Once in a blue moon I get a fancy for a slice of chocolate cake. And when I say chocolate cake, I do mean proper cake – not one of those affairs that is half cake, half mousse, with a runny middle. Of course you want your cake to be moist, and that is partly down to the recipe, but it is generally linked to cooking time as well.
I find that if you take the cake from the oven once the middle is somewhat firm, but still tacky to the touch, it should be perfect when it has cooled. Far better to bring your cake out of the oven a minute or two early rather than too late.
Chocolate cake always feels like a treat, but I made this one especially so. It gets its character not only from dark chocolate, soft brown sugar and ground almonds, but also from crushed amaretti biscuits that give a little crunch to the soft crumb. We ate it first as dessert with crème fraîche, then as a teatime cake with cups of steaming hōjicha tea and then, the following morning, for breakfast.
A second treat this week (I have been very, very good) was a salad of new potatoes that I sliced and sautéed until crisp then tossed, hot from the pan, into a vivid green and refreshingly piquant dressing of spinach, lemon and capers. Frying the potatoes first turned out to be a smashing idea.
Frankly, I think we all deserve a bit of a treat right now.
New potato and spinach salad
I enjoy serving these crisp, hot potatoes and their green dressing with a contrasting salad leaf. Use whatever leaves you have to hand. Serves 2-3
new potatoes 500g
groundnut or vegetable oil 3 tbsp
spinach leaves 50g
mint leaves 10g
garlic 1 small clove, peeled
olive oil 2 tbsp
capers 1 tsp
salad large open leaves, to serve
Scrub the potatoes then cook them in deep, salted boiling water for about 20 minutes. Check for doneness with the point of a metal skewer, then drain them in a colander.
Cut the potatoes into thick coins. Warm the groundnut or vegetable oil in a shallow pan, then add the potato slices in one layer and fry for 10 minutes or so until golden. Turn them over once the underside has turned a deep golden yellow.
Wash the spinach, then put the leaves into a blender or food processor. Finely grate the zest from the lemon and add to the spinach with the leaves from the mint, the peeled garlic and the olive oil. Blend until thick and smooth. Pour into a mixing bowl, add the capers and check the seasoning.
Remove the potatoes from the pan, drain briefly on kitchen paper, then add to the spinach dressing and toss gently. Place the salad leaves on serving plates, then divide the still-hot potatoes among them, and serve.
Chocolate apricot amaretti cake
With its back-note of almonds and slight crunch from the amaretti, this dark chocolate cake is one for a special occasion. It is soft and moist and stays in fine condition for a day or two in an airtight tin. It is a question of trial and error regarding exact timing, but I start checking at 25 minutes and rarely cook it for more than 35. Crème fraîche or cream would be a gorgeous contrast. Serves 10
dried apricots 100g
dry (or sweet) marsala 60ml
skinned almonds 175g
plain flour 20g
soft brown sugar 150g
dark chocolate 300g
eggs 6, separated
dried apricots 50g
crystallised roses 1 tbsp
Cut the apricots into fine matchsticks, then cut those into tiny dice. You can do this in a food processor, but take care not to chop too finely. Put the apricots into a small bowl, then pour in the marsala and set aside, stirring occasionally.
Line the base of a 23cm spring-form cake tin with a disc of baking parchment. Set the oven at 165C/gas mark 3.
Toast the almonds in a dry, shallow pan until golden and fragrant, then tip them into a food processor and process to fine crumbs. Mix the flour and cocoa together.
Using a food mixer, beat the sugar and butter together until pale and creamy. Put a small pan of water on to boil, place a dish on top of it, break the chocolate into the dish, turn the heat down and let it melt over the simmering water, without stirring. Crumble the amaretti to fine crumbs.
Separate the eggs. Slowly introduce the yolks to the creamed butter and sugar, beating constantly. In a separate bowl, whisk the whites until almost stiff. Mix the melted chocolate into the butter and sugar, then carefully fold in the ground almonds, drained apricots, crumbled amaretti and the flour and cocoa. Lastly, thoroughly but tenderly fold in the beaten egg whites, making certain there are no lumps of unincorporated whites. Scrape the mixture into the lined cake tin.
Bake in the preheated oven for 30-35 minutes until the outer edges are firm to the touch and the centre still has a little softness. (Take care not to overcook. The middle will firm up a little on cooling.)
Make the finishing layer: reduce the dried apricots, crystallised roses and amaretti to crumbs in the food processor. As the cake comes from the oven, sprinkle the crumbs over the top and leave to cool. To unmould, run a palette knife between the edge of the cake and the cake tin, then open the spring clip and transfer to a plate.