Chocolate Cake for the Soul

A friend helps you move. A good friend helps you move a body.

Last winter, my beloved puppy developed lymphoma. The best option was to euthanize her, which tells you how crummy all of the other options were. When I told my friend Sheila, she said she’d be the designated driver. In my grief, I thought she misunderstood the situation. She’s from Dublin, and sometimes things get lost in translation. Like when she said she’d bring “appetizers,” and showed up with “beer.”

But the next morning, she pulled into my driveway and tossed me and my dog into the backseat of her car. Chatting cheerfully and telling dirty jokes, she was, indeed, our designated driver to the vet’s office. When it was all over, she kissed my dog goodbye, stuffed me back into the car, cracked more jokes on the way home, poured me into my kitchen and put on the kettle.

While the tea brewed, Sheila went on about a chocolate cake she had tried in a restaurant that had long since closed. She wasn’t being a bore; it’s just that I was in the fetal position under the table and not holding up my end of the conversation. If you have to deliver a monologue, chocolate’s a brilliant topic.

You can never really repay a kindness like Sheila’s. You can just look for opportunities to pay down the note. And so I decided I’d try to recreate the cake she remembered so fondly. After all, she had described it in such delicious detail that I was inspired not only by her kindness, but by my own culinary curiosity. But this wouldn’t be sad chocolate. This would be fun, fierce, good-friend chocolate.

The cake had three parts. There was a not-too-sugary crust. The cake itself was a dense, not-quite-flourless texture made with an insanely dark chocolate. The bitterness of the chocolate was offset by a layer of buttery caramel on top. And the caramel was balanced by a flurry of sea salt. Clearly, a little bit of research – and lots of tasting – would need to be done.

First, the crust. I’m a big fan of English tea biscuits. (Since they’re called “biscuits” and not “cookies,” you can eat a bag of them with absolutely no consequences.) I thought they would work well here, since they’re more savory than graham crackers but still light in texture.

The chocolate cake was a little trickier to figure out. Sheila had emphasized how dark the chocolate was. Melted chocolate that was 70-percent cacao was so sharp it made my eyes water, but 60 percent was heavenly. So I stuck with 60-percent cacao (aka bittersweet). Ghirardelli is my favorite, but any premium chocolate will do.

To get the density right, I experimented with the flour. If regular cakes have 2 cups of flour, and flourless cakes don’t have any, the right amount should be somewhere in the middle. I halved the flour, baking powder and baking soda of my best chocolate cake recipe. The result: a partially deflated, saggy cake. So I halved the flour again, and this time, completely omitted the baking powder and baking soda. After studying a dozen brownie (i.e. dense – but not flourless dense) recipes, I added an extra 4 tablespoons of butter. With all that dairy, it had to be good. And it was.

The last bit was the caramel topping. If you’ve never made caramel before, drop everything and make it right now. It’s just butter, sugar and heavy cream – so easy and so amazingly delicious. Granted, a single spoonful contains your entire daily supply of fat and calories. But trust me, it’s totally worth it.

Ironically, the hardest part of the whole cake was getting the salt sprinkles right. Sheila remembered them resting on top. I tried pink Himalayan, grey sea salt, kosher salt and fleur de sel – all of them quickly dissolved into the warm caramel. In the end, I chose the fleur de sel for its bright, crisp flavor. I just sprinkled it on top of the caramel at the table; that way Sheila could see the salt, and be there as it melted away.