Saturday 8 March 2008

Recipe: Flourless Chocolate & Almond Cake

A version of this can be found in the pages of Elizabeth David's 'French Provincial Cooking', I discovered when I googled it for provenance - although her version adds coffee and rum, and omits the almond essence and slivered almonds, the crunch and flavour hits from which I rather like. In her version she also says that one of the traditional names for the cake is 'The Queen of Sheba', which is rather charming. Immediately, it conjures up the image of some nineteenth century pastry chef on a flight-of-fancy, probably one rainy afternoon in the back-kitchen of a small bakery, in some provincial town in Brittany, circa 1864!

I've also seen a version of it in a book by Linda Collister (she who occasionally gets hauled into Woman's Hour on Radio 4, to demonstrate how to make pancakes and suchlike). She also ascribes its origins to somewhere in small-town France.

Dietarily sound, this has the additional benefit of being phenomenally quick and simple to make. Needing respite from the computer screen yesterday afternoon, I took temporary refuge in making this cake, which took ten minutes out of my afternoon, and half an hour later was out of the oven and cooling down, ready to be consumed with a cup of tea - all in less than an hour after the idea of making it had first occurred. The finished cake is richly flavoured, but at the same time moist and very, very light.

Ingredients: 4 oz Butter, at room temperature; 3 oz Sugar; 4 oz Ground Almonds; 4 Eggs, separated; half a teaspoon of Almond Essence; 4 oz Dark Chocolate (Felchlin, by preference, but if not, something like Valhrona or better-quality Lindt) ; 1/4 cup of Slivered Almonds.


1. Heat the oven to 200 degrees C.

2. Melt the Chocolate in a double boiler or zimmertopf. Once it has melted, allow it to cool slightly, as you get on with the next stage in the recipe.

3. In the food processor, cream the Butter and Sugar together, then add the Egg Yolks, one by one, processing them into the creamed mixture after each one has been added.

4. Add the Ground Almonds, and process in, then add the melted Chocolate and the Almond Essence and again run the processor for ten seconds or so thoroughly to amalgamate everything. Scrape this mixture out of the food processor into a large bowl.

5. In a separate bowl, whisk the Egg Whites until quite stiff. Then take a quarter of this Egg-White mixture and stir it into the Chocolate mixture, to lighten it, before folding in the remainder of the beaten Egg White - much like making a chocolate mousse.

6. Grease a 20 cm spring-form cake tine (or spray with Trennwax), and pour the cake mixture into it, levelling it off inside the tin. Sprinkle Slivered Almonds over the top.

7. Bake for fifteen minutes at 200 degrees C, then reduce the temperature to 180 degrees C for a further ten minutes. If the Almonds show any sign of getting too dark, then cover the cake loosely with a piece of foil. Check for done-ness with a skewer, and by pressing the surface of the cake (if the skewer comes out clean, and the surface springs back under the light touch of a finger, then it's done).

8. Run a knife round the cake inside the tin, but don't turn it out immediately - leave it to cool down in the tin for ten minutes or so, before removing the spring-form bit of the tin.

In theory, I believe the cake is then supposed to rest for a day before being eaten. In practice, five minutes or so is about par for the course in this house!

Thursday 6 March 2008

Italy. The Land of Billy Bunter's Postal Order....

I like the food; the wine; the art (for the most part); the weather - in all its manifestations; the people (in general); the architecture; the gardens; the fact, in most ways, I'm fairly positive about Italy in all of its myriad shapes and forms. For all that, though, I have to admit that the place still has its occasional drawbacks. Chief amongst which is probably 'getting things done' . It is.....a Nightmare!

