Yesterday I didn’t step outside of my apartment once. I didn’t take a shower until just before bed. I won’t even tell you at what time I remembered to brush my teeth. It’s countdown to book deadline around here!
One week. I’m feeling great. I have a plan of action. I even have a social plan or two for the evenings to keep me sane. And I know, in the back of my mind, that my contract includes a 45-day grace period should I need it. But that’s a crutch I’m going to try to run away from with my two good legs.
Right now, I’m deep in recipe-testing land. I’ve got a beloved army of testers, both professional and home cooks, alongside me. Working hard. Giving me feedback. Weighing and measuring. And the results have been pretty successful.
Still, the specifics keep me up at night. Should I specify the exact diameter to which a cookie should be smooshed down before baking? Should I give a weight on two tablespoons of flour? Can I assume that everyone bakes with a ruler in hand, like I do? How crazy should I get? How do I write these recipes so that every baker will come out with delicious results? It’s making my head spin.
I’ve been working in professional test kitchens for years. I know what to do. I’ve developed and tested tons of recipes. I’ve trained people to test recipes. But this is my first baby. My first book baby. And I care so deeply it hurts.
So this week I decided to channel a master. To let the recipes of a much stronger woman guide me. To wrap myself up in a comforting blanket of someone else’s words and directions. I pulled out my never-been-cooked-from copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Ms. Julia Child. I wanted to see if I could invite her spirit into my kitchen to calm some of my anxieties. I wanted to see how she handled it.
Reine de Saba, also known as Chocolate Almond Cake, sounded tasty and I had all the ingredients on hand. To me, following someone else’s recipe feels like turning on the GPS. Just turn off your brain and let the directions guide you. It’s relaxing. Julia, take me away.
But then I had some questions! So, you have to add 1/3 cup “pulverized almonds” to the batter. The directions to pulverize the almonds are on a different page and instruct you to grind the almonds in a food processor with sugar. Exactly how much sugar? What sugar? Should I use some of the sugar from the cake recipe? Or should I introduce new sugar? And how many cups of almonds should I pulverize to come up with 1/3 cup for the cake? Whole almonds? Blanched? Roasted? I used my judgment and continued.
When I pulled my cake out of the oven and flipped it out after exactly ten minutes as instructed, the middle stuck to the pan. I had thought about lining it with parchment, but Julia didn’t tell me to. So I didn’t. And my cake was majorly squat. Is that what it should be like? And then the frosting recipe didn’t tell me what temperature the butter should be. I guessed room temperature. Bah!
Ok. So none of these questions caused any major failures. The cake was a squat little beauty and she tasted great. Dense. Chocolatey. A bit boozy. Yum. But even Julia’s recipe left things unsaid. Even Julia left some things to chance and the capabilities of her reader. Even Julia’s recipe wasn’t perfect. Or was it? Maybe a perfect recipe doesn’t need to come out exactly the same every time. Maybe a perfect recipe lets each baker have a part in making it special. I think maybe that was her spirit’s lesson. It’s just a recipe. And dessert is tasty, even if it doesn’t look exactly as the author intended. Julia says relax. And eat more cake.
Reine de Saba or Chocolate Almond Cake
From Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck
I rewrote it, ever so slightly, for clarity…and also because I don’t know the rules about publishing someone else’s recipe verbatim. You’re probably not supposed to do that, right?
Serves 6 to 8
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the pan, at room temperature
1/2 cup cake flour, plus more for the pan
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons rum
2/3 cup granulated sugar plus 1 tablespoon sugar
3 large eggs, separated
pinch of salt
1/3 cup pulverized almonds (about a 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, ground in the food processor)
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 ounces semisweet chocolate
2 tablespoons rum
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
sliced almonds, for garnish (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter and flour the cake pan. (Or to be extra safe, butter and line the pan with parchment.) Melt the chocolate and the rum together in a heat-safe bowl over a pot of barely simmering water. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until pale yellow and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and beat until well blended.
3. In another large bowl, with clean beaters, beat the egg whites and salt until soft peaks form. Sprinkle on the sugar and beat until stiff peaks are formed.
4. With a rubber spatula, blend the melted chocolate into the butter and sugar mixture, the stir in the almonds, and almond extract. Stir in one quarter of the beaten egg whites to lighten the batter. Delicately fold in a third of the remaining whites and when partially blended, sift on one third of the flour and continue folding. Repeat this process until you’ve added all the flour and folded in all of the whites.
5. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake until 2 inches from the edge of the pan are set and the center is still moist, about 25 minutes.
6. Let cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and flip the out onto the rack. Let cool completely before frosting.
7. Make the frosting: Get a large bowl of ice water ready. Melt the chocolate and the rum together in a heat-safe bowl over a pot of barely simmering water. Remove from heat and beat in the butter, one tablespoon at a time. Set the bowl of chocolate into the ice bath and beat until the mixture has cooled to a spreading consistency. Frost the cake. Decorate with sliced almonds if you wish.