Chocolate. Almonds. A little espresso. To anyone born under a Mediterranean sun these are natural companions. Yet it was a young, hungry, British woman, freshly returned from several years spent on what post-war Britain regarded—often with suspicion—as “the Continent” who had the palate and the nous to show English-speaking cooks that the sum of such ingredients could be so much greater than the parts.
Today, if you Google Elizabeth David’s name and couple it with “chocolate cake” you’ll come up with more than five million hits. It’s an extraordinary number, the more so because David died in 1992, aged 78.
What today’s marketers might call her “brand” is not supported by television shows or public appearances. Yet the Nigellas and Jamies, and the many who have followed, acknowledge their debt to this curious, clever, drily humorous cook who nudged rationing-weary Britain to remember that meals could, and should, be a pleasure.
It’s easy, now, to regard David as a kind of culinary Queen Victoria, an elderly, imperious figure directing her subjects to embrace olive oil and garlic. Or to make a chocolate cake without flour.
Sure, such a cake is commonplace these days. Who hasn’t made, or at least tasted, a version of this dense yet fragile, subtly nutty slice of chocolate richness?
The fact so many of us have is a reminder of David’s timeless understanding of what tastes good and her ability to convey it in a way that made so many home cooks want to taste it too.
When her first books were published there were no colour photographs of perfectly plated dishes. Her only tool for tempting readers was her writing. It has been said, more than once, that the only thing better than Elizabeth David’s prose is this cake.
We suggest—humbly—that the only thing better than that is being able to mix it in a trice, in the Thermomix, like this variation created by Lesley Russell from David’s inspiration.
1. Grease a 20-centimetre round cake tin (base measurement) or a narrow loaf tin 25cm x 9cm, and line the base with baking paper.
2. Preheat the oven to 160C fan-forced.
3. Place chocolate and sugar in the mixing bowl. Chop 10 seconds/speed 6.
4. Add the butter in small pieces. Melt 10 minutes/50 degrees/ speed soft.
5. Add the brandy, coffee, ground almonds and egg yolks. Mix 10 seconds/speed 4 then remove the Thermomix lid and allow the mixture to stand while you whisk the egg whites.
6. In a stand-mixer, or by hand, whisk the egg whites to firm peaks in a wide bowl; you don’t want the whites to be too stiff because that makes them difficult to fold in.
7. Push the whipped white to one side, then scrape the quite thick chocolate mixture into the other side of the bowl. Fold the two mixtures together. (You can use a spatula but I find it easiest to do this by hand, literally. Make sure your hand is clean, then, fingers splayed, combine the two mixtures by making large circular scooping and swirling movements, reaching right to the bottom of the bowl. Retain as much air as possible but at the same time ensure there are no streaks of whites left through the mixture. Importantly, hold the bowl with one hand and fold with the other.)
8. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and even out the surface.
9. Bake the cake in the centre of the oven for 45 minutes or until a skewer into the centre comes out clean.
10. Remove from the oven and allow to settle in the tin for 15 minutes or so before transferring to a cooling tray.
Adapted from French Provinical Cooking, by Elizabeth David (Michael Joseph, 1960)
AND … Ideally, make this cake the day before or allow it to firm up for at least 4 hours before slicing. A favourite way to serve this cake is to bake it in a loaf tin the day before, then cut into 3-centimetre slices, dredge generously with cocoa and serve with whipped cream, fresh berries and raspberry sauce. It is beautiful plated individually but Lesley Russell likes to serve it whole on a platter with cream, berries and sauce in separate bowls.