Deep, dark inspiration

Special to The Times

Is there any dessert more beloved than chocolate cake?

It’s the bestseller on sophisticated menus, and the staple of children’s birthday parties. It’s the decadent treat worth breaking your diet for, and the comfort food that you never tire of. We’ve adored it -- in all its many forms -- for more than 400 years, when the first recipes for chocolate cake were written down in northern Italy.

Back then, a torta di cioccolata might have been embellished with almonds or hazelnuts. A hundred years later, a German prince’s pastry chef added apricot preserves to make the Sacher torte. In early 20th century America, devil’s food cake was so popular that every home cook had a much-treasured recipe with some secret ingredient, be it mayonnaise or Coca-Cola. Adding a little something special to chocolate cake seems to be as irresistible as the dessert itself.

Today’s chefs are carrying on the tradition, partly inspired by a new generation of high-cacao chocolate. This extra-dark chocolate has a bitter edge that blends well with a whole range of spices, herbs and other ingredients. When you order chocolate cake for dessert, you never know what you’re going to get -- tall and fluffy or dense and fudgy, sweet and silky or chunky and bitter? -- because chefs keep reinventing this already fabulous invention.


Some tinker with the cake, some with the icing or filling.

At Engine Co. No. 28, for example, the classic double-chocolate layer cake created by founding executive chef Ed Kasky has a silky ganache filling and frosting. The recipe updates the all-American chocolate cake with the addition of a flavor-intensifying ingredient: coffee. (The current executive chef, Kenneth McCaskill, says that pastry chefs have been known to substitute espresso for even more intensity.)

This cake calls for three kinds of chocolate: cocoa powder, chopped semisweet chocolate and chopped bittersweet chocolate. It’s a moist, richly flavored cake. Enjoy it with -- what else? -- a cup of strong coffee.

The cake created by pastry chef Julie Hewitt of Restaurant Halie in Pasadena is deliciously intriguing -- a dense truffle-like cake, with a bright hint of herbaceousness.

“I was in the kitchen trying to imagine what I could combine with chocolate,” explains Hewitt, “and I was going to chop some chocolate. I borrowed a knife from a prep cook who was chopping fresh bay laurel leaves and the aroma just hit me. Then it was, ‘What if I put it in the ganache?’ ”

Hewitt, who previously worked under Sherry Yard at Spago, tweaked a chocolate truffle cake recipe to develop an almost-flourless, not-too-sweet, very sophisticated dessert. At Restaurant Halie, it’s served with blackberry compote and blackberry ice cream. We liked it naked, and thought a glass of Port would make a fine partner.

The Love Goddess Cake is a real discovery, made by Patti Peck, executive chef at Edendale Grill in Silver Lake (who credits chocolatiers Julie Lang and Katrina Markoff).

On the most basic level, it combines the light, sweet texture of a towering chocolate layer cake with a subtle kick of chile. But that description doesn’t come close to capturing the effect. On first bite, the chiles’ heat is subdued, and you get a delicate cake with a surprising depth of flavor. Then, seconds later, there’s a sensation of fireworks.

“I like the complexity of flavor,” says Peck, “The Old World ancient ingredients.” She suggests serving it with a coffee-flavored tequila liqueur to continue the roasted flavors.


Chocolate cake with bay laurel

Total time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, plus chilling time

Servings: 8 to 10

Note: From Julie Hewitt of Restaurant Halie.

Chocolate-laurel ganache

1 cup heavy cream, divided

1/3cup chopped fresh bay laurel leaves (about 10)

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (preferably 64% cacao) finely chopped

4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into small pieces

1. In a small saucepan, heat one-half cup of the cream with the chopped laurel to a simmer. Turn off the heat and steep for 30 minutes. Return the mixture to the heat. Add the remaining one-half cup cream and bring to a light boil, then remove from heat. Strain out the leaves and discard.

2. Pour the cream over the chopped chocolate. Let the mixture stand for 5 minutes. Whisk to melt the chocolate, then whisk in the butter, one piece at a time, until smooth.

3. Pour into an 8-inch springform pan and use a spatula to smooth the top. Allow to cool slightly at room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

4. When the ganache is firm, release it from the springform pan and cut it into small triangles. Place in the refrigerator. (You will have some of this ganache remaining after making the cake; it makes a good snack.)


9 ounces bittersweet chocolate (62% cacao) finely chopped

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, chopped

3 eggs, room temperature

4 egg yolks, room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup pastry flour

1 tablespoon cocoa powder, for garnish

1 tablespoon powdered sugar, for garnish

1. Line the same springform pan that you used to make the ganache with parchment. Melt the chocolate and the butter in a metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. Keep warm.

2. Whisk the eggs, egg yolks and sugar together until tripled in volume, about 3 minutes.

3. Whisk the pastry flour into the warm chocolate-butter mixture.

4. Fold the chocolate-flour mixture into the eggs.

5. Pour half the cake batter into the prepared pan. Place as many of the ganache triangles on top of the cake batter as are needed to cover. Slowly pour the remaining cake batter on top. Smooth the top of the batter with an offset spatula.

