There are a lot of claims out there for ‘best’ chocolate cake recipes, which is not only a wild claim to make, but also a tricky one as, when you consider what makes a chocolate cake ‘the best’, we are talking about preferences that are extremely personal.
Chocolate cake can be many things, and serve many purposes. There are ones that are fluffy and moist, a good specimen for a birthday or even a layered wedding cake (like this chocolate olive oil cake that I made for my brother’s wedding). There is this intriguing one from Ada Boni’s 1929 cookbook, suitable for times when you need a simple, dairy-free, egg-free or vegan cake or when you only have a few essential pantry items and are craving chocolate cake (hence, a ‘pantry cake’). I have enjoyed them both, on numerous occasions.
Personally, the ‘best’ chocolate cake is a very dark one, on the side of bittersweet and quite fudgy as opposed to fluffy. It should also be (as most of my ideal recipes tend to be) ridiculously easy. And it should also be elegant enough to serve as dessert after a meal, but also not so much so that a little sliver with a tiny cup of coffee in the afternoon would be considered too indulgent. Elizabeth David’s chocolate cake has long been this ideal chocolate cake for me. It’s the one I go back to time and time again.
Recently, however, I’ve begun tampering with it — something you really don’t need to do because it’s so wonderful just as it is. But I had been reading about torta caprese, the famous chocolate and almond cake from Capri, when I recognised Elizabeth David’s cake in it. Hers is a French chocolate and almond cake, but it is so strikingly similar, I wanted to meld these two things together a bit.
Torta caprese has a dubious backstory to it, a story that the capresi seem to like to tell and one that is worth re-telling.
It was the 1920s. Three Italian-American gangsters visit Capri (as the story goes, they were there to buy a shipment of spats for Al Capone, those elegant, white, button-up protective coverings for your shoes and ankles – this was a man known for dressing in a pinstripe suit and fedora, after all), and a chef, Carmine di Fiore, makes them a chocolate and almond cake. He doesn’t realise until later that he has forgotten to put the flour in – but the result is a delectable chocolate cake, crisp on the outside and incredibly moist inside. The mobsters love it and ask for the recipe – and presumably the chef breathes a sigh of relief.
What I like about it is that on paper, it is a cake of even proportions and simple ingredients: equal weights of blanched almonds pulverised into flour, unsalted butter, carefully melted dark chocolate and sugar. Then eggs, separated, the whites whipped to fluffy peaks. It is simple. Easy to remember, easy — so easy — to make. And the result is sublime: moist, dark, just the right amount of fudginess, and a crackling, crisp top. Like Elizabeth David’s cake.
I’ve found, over the years of making this cake, that it is also a forgiving cake. There is just one main rule, and even that, as you’ll hear about in a moment, can easily be broken. The almond meal, butter, chocolate and sugar should be equal in weight — I’ve done this with 85 grams of each and 3 eggs (like David’s cake – she only calls for slightly more chocolate, 115 grams, plus a shot of coffee and rum), or 250 grams of each and 5-6 eggs (more like the typical torta caprese), and somewhere in between. They only change in height and size a little, but my favourite proportions are those in the recipe below, because in a 20 cm/8 inch round tin, the cake comes out just over an inch tall, which I think makes for a good-sized sliver – it is a rich cake and you don’t need to serve it in large slices.
If you don’t already use them, this is the time to get out the digital scales, it makes not only preparing this but also remembering it later too easy. Once you’ve remembered that all the ingredients except the eggs should be of equal weights, then you can tweak it to your liking — I personally prefer in my ideal chocolate cake a little less sugar and a little more dark chocolate.
A little extra chocolate can be only a good thing, I think. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall adapted David’s cake during his time at the River Cafe in the late eighties, upping the chocolate slowly to almost double David’s original recipe so that it was “more puddingy”, as he says.
Capri’s Flourless Chocolate and Almond Cake (my ideal chocolate cake)
As far as chocolate cakes go, this Elizabeth David-like torta caprese is the ultimate for me. Aside from whipping the whites, you only need a wooden spoon. It’s dark and not too sweet, which would detract from the richness of the cake. If you like, a grating of orange zest is particularly nice here too. To serve it, I like it just as it is, but you could add some lightly whipped, plain cream. Note that it is even better the next day.
Serves 8-12 in thin slices
125 grams of almond meal (see note, below)
125 grams of the highest quality dark chocolate that you are willing to use (I like 70% cocoa and will often add a little extra, about 180 grams)
125 grams of unsalted butter, chopped
125 grams of caster sugar (I like to cut this down to about 90 grams)
3 eggs, separated and left to come to room temperature
pinch of salt
powdered sugar, for dusting
Grease and line a 20cm/8 inch spring form cake tin (or one with a removable base). Heat oven to 170C.
For the almond meal, you can use store-bought if you like, but I prefer to buy whole almonds, blanch and peel them and then put them in the food processor to grind them to a fine, sandy texture. If you happen to like making almond milk at home, you can also save the almond meal from that process by keeping it in the freezer until moments like this.
In a double broiler/bain marie/a metal or glass bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally. Once melted, add the butter and remove from the heat, stirring with a wooden spoon (or silicon spatula) until it is completely smooth. Add the almond meal and the sugar. Once the mixture is tepid, add the egg yolks and stir with the spoon until it is combined.
In a separate bowl (use a metal, ceramic or glass bowl as opposed to a plastic one), whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt until smooth, fluffy peaks begin to form. Fold these gently into the chocolate batter, then pour the smooth batter into the prepared cake tin.
Bake for about 40 minutes or until the top of the cake appears dry. A skewer inserted in the middle should come out with a few crumbs attached but not appear to have wet batter on it. It is better to slightly undercook than slightly overcook this cake — overcooking leads to a decidedly drier cake, nothing like how this moist, dense cake should really be.
I’ll leave you with this account of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall from his forward in At Elizabeth David’s Table, where he describes serving Elizabeth David his adapted version of her own cake:
‘You cooked this cake?’ She fixed me with her bright, all-seeing eyes. I wanted to run and I wanted to lie, but I knew I couldn’t do either. ‘Er, yes, I did.’
‘But it’s different from the one in the book, isn’t it?’
‘Er, just a bit. I’ve… er… bit more chocolate…’ I mumbled. She held her look and
I realised a deeper explanation was required. ‘Bit… richer… more puddingy.’
She let me ramble on, reddening, for a few seconds, then stopped me with a slight but firm raising of her scant eyebrows.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘whatever you’ve done to it, it’s good.’