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IN THE KITCHEN : Befuddled by Chocolate

TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

This will probably put me in a minority of about 1% and attract enough hate mail to fill a post office, but I just don’t get chocolate.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll eat chocolate; it’s not an allergy or anything like that. It’s just that for me, chocolate is a Johnny One Note ingredient. Elegant and complex it ain’t. At least not in the same way a fruit dessert is.

Actually, I kind of like chocolate. It’s not like a perfectly ripe Comice pear, but it’ll do in a pinch (besides, tucked away in my desk drawer, it doesn’t draw fruit flies the way pears do). As a matter of fact, I’m eating desk chocolate right now. It’s dark and rich and perfect as a piece of candy. Maybe that’s what people like about it. It reduces all desserts to the level of something that can be picked up at a convenience store checkout lane.

Otherwise, I don’t get this whole cult of adoration that’s been built up around chocolate. Or is adoration too mild a word? What other ingredient has spawned such an outpouring of passionate, nearly erotic obsession? Listening to a couple of chocoholics go on about cookies makes the deli scene in “When Harry Met Sally” sound like a masters’ colloquium.

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I guess what I’m trying to ask is what’s all the heavy breathing about?

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When you get right down to it, chocolate is an unfriendly ingredient that is notably uncomfortable sharing the center stage with anything else. Sometimes it shows up in bits and pieces and it goes pretty well with most nuts and a couple of fruits.

But essentially, chocolate is chocolate is chocolate. Occasionally, though, it’s more--usually, when it’s less. That’s why I like this spice, er, chocolate cake from Carol Field’s “The Italian Baker” (Harper and Rowe: 1985). Here, cocoa powder is used as just another flavoring, along with nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon, espresso and raisins. It contributes a dusty, very faintly chocolatey taste that emphasizes the spicing. When people at my house start crying for chocolate, this is more than likely the kind of thing I’ll fix.

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The cake isn’t much to look at, just a brown disk dusted with powdered sugar. But it’s in the great Italian tradition of cucina casalinga --home-style cooking raised to a professional level. Beneath this humble exterior there is an intricately balanced blend of flavors in which chocolate is but one note. What lifts this cake above the realm of plain old chocolate dessert is its complexity.

Notice that the word is complex, rather than simply complicated. Leave it to French patissiers to construct dazzling confections of chocolate and pastry. Leave it to American pastry cooks to smack you in the mouth with a roundhouse punch of pure chocolate.

Count on the Italians to deliver this homey surprise, as elegant in its simplicity as anything involving chocolate could be.

COUNTRY SPICE CAKE (Torta Speziata)

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2/3 cup raisins

7 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

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1 3/4 cups less 1 tablespoon flour

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon Dutch-process cocoa

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon

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1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon warm espresso, or 3 tablespoons instant espresso powder dissolved in 3/4 cup plus 1 scant tablespoon hot water

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Powdered sugar

In bowl soak raisins in warm water to cover 15 to 30 minutes. Drain.

In bowl cream butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat thoroughly. Sift 1 3/4 cups flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and salt together. Beat in flour mixture alternately with espresso in 3 additions, beginning and ending with flour. Toss raisins with 1 tablespoon flour. Fold into batter.

Butter and flour 8-inch cake pan. Pour batter into pan and smooth top.

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Bake at 350 degrees until cake shrinks slightly away from side of pan. Cake should still be slightly moist inside, about 40 minutes. Cool on rack. Invert cake onto serving plate. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve with whipped cream. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

319 calories; 340 mg sodium; 54 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 52 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.59 gram fiber.


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