An example: Several years ago, inspired by the presence in Pisa of the Saint Gobain glassworks, and thus by the ready availability of mirror and glass cut to any size and shape you could possibly want, the Technical Department decided to create a mirror-lined bathroom. And not just any old mirror-lined bathroom, but a cross between the Amber Room from Tsarskoe Seloe and some kind of racily decadent Emerald-Cunard fantasy. With over 850 pieces of individually cut and bevelled mirror, the plan was for an enormous three-dimensional jigsaw, covering every vertical surface in the room. The mere description caused most of our friends to blanch at the thought that they might one day be expected to use this particular bathroom, and be confronted with views of their own naked forms reflected from more angles than they'd ever thought they had angles!

Two years later, and the project was almost finished. Which was already more than a year and a half longer than had originally been envisaged. Along the way, frequent delay had been caused by the clash between the two incompatible concepts of the 'Brazilian Right Angle' (our brazilian builders appear not to believe in them, and there seems not to be a single one in the entire place) and the 'Pisan forty-five degrees'. It turns out that the glass cutters were working by eye in cutting the pieces of mirror.....with the inevitable result that many of the pieces of the jigsaw just didn't fit, and had to be re-done. All things considered, it's no surprise that the Leaning Tower of Pisa does exactly what it does!

Even so, by last summer, all was done, apart from the last sections of mirror to go around the lunette window in the shower area. Maybe twenty five or so pieces in total. Which were duly ordered, in a bit of a hurry, before the middle of July in the hope that they might be delivered before Saint Gobain closed down for August. Ha! I can feel hollow laughter rising up even as I write that.....The way things are going, by next August would be stretching optimism to its limits!

Even Billy Bunter would have been embarrassed by the thinness of the excuses for non-delivery, as the months have rolled past. On each occasion, a date and time has been fixed, arrangements made to be at home when they arrived....even telephoning every twenty minutes during the course of the afternoon to follow the progress of the truck on its rounds.....with the excitement building as the moment got ever closer....until of course the evening closed in and realisation would have to be confronted that, yet again, they weren't actually coming. "They got to the end of the street, and the truck was too big...", or "There was an accident on the autostrada...." , or "They were just about to arrive and discovered that every piece of mirror had been broken in transit...."or "There was suddenly an emergency delivery, and they had to go and do that instead". Short of the dog having eaten their homework, they've used every plausible and quite a few implausible excuses they could come up with.....and in fact have taken to leaving the phone off the hook for the day following the non-appearance of yet another promised delivery, just so they don't have to deal with the irritated Inglesi yet again.. There aren't even really any attempts at excuses any more, just resigned acknowledgement of the fact that once more, it simply hasn't happened.

The mirror was due, for the umpteenth time, to be delivered last Monday. And when it wasn't, the explanation was that in fact the arrangement had been for Tuesday. And so, when nothing arrived on Tuesday, there was no real explanation - or attempt at one - but merely the statement that it would be delivered next Monday. And do I believe it? Not for one nano-second. But, since there's nothing to be done, then the only alternative to pretending to believe what they say would be merely to give up. Which isn't an option......because it can't be an option.

In the same way that we carry on waiting for the quote from the builder to lay the new Salone floor, which was promised faithfully by the end of December, and then by the middle of January, and then by the start of February....Maybe his truck is the wrong size? Or his dog's eaten the estimate? Who knows....

And much of this week has been taken up with waiting for the post office to deliver a package, which Post Italia's online tracking system faithfully swears has been 'attempted' on three occasions, on all of which we were at home, so you'd think we'd have noticed them trying.....and now it doesn't much matter, since the fact that they've 'tried' and failed sufficiently often means they won't try again, and we'll just have to go to them to pick it up ourselves instead......

And the process of trying to pay a Telecom Italia bill online (which you need only mention to any expat in Italy to rouse gales of cynical laughter.........although, actually, you don't need to mention the online bill-paying bit, just mention Telecom Italia, and people's eyes start to roll ...!)

