How to Improvise in the Kitchen

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Photo by Maria Robledo

One of the best things about encouraging people to improvise in the kitchen is to hear how they monkeyed with one of my recipes. "Wow", I think, "I never thought of that!" Like my friend Ellen using an herb sea salt, fragrant with dried rosemary, thyme, and lavender, instead of kosher salt in a chocolate cake recipe she'd found in one of my books.

The cake was, in fact, an improvisation on a recipe I learned years ago when I worked at the Soho Charcuterie as a pâté chef (the baker's work station was in my sightlines). The Charcuterie's Chocolate Globs--a rich chocolate batter laced with nuts and chocolate chips and dropped onto a cookie sheet--had been adapted from a recipe by Maida Heatter.

Like a little black dress, the recipe can be improvised on endlessly to create different effects.

When I scrutinized the Charcuterie recipe, I realized it was essentially a brownie recipe with a little more liquid. So, I shifted the balance of flour and sugar to bring it back into brownie-dom, only I used Valhrona 70% cacao chocolate and baked the batter (actually, I slightly underbaked it) in a round pan, so I could slice the cake into wedges.

What is as easy to make as a pan of brownies--is essentially a pan of brownies--became a rich, intensely chocolate gateau of dinner party caliber. I spiked it with black pepper, but other possibilities would work well: Earl Grey tea, Mexican cinnamon, curry powder, lavender, orange zest, pistachios...

Ellen said she was about to add the salt to the batter when she saw the package of herb salt on the counter. She ground the coarse gray sea salt with dried herbs in a mortar and threw in a tad more than the recipe called for (to account for the herbs). The cake was a big hit and now has become her chocolate cake recipe, with roots going back decades. (Ellen made me one and the herbs totally work. But once you know the basic recipe, you can take any liberties you want to.)

Recipe: Essential Chocolate Cake

This rich, intensely chocolate cake is the perfect dinner party dessert because it is both easy to make and seriously delicious. Like a little black dress, the recipe can be improvised on endlessly to create different effects.

Add exotic flavorings such as freshly ground pink or black peppercorns, ancho chile, Mexican cinnamon, curry powder, or garam masala (about ¼ teaspoon); dried, unsprayed lavender flowers or herbes de Provence (½ teaspoon, crumbled); or ground Earl Gray tea (2 teaspoons). Or stir ¾ cup coarsely chopped nuts such as roasted pistachios, hazelnuts, or pecans into the finished batter.

For chocolate almond cake, add the barest whisper of almond extract (a scant 1/8 teaspoon) and chopped toasted almonds (Spanish Marcona almonds are sensational). Serve the cake with whipped cream or creme fraiche.

Makes one 8-inch cake that will serve 8 people. (For a dramatic 10-inch cake, double the recipe and use a 10-inch cake pan or springform pan)

• butter and flour for coating the pan
    • 8 ounces bitter or semi-sweet chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), coarsely chopped (fresh, fragrant chocolate is essential)
    • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
    • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
    • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
    • 1/4 teaspoon salt
    • 2 large eggs
    • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, or half vanilla extract and half Cognac
    • 1/2 cup sugar
    • 1 or 2 teaspoons cocoa powder

Position the rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Rub the inside of an 8-inch cake pan or a springform pan with butter. Swirl a few teaspoons of flour around to coat completely. Invert the pan and tap out the excess.

Combine the chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. (Or, alternatively, combine in a medium, heavy saucepan and set on a flame tamer/diffuser over very low heat).

Stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl; whisk well and set aside. Combine the eggs, vanilla extract, and espresso powder, if desired, in a large bowl. Whisk until foamy. Add the sugar and whisk until light and frothy, one minute. Blend in the chocolate mixture. Add the flour mixture in two batches, whisking to blend completely each time.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake 22 to 25 minutes until a skewer inserted one inch from the edge comes out clean. When inserted in the center, a bit of moist batter will cling to it. Do not over-bake.

Cool the cake on a rack 10 minutes, then invert onto a plate. Invert back onto the rack so the shiny side is up. Cool the cake completely before sliding it onto a serving plate. Sift the cocoa over the top.