Late last week, I got an email from a reader, ardath2, searching for the recipe for Queen of California cake. It originally came from Cocolat in Berkeley, CA, a product of Alice Medrich, a real queen of chocolate. I’ve been making this cake for probably around 20 years, thanks to a recipe I found in some now unrecognizable food magazine. It’s caused moans of delight. I’m copying it here. My comments are in italics.
3 Tbs. dried apricots, minced
1 /4 c. brandy
7 oz semisweet or bittersweet baking chocolate I’d use the best chocolate I could find, but when I used grocery store chocolate, I’d make it 6 oz. semisweet and 1 oz. unsweetened, to heighten the chocolatey-ness.
1 /2 c. unsalted butter cut into bits
3 large eggs, separated, room temperatureI
1 /2 c. plus 3 Tbs. granulated sugar
4 Tbs. flour
2/3 c. ground walnuts These are not black walnuts, but California or "English" walnuts
scant 1 /4 tsp cream of tartar
FOR CHOCOLATE GLAZE:
4 oz. unsalted butter
6 oz semisweet or bittersweet baking chocolate, cut into bits See above. And if you have to use ordinary chocolate and the expensive stuff, this is the place for the expensive.
1 Tbs. corn syrup I usually use the clear, but I suspect it wouldn’t matter; just don’t use pancake or maple syrup.
FOR CARAMELIZED WALNUTS:
10 perfect walnut halves
1 c. granulated sugar
8-inch cake pan with sides 2 - 3 inches high I use a springform pan with removable sides
parchment or waxed paper
a cardboard round the size of the cake pan Trace around the pan and cut it out BEFORE you start cooking; ask me how I know.
wooden skewers for the walnuts If you’re brave, you can use really strong toothpicks, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Butter an 8-by-2-or-3-inch round pan. Cut a round of parchment or wax paper to fit in the bottom of the pan. Press onto the bottom of the pan and butter the paper. Flour the bottom and sides of the pan and shake out the excess.
Put apricots in small bowl with the brandy to steep. Set aside.
Melt chocolate with the butter and 3 tablespoons of water in a small pan placed over a bowl of not-quite simmering water. Stir frequently until smooth and melted. Remove from heat and set aside. I have always used a microwave, very cautiously, to do this, and it works well.
Beat egg yolks and 1 /2 cup sugar in a bowl until creamy and pale yellow. Whisk in the chocolate mixture, flour and walnuts. Add the steeped apricots and brandy. Set aside.
Beat the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar at high speed until soft peaks form. Continue to beat, gradually adding the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar until firm and glossy. Fold about 1/3 of the beaten egg whites into the chocolate batter to lighten it. Fold in the remaining egg whites quickly and gently.
Turn the batter gently into the prepared pan and distribute batter evenly. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven 25-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted at the edge comes out clean. The center of the cake will remain moist. Cool cake in the pan.
The cake will crack and settle in the center as it cools, leaving a higher rim around the edges. Run a knife around the edges to loosen it. Press edges firmly with fingertips to flatten them even with the center. Cut a piece of stiff cardboard the same diameter as the cake and turn cake onto it. Press down on cake with bottom of the pan to even it again. Peel off paper.
Cake may be made several days in advance or frozen. It is best to bake it at least a day ahead; glaze on the day of serving.
Place butter, chocolate and corn syrup in top of a double boiler and melt gently over low heat. I use the microwave here, too. Stir frequently until smooth. Remove from heat.
Cool the glaze until almost set but still spreadable. Brush crumbs off the cake. Spread edges and top of cake with just enough cooled glaze to smooth out imperfections, cracks or ragged places. Be careful not to get any crumbs into the glaze. Now reheat the glaze gently over simmering water or microwave until smooth and pourable but not thin and watery. Strain heated glaze through a fine sieve. This will remove stray crumbs and air bubbles and guarantee a smoother looking glaze.
I admit I skip the strainer. I remove a small amount of the glaze, maybe a half-cup, to a smaller container. It cools quickly, and I use it to do the first coat. If I am absolutely positive I have no crumbs in what’s left, I may return it to the larger pan, but usually I just use it all. I’ve never had a problem with air bubbles.I also set the cake on a bowl whose top opening is smaller than the cake, when I do the following steps. It’s easier for me to pick up and tip the glaze around, and to pick up after the glaze sets.
Place the cake onto a turntable or plate and pour the remaining glaze all at once onto the center of the cake. Tip the cake to prevent a too-thick layer settling in the center. Use a metal spatula to coax it over the edges. Use spatula only to encourage glaze to cover cake—do not keep spreading or working the glaze. In my experience, the glaze should sort of ooze down the sides, rather than covering them completely, so don’t worry about coverage, other than the top.
Lift the cake up off the plate or turntable (the cardboard base makes this easy) and place it on a wire rack until dripping stops, then place on a doily or serving platter. Allow glaze to set before decorating.
Skewer each walnut on the end of a wooden skewer. Dissolve sugar and 1 /2 cup water in a small saucepan. Cover and cook 4-5 minutes. Uncover but do not stir. Wash crystals down from sides of pan with pastry brush that has been dipped in cold water. Continue to cook without stirring until syrup is a medium dark amber color. This is easier if your pan has a shiny or light-colored interior, if you have a choice of pans.
Remove from heat and quickly dip each skewered walnut half in the syrup. Set dipped, skewered nuts on the rim of a cake pan to drip, cool and harden. Remove nuts from skewer, snip off any caramel tails which may have formed and evenly space nuts around top of glazed cake.
As you can see, this is a big project, but the results are worth it. I have skipped the walnuts entirely, or just smeared the extra glaze around the sides and put handsful of chopped walnuts on there as it began to set. The cook’s reward is licking the bowl, which is divine. Cleaning the caramel pan can be dicey; fill it with water and simmer the pan until the remaining caramel dissolves in it. (Next time, I think I’ll pour it out on waxed paper and break it up to use bits of to decorate other desserts. It should freeze well.)