day, that my dear friend wouldn’t find ordinary?

Desperate, I searched my larder for an interesting way to transform the cake, mulling malted milk powder, currants, pistachios…nothing seemed right…until a jar of applewood smoked bacon fat in the fridge spurred a plan of action. Why not use bacon fat instead of some of the butter in the recipe – bacon and chocolate have clear affinities?

I’d balance the richness with a few grinds of Aromatic Pepper – a mix of black, white, and pink peppercorns with allspice berries and coriander seed that I keep in a peppermill as an instant flavor enhancer. And I’d stretch the half batch of batter by baking it in paper cupcake cups, to make charming individual cakelets.

At the very least, it would be a gift of improvisation – a risky foray into unknown territory – in my friend’s honor, which I knew she’d enjoy. If it worked, I’d have a celebratory dessert.

The half-batch of cake batter yielded six little cakes smaller, yet somehow more grown-up, than cupcakes. They were a HUGE success, served with a barely salted whipped cream. The subtle underpinning of smoky pig gave the chocolate surprising complexity. Aromatic pepper provided tiny hits of unexpected flavors. Everyone raved and tried to guess what made its unique and delicious taste.

And best of all: my friend loved the birthday “cake” created just for her.


Recipe: Dark Chocolate Cakelets with Aromatic Pepper and…

This recipe is as easy as making brownies, but with dazzling results. Adding some smoky bacon fat to the batter gives the chocolate great complexity and resonance. If you don’t have bacon fat on hand, use 6 tablespoons unsalted butter.

Serve with whipped cream or creme fraiche, ideally with a few grains of salt.

Makes 8 to 12 individual cakelets or 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 spring form pan).

1 tablespoon melted butter or bacon fat, or vegetable oil, to coat the cupcake papers
8 ounces bitter -or semi -sweet chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), coarsely
chopped (fresh, fragrant chocolate is essential)
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons rendered bacon fat (see method below)
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
A few grinds (about ¼ teaspoon) of Aromatic Pepper (see recipe) or black pepper
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′. For individual cakelets, arrange 8 to 12 nests of 3 paper cupcake cups (one inside the other) each on a baking sheet. Brush the inside lightly with fat. If using an 8-inch cake pan, rub the inside with butter. Swirl a few teaspoons of flour around to coat completely. Invert the pan and tap out the excess.

Combine the chocolate, butter  and bacon fat 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; add the pepper, whisk well and set aside.

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

Spoon the batter into the prepared cupcake cups. For 12 individual cakelets, bake 16 to 17 minutes until the tops look set and slightly cracked and dry. If you’re making fewer, larger cakelets, bake a minute or two longer. For an 8-inch cake, 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 overbake; it is better to underbake to insure the cakes are moist and fudgy.

Cool the cakelets on a rack. For a cake, cool 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.

Aromatic Pepper

I learned this aromatic pepper mix in France many years ago. It is a truly amazing flavor enhancer that can be used in stead of black pepper to give complex hits of spicy and aromatic flavors to a dish. Mixed with some salt and a pinch of sugar, it makes a great dry rub for  beef, lamb, pork and game.

Makes about 1/3 cup; the recipe can be scaled up

2 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 tablespoon white peppercorns
1 tablespoon pink peppercorns
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon coriander seed

In a small bowl, mix all the ingredients together. Fill a peppermill with the mixture and grind as needed.

Rendered Bacon, Pancetta, Ham, Duck or Goose Fat

To render means to cook a fatty meat or skin slowly until the fat liquifies and can be separated from any flesh, skin or cartilage. Then it can be strained into a clean jar and kept on hand (in the refrigerator) for use in cooking.  You can render the fat from bacon, pancetta, a real cured country ham such as prosciutto or Smithfield, or from a goose or duck to add marvelous flavor to a dish.

Cut the fat to be rendered into 1/4-inch dice. In a heavy skillet, cook the fat covered over low heat stirring occasionally until the fat is liquid and the remaining flesh is crisp and brown. Strain into a clean dry jar and refrigerate when cool. You can use the crisp rendered bits in recipes or as a garnish. You can freeze them up to 2 months and reheat them in a covered skillet with a little water.

The yield of different fats varies greatly:

Bacon or Pancetta
-1 pound yields 1 cup (8 ounces) fat; 1 ounce yields 1 tablespoon fat.

Double Smoked Bacon
-1 pound yields 2/3 to 3/4 cup fat;  1/4 pound yields about 3 tablespoons.

Related posts: Essential Chocolate Cake for Improvising
Whipped Cream with Salt, and Other 2-Ingredient Discoveries

Happy Birthday, Girlie!

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