Darling, for you, the ultimate cake

Annie Bell shows how to bake romance with maximum chocolate

On Valentine's Day last year, late in the afternoon, my husband and I ran into each other carrying identical white cardboard boxes tied up with identical pink ribbon. We swooped and opened them, and inside were identical chocolate cakes. Not so surprising since the way to his heart, and mine, is chocolate cake, and we had been to the same local ptisserie.

But that's where the happy story ends. Later that evening, one bite into the dark, glossy icing gave way to an abomination of a cake: dry sponge and waxy buttercream, chocolate in colour but not in flavour. This sparked off a quest to produce the ultimate chocolate cake.

Two areas needed cracking, first, the sponge. This should be heavy with chocolate, fudgy in the centre, and not simply flavoured with cocoa. And in 1995 the word icing needs replacing with the word glaze, buttercream with ganache - a blend of chocolate, cream and flavouring .

The type of chocolate used is important. Valbrona is excellent but very expensive, so more realistically I suggest Lindt. The main point is to steer away from oversweet chocolate such as Bournville.

It was my father's milestone birthday last year that merited two days attempting the most ambitious chocolate cake I could devise. Desserts by the American pastry chef Nancy Silverton (from Books for Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 071-221 1992) is full of superbly detailed recipes, and her layered truffle cake was wonderful: chocolate almond sponge alternated with truffle fillings, dark chocolate with Armagnac, milk chocolate with Irish cream, and white chocolate with Kahlua.

My ideal chocolate cake has the luxurious quality of Nancy Silverton, but made in modest dimensions. The sort of faithful recipe you can dress up to suit the occasion, and whip up in an evening.

Valentine's Day Chocolate Cake

Serves 6-8


Cake: Unsalted butter and cocoa powder for preparing tin

8oz (225g) dark chocolate

5 eggs (size 2), separated

6oz (170g) castor sugar, plus 1tbsp

6oz (170g) soft unsalted butter

4tbsp strong black coffee

3oz (85g) plain flour, sifted

1 level tsp baking powder

Glaze: 5oz (140g) dark chocolate

2oz (55g) unsalted butter

4tbsp double cream

2tbsp Kahlua, Tia Maria or Cognac

Preparation: Butter an 8in springform cake tin and line the base with parchment paper; butter this also and dust with cocoa powder. Break up the chocolate and place it in the top half of a double boiler, or a bowl, over simmering water. Stir occasionally until it melts. In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks and 6oz castor sugar together until they are pale, now whisk in the butter, then gradually whisk in the chocolate, the coffee, then fold in the flour and baking powder. Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/gas 3.

Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl until stiff, sprinkle over the remaining tablespoon of sugar and continue whisking until glossy. Fold these into the cake mixture, a third at a time. Pour into the prepared tin, give it several sharp taps on a work surface to eliminate air bubbles and bake in the middle of the oven, allowing plenty of headroom, for 50- 55 minutes. Loosen the collar and allow to cool. Trim surface to the cake to level it. Now invert it and remove the parchment paper.

To make the glaze, break up the chocolate and melt it with the butter in a double boiler, then add the cream and liqueur. Spread half of this over the top and sides of the cake using a palette knife, allow to set in a cool place, but not the fridge. Rewarm the remaining glaze and repeat.

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