So, all things considered, it's rather a good thing about the art, and the food, and the wine, and the weather, and the landscape....which all-told do a pretty good job of ungritting the teeth at the end of the process of trying to interface the system. Or is it the other way round, and the presence of the art, and the food, and the wine, etc mean that nobody can ever be bothered much about the state of the system in the first place, which is why it's all in the condition that it is? You know, I think I might just have to ponder that one over a glass of wine.....

Tonight's Dinner:

Moules Marinieres.

Chicken & Mushroom Croquettes; Carrots in Marsala.

Fresh Mango & Strawberries in Cointreau.

Wednesday 5 March 2008

Recipe: Flourless Chocolate Cake

Not so much a cake recipe, as a fantastic construction device for use in chocolate tarts and soufflés. Following on from techniques used by - amongst others - Ducasse, Senderains, and Hermé this is a method for introducing into these sorts of dessert a wonderfully concentrated flavour bomb. The 'cake' is in fact a thin layer of very porous chocolate sponge, which acts as a container for strongly flavoured liquids (generally, but not necessarily alcoholic). The degree to which the sponge sucks up the liquid prevents it from leeching out into the surrounding mixture, and at the same time, the cake itself somehow dissolves, so that as you bite into it there is no obvious sense of a 'cakey' texture - just a very intense flavour hit. At the same time, the chocolate sponge is effectively invisible within a chocolate-coloured soufflé or tart filling, and so there are no visual clues in advance which might spoil the surprise..

This sponge layer when cooked is not a thing of beauty, but since it ends up concealed within whatever dessert you're making, it doesn't matter. The quantities given here are sufficient to make discs of sponge for use in half a dozen or so individual desserts; any leftover sponge can be readily frozen for future use, although you have to defrost them very thoroughly to make sure they are decently porous again after freezing.

Ingredients: 80g Dark Chocolate (Felchlin, by preference); 5 Eggs; 190g Sugar.


1. Heat the oven to 170 degrees C.

2. Melt the Chocolate in a double boiler or zimmertopf. When melted, allow to cool slightly.

3. Beat the Egg Yolks with half the Sugar, until thoroughly incorporated. Stir into this the slightly cooled melted Chocolate.

4. Whisk the Egg Whites until they form soft peaks, then add in the remaining Sugar and continue whisking to make a meringue.

5. Fold the meringue into the Chocolate mixture and spread this thinly (about 1/4 inch thick) either onto sheets of Silpat, or onto baking sheets lined with greaseproof paper.

6. Bake in the pre-heated oven until done - this can take about fifteen minutes, depending upon how efficient your oven is. To test for done-ness, press with a finger, and if the dent springs back and leaves no lasting impression, the sponge is done. It should be very dry.

7. Leave to cool on a rack.

To Use: Cut the sponge into discs, the correct size to fit into the ramekins (if making soufflés) or tart shells, if making tarts.
- If making chocolate soufflé, half fill the ramekin with the soufflé mixture, then place a disc of sponge on top; carefully soak the sponge with half a teaspoon or so of your liquid of choice (Cherry Brandy or Cointreau spring to mind) and then cover with more soufflé mixture. Bake the soufflé as normal.
- If making a Chocolate Tart (or a variation, such as Pear and Chocolate, or similar), place the sponge disc in the tart shell and add the liquid of choice, before proceeding with the tart recipe on top of the sponge disc, entirely as you would do otherwise.

Monday 3 March 2008

And two days in Serbia....

"Try not to attend any political rallies whilst in the country, and avoid getting into discussions about Kosovo with people you don't know" was the travel advisory for Serbia on the Foreign Office website, when I checked it last week in light of the mayhem and chaos in Belgrade downhill of Kosovo having declared independence.

Not a problem, I thought. Political rallies feature rarely in my diary, and I can't remember the last time I had a discussion with anybody - either known to me or otherwise - on the subject of Kosovo's geopolitical status.

How naive could I be! Ok, I've managed to avoid political rallies - but the first, and only, topic of conversation anybody appears to have in Belgrade currently is 'The Political Situation'.

