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  • Reine de Saba (The Queen of Sheba Chocolate Cake)

    With a name like that, it must be good. Because it is. Julia (Child) proclaims it will be the *best* chocolate cake you've ever made and/or eaten (hopefully both, because it is so satisfying to make).Nutty almonds turned into pulverized-yet-still-coarse-flour, whipped egg whites, creamed butter, sugar and eggs...and rum (or brandy...). Melted butter meets more chocolate and more rum...skinned almonds adorn the top to remind you what awaits inside.Yes, it does take a touch of time, but by the time you reach slathering the rich chocolate disc in buttery chocolate icing (not really an icing at all, more like a butter ganache) and dotting the top of the whole works with toasted skinned almonds, you cannot wait to dig in.Aside of wanting to steer closer to my cookbooks and away from internet recipes lately (mostly because I love my cookbooks and they need some love), it feels good to try new things and experiment. But rest assured, this cake will become a favorite. 

    I could see it with grated lemon or orange zest in the winter; use hazelnuts instead of almonds; adorn the top with cherries or raspberries or blackberries; add a hint of peppermint for a refreshing zing. Change up the booze or add all vanilla (I opted for bourbon steeped with vanilla beans). Make this for you, call it self love. Make it for a friend, co-workers, a stellar significant other (for putting up with your angsty antics). Just make it and enjoy the nutty-chocolatey wafts of amazing-ness you are greeted with each time you cut a slice for yourself. Completely un-adorned, this cake would maybe be enhanced with a dollop of whipped cream for a contrast of color and flavor, but honestly, plain is how I prefer it (but who said no to a scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate cake?). I may even like it better in the morning, with a fresh set of taste buds, along with my morning coffee. I'll let you judget when and how you like this cake best.So, with really no changes to Julia' recipe (found in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, page 677), the Queen of Sheba lives on...Notes: you could most definitely make the cake ahead of time. Tightly wrap and refrigerate for a day or freeze for a month or so, and bring to room temp before slathering with chocolate icing and decorating with almonds. As mentioned, you can use almond flour in place of pulverizing almonds at home in a blender or food processor. 



    The Cake:

    • 4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (anything 60-70%)
    • 2 TB rum, bourbon or coffee
    • 1 stick softened unsweetened butter
    • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
    • 3 egg yolks
    • 3 egg whites
    • pinch of salt
    • 1 TB granulated sugar
    • 1/3 cup pulverized almonds (almond flour, or make by blending 1/2 cup skinned or skin-on almonds with 1 TB sugar in a blender or food processor until cornmeal texture)
    • 1/4 tsp almond extract (I omitted)
    • 1/2 cup cake flour, scooped and leveled (I used AP flour with no issues)

    Chocolate Icing:

    • 2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
    • 2 TB rum, bourbon or coffee
    • 5-6 TB unsalted butter (ideally soft)

    To decorate: a handful of either skinned toasted almonds (make sure they are fresh, and not rancid), or raw almonds to skin and freshly toast at home (see below for my how-to).

    1. Butter and flour an 8 inch cake pan. Preheat oven to 350F.

    2. Melt chocolate and rum together: use a double boiler or gently use the microwave, stirring in the rum after the chocolate is melted. You want it luke-warm. Measure the flour, using the scoop-and-sweep method to preven overly compacting the flour in the measuring cup. 

    3. Cream butter and sugar together for several minutes until fluffy and pale. Add in the egg yolks until well blended.

    4. Whip the egg whites until stiff peaks, adding 1 TB of the sugar and a pinch of salt once soft peaks are formed.

    5. Mix the melted chocolate and rum with the butter-sugar-yolk mixture. Stir in the pulverized almonds and extract (or rum or bourbon or vanilla). Gently mix in 1/3 of the whipped egg whites to lighten the mixture. Follow with 1/3 of the flour, folding gently, following with 1/3 of the egg whites. Repeat until the flour and egg whites are used, using a gentle folding action.

    6. Gently turn into the prepared pan; gently coax up the rim of the pan, leveling the top. Bake for 20 minutes, checking for doneness in the 2 1/2 to 3 inches of circumference around the cake pan edges (a toothpick will come out clean here, but if stuck in the middle, will come out oily, according to Julia; this helps retain a moist, creamy consistency to the cake).

    7. Cool the cake for 10 minutes in the pan, then loosen around the edges with a thin knife or spatula. Reverse cake onto a cooling rack and cool compeletly.

    8. Prepare the icing by gently melting the chocolate, and beating in the butter 1 TB at a time, over medium heat or in a gently simmering water bath. 

