This dessert that I made for Easter dinner with my parents is a celebration of rich dark chocolate and gooey caramel, as well as the result of a personal achievement for me.
If you've read my blog for a while, you'll know that making caramel has been a source of great frustration for me, and something that I've been determined to master - I'm just stubborn that way. I've never known anyone to love caramel as much as my man does, and I've tried so many times to make homemade caramel for him.
Following all the tips and tricks that all the experts use, I've made batch after batch of caramel, only to have to scrub a grainy white mess of lumpy, crystallized sugar, that didn't even get close to turning into caramel, out of my stock pot. Once, just once, I made a successful batch of toffee, but I have no idea how that happened since every attempt after that one ended in failure, leaving a very annoyed me scrubbing my stock pot yet again in a hot kitchen. A kitchen devoid of pretty jars of caramel on the counter to reward my efforts.
One day we were watching an episode of Good Eats, and Alton Brown happened to be making caramel. I had to find out if he had an answer to my troubles with caramel making.
And the answer: Corn Syrup. His explanation was that introducing a different form of sugar into the pot, such as a few tablespoons of corn syrup with the granulated sugar, would help to prevent the sugar from crystallizing. I don't quite understand the chemistry of it all - after all, my high school "science project" involved a very lame poster board of perfume samples and the way the scent varied on my best friend and me, whether on our wrists, neck, etc... - I'm surprised our teacher even gave us a passing grade on that project.
But anyway, as far as adding corn syrup, it has something to do with two forms of sugar not being able to bind together, which in theory, should provide more stability during the process of caramel making. I started doing a little more research on the subject and found more and more references here and there to adding corn syrup to sugar when making caramel.
And I have to admit, all this made me wonder why it seemed to be such a well-kept secret? I've perused so many recipes for caramel, all of which make it all sound so easy to make, with no reference to this particular trick. Were they all doing this all along, but not wanting anyone to know, so that they could be the master of caramel? I'm not saying that people aren't making caramel without corn syrup, and being completely successful at it - good for them! I, however, need this technique.
It makes me think of a funny story I read somewhere, of a young bride who asked her grandmother for a recipe - but every time she made the recipe, it was never the same as her grandmother's. When she asked her grandmother what she did wrong, the response was always something like "Hmm, I don't know, that never happens when I make it!". The bride later found out that when her grandmother shared her recipes, she always left out one or two ingredients, or a crucial piece of the instructions, so that no one would ever be able to make her recipes better than she could!
I have no such compunctions, though, and want only to encourage and help all those cooks out there, trying to learn, as I am, how to be a better cook and baker. So here I am, sharing this secret with all of you. Because if you've experienced even half the frustration that I have, then I feel for you.
Even with the corn syrup, there was a moment when I almost thought that I'd ruined the caramel when I poured in the cream. I had started by cooking the sugar, corn syrup and water over very low heat to dissolve the sugar as much as possible before cranking up the heat. Then I let it cook over medium heat, without stirring, until the color deepened to amber - I let it go as long as possible, up to the point where I feared it might start to burn, because I wanted the caramel to be as rich in flavor as possible. This took about 10 minutes.
And then I took the pot off the heat and poured in the cream. The hot liquid bubbled up as it should have, but when I went to stir it up with a wooden spoon, I found that the liquid had seized up, and become one big lump. My heart sank, and I thought I had ruined the caramel. Again. But it looked so close to being caramel, that I held onto hope that it could be rescued, so I decided it just needed a little more heat to loosen it up. So I returned the pot to the stove over low heat and let it cook and melt down a little, while I stirred constantly. The caramel began to smooth out almost immediately, and my heart started to hope! I stirred in the butter, then the vanilla and salt, and realized that I was staring into a pot of perfect, ooey gooey caramel. I was so excited, that I immediately took a picture with my phone and sent it to Jamie - I wanted him to start drooling in anticipation of dessert that night! Just in case there were any remaining lumps that hadn't dissolved, I poured the caramel through a mesh strainer into a glass jar.
I kept the jar on the counter all day, periodically going back, lifting the lid, and sticking a finger in - just to be sure that I hadn't been dreaming earlier, and that it hadn't changed into something other than caramel while I wasn't looking...
Ok, this has already become a pretty wordy post, and I haven't even talked about the cake yet! You could of course just eat caramel with a spoon, as I'm sure most of you out there have done at one point or another, but let's face it, something to drizzle caramel on is never a bad thing, either.
