Luxuriously rich, easy-to-make, flourless Mexican-chocolate cake is blow-them-away fabulous


It all started with a recipe in Michael Solomonov's Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking. The recipe, for a flourless chocolate cake – in which Solomonov and co-author Steven Cook use almond flour in place of wheat flour – is called "Chocolate-Almond Situation." I was drawn to the recipe because of its unusual name. Why "situation"?

Also, it looked so easy and good I couldn't resist. I melted chocolate, heated the oven, and went for it. 

Rich, luxurious and profoundly chocolatey, with a wonderfully moist, velvet-cream texture, the dessert was a big hit. And it was as easy to make as brownies. Another bonus: It's gluten-free. I posted a snap of it, with a description, on Instagram, tagged Solomonov and Zahav and added, "But still dying to know, Chef, why it's called a 'situation.'" 

"Gorgeous!" came the comment from Zahav. 

"Thank you!" I wrote. "Now why is it called a 'situation'?"

No answer. 

Meanwhile, I had an idea I couldn't get out of my head: Mexican chocolate. Wouldn't it be cool to make this cake using Mexican chocolate instead of regular dark chocolate? 

Last winter, my friend Michalene and I had enjoyed the most amazing Mexican hot chocolate at El Cardenal, a Mexico City restaurant known for its epic breakfasts. The drink, silky and incredibly rich, was prepared at the table by a waiter who used a molinillo, a traditional wooden chocolate whisk. I had to rush off early to catch my flight home, but Michalene surprised me by sending me a box of Doña Oliva chocolate tablets, which they use and sell at the restaurant. I was stunned to find that I could use a tablet to make a cup of chocolate almost as delicious as El Cardenal's; I've been rationing them ever since.

Since I'm always craving a cup, Mexican chocolate has been on my mind for months – especially since the start of winter. 

Could I maybe use the tablets to make a Mexican-Chocolate Situation? 

Nah...those tablets are too precious.

Meanwhile, I'd seen really cool-looking Taza organic Mexican-style stone-ground chocolate tablets at the supermarket. Maybe I could use those! But when I saw the price – they're $5 per 2.7-ounce tablet on the Taza website – I realized they'd be way too expensive, as we'd need four or five tablets for one cake.

Instead, I tried hunting down the Ibarra Mexican chocolate I grew up with. I didn't find it at my local supermarket, but found and purchased a box of Abuelita, another industrial brand.

What a disappointment: I brought it home and tasted it. It tasted nothing like chocolate. Just like sugar and chemicals. No way was this going into my cake (or yours). 

I was back to the drawing board.

Then, as she often does, Michalene came to the rescue. She suggested using the same high-quality 72% cacao chocolate I first used for the Situation and adding spices and other flavorings you'd find in Mexican chocolate. After all, I already had almonds in the almond flour. She suggested not just cinnamon and vanilla, which is what I'd naturally reach for, but also ancho chile powder and brandy. 

I made a couple other little tweaks to the recipe, for instance, changing the amount of chocolate to equal three 3.5 bars (10.5 ounces) rather than the 11 ounces the original called for. 

I whipped up the chocolate batter, added the ancho chile (just a touch), the cinnamon, the vanilla and brandy, mixed in the almond flour, spread it in a pan and baked.

Eureka! Same wonderful texture and richness, and now it had that dreamy Mexican chocolate flavor.

It was such a hit at dinner that one of my guests would not leave until I wrapped up two slices for him to take home.

You can bake it in a round pan and slice it into wedges, but be sure to make them small, as it is very, very rich. I'd say one 9-inch cake serves 10-12, rather than the 8 you'd expect. For an elegant dinner party, you might want to garnish it with a dollop of whipped cream, or whipped cream mixed with crème fraîche. You know what would be wonderful? Nata, the Mexican-style clotted cream El Cardenal serves at breakfast with the pan dulce known as a concha.

Or you can bake it in a square or pan and cut it into brownie-like bars. Dust them with powdered sugar or not, as you like. Honestly, they were so creamy, chocolatey and rich, they didn't need any adornment. 

Here's the recipe:

As for why it's called a "situation," well, that remains a mystery. Chef Solomonov, care to comment?



Blood orange panna cotta makes a dramatically divine (and surprisingly easy!) dessert

Blood oranges are the beach vacations of winter ingredients.

Huh? What? 

You know: It's cold out, and maybe gloomy. Maybe it's snowing. Maybe you have cabin fever. Maybe you're dreaming of stretching out on the sand on the Mayan Riviera under the sun, with crystal clear turquoise-colored water lapping at your toes. 

I'd love that, too. 

But instead, I'm going to reach for the next best thing: blood oranges. How lovely that something so juicy, so deliciously vibrant and summer-like comes into season in the dead of winter – and sticks around till May. 