    9. Ice the cake: to catch spills, cut 3 pieces of waxed paper or parchment, and make a triangle on the surface you plan to ice the cake on. Dollop a spoon of icing in the middle of the triangle (this helps prevent the cake from slipping when you remove the waxed paper strips). Set the cake in the middle of the triangle atop the dollop of icing "glue". Gently pour the icing over the cake. Allow it to cool for about 1 minute (this helps thicken in just enough so it doesn't run all over the sides too quickly). Then, gently coax it all around the cake, forming an even layer. Scoop up excess from the sides and coat the sides evenly if needed, working quickly while the icing is still warm. Allow the icing to cool for a minute or two before removing the waxed paper strips from the circumference of the cake.

    10. Dot with skinned, toasted almonds. Serve right away, or cover and serve when desired. We found that the cake kept beautifully in the fridge for 1 week, covered. Bring up to room temperature before serving, or eat cold (the chocolate flavors will be muted, but still delicious).

    How to skin and toast whole almonds: I have found that you can easily take the skin from raw, untoasted almonds by soaking in boiling water for 5-10 minutes, draining, and popping the skins off. Dry thoroughly, and toast the whole almonds in a 350F oven until fragrant and just starting to brown. Allow to cool before decorating cake. 



  • Socca: French or Ligurian Flatbread

    Hellooooo humidity!! It is starting to feel a lot like summer here in Madison (i.e. an armpit). I love the early-to-mid spring season, but come high-summer, Wisconsin really turns into a sauna. Great for plants, but probably not for wearing cute summer clothes and looking effortlessly summer-chic in that white vintage shirt you just got. Ha, yeah right!!!

    And now, I ask you to turn on your oven...to broil. I know, I know. It will only take a few minutes (about 15), and the payoff is great. Socca is a flatbread hailing from Genoa, Italy. There, you may find it as "farinata" or torta di ceci" or "cecina", literally "bread of chickpeas" in Italian-they are a creative bunch, arne't they? The unleavened crepe-like bread slowly made its way along the ligurian coast, and became a staple in Nice, France and Pisa, Italy (and now my kitchen, hopefully yours too). It is made with chickpea (garbanzo bean) flour, water, olive oil, salt and a dash of cumin. Legit socca is made in scortching-hot a wood or coal burning oven. The batter is spread thinly on a hotter-than-the-sun pan, quickly cooked, and the result is a thin, semi-crispy flatbread perfect for dipping, topping, or scooping up other foods. Socca in my apartment is made under the broiler. Yep, there is probably a great deal of difference between these two cooking methods, but my version is pretty darn tasty (and I currently lack a wood/coal fired oven....). Thanks to the high-protein and high-fiber flour, you can really make socca the main highlight of a light spring or summer meal. I love to have "socca and salad" night, because it is super simple and most importantly FAST. Oh, and it is vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, soy-free and most importantly, delicious!!! Take THAT, gluten-free challenge!! 

    Some of our favorite toppings inlcude: sauteed spinach or kale with garlic, finely minced garlic with olive oil and lots of parsley, fresh tomatoes with sea salt and olive oil, lemon-tahini sauce and parsley, and avocado with sea salt, olive oil and pepper. The list could go on...be creative! I was recently thinking a caprese-inpsired version with summer tomatoes, basil and your favorite cheese (I am currently working on a fermented cashew cheese! But fresh mozz would be awesome, too). 

    I have made socca a bunch of times now, and have learned a few tricks along the way (ok a bunch, but please don't be alarmed, it is really simple!). My perfect socca is slightly crispy on the bottom, browned nicely on the top with the intermitent dark spots, and has a firm texture-perfect for cutting, slicing and topping. 

