Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Black Pepper and Sweet Potatoes

Yep, that's what I've put in cakes lately. 

You've probably seen the movie Chocolat with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp (omigoditsreallyhimplayingtheguitarthatistotallyhotlovehim!), about a woman whose Maya ancestors passed on the tradition of chocolate-making and pepper-adding.  The book, by the way, ends with totally different characters falling in love.  Don't get me started on the-book-versus-the-movie.  Anyway, thanks to the movie, I knew about adding cayenne to hot chocolate, which, though it sounds vile, in fact heightens the flavor of the chocolate.  No seriously, it does.  I've tried it.  But what I hadn't thought of was adding pepper to chocolate baked goods, so when I came across this French Chocolate-Almond Cake recipe, I was intrigued.

It looks dense, but is incredibly light and melts in your mouth!  Well, practically. 

The pepper and cinnamon in this recipe are optional, according to the authors.  According to me, you can't pass up the opportunity to add black pepper to your chocolate cake and actually have it turn out well.  The first time I made this cake, I used pepper that had been sitting in my spice cabinet for way too long. I think I bought that container of pepper the last time I lived in Los Angeles.  That was what, 2005?  It was one of those Costco-sized containers. What was I thinking?  Who uses that much pepper?  Nevertheless, the cake came out perfectly, with just the right kick of pepper at the end.   For the second go-round, I decided to get a fresh supply of black pepper, which Berkeley Bowl sells in bulk.  Apparently, there is such a thing as too fresh.

My dad's old buddy, Gian (who knows EVERYTHING about food), reminded me of the cayenne-into-chocolate possibility, which he says the Spaniards do as well.  So I'm thinking that for the third go-round, I'm going to add mostly cayenne to the cake, and just a touch of too-fresh black pepper, since it was a bit strong in Cake Number Two.  I am quite certain that the particular heat of the cayenne will complement the airiness and perfect sweetness of the cake, without any of those elements being overpowering.

The same issue of Vegetarian Times that featured the Okinawa sweet potatoes had a recipe for a Chocolate-Sweet Potato Torte, which I made and which turned out well.  The two are variations of the same cake, though I prefer the pepper and cinnamon version, since those ingredients get a chance to shine, whereas the sweet potato just disappears.  Though come to think of it, that might be a good thing.

French Chocolate Almond Cake
(adapted from Moosewood Restaurant New Classics, which adapted it from Julia Child)

**Be sure to start with ALL ingredients at room temperature, including the eggs. 

1 tsp instant coffee granules
2 tbsp hot water  
(I use 2 TBSP espresso instead)                
4 oz bittersweet chocolate
1/3 c butter
1/2 c sugar
3 eggs, separated
1/3 c unbleached white flour
1/3 c finely ground almonds    
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
a pinch of salt
2 tbsp granulated sugar
2 tbsp confectioners' sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Coat an 8-inch springform pan with cooking spray and dust lightly with flour.
Stir together coffee and water in a small saucepan or double boiler.  Add chocolate and stir on lowest heat until smooth and blended.   Remove from  heat and set aside.
Beat together butter and sugar with an electric mixer or whisk until light and creamy.  Add egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Beat in reserved chocolate mixture.  Set aside.
In a separate bowl combine flour, almonds, and spices.  Set aside.
Whip egg whites (*see note below) in medium bowl until white and foamy.  Add the cream of tartar and salt, and whip until the whites form soft peaks when the beaters are lifted.  Add granulated sugar and continue to whip until whites are stiff and glossy.
Combine the mixtures: fold the flour mixture into the chocolate mixture alternately with the egg whites in two or three batches.  DO NOT OVERMIX!  The fluffiness of the egg whites are what make the cake melt-in-your-mouth-y. 
Pour batter into prepared pan.  Bake cake in center of oven for 20-25 minutes.  When done, the top will be slightly cracked, the center will be soft and slightly puffed, and a toothpick inserted about 2 inches from the edge will have a few crumbs adhere to it.  Cool on rack for 10 minutes. 
Dust lightly with confectioners' sugar and serve slightly warm or at room temperature.  

Two notes: 
1. Egg whites are finicky creatures.  If there is even a speck of yolk in them, they will not whip up properly.  Ditto for water, soap, chocolate, dryer lint, chicken grease, and tofu.
2. The cookbook actually says the secret to this cake's texture is a healthy amount of elbow grease while whipping the whites by hand with a whisk.  Who does THAT?


  1. Epilogue: an old friend suggested adding a pinch of cayenne to coffee in the morning, for an extra kick. I was skeptical, but tried it. It's great, so long as you really do use a pinch and not a fistful. Not that I did or anything.

  2. Some fruit cakes use all spice which is pepper so I can see that this would work - it just sounds more extreme!