In my life as a pastry chef, I've always held fast to the belief that there are certain flavors — specifically coffee, lemon and chocolate — that are best taken to the extreme. If I create a coffee dessert, it should taste like it's going to keep you up at night (even though it is very likely made with decaf!). If I'm making something with lemon, it should make your mouth pucker. And if I'm doing a chocolate dessert, I want it to be unapologetically, unabashedly hitting you over the head with chocolate.
The perfect example is the signature chocolate dessert at Osteria Mozza, a dense, creamy chocolate cake that we serve with chocolate-covered almonds, hazelnuts and honeycomb on top and on the side and — against all reason — hot fudge on top. It's what I think of as a black-tie dessert. It's elegant, decadent and beautifully accessorized, which makes it perfect for serving or gift-giving during this time of year.
If you serve the cake plated, like we do, and like I just described, it's the kind of finish to a meal that your guests will be talking about the next day. Served on a dessert buffet with the candies displayed on little cake plates and the hot fudge on the side, it's a real showstopper. And any of the components — the cake itself, the candies boxed up with a pretty ribbon — would make a wonderful gift. I, for one, would love it if someone came to my house with a jar of homemade fudge sauce rather than the usual bunch of daisies.
The history of this cake began with a chocolate cake I had at a restaurant called Muse in the early 1990s. I just fell in love with this cake, and I had to beg for months to get the recipe. When I looked at it, I was so surprised by how the cake was made: There was whipped cream folded into the batter, which, since it had no flour in it, basically made it chocolate mousse that was then baked. I would have thought that the whipped cream would break in the oven, but because the cake was baked in a bain-marie, or water bath, it didn't. Instead, it just made for the moistest, creamiest, densest chocolate cake imaginable.
Whenever I see an unexpected method such as this, I'm both excited about having discovered it and jealous that I didn't think of it myself. So I was a bit envious of this recipe until years later, when I realized that it was a rip-off of a Julia Child recipe. Somehow being trumped by Julia Child stung less.
The recipe has remained in my repertoire and evolved over the years in terms of how it's baked and also how it's served. At the Osteria, we bake it into a very low cake and then slice it into a long, narrow triangle, so that with the fudge sauce on it, it's almost like a sleek, deconstructed layer cake. I call the chocolate-covered candies that it's served with "Peruginas," in homage to the chocolate company — most famous in this country for its foil-wrapped baci, or kisses, that contain a love poem in three languages.
As delicious as I know it to be, I have to hand it to my customers for having the faith in me (or enough of an obsession with chocolate) to order this dessert, because if I saw such a description written on a menu — chocolate upon chocolate upon chocolate — I would probably think, "How could anyone eat this?" The secret, or what keeps it from being a cloying, one-dimensional death-by-chocolate headache, is also the driving philosophy behind all of my composed desserts, and that is contrast.
In this dessert, as in all composed desserts that I am drawn to, there is a contrast in textures, in this case the smooth creamy cake juxtaposed with the crunchy nuts and honeycomb. There is a contrast between the temperatures of the refrigerated cake and the warm fudge sauce. And there is a contrast in flavors, meaning something besides straight-up sweetness. I often use salt to break up the sweetness of my desserts, but in this case it is the bitterness of the dark chocolate that makes what could be an overwhelming dessert interesting and palatable.
To make any portion of this dessert, it probably goes without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway) that the first and most important step is to start with quality chocolate. There are a lot of really good brands and varieties of chocolate available these days, and a recipe such as this is an invitation to splurge on the best you can get your hands on. At the restaurant, we use a Colombian chocolate, Cordillera, which contains 70% cacao. Obviously I recommend that one, but equally good are Valrhona, Scharffen Berger and Callebaut.
There is no technique whatsoever to making the cake — unless you count whipping cream. And slicing the cake properly requires some knowledge of geometry. But unlike some cakes, wherein the difference between the convection ovens in a professional pastry kitchen and even the best home convection oven makes it nearly impossible to perfectly replicate the cake, with this cake, the results from a home oven are identical to ours.
The fudge sauce is also pretty much no-fail. If you buy good chocolate and you follow the instructions and don't burn it, the only regret you might have is that you didn't make more.
Making the candies is a little more involved. None of the steps is difficult, but there are a lot of them, and they do require some attention to detail and some candy-making technique. You will need a candy thermometer to gauge the temperature of the caramel that you coat the almonds with, and you will need to temper the chocolate.
Tempering chocolate refers to the process of raising and lowering the temperature of melted chocolate to achieve the correct chemical balance, where the fat crystals in the cocoa butter react with each other in a specific way. Chocolate that has not been tempered properly will "bloom," meaning that the cocoa butter will rise to the surface, creating a thin white coating or a streaked look. Also, when un-tempered chocolate cools, it will be soft and pliable, almost fudgy.
Properly tempered chocolate, by contrast, will have a pretty sheen on top and a satisfying "snap" when you break it or bite into it. Pretty much every chocolate bar, chip, disk or block that you've ever purchased has been tempered. It becomes un-tempered when you melt it, such as to make this cake or fudge sauce. Then if you want it to harden properly again, as you will to coat the hazelnuts and honeycomb, in which that crackle and luster are essential, you must temper it again.
With the amount of detail that I give in the recipes — coupled with the information in the online video — I really think you have all of the information you need to successfully complete this chocolate extravaganza. And, of course, you have my permission to make any of the components on their own — the candies, say, or just the cake and fudge sauce.
Now the only thing you have to do — and this should be the easiest and the most enjoyable step — is to put this to my ultimate dessert test. Here's how. First, plate the dessert according to the instructions, just as we do for a guest at the restaurant. Next, sit down with a fork and a glass of red wine or coffee or water, as if you were that guest. Then start eating.
You should be able to get through the entire dessert, candies and all, in one sitting, without feeling bored with what you're putting in your mouth or sick to your stomach. When you're done, your chocolate cravings should be satisfied for at least a month.
Let me know how it goes.