This cake isn't just a vehicle for the caramel, though, and really doesn't even need the caramel, but the two together were pretty amazing. Flourless chocolate cakes are composed primarily of chocolate, butter and eggs. And really, they don't need anything else, although a little sugar, cream and vanilla are welcome additions, too.
Since chocolate is the main ingredient, you should use the best quality chocolate that you can afford. You don't have to spend a fortune, but every grocery store has a nice selection of organic chocolate on the candy aisle that isn't full of mystery ingredients like a bag of chocolate chips tends to contain. I used an organic bittersweet chocolate of about 54% cacao, but you can definitely go darker. Just remember, the darker the chocolate, the less sugar it contains, so if you want your cake to be sweeter, then you'll need to increase the amount of sugar you add.
I knew this cake would be extremely rich, which is why I made it so thin, barely an inch tall. If you'd like a thicker cake, you can easily double the recipe, but I'll warn you, you'll want to cut much smaller pieces, unless you'd like your tombstone to read "Death by Chocolate"! :)
For a finishing touch to the cake, I made a ganache out of the same bittersweet chocolate to spread over the top of the cake. The cake was moist and indulgent, almost like a pudding, and the salted caramel added a delicious contrast of flavors. It was a sweet and satisfying way to end dinner.
And now, to end a too-long post, I'll simply ask this question when faced with any future culinary predicaments and frustrations...
"What would Alton do?"
Flourless Chocolate Cake
- 8 ounces good quality dark, bittersweet chocolate, chopped (54% cacao or higher)
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 4 eggs
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 3 ounces good quality dark, bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
- 1/3 cup heavy cream
Adjust the oven rack to the lower middle position and preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottom of an 8-inch spring form pan with parchment and grease the sides of the pan. Wrap the bottom and sides of the pan with a sheet of heavy foil (so that the water from the water bath doesn't leak into the pan). Place the foil-wrapped spring form pan inside a large roasting pan. Bring a kettle of water to a boil.
Combine the chocolate and butter in a heat-proof bowl. Set the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water (the bottom of the bowl should not touch the water), stirring occasionally until the chocolate and butter are melted and smooth. Set aside.
Meanwhile, in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs, sugar, cream and vanilla on medium high speed until foamy, about 5 minutes.
Gently whisk the egg mixture into the chocolate mixture in 3 additions, until well blended. Pour the batter into the spring form pan. Set the roasting pan in the oven; pour the boiling water into the roasting pan, taking care not to get it inside the spring form pan; the water should come about halfway up the side of the spring form pan.
Bake for about 22-25 minutes, until the edges are set but the center is a little jiggly. Lift the spring form pan from its water bath and place on a wire rack to cool for about an hour. Cover with plastic and refrigerate for 4 hours, or overnight.
To serve, remove the sides of the spring form pan. Carefully, invert the cake onto a sheet of parchment paper; peel the paper off the bottom of the cake, then set the cake on a serving plate or cake pedestal.
To make the ganache, place the chopped chocolate in a bowl. Warm the cream over medium-low heat, just until the cream starts to bubble. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate, and let it stand for 3 minutes. Whisk the mixture until smooth and shiny, then pour over the cake; you can let it run over the sides if you like, but I spread mine just to the edge of the top. Return the cake to the fridge to set the ganache, about 30 minutes, before serving.
Drizzle each slice with warm salted caramel sauce (recipe below), or with some fresh, lightly sweetened whipped cream.
Note: this recipe can easily be doubled for a thicker cake (may require baking a little longer), but it's so rich that if you do double it, you'll want to cut smaller pieces, as a little piece goes a long way!
Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen.
Salted Caramel Sauce
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup and water. Warm the mixture gently over low heat until the sugar is dissolved (I kept mine on low heat for as long as I could before the sugar started to bubble, about 15 minutes). Wash down the sides of the pot with a wet pastry brush to get rid of any sugar crystals, then turn the heat up to medium to medium/high. Cook, without stirring, until the sugar becomes a deep amber color (may take from 5-10 minutes).
Remove from the heat and pour in the cream - the mixture will bubble up quite a bit. Stir briskly to incorporate the cream; if the mixture seizes up at this point (which happened to me!), return it to the stove over low heat, and cook, stirring constantly and vigorously, to dissolve any lumps and/or sugar crystals. Stir in the butter, one piece at a time until incorporated, then stir in the salt and vanilla. If any lumps remain, pour caramel through a fine mesh strainer into a glass jar.
Serve warm over the flourless chocolate cake or over ice cream.
Refrigerate any leftovers, rewarming in the microwave on 50% power.
Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen. Technique inspired by Alton Brown.