Standing in line at the Raspail market on a recent Sunday, I overheard a woman telling her young granddaughter about the meal they were going to have later.
“Et, j’ai fait un gâteau au chocolat,” she said, to the great joy of the girl.
I imagined the cake would be something like this one: a deeply chocolaty single layer, with a richness and elegance that belie the fact that it is actually fairly easy to make. It’s a sort of Little Black Dress of cakes, really.
This recipe is adapted from David Lebovitz’s last book, The Sweet Life in Paris. I made it to bribe my French teacher in New York, and I go back to it again and again when I need something that will impress.
The not-so-secret ingredient is crème fraîche, the thick, fermented cream that is one of the glories of the (let’s face it) glorious array of dairy products found in France. Cheese shops and market stands sell crème fraîche made from unpasteurized cream, and it is utterly delicious. The pasteurized version found at the supermarket is not nearly as flavorful, but it will do just fine here.
Truthfully, this is barely a cake; the final texture is mousselike, thanks to many eggs, no flour and the crème fraîche. The chocolate flavor is pure and unadulterated. It will taste like the chocolate, so choose one that you really like in its raw state. I use Valhrona 61 percent.
It’s very delicate, so don’t be sad if you cannot achieve perfect slices. Honestly, I don’t think anyone will mind once they taste it.
12 oz (340 g) high-quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2/3 cup (160 ml) strong coffee or water
1/4 cup (60 g) crème fraîche
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 large eggs at room temperature
1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
pinch of salt
1. Preheat the oven to 325°. Lightly butter a 9- or 10-inch springform pan and wrap the outside of it with foil to make it watertight. Place the pan into a roasting pan wide enough to hold the cake pan and deep enough to hold at least an inch of water.
2. Put the chocolate and coffee or water in a large heatproof bowl, and place the bowl over a pot of barely simmering water, making sure that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Stir until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth, then remove the bowl from the heat and set aside to cool. Stir in the crème fraîche and vanilla.
3. Put the eggs in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Add the sugar and salt and whip on high speed until the mixture is thick and pale and holds its shape when dropped from the whisk, about 5 minutes. (You can use a handheld mixer, but it will take significantly longer for the eggs to reach optimal volume.)
4. With a large rubber spatula, fold about half of the egg mixture into the chocolate, then gently fold in the rest.
5. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Set the cake pan in the roasting pan and transfer to the oven. Pour enough warm water into the roasting pan to come halfway up the side of the cake pan. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the cake is firm on the surface but still feels soft when gently tapped.
6. Carefully remove the cake pan from the water bath, take off the foil and cool the cake, still in its pan, on a rack. When it has cooled to room temperature, run a knife along the edges of the cake to separate it from the pan, and remove the outside of the springform.
To serve the cake, use a thin knife dipped in hot water to make thin slices (it’s very rich!), and wipe the blade clean between every cut. You can also use dental floss to cut it. Refrigerating the cake will make it easier to slice, but it does change the texture a bit, though not at all in a bad way! The cake will keep, well covered, at room temperature for a day, in the fridge for up to 5 days or well-wrapped and frozen for one month. Serve plain, or with ice cream, caramel sauce or whipped cream.