A good part of their allure is visual. When they're whole, they look almost like regular oranges, but notice their slight rosacea blush. Slice one open, and it's gorgeous, its segments streaked in shades of crimson and and ruby red and blackberry. Now taste: They have a lovely flavor, sort of like oranges tinged with berry, or yes – cassis. 

In the United States, they're grown in California and Texas (two of the three states I have called home!). But I associate them with Rome, I think because once upon a time when I visited, I breakfasted on a hotel rooftop where they served crusty rolls with good butter – and glasses of fresh-squeezed blood orange juice. 

For cooks, blood oranges are a boon, as they're both delicious and dramatic. Count on them to elicit oohs and aaahs at the dinner table – especially if you spoon them over a delicately sweet, trembly-soft blood-orange-flavored panna cotta, Italy's famous custard-like dessert. 

Made from warmed, sweetened cream set with gelatin, panna cotta isn't a Roman dessert; it comes from Piedmont, according to The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, which also points out that it is "usually flavored with vanilla" (which I knew) "and peach brandy" (which I did not know). Often, the entry continues, it is served with fruit after it is unmolded, or with genuine balsamic vinegar. (Something to try! Though not with the supermarket stuff that passes for balsamic vinegar.) "It is increasingly popular with enthusiasts of the lighter side of Italian food," the 2007 book's entry concludes.

Indeed. Over the last decade, panna cotta has become a hugely popular restaurant dessert.

Happily, it is incredibly easy to make at home: In most versions, you bloom powdered gelatin over cold milk, then stir in cream that's been warmed just enough to dissolve sugar in it, cool the mixture, pour into custard cups, chill till they're set, then unmold just before serving. David Lebovitz, one of my favorite food bloggers, wrote recently, "if it takes you more than five minutes to put it together, you're taking too long!" He's not exaggerating.

Blood orange compote

Flavoring a classic panna cotta with blood orange juice gives it a delightful new dimension.  It's wonderful on its own, but top it with a compote of blood oranges and it becomes positively spectacular.  

A few thoughts about the panna cotta itself, before we get to the blood orange compote. Traditionally, it's made with cream, which makes a really rich and thick panna cotta. I like my panna cotta lighter – and more silky than velvety – so I swap out most of the cream for half-and-half. And I don't want it too stiff: soft and trembly is the idea, so I use the minimum amount of gelatin possible in order for it to hold its shape (more or less) after unmolding. (If you want yours to be a little stiffer, add an extra half a teaspoon of gelatin to the three teaspoons my recipe calls for.) 

Because it involves blood orange juice, my recipe is a little different from the traditional one: You sprinkle the gelatin over blood orange juice, let it sit, then heat it up and dissolve the sugar in the juice. Let it cool a little, then stir in the half-and-half, cream and either vanilla or orange liqueur. Pour it into custard cups (which you've lightly oiled) and let them set up in the fridge. 

While they're setting, you can make the compote; for this the only real work involved is cutting the oranges. If you're comfortable slicing suprèmes, go for it – they make a beautiful presentation. (That's what's shown above.) To do this, use a sharp paring knife to cut all the peel and pith off each orange, then slice between each membrane to release the segments, freeing them of all the membranes. With a little practice, it becomes very easy. (Here's a good walk-through on the technique from Serious Eats – scroll down to "Citrus Suprèmes" to find it.)

If you don't want to sweat it, just cut the peel and pith off the outside of each blood orange, slice it, then quarter the slices. It'll still be really pretty.

When you're slicing, be sure to capture all the juice that escapes –  you'll need half a cup for the compote. You might want to have an extra blood orange or two on hand just in case you don't capture enough juice. Heat that juice with some sugar, and cook it down till it's syrupy, then stir in a spoonful of Cognac or other brandy and pour it all over the orange segments. 

When you're ready to serve it, run a small, sharp knife around the edge of each custard cup, then invert it onto a plate or shallow bowl and let the panna cotta unmold. Sometimes you have to give it a little nudge with butter knife to release it. Divide the blood orange compote over the panna cottas and serve.

Alternately, if you don't want to unmold the panna cotta – either because it makes you nervous or you prefer a different look – you can serve the panna cotta in a wine glass or dessert glass and simply spoon some of the compote over it. 

I happen to think it's the perfect light dessert to follow a rich holiday dinner. Yes, like roast duck! Or a crown roast of pork, or a prime rib.  It's also a great finish to a lighter New Year's Eve dinner – maybe steamed lobsters, or other seafood. 

I know what you're thinking: Recipe, please! Here you go . . . 

Meanwhile, here's some good news: Blood oranges have a nice, long season – they're usually available into May in California and Texas. So if you happen to fall in love it this dessert – or with the blood oranges themselves (they're wonderful eat out of hand, as long as you're not wearing a white tee-shirt) – this could be the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.