With the difficult weather, you may find your self on-the-hook for a Valentine’s gift for tomorrow. If you’ve got the basic makings in your pantry for brownies, I recommend my tried-and-true Essential Chocolate Cake for Improvising recipe. It’s as easy to make as a brownie, with a good deal more bang for the buck, AND there are endless ways to improvise on its essential formula, adding in all sorts of unexpected flavorings to delight your beloved. Here’s a recent testimonial that says it all:

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. —Louisa

As is, the cake is sensational made with very good chocolate. If your chocolate is average semisweet, I recommend goosing it up with a bit: add lavorings 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). I’ve even replaced some of the butter with rendered bacon fat, for subtle smoky undertone (and baked little cakelets).

Sally Schneider

Our friend Ellen Silverman uses Herbes de Provence salt instead of Kosher, upping the amount a tad.

Ellen Silverman
Ellen Silverman

The recipe is from my award-winning cookbook The Improvisational Cook. There you’ll find a number of improvisations on the basic batter: Chocolate Planets (a thin, chewy wafer like cookie) and Chocolate Wonders (fist-size globs of chewy-chunky chocolate cookie).

Maria Robledo
Maria Robledo

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