Anyone with even a passing interest in food knows the importance of texture. We might use the term ‘taste’ as a general description, but we’re not just talking about the flavour of a dish; food is measured in structure, in substance, in ‘mouthfeel’. And as their skills improve, home cooks and chefs alike begin to strive for perfection in texture; I’m not talking the foams and jellies of molecular gastronomy here, but recgonisable goals – the crispiest bacon, the fluffiest scones, the lightest of soufflés.
Texture is often a question of technique; having been baking my own bread for nearly a year I can vouch for the difference a good kneading technique and aeration of the dough can make to producing a lovely light loaf and crispy crust. And having owned an ice cream maker since the summer, I can also see the difference in my homemade ice creams; the mechanical churner resulting in an ice that is infinitely smoother, creamier and more uniform in its lack of crystals.
As well as technique, texture can also be developed through the addition of individual ingredients. Adding cream to pavlova creates contrast with the crispy, chewy meringue, while the topping on crumble provides a crumbly, crunchy foil for the soft stewed fruit below, each individual attribute highlighted by contrasting tastes and textures on your tongue.
The recipe below takes two ingredients and uses them to add interest and contrast to the simple, winning combination of chocolate cake and ice cream. Cacao nibs – roasted, hulled pieces of cocoa bean with a bitter, nutty taste – are sprinkled over a dense, mousse-like cake, adding a satisfying crunch to the smoothness of each bite (the nibs don’t melt when baked). The cake is then served with a boozy vin santo ice cream, its texture made softer and more luxurious by the addition of alcohol which lowers the freezing temperature and allows you to scoop it straight from the freezer.
This isn’t just an experiment in texture though – the flavours also pack a punch. A shot of espresso in the cake lifts the chocolatiness to new levels (if you don’t like coffee, don’t worry – often when coffee is added to chocolate it simply enhances the taste rather than adding any real flavour of its own), while the honey and raisin notes in the amber-coloured vin santo add a satisfying sweetness to what is otherwise an elegant and very grown-up pudding.
As an aside, the recipe for this cake was discovered by acclaimed pastry chef David Lebovitz in the cubicle of the men’s toilet at Racines restaurant in Paris. No, he didn’t have an epiphany whilst going about his business – he actually read and made a note of the recipe which was scribbled across the cubicle wall. You can read the full story here, but it just goes to show you should always keep an open mind; sometimes you can find the greatest things in the most unexpected of places.
Have you ever tasted a dish that you just had to have the recipe for? And to what lengths would you go to procure it?
Chocolate Cacao Nib Cake (from David Lebovitz’s Ready for Dessert)
280g good quality dark chocolate, chopped
115g salted butter
1 tbsp strong, freshly brewed espresso
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
6 large, free range eggs, separated, at room temperature
80g granulated sugar
20g cacao nibs
Preheat the oven to 175° C. Grease a 23-cm spring-form cake pan and line the bottom with baking parchment.
Melt the chocolate, butter and espresso in a large, heatproof bowl set over a small saucepan of simmering water. When you have a smooth, glossy mixture, remove the bowl from the heat, stir in the vanilla and set aside.
In a clean bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and 50g of the granulated sugar until light and creamy, about 1 minute. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites on low speed until they begin to hold their shape. Add the rest of the granulated sugar (30 g) and continue to whisk, moving up to high speed until the whites hold soft peaks.
Fold the beaten egg yolks into the cooled chocolate mixture, then fold in half of the whipped egg whites. Fold in the remaining whites until there are no visible streaks, taking care not to overfold or knock out the air in the mixture.
Pour the batter into your prepared tin, sprinkle with cocoa nibs, and bake for around 25 minutes, until the cake is set but still slightly wobbly in the middle. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.
When ready to serve, release the sides of the pan, remove the baking parchment from the bottom and place on a serving plate or cake stand. Serve with vin santo ice cream, below.
Vin Santo ice cream
6 x large, free range egg yolks
80g light brown muscovado sugar
600 ml double cream
180ml vin santo
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until light and frothy.
Heat the double cream in a medium saucepan with 50ml of the vin santo until warmed through. Remove from the heat and pour over the egg and sugar mixture, whisking continuously until combined. Return the pan to a medium heat and cook your custard until it coats the back of a spoon.
Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining 130ml vin santo. Strain into a large mixing bowl set over an ice bath and whisk until cooled. Chill thoroughly in the fridge before churning in your ice cream maker.
Because of the high alcohol content, this ice cream should be nice and soft served straight from the freezer. Best enjoyed with a slice of chocolate cacao nib cake (above), or served in scoops with cantuccini biscuits crumbled over the top.