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“Queen of Sheba” Chocolate Torte
July 28, 2012, 4:36 pm
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A sophisticated, dark, complex, and almost-flourless chocolate cake.  It only has two tablespoons of flour!  This has become one of my favorite cakes, and I have requested it on several birthdays.  I’m moving to China in a few weeks, and since I won’t have an oven in my kitchen there, I’m reveling in the pleasures of baking right now (quiches, cakes, pizzas, roasted vegetables, etc).

The recipe comes from Alice Medrich’s cookbook called Bittersweet.  She is one of the foremost experts on chocolate, and this is a serious and foolproof cake.  This is a recipe that she has been honing and improving for about thirty years.  Over the years, her recipe has evolved to include darker chocolate, and a little less butter and flour.  There are a few extra steps  in the process, compared to a regular chocolate cake — like separating your eggs, and grinding some almonds in a food processor — but it is totally worth it.  Use whole almonds with the skins still on — when you grind them they will have more flavor than plain blanched almonds.  You’ll need an 8-inch spring-form pan.


6 ounces bittersweet 66% to 70% chocolate, preferable coarsely chopped

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

3 tablespoons brandy

1/8 teaspoon pure almond extract (optional)

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (2  1/2 ounces) unblanched whole almonds

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

4 large eggs, separated, at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

powdered sugar for dusting (optional)


Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 375F.  Unless you are planning to serve the cake on the pan bottom, line the bottom of the springform pan with parchment paper.

Place the chocolate and butter in a medium heatproof bowl, sitting in a wide skillet of barely simmering water.  Stir occasionally until nearly melted.  Remove from the heat and stir until melted and smooth.  Stir in the brandy and almond extract (if using), and the salt.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, pulse the nuts and flour in a food processor until the mixture has the texture of cornmeal.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with 1/2 cup of the sugar until well blended.  Stir in the chocolate mixture.  Set aside.

In a clean dry bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar at medium speed until soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted.  Gradually sprinkle in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat at high speed (or medium-high speed in a heavy-duty mixer) until the peaks are stiff but not dry.

Scoop one-quarter of the egg whites, and all of the nut mixture, on top of the chocolate batter, and, using a large rubber spatula, fold them in.  Scrape the remaining egg whites onto the batter and fold together.  Turn the batter into the prepared pan, spreading it level if necessary.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted about 1  1/2 inches from the edge emerges almost clean, but a toothpick inserted in the center is still moist and gooey.  Set the pan on a rack to cool.  (The cooled torte can be covered tightly with plastic wrap, or removed from the pan and wrapped well, and stored at room temperature up to 3 days, or frozen for up to 3 months.

To serve, slide a thin knife around the inside of the pan to loosen the cake.  Remove the pan sides and transfer the cake, on the pan bottom, to a platter, or invert the cake onto a rack or tray, remove the paper liner, and invert it back onto a platter.  Using a fine-mesh sieve, sift a little powdered sugar over the top of the cake before serving, if desired.

Italian Walnut Cake
March 23, 2012, 3:16 pm
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This is one of my favorite cakes in my Grandma’s regular rotation.  It’s a single-layer, round cake decorated with a simple sprinkling of powdered sugar.  The cake looks simple and spartan, but the flavors are bold and complex, with the fragrance of toasted walnuts, lemon zest, and rum.  When I asked Grandma Willa for the recipe on the phone, she told me the list of ingredients, then told me to dust it with powdered sugar when it comes out of the oven.  When I asked about the assembly process, she scolded me, “Don’t you know how to bake a cake?”  This is to say that it’s a pretty straight-forward and easy cake.

I have changed Grandma’s recipe by toasting the walnuts and adding salt.  Many old fashioned cake recipes omit salt, but I like a little salt in my dessert to bring out the rest of the flavors.

Also, I normally make the cake with whole-wheat pastry flour instead of white flour.  Both types of flours work beautifully, but the whole-wheat flour makes it a little more healthful.  This is a comparatively nutritious cake because it’s roughly half walnuts, with the batter essentially holding the cake together.

Serve with strong coffee, or small glass of limoncello or sherry.


2  1/2 cups walnuts

8 tablespoons butter

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons dark rum

2 packed teaspoons lemon zest

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 egg

1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour, or all-purpose flour

1  1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4  –  1/2 teaspoon salt


Toast the walnuts in the oven until fragrant.  Meanwhile prepare the cake batter.  

Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a bowl with a hand  mixer).  Add the rum, lemon zest, vanilla, and egg. Beat to combine.  Add the flour, baking powder, and salt

When the walnuts come out of the oven, chop them fine.  Stir them into the cake batter.

Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.  Pour the batter in the pan, and bake at 350F for 40-60 minutes (depending on your oven).  The top will be golden brown, and an inserted toothpick will come out clean.  

Invert the cake onto a cake plate by placing the plate upside down on the cake in the pan, then quickly flipping it over.  The cake should easily slip onto the cake plate.  Dust with powdered sugar, using a sifter or strainer.

Great-Great-Aunt Tillie’s Date Cake
July 12, 2011, 8:22 pm
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Aunt Tillie was my grandpa Elvin’s aunt, and lived to age 102.  Her date cake recipe has been a family favorite over the decades.  It’s moist, wholesome, fragrant, and has an earthy spiciness. 

Medjool dates, toasted walnuts, lemon zest, buttermilk, cloves — what’s not to love?  I tend to prefer rustic, wholesome desserts, and this cake epitomizes my taste in baking.

This sheet cake is a snap to throw together, and has become a reliable go-to cake for potlucks and informal gatherings.  I have made the recipe my own by toasting the walnuts, adding lemon zest for the fragrance, and adding a bit of salt.  I like salt in my desserts, and I think a scant quarter-teaspoon brings out the other flavors.  This old-fashioned cake has an unusual (but not complicated) assembly process.  You start by crumbling flour, sugar, and butter in a bowl with your fingers.  You measure out and remove 1 cup of the crumbs, reserving this small portion to add later as the crumb topping of the cake.  The crumbs that remain in the mixing bowl create the foundation of the cake batter.

Great-Great-Aunt Tillie’s Date Cake

1 cup walnuts
2 1/4 cups flour (separated as 2 cups and 1/4 cup)
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup butter
1 cup medjool dates
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 heaping teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 heaping teaspoon cloves
scant 1/4 teaspoon sea salt


Butter and flour a 9 x 13-inch pan.  Heat the oven to 350 F.  While the oven is warming up, toss your walnuts into a small baking pan, and toast them.  They will toast in the oven while you are preparing the rest of the cake batter.

Combine 2 cups of the flour, the sugar, and butter in a medium mixing bowl.  Mix and crumble with your fingers.  This is a great activity for kids.  Remove 1 cup of this crumb-mixture, and reserve it for the topping.  The remaining crumbs in the mixing bowl will create the foundation for the cake batter.

Chop the medjool dates.  I like to use my big, heavy Chinese cleaver for this.

Remove the toasted walnuts from the oven, and chop them.  Add the dates and walnuts to the crumb mixture in the mixing bowl.

Add the buttermilk, egg, and lemon zest to the mixing bowl.  Stir to form a batter.

Sift in the remaining 1/4 cup flour, the baking powder, baking soda, cloves, cinnamon, and salt.  Stir into the batter.

Pour the batter into the pan.  Sprinkle with the reserved 1-cup of crumbs.  Bake at 350F for 28-35 minutes.

Fresh Tangerine Layer Cake
April 12, 2009, 8:40 pm
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My family uses the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts for most celebratory cakes. Their orange layer cake is especially vibrant, with fresh juice and zest in both the cake batter and frosting. It has become a leading favorite for birthdays. When tangerines are in season, I use them instead of oranges for this cake. Tangerines offer a more complex and assertive citrus flavor. I buy a flat of tangerines, using some for the cake, and keeping the rest of the cuties around for snacks.

This seemed like the perfect cake for Easter this weekend. I highly recommend pairing it with dark chocolate ice cream.




2 2/3 cups unbleached white flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup butter, at room temperature

2 cups sugar

4 eggs, separated

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 teaspoon pure orange extract, or 1 tablespoon orange juice concentrate

1 tablespoon freshly grated tangerine peel

1 cup freshly squeezed tangerine juice


1/2 cup butter, at room temperature

3 cups powdered sugar

3-4 tablespoons freshly squeezed tangerine juice

1 tablespoon freshly grated tangerine peel


Preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly oil the cake pans and dust them with flour.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until smooth and light. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla, orange extract, and grated tangerine peel and beat well. Beat in the flour and tangerine juice alternately in thirds. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry. Gently fold them into the batter.

Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared pans and bake for 30-35 minutes, until the edges pull away from the sides of the pan and the top springs back when touched. Cool the cake in the pans on a rack for 5-10 minutes. Run a knife around the outer edges of the cakes and invert them onto a rack to cool completely.

To prepare the frosting, beat the butter until light. Add the powdered sugar 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the tangerine juice and grated tangerine peel and beat well. If the frosting is too stiff, beat in more tangerine juice. If it’s too soft or if it curdles, beat in more sugar.

Frost the cake when it is completely cool.