Less than two months ago, I went on a 10 day trip to Italy. We spent the bulk of our time in Rome, Venice, and Lake Como, but my favorite part of the trip was, indisputably, our three-day stay in Venice. Something about walking aimlessly through alleys and taking in the beautiful buildings from the viewpoint of the canals was so…romantic.
I am a history teacher, so imagining Venice as a bustling merchant city, the Vegas of its day, filled me with this deep feeling of something akin to nostalgia, except this longing was for an experience I never had. I feel a little crazy describing this—do you ever feel this way?
I feel this way often, but especially when reading historical accounts. I discovered this feeling in middle school when I read accounts of Spanish Conquistadors arriving in Tenochtitlan for the first time and marveling at the beauty of the Aztec capital, now buried under modern day Mexico City. My eyes flooded with tears when I imagined the floating chinampas growing food for the city and the bustling of merchants selling their wares in the many canals crisscrossing the city. This emotion hits me often when reading. It is a longing for something I will never experience or see with my own eyes.
Venice filled me with this feeling. Wandering through museums, going to a coffee shop that has existed for longer than America has been a nation, looking at the beauty and regalness of the Doge’s Palace, gazing out of windows into dusty gardens that were one day well-manicured and new. I was filled with this nostalgia for the city’s glory days, which I will never know. In addition to this nostalgia and romance, I loved Venice because I loved the food there more than any other.
I especially loved our dinner at CoVino. The restaurant, roughly the size of my dining room, had a small kitchen and 4 or 5 tables. All of the tables in the room had a view of the open kitchen, where the finesse and precision of the two chefs filled me with the admiration that I reserve for the best athletes or artists. The food menu is as short as the wine menu is long. There were about three options for each of the three courses offered in their fixed price. John and I loved everything we ate there: the most savory and earthy ragu, oxtail with lentils, bread with poached egg and asparagus…Unfortunately, I did not photograph the menu and sadly, apart from the certainty that the dishes were outstanding, the specific ingredients are already slipping from my memory.
One dessert there, however, was not easily forgotten. We both ordered tiramisu (of course) but after spotting an unassuming slice of chocolate cake on someone else’s table, I ordered a slice for us. The chocolate cake itself seemed simple—two short layers of cake topped with a dark chocolate ganache frosting and sprinkled generously with flaky sea salt. The first bite was remarkable; the dark chocolate ganache paired with sea salt and the moist cake with a dollop of whipped was the perfect combination. I was smitten.
Since then I have made this cake more than a handful of times. I should clarify, I have made my version of this cake, since I did not get the actual recipe from the chef. Everyone that has tried this cake has loved it—even some of my friends that were initially skeptical of the sea salt.
I’ve tried pairing it with rose whipped cream, among others, but the only acceptable adjustment to the original recipe is the addition of cacao nibs to the whipped cream. The flavors remain the same with the added textural surprise of crunchy and light cacao nibs in each bite.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to Venice, but eating this cake reminds me of the simple romance I found during my all too brief stay there and excites me about the countless recipes, food combinations and beautiful alleys I have yet to discover.
This cake does not keep very long in the fridge. The sea salt will attract water and result in droplets forming on top of the cake. To help mitigate this problem, remove the sea salt before storing the cake to help it last longer or eat within one or two days. Everything I know about ganache, I learned from this article. I used to be terrified of the word ganache, but after making it a few times, I can assure you that it is not as hard as it looks. Just make sure not to overheat the whipped cream so that the chocolate doesn’t seize up. A good measure of whether it’s a good time to add the chocolate to the cream, is if the cream is NOT boiling and when dipping your finger in the cream, you can keep it in the cream for a few seconds. When in doubt, turn off the heat and test with a few pieces of chocolate at a time. You just need it to be hot enough to melt the chocolate.
Ok, so whipped cream. I am a whipped cream snob and boycott canned whip at all costs because whipping cream is so easy! That being said, I won’t judge you if you want to save time and go the store-bought route. When I make whipped cream, I don’t really follow a recipe. I simply whip the cream using my hand or stand mixer until it reaches the right consistency, and add a splash of vanilla and powdered sugar to taste.The right consistency is a little subjective, so stop whipping when it looks right to you, I have come to enjoy my whipped cream on the lighter side as of late, but this is entirely up to you. My only caution is that if you whip whipping cream for too long, you end up with butter. I know this from personal experience.
Magic Chocolate Cake
Yields: one cake
Time: 40 minutes
Chocolate Cake, adapted from this recipe:
- 2 cups of sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 ¾ cup flour
- ¾ cup cocoa powder
- 1 ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup of milk
- ½ cup of freshly brewed coffee, as hot as possible
- 1 ⅓ cup of high quality dark chocolate, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup of heavy cream
- High quality sea salt, like this one, for topping the cake
- 1 pint of whipping cream
- Sprinkle of salt
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla
- ⅓- ½ cup of powdered sugar
- Grease and flour two 8 inch round pans. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Combine dry and wet ingredients (except for hot coffee) in bowl and mix for a few minutes or until uniform consistency. Then, add piping hot coffee and mix gently, taking care not to over-mix. Cake batter will be very runny.
- Divide batter evenly between two cake rounds and bake for 25-30 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.
- Whipped Cream: While cake is baking, whip whipping cream for 4-5 minutes or until it doubles in volume. Then add salt, vanilla. Add sugar a few tablespoons at a time and stop when whipped cream reaches your desired level of sweetness. Refrigerate.
- Ganache: Take a small saucepan and heat whipping cream on low heat until hot but not boiling (Finger test mentioned in the notes works well here). Turn off heat. Add chocolate slowly, stirring with whisk until fully dissolved. Allow to cool and thicken to a spreadable consistency.
- When cake is cool enough to spread ganache on without melting, frost cake and top with maldon sea salt.
- Pair with fresh whipped cream and enjoy!