The Chocolate Cake
June 3, 2016
My wife, Dorothea: So, how was the concert tour?”
Her husband, Arnold: “Great. After the concert in Rome, I had a plate of gnocchi with Gorgonzola sauce that was to die from. And in Vienna, you wouldn’t believe how sensational the Salzburger Nockerl was.”
Dorothea: “I’m glad. But what about the concerts? How did they go?”
Arnold: “Uh, OK. I guess.”
But how did those concerts go? Hard to say. Like most musicians, I’m rarely satisfied with any of my performances. But even if I thought my playing was the greatest thing since Paganini appeared on the concert stage, was it really? Music making being a subjective matter, the audience might have thought it the worst fiddling they’d heard in ages. Besides, how would it look for me to go around telling everyone that I played like Paganini in Rome or Vienna or Sheboygan, Wisconsin?
Mother was right. It’s not nice to brag.
So I prefer to talk about the gnocchi I had in Rome, the Salzburger Nockerl in Vienna, the Rice Table in Amsterdam, the smoked ribs in Kansas City, and, oh, I almost forgot, that chocolate cake in…but that’s a delicious story in itself.
Our Guarneri String Quartet played a concert in Evanston, Illinois not that long ago. The presenter of the concert, Blair Milton, and his wife, Barb, generously invited us out to dinner afterwards. To cap off a fine meal, we all ordered chocolate cake for dessert, but it took only a bite or two for a muffled groan of disapproval to spread around the table. The cake was disappointingly dry and characterless. Barb, who was sitting next to me, shook her head sadly and said, “To think that we have to eat this excuse for a cake when I know how to make the greatest chocolate cake in the whole world.” This was too bold a statement to be left hanging. I demanded an explanation, which Barb was only too happy to supply. She pushed the despised chocolate cake as far from her as possible and began:
“Reprinted with permission from Barbara Queen.”
“I had been dating a man for a year and wanted to do something special for his birthday. What better way to show I cared than to bake a birthday cake from scratch? My boyfriend loved chocolate and I had a recipe that I had clipped from a magazine. Apparently, it was very popular.
“But first, a little history. The truth is I had never cooked anything. Before I met this guy, I basically subsisted on takeout and salad bars. I was completely unaware that this new man in my life was actually a very good cook. So, blissfully ignorant, I decided too wow him on our first date by preparing some undercooked linguini with tiny clams that came out like little rubber erasers. After that catastrophe, he took over the cooking and I gratefully assumed the task of taster and prep-cook. I chopped things, I cleaned up…but he was the real chef.
“Everybody was happy that way.
“So, back to the cake. I wanted to impress my boyfriend and see the look on his face when he took his first bite. I dug out the chocolate cake recipe from a file of clippings I had been keeping and bought the ingredients. I began the preparation completely unaware of the odyssey about to unfold. I meticulously measured everything into bowls, and I was optimistic that the outcome would be spectacular.
“Halfway through, many items mixed at that point, I was reading the instructions when they came to an abrupt halt in mid-sentence. I flipped over the magazine clipping and saw an ad for hand cream. Where was the rest of the recipe? I scrambled through my file of clippings and realized that I had mistakenly cut out only half of it. Now my heart was beating fast. I only had two hours left before my boyfriend would arrive.
“By now it was too late to start over and I was completely distraught at the thought that I might have to produce a store-bought cake. I scoured the recipe clipping again and noticed that the recipe was from a restaurant called Watershed. I jumped back online, found the number and called it, now in a full-blown panic.
“The receptionist picked up. I explained that I was calling regarding the magazine feature about the chocolate cake. She must have thought I was calling from the magazine itself, because she transferred me directly to the kitchen and a gentleman picked up saying: ‘This is Scott Peacock.’ Now, I am a violinist and if someone answered their phone and said: ‘This is David Oistrakh,’ I would fall over. As I have explained, I am not a culinary whiz. I was not aware that I was speaking to the executive chef himself, nor that he was a highly regarded celebrity chef. That will explain why I proceeded to babble on about my ‘emergency’ without the proper respect or any consideration of the fact that it was 4 P.M. their time and prime pre-dinner rush.
“I have worked as a waitress—I should have known better.
“Mr. Peacock is going to heaven, no question. I urgently explained my dilemma: ‘MY BOYFRIEND IS A GOOD COOK. I’M NOT. IT’S HIS BIRTHDAY. HE’S THE ONE. I’M HOPING HE’LL SEE THAT I’M THE ONE TOO. IT ALLL HINGES ON THIS CAKE!!
“He soothed my agitated state immediately by asking me first to read what I had so far. After a few instructions, he cut me off with a disgusted snort. He said the editors had written it down so poorly that it was confusing. He told me to toss the clipping and get a pen and paper. He then proceeded to walk me through each step of the preparation. He gave me tips such as: ‘whisk back and forth in a zigzag pattern instead of circles so the batter emulsifies better.’ He assured me that this cake was a cinch. He called it a ‘dump’ cake since I could essentially dump everything into a bowl, and the only tool needed was a whisk. He said he would be in the kitchen all night and invited me to call if I needed any more advice…but then asked me to call either way because he wanted to know how it turned out.
“I dove back into cake-prep and everything went smoothly. My masterpiece was cooling secretly on the window ledge behind the couch when my boyfriend arrived. After a nice dinner, which he (of course) whipped up…I produced the most delicious, moist, not-too-sweet, kill-me-now chocolate cake. And, for the first time ever, I got the pleasure of seeing someone’s eyes open in amazed delight as their taste buds exploded. What a great feeling.”
