Thursday, August 27, 2009

In Defense of Nigella Lawson, and a 30-layer Chocolate Cake


I admit to a certain addiction to watching Nigella Lawson on Youtube of late. While we are there, yes, it may well have been one of the reasons why I posted my DB Challenge late again. (The other reason is that it took me two days to make all the layers of matchstick-thin sponge, but I will go into that later. Promise.) Now back to Nigella. I am more than aware of the fact that she is not a chef, nor even a trained cook, and that by admitting to watching her shows religiously, I am opening the can of worms that is the scrutiny of 'serious' chefs/cooks out there who thinks that people who are serious about cooking shouldn't be watching such nonsense on TV. Well, guess what, those people would just have to suck it. Because, for the first time, in years, I am actually inspired to cook savoury food.

I cannot even begin to tell you how much of a feat this is----see my blog name? That didn't happen by accident, you know. While I use salt quite often in my baking escapades, I never go so far as to touch anything that would not fit seamlessly into my sweets and desserts-based pantry.

This is what I think: with so many cooking shows abound that they had to dedicate an entire channel to it, I tend to get lost in the myriad of choices. Some are good, of course, and some, like Heston Blumenthal's In Search of Perfection, are very capable of eliciting oohs and ahhs and much admiration for the chef and his quest for, well, perfection in the culinary sense. But what really draws me to the Domestic Goddess is her ability to take pleasure in every little morsel or crumb that she puts in her mouth---she made eating for pleasure her business. And women the world over thank her for it.


She is an attractive woman, no doubt. And so many people have taken a fair go at her, both professional chefs and serious home cooks alike, that what she does isn't cooking, that her show is as best food porn. I agree on a couple of things. First, that she is a very charismatic lady in every sense of the word, and second, that she is a sensualist. But I love her precisely because of these things! Watching her made me stop worrying about my expanding waistline (I'm closer than ever to the 50kg mark, and for someone who used to weigh a mere 39kg 6 years ago, believe me, it's a scary thing), because really, she shows everyone that you don't have to be stick thin to be attractive! Also, if a food lover isn't a sensualist, I'd be very, very wary. Food, and cooking, involve all the senses. I remember reading a while ago that food is the closest thing to sex, in the way that it demands and involve sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. If a cook seems frigid in the kitchen, I'd be worried that his/her food will lack the warmth that speaks louder than any amiable words or actions that had preceded the meal. Sure, her recipes are not entirely irreproachable, but I think it's the inspiration that counts. Nigella makes me want to jump up on my feet and start cooking savoury food---and trust me, even accomplished, Michelin-starred chefs couldn't make me do that.


I think it is too easy to get jaded by food that all they have become to us is a few lines on a recipe we are working on. The most extraordinary thing about the Domestic Goddess is her ability to see beauty, and to appreciate and take pleasure in even the most mundane ingredients. It is this facet of her that lead her viewers to believe that food is something truly special, something worth labouring over for. In the words of Mr. Ping the Goose (Panda's father in the hit animation Kung-Fu Panda): In order to make something special, you just have to believe that it is special.



Now, on to the cake. I don't think the Dobos Torte is something that Nigella would have featured as one of her express, no-fuss, minimal effort required recipes. But since this is baking, the sky's the limit for me, and I will go to the ends of the earth to bake a 30 layer chocolate cake. Yes, you heard it: 3-0 layers. And oh boy it was so worth the two days I spent and slaved and cursed it for.

It was the perfect balance of flavours. No component is too overpowering, and that's what I look for in a good cake, or any patisserie product for that matter. In the pastry field, it is much too easy to rely solely on technique alone and forget about the taste part. The result is a creation that's spectacular to look at, but makes you think twice about getting a second helping. Not this cake. Even with all the buttercream that I put on it---I ended up making 2 1/2 times the amount specified in the original recipe, and using every last drop of it--- the intensity of the chocolate flavour is balanced with the coffee that I used to soak the sponge layers with, resulting in an orchestral harmony of taste that well and truly makes your palate sings.

The real challenge this time is the sponge. Ah-ha!! Yes, the humble, unassuming sponge. While a sponge is often depicted as a cake that is as soft and tall as a goose-down pillow, in this instance, what I require are sheets as thin as a matchstick. Long story short, two batches later, I'm in the game with 7 1/2 sheets of usable sponge, which I magically turned into 15 neat layers. See how the tediousness of this is getting on my nerves? Time to get on with the recipe.