6. Bake the cake in a 350-degree oven until the center is just set, about 45 minutes. Cool for 30 minutes, then refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

7. Release the cake from the springform pan and allow to sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes before serving. Right before serving, sprinkle with the cocoa powder followed by the powdered sugar.

Each serving: 648 calories; 8 grams protein; 41 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 57 grams fat; 32 grams saturated fat; 247 mg. cholesterol; 34 mg. sodium.


Engine Co. No. 28’s double-chocolate layer cake

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Servings: 12 to 14

Chocolate ganache icing

2 cups heavy cream

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1 pound bittersweet chocolate, chopped

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1. Place the cream, sugar and corn syrup in a heavy bottomed, non-reactive saucepan and slowly bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and whisk in the chopped chocolate until it is completely melted and smooth. Whisk in the butter, one piece at a time, and pour into a bowl to cool completely. (At this point, the ganache may be kept covered and refrigerated 3 days.)

2. If refrigerated, allow the icing to return to room temperature and stir until smooth before icing the cake.


2 1/2 cups flour

3 cups granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

3/4teaspoon baking powder

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

3 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

1 1/2 cups hot coffee

3 whole eggs

3/4 cup vegetable oil

3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Chocolate ganache icing

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter 2 (10-inch) round cake pans and line with parchment paper.

2. Sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a large bowl and set aside.

3. Place the chopped chocolate in a bowl and pour the hot coffee over. Stir until the chocolate has melted. Set aside.

4. Beat the eggs in a mixer at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the oil, vanilla, buttermilk and the coffee-chocolate mixture and mix slowly until combined well.

5. Add the dry ingredients and mix on slow speed until combined. Increase the speed to medium and mix for 2 more minutes.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans. Bake until cake tester inserted in center of cake comes out clean, approximately 45 minutes.

7. Allow to cool completely, then run a knife around the edge of the pans and turn the layers onto a cake plate.

8. Fill and ice the cake with the chocolate ganache icing.

Each serving: 783 calories; 10 grams protein; 95 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 48 grams fat; 22 grams saturated fat; 106 mg. cholesterol; 474 mg. sodium.


Love goddess cake

Total time: 2 hours

Servings: 10 to 12

Note: From Patti Peck of Edendale Grill in Silver Lake, who named the cake after a legendary Aztec aphrodisiac made of chocolate, chiles and vanilla.


1/4cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream

3 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon ancho chili powder

1/8teaspoon chipotle chili powder

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1. In a small pan, bring the cream to a simmer over high heat. Place the chocolate in a medium bowl and pour the hot cream over it. Let the mixture stand until the chocolate softens, about 5 minutes, then whisk until smooth.

2. Whisk in the chili powders. Let the mixture stand until completely cooled, about half an hour. With an electric mixer at medium speed, beat in the butter, one tablespoon at a time, until smooth. Do not overbeat. Cover with plastic wrap and keep at room temperature until ready to use.

Whipped cream frosting

2 cups whipping cream

1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Pour the whipping cream into a chilled medium mixing bowl. With an electric mixture on medium speed, slowly beat in the powdered sugar and vanilla. Turn the mixer to high and beat until stiff. Do not overbeat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.


1/2 tablespoon butter, for the pans

1 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

1 cup boiling water

1 cup water at room temperature

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ancho chili powder

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 1/4 cups granulated sugar

4 large eggs, at room temperature

2 vanilla beans, ground in a coffee grinder (or 2 teaspoons extract)


Whipped cream frosting

Edible flower petals for


1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 9-inch round pans (2 inches deep). Line the pans with parchment and dust with flour. Tap out the excess.

2. Whisk the cocoa and boiling water in medium bowl until smooth. Whisk in the room-temperature water and let stand until the mixture cools.

3. Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and chili powder.

4. Beat the butter and sugar together with an electric mixture at high speed until the mixture is light in color and texture, about 2 minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then the ground vanilla beans or extract.

5. On low speed, add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with two additions of the cocoa mixture, scraping the bowl often until smooth.

6. Spread the batter evenly in the pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 to 45 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then remove the cakes from the pans and cool completely.

7. Place one cake layer upside-down on a cake plate. Spread with all of the chocolate filling. Top with the other cake layer, right side up.

8. Spread a thin layer of the whipped cream frosting over the top and sides of the cake to affix any crumbs to the cake so they won’t mar the white frosting. Then continue to frost the cake, trying not to disturb the first coat. Refrigerate (up to 8 hours ahead). If chilled, let stand 30 minutes before serving. Just before serving, decorate with flower petals.

Each serving: 727 calories; 8 grams protein; 74 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 48 grams fat; 28 grams saturated fat; 199 mg. cholesterol; 264 mg. sodium.