Everyone at the table was entranced by Barb’s story, but something felt incomplete about its ending. Then it occurred to me. “What about the boyfriend?” I asked. “What happened to him?” Barb smiled, turned to her left where Blair was seated next to her, and said, “I’m happily married to him.”
It was a good story. No, it was a great story and one with such a happy ending. But what about the world’s greatest chocolate cake itself, I wondered. If only I could experience this mother of all cakes, I would be a blissfully happy guy. I asked Barb for the recipe, which she kindly sent me the very next day.
Dorothea absolutely loved the Watershed chocolate cake. I loved it as well, and so does everyone else I’ve served it to.
What’s that? You want to know how the concert went in Evanston, Illinois, the night of the cake story?
I have no idea.
The Watershed Chocolate Cake:
Butter and flour for pans
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup extra strong brewed coffee (Decaf if desired)
5 oz. finely chopped unsweetened chocolate
2 eggs at room temperature
1/2 cup peanut or vegetable oil
2 tbsp. pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup sour cream at room temperature
1 cup heavy cream
1 stick unsalted butter
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3/4 tsp. salt
1 lb. semi-sweet chocolate finely chopped
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup double strength brewed coffee
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Butter/flour two 9 inch cake pans. Brew 1 cup coffee.
Sift together dry ingredients in bowl, blend with wire whisk.
Add unsweetened chocolate to 1 cup coffee and cover; stir after melted.
Whisk eggs w/oil, sour cream, and vanilla, then add chocolate/coffee mixture.
Dump dry ingredients on top of wet ingredients in 1/3 increments, whisking aggressively after each addition (no more than 1 minute but enough to knock out big lumps and add some structure).
Pour into two 9-inch pans already buttered and floured, bake for 30 to 40 minutes (until few crumbs on toothpick—it’s a moist cake).Let cool in pans for 3 minutes, then remove and cool on rack.
To make the frosting:
Heat the cream, butter, sugar, and salt over low heat until butter is melted. Remove from heat and stir in chocolate until melted and smooth. Add vanilla and coffee, stir until blended. Allow mixture to cool to room temperature and to a spreadable consistency. Frost the top of one layer, top with second layer, then frost the top and sides.
Cover with dusting of confectioner’s sugar.
Serve with choice of ice cream, whipped cream, berries, etc.
Confession: I often eliminate the frosting and bake ingredients as one cake, allowing additional time for the thicker cake to completely bake through.
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I cannot express my excitement at the very idea of trying this recipe! The story alone lends richness to the taste of what appears to be something quite special! Can’t wait to try it! :-)
Enjoyed this, Arnold. It reminded me of people saying that they couldn’t praise Marc, he seemed uncomfortable with it.
I seem to have lot your email address in my last computer crash.
Arnold: thank you for the lovely story! I have printed out the recipe, (complete with lovely photo of you!) and will give it a try soon.
We really enjoy your blog – thank you so much. We expect to see you soon around these parts.
Great story-I was waiting with bated breath, hoping that you’d include the recipe!
Thanks so much for this wonderful story! And, more importantly, for including the receipe for the chocolate cake!! As I was reading, I kept thinking that as soon as I’m finished reading I’ll get online and find the recipe for the Watershed Chocolate Cake. Now I can’t wait to get home to make it!
Thanks again. And, as always, another fun and educational post!
So happy to have discovered “In the Key of Strawberry.” A delightful, witty and poignant moment of sanity and grace to be relished. Also loved your books. Thank you from an old pupil from Harpur!
I’m in the Kirkwood Public Library reading your latest piece and can’t stop myself from joyous, ecstatic smiles all over my face. What a treat just reading about the baker, maker, the cake, and the marriage! You’re remarkable! Are you sure you aren’t inventing any of these spicy tales. Bitte nicht aufhalten!
Wonderful, charming story. Especially since long-lost friend Blair Milton plays such an important part in it. Hi Blair!
Dear Arnold, You are a wonderful writer. I smiled all of the way through this!
PS: And I sent it to Arkitov’s son to show Salome
Another jewel from you. A delight.
But now I’m dying to have a piece of your Chocholate cake, nowhere to be found.
Dear Arnold: I would love for you to join my Foodtalk Radio program and talk about this wonderful cake. We do it live on Saturday’s 2:00pm – are you available this Saturday perhaps? Over the phone, will talk 10 minutes. If not we can schedule a time. My email address is: RobertKimBailey@hotmail.com – Thanks so much for your consideration. Kim
Arnold: Delightful tale. that reminds me of all the amateur quartets I’ve played with around the world, always followed by at least a desert dish at the end. That’s where we get to know our charming hosts.
I’m so glad I found your blog. My mother studied cello with Gretchen Daley for many years and Mrs. Daley always gave us tickets to the Guarneri Quartet whenever you were in Ann Arbor. So I feel I know you, even though we have never met. I just made this cake for my son’s graduation from High School. It was spectacular! Thank you so much. I loved this story on so many levels.
What a fantastic story. How true about describing our performances. All I ever Remember are my mistakes!!
I too cannot wait to make this for my amateur, but excellent, chamber group!!
I look forward to your future musings!!
Hi Arnold! I very much enjoy your blog and as soon as I get my weight down to wear it ought to be, I’ll try your chocolate cake recipe. Many thanks. See you at Marlboro.
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