"What will it do for foreign investment?" is the main question, framed in various different ways. "Well, I shouldn't think it will throw anything much off course", is generally my breezy reply (largely on the unspoken basis that Serbia's international profile was pretty flaky anyway, even before they began to throw stones and petrol bombs through the windows of various Western embassy buildings). "This has been going on for so long", one chap intoned dolefully - and I tried to look vaguely sympathetic as I wondered whether he meant since the mid-nineties, or was he harking back to Princep and his revolver in Sarajevo in 1914? Vague memories of history lessons about The Balkan Question and Palmerston's gunboat diplomacy also came to mind, as did the idea that actually it's really been going on since 1389 and the battle of Kosovo. It didn't seem helpful to mention any of this detail, though, and I changed the subject instead, with some bracing and encouragingly bland remark.....

And so. Belgrade. The trip in from the airport was a rather low-key affair (although tell me any major international airport where that isn't the case), and the housing stock in New Belgrade looked depressingly like The Brunswick Centre, at the bottom of Marchmont Street, before it had its recent and rather effective facelift. The fact that my taxi was stopped routinely by hotel security staff and thoroughly searched for bombs was a little surprising and somewhat double-edged: encouraging, that they think to check; but worrying, that they think they have to. From the fastness of my international, wifi-connected, all-singing-all-dancing, marble-bathroomed hotel room, I can look down upon a rather depressing view of blocks of flats and sub-prime cityscape. And in going in search of a typically ethnic Serbian dining experience, yesterday evening, my hopes were not high.....

And how wrong could I be.

On the splendid - as it turned out - advice of the reception desk in the hotel, I ended up in Skadarlija, a charmingly knockabout backwater that dates back architecturally to Turkish times. In the heart of Old Belgrade, tree-lined and paved with huge and uneven cobblestones, the street meanders downhill in between restaurants and courtyard cafes, with enough of a well-worn feel to it that it has a sense of being 'real' and in no way a tourist construct. Faithful to the advice I'd been given, I went to 'The 3 Hats' restaurant, halfway down on the left, and was immediately back in Greece of thirty years ago. Scruffy victorian furniture and dicky-bowed waiters who were formal in both dress and manner; it was like something from 'The Third Man'.
A group of musicians was loudly - and seemingly endlessly - serenading a group seated on the other side of the room, and it was against the backdrop of this cacaphony that an order for Rakia was somehow communicated. Apparently, it's what you have to have. Not to be confused with Cretan Raki, this is a splendidly mellow kind of plum brandy - to be consumed from the start of a meal rather than at the end - where the method of consumption is to take a small sip, and then sit and feel its soft warmth spread generally down and through your system. And it does, too.

Serbian food - not surprisingly - turned out to be a mixture of Greek and Italian influences - but arguably not quite as as good as either. Dinner started with a series of what in Italy would be antipasti: air-dried Beef, and Prosciutto, and a sheep's cheese (effectively identical to very good Feta), and Brawn, and Beans in a Tomato Sauce (which in Greece would be 'Gigantes', but here were a smaller variety), and a sort of Curd event, and a chunk of soft and dark-brown bread, of some kind. And then another glass of Rakia. Followed by a rolled fillet of Pork, which had been bread-crumbed and deep-fried, and was served with industrial quantities of what turned out, unexpectedly, to be tartare sauce. Which led, inevitably, to another glass of Rakia.....

All told, it was with a great sense of wellbeing that I eventually rolled back out into the cobbled street, long after the band of musicians had packed up and all of the other diners had wended their way. Not so the late-night revellers at the tables outside the street cafés, and as I strolled back up the hill, I passed a small group, where a middle-aged couple were waltzing in the middle of the street to the music of a solo violinist, apparently oblivious to anybody else, and to the fact that it was past midnight and still only the beginning of March!

It might not be a scene to inspire confidence among the foreign investor community, but as an image of all being essentially well, it certainly did it for me!