Sunday, June 27, 2010

Recipe: Flourless chocolate-almond cake

The classic "flourless cake" is a dense and decadent confection — often oozing with molten chocolate — made from dark chocolate, butter, egg yolks, sugar and beaten egg whites. But you can take the flourless cake in another direction, one that is light and airy, by relying on the magic of egg whites to stabilize the cake.

A perfect example of a light flourless chocolate cakes is the Italian Chocolate-Almond Torte in Alice Medrich's wonderful Pure Dessert. Whenever I have a few extra egg whites — after I've made a batch of pastry cream for a free-form fruit galette, for example — I bake one of these cakes. The batter comes together in a hurry and requires only a few ingredients: almonds, chocolate, egg whites, sugar, salt and cream of tartar.

The original recipe calls for 7 egg whites, but since I rarely have that many around, I weighed the ingredients and calculated the quantity necessary for between 1 and 6 egg whites. For the cream of tartar quantity, however, I used Rose Levy Beranbaum's recommendation of 1/8 t. cream of tartar per egg white (a short video on her website demonstrates the role of cream of tartar in egg white stabilization. If you are using a copper bowl, however, then you should leave out the cream of tartar, as it can cause a toxin to be produced, but Beranbaum isn't clear about the identity of that toxin.)

This basic recipe of wildly adaptable: you can add bits of orange zest or candied orange peel, use hazelnuts or walnuts instead of almonds, mix in some Mexican cinnamon (the "true" cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum, while cinnamon in most American jars is cassia, Cinnamomum aromaticum.), fold in a pinch or two of fleur de sel, and so on.

Recipe: Flourless Chocolate-Almond Cake
Adapted from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich


# of egg whites







Almonds (grams)
 17.5 35 52.5 70 87.5 105

Chocolate (grams)
25 50 75 100 125 150

Sugar (grams),
divided in half
35 70 105 140 175 210

Cream of tartar (t.)     
1/8 1/4 3/8 1/2 5/8 3/4

Salt to taste - the original 7 egg white recipe calls for 1/8 t. salt. It's not practical fill out the table with parts of 1/8 t., so use between a pinch and 1/4 t.  Or, if you like salt in your desserts, use more, possibly a coarse variety like fleur de sel. 

(Unit conversion page)

Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C).

Prepare the baking pan(s). With such a variety of quantities in the recipe, there are a number of options. For a six-white recipe, use an 8 or 9-inch pan. For two to four egg whites, try a 9-inch by 5-inch by 2 1/2-inch loaf pan. A cupcake or muffin tin might also work nicely. In any case, grease the sides of the pan and line the bottom with parchment paper (or use tin liners).

Place the almonds and one-half of the sugar into the bowl of a food processor and process until the almonds are chopped. Add the chocolate and process until the mixture is a coarse meal, but not so much to make a fine powder.

Place the egg whites in a very clean bowl. Using a hand-held mixer (works best for fewer than 3 egg whites) or a stand mixer (for 3 or more whites), beat the whites on medium speed until they are frothy, then add the cream of tartar (unless you are using a copper bowl). Increase the speed to high and beat until the whites hold soft peaks. With the mixer running on medium, sprinkle in the remaining sugar and beat on high until the whites hold stiff peaks.

Fold about one-third of the chocolate-almond mixture into the egg whites. Then fold the chocolate-almond mixture into the egg whites. Transfer the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the cake has risen and has a golden brown top. Let the finished cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes before removal.

Wrapped well, it will be good for up to 3 days at room temperature.

Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, fruit sauce, or whatever you like with chocolate and almonds.

Random link from the archive: Sweet Potato Leaves

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Let this salad invade your kitchen: wakame, cucumber and radish sprouts with smoky vinaigrette

Photo of wakame from fotoosvanrobin at Flickr

When it comes to salads, I'm much more interested those made with vegetables, fruit, nuts and other ingredients than anything with lettuce or other leafy greens – creations like the Tosa sea salad in Washoku, Elizabeth Andoh's splendid book about Japanese home cooking. (An exciting aside: Elizabeth Andoh has a new book scheduled for release in October: Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions.)