    • First: make you batter at least 1 hour ahead of time. This takes all of 5 minutes, so I don't think I am asking for much here! You can do this in the morning, cover it, and let is sit in a cool place or the fridge while you're at work, school...or doing whatever you do. The resting time helps the starches in the flour hydrate, and work their magic. Yes, this is Italian afterall, so there must be magic/superstitions/paranoia involed...right? Right. Maybe not paranoia in this case. Anyways...
    • Second: use a heavy pan that can withstand and retain heat, preferrably cast-iron. I use my 14" well-seasoned cast iron monster, and it does a fabulous job. I have not used any other pan, but regardless, make sure whatever pan or tool you do use is safe under the broiler. But seriously, consider a cast iron pan...they are cheap and if taken care of, last a lifetime. The recipe and tips I provide are specific for cast iron pans. 
    • Third: pre-heat the pan under the broiler until it is hot-hot-hot. I mean, HOT. Your pot holder should fear for its life when you use it to take the hot pan out of the oven using EXTREME CAUTION. For this obvious reason, make sure your potholder is safe to use; I use silicone ones when performing this task, because synthetic fibers do melt. Let me learn that lesson for you. Don't repeat it. Maybe consider some welding gloves if you are concerned. The end goal: you should hear the batter sizzle when you pour it in the hot pan.
    • Fourth: you need quite a drizzle of olive oil in the hot-hot pan, and be sure to coat the entire bottom to prevent sticking. I use extra virign, but use any high-quality olive oil you'd like. 
    • Fifth: bake under the broiler until blistered, and then take it out and let it rest for 5-10 minutes. This allows the socca to finish cooking, firm up a bit, and helps release it from the pan.
    • Sixth: Using a offset spatula (like this one if you have one or similar), carefully slide it under the socca several times around the entire thing; don't worry if you poke through the socca or if some sticks, you'll get the hang of this with some practice. Slide the socca onto a cutting board, or a parchment-lined baking tray for a quick clean-up later. NOW is the time to top the entire thing with olive oil, herbs and garlic or toppings desired. If you do that while it is in the pan, it gets soggy and quite tricky to release. Also, by sliding out of the pan, it is much easier to cut. I use a pizza cutter or large chef's knife.

    ....got all that? Really, it is simple. Don't be scared. Go buy some garbanzo bean flour (I have had great results with Bob's Red Mill), and make some socca!! I adapted my recipe and parts of my method from David Lebovitz. Note: he makes several socca from this recipe, but I make one for a thicker, heartier socca perfecy for topping. Feel free to experiment!

    NOTE: I use weight measurements here, because I find that 1 cup of garbanzo bean flour is less than 160 grams due to its fluffy character. Using 1 heaped cup garbanzo flour should be roughly 160 grams, hence the 130-160g below. In the end, you can add more flour or add a touch more water to get at the consistency of a pancake batter.



    Socca // vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, sugar-free, nut-free // serves 2 as a main, or 4 as a side //

    • 1 heaped cup (130-160 grams) high-quality chickpea flour (like Bob's Red Mill)
    • 1 cup plus 2 TB (280 g or ml) water
    • 3/4 tsp sea salt
    • 1/8 tsp ground cumin 
    • 2 1/2 TB olive oil, divided

    Optional:

    • toppings you'd like (ideas above!!)

    1. Mix the batter ingredients with a whisk or fork, using 1 1/2 TB of the olive oil, making sure all lumps are mixed out. The consistency should be like a crepe batter, or slightly runny pancake batter. If needed, add in a few more TB of chickpea flour. Allow to sit at least 1 hour at room temperature. It will thicken slightly. 

    2. Prepare any toppings you would like, and/or the garlic-parsley-olive oil mixture. Set aside.

    3. Turn on broiler, and put pan under broiler until very, very hot. Take pan out, and quickly pour in the remaining 1 TB olive oil, or enough to coat the entire bottom in a generous layer, swirl to coat, and dump in the batter. It should sizzle. Immediately place back under broiler, and cook for 5-10 minutes, dpending on the power of your broiler. Keep an eye on it. Finished socca is crisp and brown around the edges, and will have some blisters. 

    4. Allow it to cool for about 5 minutes as described above in the "tips" section. Release from the pan, using a small metal offset spatula. Top with garlic-herb-olive oil, and/or any other toppings. Slice into pieces with a pizza cutter or sharp knife. Note: socca that is not topped will last 2 days in the fridge, wrapped. Eat cold, or pop into a toaster for a few minutes to re-heat. 



    The finished socca! I had more photos to share, but accidentally deleted them. It is Mercury retrogarde until June 11th, so I rest my case. 

    Onto a sheet pan lined with parchment for easy clean-up, and then drizzled with olive oil, 1 clove minced garlic and lots of parsley. Sea salt or Maldon is nice, too.

    Top with whatever you'd like! I used a beautiful tomato from the farmers market, avocado, more olive oil, sea salt and pepper. So simple, but so good!!

    Note the thickness and sturdy-yet tender!-texture...this socca holds up well to hefty toppings!

    And dinner is done. Salad. Socca. (almost) Summer. Oh, and wine. Gotta have wine with this, while eating on a deck or porch. Or just your living room in front of Netflix. Whatever! Just enjoy!!

    Cheers!!