40 Little Cakes

•August 21, 2007 • 2 Comments

Some days I feel like I am masquerading as a professional. Today is one of those days.  Yesterday morning, as I was leaving the restaurant, Matt signaled me over.


I lack the ability to say “no” at the right moments, and instead, what came out of my mouth was:



Matt’s greatest virtue, and possibly the key to his success and evident happiness, is his unflappability. He lives in a reassuring world were everybody does their best, and their best is the best they can do, and therefore good enough. It is in no way a defeatist attitude, but one that exudes confidence.  The problem is that sometimes confidence can negate the need for advance planning.


I worried all night and got up early the next morning. And when I got to work, I made 40 little cakes, not a single one to spare. They turned out to be bitter-sweet chocolate and orange.  There weren’t any extras to try, but they smelled good.

In the early morning quiet of the restaurant I begin to understand Matt’s calm: however the cakes turnout, whatever I decide to make, and however they like it, it will still be calm and quiet here in the early morning of tomorrow.  Good or bad you get to try over and over again.

Bittersweet Chocolate Cake with Candied Orange and Creme Fraiche

Restaurant baking has several constraints that home bakers flaunt and enjoy without appreciating: 1) Home bakers can generally reach their oven without peril, and 2) they can set the temperature of their oven to suit their recipe. 

The restaurant kitchen is not well set-up for plating warm desserts. Our one and only oven is set at 450 F during service, positioned at the opposite end of the 3 foot wide kitchen occupied by 4 chefs, and burns all but the sturdiest of desserts before you can say “order in.” If this were not the case I would have been the first to make a warm chocolate cake, and that is what I recommend you do, since it certainly won’t mean crossing paths with multiple hot pans and sharp knives and sweaty white coats.  As such, the recipe that follows is not the one that I made, but the one that I would have made, in the best of all possible worlds.


I added the zest of one orange, grated on a microplane, to the melted chocolate and butter mixture, while the mixture was still in the baine marie and hot enough to release the orange oils from the zest.

Individual ramekins, buttered and dusted in coco-powder (so that you cannot see any ugly unbaked flour on the top of your rich chocolate cakes) work, but buttered ring molds on a silpat lined sheet pan work better. I  managed to successfully un-mold all 40 ramekins without any casualties, but I had my breath held the whole time, and I believe luck intervened. I would’ve used ring molds but we don’t have any, and they are pricey.  I complained about this to a friend who bakes for a neighboring restaurant and she suggested I use tuna cans, well washed, with both the top and bottom cut out. Brilliant.


Candied Orange Garnish

Garnishing and plating are more luxuries that the home baker does not appreciate. When you bake professionally, you usually arrive early and leave before service, hopeful, but never knowing for sure if your desert was carefully composed or slapped on the plate, drenched in the ubiquitous  mint & coulis 1-2 combo, and thrown out the window without the lovely little orangettes you spent all that time making, and which, above all, add not only charm, but flavor.


Take a ripe orange and press one side down hard on the counter. This should flatten the side and make it easier for you, with a sharp knife, to cut a fairly rectangular patch of zest from the orange. Try to avoid excess pith because you will just have to cut it off later; and it is harder then than now. Repeat until you have removed all of the zest. I know some who like to use a potato peeler for this job. I do not, but if you don’t like, or don’t have very sharp knives, it works fairly well, just don’t press too hard or you will end up with tons of pith.

Take your oranges pieces and cut them into 1/4 inch wide match sticks. Place them in a small pan of boiling water. Boil for 5 minutes or until the water becomes orange and drain.

Bring another pan to boil, with equal cups water and sugar (simple syrup) and add the pieces of zest to the mixture. Boil gently until the zest becomes transparent and the syrup sticky.

With tongs place the orangettes on a wire cooking rack with newspaper underneath it, as the syrup will drip. When they are dry you can store them in a Ziploc between wax paper, dip them in chocolate and serve them with a Grand Marnier as a dessert in its own right, or take two and cross them over your warm little chocolate cakes, which is what I did, to make sure they weren’t forgotten.

Creme Fraiche

Can either be bought or made. If you would like to make it, which is the more tasty and economical choice, simply make a mixture of 1 part cultured buttermilk to 3 parts heavy whipping cream, cover, and let sit at room temperature over night. Grow lovely, tasty, bacteria. Grow!


•August 7, 2007 • 1 Comment


Matt leans over the counter, pen in hand, ready to write.

I look at my almond cake, still in the pan and so hot that the cherries are on top are bubbling. And then at the clock: 20 minutes until service. The cake does not look like what I expected from the recipe, but flatter, spongier, and more difficult to unmold. And it is the moment of truth; Matt wants to print the menu.


Matt looks a little skeptical, a tad amused, a bit annoyed, and taps his pen. I lift up the cake from the bottom, and like a dream it comes clean of the pan with such ease that I can he thinks I was spoofing at the prospect of disaster, or showing off. I was doing neither, and I am genuinely relieved. Though still flatter than expected the now compliant cake is quite lovely, soft yellow, deep red, with the scent of warm almonds.

“ALMOND CAKE WITH CHERRIES”, I say, newly confident, and cut a piece to sample.


What difference a name makes! Matt nods, and scribbles, and then reaches for the piece I set in front of him, and smiles. Then he reaches again.


I found this recipe on Orangette last night, and tweaked it by substituting cherries for apricots and adding almond extract to the batter. I added the extract because nothing is worse than and unalmondy almond cake and the almond flavor we have come to expect is actually a flavor component in peach pits, which the French have been adding to their almond paste for centuries and which we now know as almond. I have nothing against apricots, and had in fact planned on going down to Frank’s to get some for the recipe, but looked at the clock, my to do list, and the cherries Tim was using to make a gastrique, and decided a little switcheroo was in order. ( I stole the pitted ones when he wasn’t looking.) Tomorrow, I plan on using apricots, and carmelizing them with my blow torch when the cake comes out of the oven and, if time permits, making a reduction with sage a honey to spruce up the plate.

Preheat your oven to 350.

1/3 cup blanched almonds, ground finely.

2/3 cup flour

1t baking soda

2/3 cup sugar

pinch of salt

8 tb butter, softened

1t almond extract

2 large eggs.

Like always, mix dry ingredients, cream wet ingredients and combine the two as gently as possible. The batter is thick and covers the pan only scantly if you coax it with your fingers (which I suggest wetting slightly to keep the batter from sticking). Place whatever fruit you use cut side up so the extra juices condense and thicken rather than make a dark soggy spot on your cake. Orangette suggests wrapping the bottom of your removable 8 or 9″ pan in parchment paper, and despite my near panic, the technique does work. Every oven is different–Its done when it looks and feels done: just beginning to golden and springy to the touch. At the restaurant we use a convection oven which effectively cooks around 50 degrees hotter (due to better air circulation) than the temperature reads. Needless to say, I have burned things. Its better to get to know your oven and to trust your nose.