It has three main ingredients – cucumber, wakame and radish sprouts – and a delicious slightly smoky dressing. The slight sweetness of the cucumber, the mellow oceanic nature of the wakame, and the sharp bite of the sprouts are an unlikely trio that goes great together and meshes with the smoky vinaigrette. The vinaigrette is where I make a major diversion from Andoh's recipe. In her recipe, the smoke flavor comes from katsuo-bushi (dried bonito flakes), a specialty of the recipe's namesake, the region of Tosa on Shikoku Island (not the dog; see map at the bottom of the post). To bring smoke into the dressing while keeping it vegetarian, I use lapsang souchong tea, a Chinese variety that has been dried over burning pinewood fires, thus imparting it with a smoky essence (so much so that I wonder how anyone could drink it straight.).

Before we get to the recipe, a side note about wakame (Undaria pinnatifida): this variety of kelp is native to Asia, but is an aggressive invader, earning a place on the IUCN's list of the 100 worst invasive species. In recent decades, it has become established in Europe, New Zealand, Australia and Southern California. Just last year, it was spotted in San Francisco Bay for the first time, a worrisome new development for an already highly damaged ecosystem, as an article in the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Even if we all regularly ate the Tosa sea salad we'd probably barely make a dent in the invader's population.

Tosa Sea Salad
Adapted from
Washoku by Elizabeth Andoh
Serves 4

(Unit conversion page)

4 Japanese or other cucumbers with edible peel, about 3 ounces each
1 t. coarse salt
2 T. dried wakame (see note 1)
2 ounces radish sprouts, rinsed, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch length (see note 2)
1/4 cup smoky vinaigrette (recipe below)

Cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise, then slice thinly on a diagonal to make half-ellipses. Transfer to a bowl, sprinkle with the salt, and toss. Allow to rest for 10 minutes. Rinse, drain and squeeze gently to remove any excess liquid.

Cover the wakame with cool water, soak for 5 minutes, and then drain, rinse and drain again. If necessary, chop the rehydrated wakame into bite-size pieces. Combine with the cucumbers.

Just before serving, divide the cucumber-wakame mixture into 4 portions, top with the radish sprouts and pour some vinaigrette over each portion.

Smoky vinaigrette
Adapted from Washoku by Elizabeth Andoh

1/4 cup brown rice vinegar (or plain rice vinegar)
1 T. sugar
1/4 t. salt
1 piece kombu, 2 inches square
1 t. lapsang souchong tea (see note 3)
Soy sauce

: To remove some of the caffeine from the tea without losing too much smoke flavor, pre-steep the tea by pouring a cup of boiling water over the leaves, letting it steep for 3 or 4 minutes, then draining. (for details about caffeine in tea, see my two posts on the subject.)

Combine the vinegar, sugar, salt, and kombu in a small non-reactive saucepan. Bring to a simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar and salt. When the liquid has reached a simmer, add the lapsang souchong tea (pre-steeped or not), stir and turn off the heat. Allow to cool in the pan. Pour through a fine strainer to remove the solids.

Add a dash of soy sauce if the dressing is too sweet, a dash of mirin if it is too salty.


1. Wakame can be found in stores that specialize in Asian products, especially those with a Japanese or Korean tilt. It usually comes in small plastic bags that don't seem to hold much, but as the picture above illustrates, the plant expand a lot when it rehydrates.

2. Radish sprouts are grown from daikon or radish seeds. Since they are sold by a sprout specialist at my local farmers market, I haven't looked for them elsewhere, but would guess that you could find them in natural food stores or Japanese groceries.

3. Lapsang souchong, a tea that has been dried over burning pinewood fires, is used to impart a smoky flavor to the viniagrette. Andoh's original recipe calls for 1/3 cup loosely packed katsuo-bushi, a variety of dried bonito that has a smoky flavor. The fish flakes are sprinkled over the simmering liquid and heated for 30 seconds before turning off the heat.