Sheet Sponge

6 large eggs, separated, at room temperature 1 1/3 cups (162g) confectioner's (icing) sugar, divided 1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (112g) sifted cake flour (SUBSTITUTE 95g plain flour + 17g cornflour (cornstarch) sifted together) pinch of salt

1.Position the racks in the top and center thirds of the oven and heat to 180C.

2.Line 2 half sheet pans with parchment paper and spray with cooking oil.

3.Beat the egg yolks, 2/3 cup (81g) of the confectioner's (icing) sugar, and the vanilla in a medium bowl with a mixer on high speed until the mixture is thick, pale yellow and forms a thick ribbon when the beaters are lifted a few inches above the batter, about 3 minutes.

4.In another bowl, using clean beaters, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the remaining 2/3 cup (81g) of confectioner's (icing)sugar until the whites form stiff, shiny peaks. Using a large rubber spatula, stir about 1/4 of the beaten whites into the egg yolk mixture, then fold in the remainder, leaving a few wisps of white visible. Combine the flour and salt. Sift half the flour over the eggs, and fold in; repeat with the remaining flour.

6. Weigh the sponge batter. Divide the total weight by the number of layers you want it to have. I ended up using about 100g per sheet of 25cm x 25cm square. This is where it can get tricky as you may need to change the dimensions of the square if you do not have enough sponge batter. My advice is to use the instructions as a guide and use your instinct for this step. Try one out, and id you think you do not have enough batter to cover a 25cm x 25cm square, work out a new dimension and start again.

5.Spread the batter amongst the sheet pans, and even out with an offset metal spatula as best as you can. Spray another piece of baking paper with oil spray and dust it with cocoa powder. Carefully place the baking paper over the sheet sponge, carefully eliminating any air bubbles that may develop in the process. I find that it's best to start on the side closest to you and work away. Take a rolling pin (or in my case a cannister of cooking oil spray as my rolling pin proved too heavy for this purpose), and gently roll it over the baking paper-covered sponge batter. Even out any slopes or bumps, and your sponge sheet is good to go.

6. Bake at 180C until lightly golden on top, about 3-5 min. Let the sponge cool.


Chocolate Buttercream
(This is double the the amount on the original recipe. I ended up more than this quantity for the piping I do on top of the cake, so if that's what you are after, add: 2 eggs. 100g caster sugar, 55g chocolate, and 125g unsalted butter to the recipe below)

8 large eggs, at room temperature
400g caster (ultrafine or superfine white) sugar
220g bakers chocolate or your favourite dark chocolate, finely chopped
500g unsalted butter, at room temperature



1.Whisk the eggs with the sugar until pale and thickened, about five minutes. You can use a balloon whisk or electric hand mixer for this.

2.Fit bowl over a water bath. Cook the egg mixture, whisking constantly, for 2-3 minutes until you see it starting to thicken a bit. Whisk in the finely chopped chocolate and cook, stirring, for a further 2-3 minutes.


3. Let cool to room temperature, and whisk in soft butter. It is important that the butter is very soft at the stage, but not melted, or you will end up with ganache instead of buttercream. Store buttercream, covered, in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight until thickened and firm. Alternatively, you can make the buttercream ahead of time and store in the refrigerator for up to three days.


Soaking Coffee

1/2 cup hot water
3 Tablespoons instant espresso coffee


Dissolve coffee in hot water. Set aside.


To Assemble the Torte

1. Cut the half sheet pan of sponge in half. Flip over and peel off the parchment from the bottom. Divide the buttercream into the same number of parts your Dobos torte layers will have.

2.Line a quarter sheet pan with parchment paper. Place the first layer of sponge on top of it. Spread one part of the measured buttercream, top with another layer of sponge. Soak the second layer of sponge with coffee, and spread another part of the measured buttercream on the sponge. Repeat the process until you get to the last layer. Chill, or even better, freeze overnight.

3. The next day, heat the blade of a long, serrated knife with a blow torch. Carefully make a cut about half a centimeter on each side, so that your cake finally reveals its beautiful striped layers that you've worked so hard to achieve. Serve to your friends and family and wait for the moans of pleasure that will inevitably escape their lips after the first bite. Then take a bow, because you deserve it.


The August 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonful of Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular Dobos Torte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers' cookbook Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Caff├ęs of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.