Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Grill-Baked Double Chocolate Idiot Cake

My dad LOVES chocolate. Intense, bitter, extreme dark chocolate. So for his birthday I wanted to make him something extremely chocolately. Except I had a slight problem - our oven is on the fritz, so baking is out of the question... or is it?! One does not necessarily need an oven to bake. Humans were baking long before the conventional oven was invented, and even now some of us humans continue to bake over open flame and hot coals. 

I've never baked a cake on a grill before, so I searched the interwebs for a fool-proof chocolate cake recipe and decided on David Lebovitz's Chocolate Idiot Cake. This recipe claims to be idiot proof, which I thoroughly tested and confirmed. It's so simple, it only has four ingredients:

10 oz. Bittersweet Chocolate
7 oz. Unsalted Butter
5 large Eggs
1 cup Sugar

Get all the ingredients together and light up the grill.

Prepare a 9-inch spring-form pan by buttering it and then dusting it with cocoa powder. 

Wrap the pan in a single sheet of foil to protect the cake from the water-bath that it will ultimately be cooked in (this isn't necessary if you are not using a springform pan). 

My foil wasn't large enough to cover the entire pan with one piece, so I tried using two pieces. It seemed to work at first, but later on when the cake was nearly finished, I noticed some water hanging out with the cake inside the pan. I panicked. My cake was swimming! It was clearly ruined! ...or was it? I simply dumped the water off the cake and put it back on the grill to dry off a little, finish baking, and in the end it was like nothing happened. After that catastrophe, I was convinced - this recipe really is idiot-proof!

I'm getting ahead of myself... to make the cake, begin by roughly chopping the chocolate into chunks, cut the butter into a few pieces, and then melt the butter and chocolate together in a double boiler. Choose your chocolate carefully as this is the primary flavor of this cake. I used Scharffenberger 99% unsweetened baking chocolate, plus a few Guittard semisweet chocolate chips because I didn't have quite enough Schrffenberger on hand.

Whisk together the eggs and sugar in a large bowl.

When the chocolate is completely melted, whisk it into the eggs and sugar.

Put the batter into the prepped pan and then place the whole thing in a larger pan.

By now the coals should be ready. Divide them onto two sides of the grill like this:

Put the cake on the grill and add water to to the outer pan until it's about half-way up the edge of the cake pan. I also moved our oven thermometer out to the grill to make sure it wasn't getting too hot. The original recipe says to bake at 350F. Surprisingly it remained around 300-350 the entire time.

Either cover the cake with foil, or put a lid on it. Then close the grill and let it bake for about an hour.

Check it every 20-30 minutes, and more frequently once it's getting close to done. It's done when a toothpick or knife can be inserted and cleanly removed from the cake. About 30minutes into baking I added a few pieces of charcoal. ...I also made dinner on the grill while the cake baked. Mmmm whiskey-maple sausage!

 The finished cake wasn't the most glamorous cake I've ever seen...

...but luckily I had some chocolate ganache in my freezer (left over from Chocolate Macarons) that I melted and used as frosting. 

In the end, this cake was INTENSE. Somewhere between a dense mousse and a silky fudge - chocolate perfection.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup and one of my favorite foods. Oddly, though, I never make it. I always go out for pho. Perhaps simply because it's so darn cheap, and in my previous hometown of Seattle - Pho is everywhere. Really, really good pho. And it's always served with a complementary cream puff (though I was recently informed that not all pho places in Seattle do this).

First things first, let's get in the mood for pho with some quality Seattle hip-hop:

Pho is pretty much the perfect food. It's hydrating, filling, cheap, centering, grounding, revitalizing, energizing, cleansing, comforting, invigorating, delicious. I've eaten at several pho spots in my current place of residence (Berkeley, CA), and yet none live up to Seattle pho. Thus, I have embarked on a quest to make my own pho.

Pho is all about the broth, and good broth starts with good stock. Pho is traditionally made with beef stock, but you can certainly do whatever you want. I used lamb stock for this pho, because that's what I had in my freezer. I had a lamb bone leftover from Thanksgiving that I boiled in water with onions, carrots, celery, and parsley stems overnight. Then I strained out the solid things, boiled down the liquid into a dense demi-glace that I froze into cubes in an ice cube tray. Anytime I need some stock, I just take out a few frozen cubes and add water.

Stock is the foundation of a broth, and a key ingredient in Pho broth is charred onions. This give the broth its distinctive dark brown color and earthy flavor.

Quarter two onions and char them under the broiler.

When the first side is blackened, turn them over.

The onions are done when they are good and black on both sides.

Raw meat is often added to pho just before serving. If you want your meat fully cooked, then I recommend searing the meat in a large pot, remove the meat and set it aside for later, and then use the pot to build your broth. I seared lamb sausage in a deep pot until it was good and brown. 

Then I removed the sausages, set them aside, and added lamb stock, charred onions, a cinnamon stick, a few star-anise pods, and one whole clove. Let these boil for about 30 minutes before straining.

Use a spatula to thoroughly scrape out the pot into the strainer, then put the pot back on the stove to continue making the soup. You could just pour the strained broth back into the pan, but I decided to sauté some chopped green garlic stems first. Onions, leeks, shallots, garlic cloves would all be appropriate here.

I also sliced the lamb sausage and threw that in to brown with the green garlic. Pho is all about flavor, so do everything you can to add and accentuate the flavor of the ingredients (i.e. browning, sauteeing, charring, etc.)

When the garlic and sausage was good and brown, I added the broth back in and brought it to a boil to cook the noodles.

As the noodles cook, prepare the raw garnishes. Pho is generally garnished with bean sprouts, thai basil, jalapeño, and lime. Sometimes mint, cilantro, green onion, red onion, or lemon make an appearance. 

There's at least two ways to slice green onions, if you slice on the diagonal it makes them about 10x more fancy.

Lemon is honestly kind of blasphemous in pho, but we have a lemon tree and there's a lime shortage currently in the US. So lemon it is.

In summary, here's how I made pho:
  1. Make stock (beef (or lamb, chicken, etc.) bones boiled in water with onions, carrots, and celery for 4-10hours)
  2. Strain stock
  3. Make broth by boiling the stock with charred onions, cinnamon, star anise, and clove for about 30 minutes
  4. Strain broth
  5. Sauté onions or garlic, brown meat (optional)
  6. Boil broth
  7. Cook noodles in broth
  8. Serve immediately with bean sprouts, basil, lime, jalapeño, hoisin, and Sriracha (or whatever else you want).
To be a true pho purist, it's not just about the flavor, but the clarity of the broth as well. Vietnamese cuisine was influenced by French occupation and one could think of pho as a Vietnamese consommé. Consommé is a French soup that is served as a simple broth with minimal to no garnish. It's crystal clear and full of robust flavor. To achieve the clarity of the broth, it's boiled with ground meat bound in a "raft" by egg and leeks. The meat raft acts as a filter, collecting impurities, while also imparting extra meaty flavor to the broth. The raft is discarded when the both is done, which always seems a bit wasteful to me, but it does produce a brilliantly clear and richly delicious broth. Stay tuned for a new-and-improved pho recipe with consommé-method included!