Photo of Dried and soaked wakame from fotoosvanrobin's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive: Tempering Chocolate

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Thursday, June 03, 2010

A visit to Baia Nicchia Farm in Sunol

Photo of Baia Nicchia Farm in Sunol, CaliforniaI first learned about Baia Nicchia in 2006 when I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about their tomato breeding efforts. What set them apart from other breeders was a focus on the S.F. Bay Area, a region with multiple microclimates — hot and dry in Walnut Creek, cool and sunny in the Mission, damp and foggy in the Sunset, and so on — that create challenges for backyard gardeners.

In the years since, I have bought produce and tomato seedlings* from them at the Berkeley Farmers Market; have been reading their blog; attended a tomato growing lecture at Magic Gardens in Berkeley; and most recently attended their open house.

The Sunol Ag Park
On a recent weekend, a friend and I went to an "open house" at Baia Nicchia's farm in Sunol. Baia Nicchia is run by Fred Hempel and Jill Shepard and has been on the Sunol land since 2006. They lease the land from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (which provides water to the City) and buy water from the Commission at rates somewhere between wholesale and retail. Their farm is part of the Sunol Water Temple Agricultural Park (a.k.a. the Sunol Ag Park), a project that came about because of efforts by the Berkeley nonprofit Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE) in 2006. At the time, San Francisco was developing a food policy that stressed food production within city limits. SAGE realized that it made sense for San Francisco to apply that to city-owned lands outside of city limits — like the Sunol plot — and convinced officials to launch a one-year pilot project in 2006 that eventually turned into a nine-year lease for agricultural uses. The San Francisco Chronicle had an article on the Ag Park in 2008. At that time, there were five groups working the land besides Baia Nicchia, including Oakland's People's Grocery and a group of refugees from Laos.

Photo of edible ChrysanthamumWhat and How They Grow
For a small, organic farm, Baia Nicchia has a relatively low number of crops. They have plenty of tomatoes, of course, most of them producing fruit for sale and some being used to breed new varieties. They also grow melons, peppers, squash, beans and microgreens in the summer, but no lettuce, chard or root vegetables. This makes their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program simultaneously somewhat more adventurous and more focused (or, perhaps, monotonous) than the average CSA. However, their on-line materials indicate that they are open to customizing the box, for example, replacing squash with more tomatoes.

To replenish soil fertility, they plant an off-season cover crop of bell beans, which is a nitrogen-fixing plant. Some time before the real planting season begins, they disk them into the earth. They also get rabbit manure from a nearby breeder and apply that to the fields, a stinky and messy job. Drip irrigation is installed throughout the farm to minimize water consumption.

Tomatoes are supported using techniques borrowed from grape vineyards: trellises that encourage the tomatoes to grow along a vertical plane instead of as cylindrical, sprawling bushes. The tomato seedlings are given a few weeks to get started before the first level of trellis is strung between the posts (pictured below). Periodically during the growing season, they hire vineyard workers to come in and install new trellis levels.

Photo of tomato trellising at Baia Nicchia Farm

How They Make Money
Like other small farms, Baia Nicchia has multiple ways of making money. They have a CSA with various drop-off points around the Bay Area (and is open to adding more, so if you are interested in their CSA but aren't near a current drop-off point, send them a note). They also sell specialty crops to restaurants, caterers and retailers, like the edible chrysanthemum (pictured above), microgreens, and special varieties of tomatoes. The "Taste" tomato, for example, was developed specially for a catering company in San Francisco and was sold exclusively to them for a period of time. This year it is making its public debut as a seedling and I think it will eventually be at Seeds of Change. Although they used to sell produce and seedlings at several farmers markets, these days they only go to Menlo Park — apparently the return on their time investment was too low to continue with the others. The tomato breeding business is probably another source of revenue, with their seedlings being sold at the farm stand and in a local nursery (Magic Garden in Berkeley) and seeds sold through Seeds of Change (I'm unclear how this works, i.e., whether they provide the seeds or only the breeding services).

You can follow Baia Nicchia through their farm blog and CSA blog. On August 16 they are hosting a "Seeds of Change Field Day" that will include some of Seeds of Change's top new varieties of summer vegetables, produce sales and food prepared by local chefs.

* This year I have three of their seedlings in my tiny backyard garden: Blush, Black Cherry and Maglia Rossa (tomatoes from 2007 are pictured above).

Cross posted at La Vida Locavore

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