Chocolate cake on a school night

Belgian chocolate cake with lemon-peel rose

Quick Belgian chocolate cake (with lemon-peel rose) based on my friend S's recipe

On a crisp, cold Monday evening in Brussels, I waited outside my hotel for my friend, S, to pick me up and take me to her house for dinner. I was met by an entourage of shiny black cars with tinted windows, a small crowd of smartly dressed people and a concierge in a top hat.

Turns out they weren’t there for me:  I’d blundered my way into the arrival of the Turkish Minister of Trade. I nodded and smiled faintly as the Minister and his people looked my way, and I shuffled away from the hotel entrance. I tried not to think about whether the Turkish Minister of Trade might have enemies, and if this would be one of those ‘wrong place, wrong time’ scenarios for me.

S's pumpkin tart

S's pumpkin tart in puff pastry crust

It all went fine (at least for me … I’m not sure how the Minister got on). S arrived and we walked the 15 minutes to her cozy home, where she regaled me with a pumpkin tart in a buttery puff-pastry crust. She served it with a refreshing salad that included toasted hazelnuts and thinly sliced chicon — also known as Belgian Endive, and one of my very favourite vegetables (baked or roasted chicon is divine). We drank red wine and competed with the youngest member of the household and his band of Napoleonic Lego soldiers to spear olives, cherry tomatoes and rounds of Belgian goat’s cheese on our toothpicks (or swords, in the case of the Lego soldiers).

S making chocolate cake

S preparing her quick Belgian chocolate cake in under an hour

The tart and salad were fantastic, but the real treat was yet to come.

A different kind of fast food

At around 8.30 pm S announced that she would be making a cake. Despite my unabashed reverence of cake, my first thought was: It’s a school night! A cake will take hours!’ But S has a reassuring manner — maybe it’s a Belgian thing, maybe it’s just her. As she got to work in the kitchen I decided to trust that she would, indeed, get me back to my hotel before sunrise.

Baking the cake

Lovely aroma from the oven as the chocolate cake baked

In fact, I only made my way through half a glass of wine before the cake was in the oven. Another half glass (delicately nursed) and the oven timer ‘pinged’. S boiled the kettle for tea (a blend from a special Brussels tea shop), and sprinkled powdered sugar over the cake.

S's Belgian chocolate cake with figs and pineapple

S's Belgian chocolate cake with fresh figs and pineapple

In less than an hour we were sitting down for a delicious Belgian chocolate cake, served with fresh pineapple and figs. The finished cake was very rich, like a light, fudgy brownie, and shallow like a flourless torte, rather than airy like a sponge cake. It’s made of only five ingredients: equal weights of butter,sugar and chocolate, a small amount of flour, and three eggs. That’s it. S told me the recipe demands good, dark chocolate (with a high percentage of cocoa), so don’t skimp on the chocolate.

I took her advice and bought a monster-sized bar of chocolate — a Jacques Bloc dessert cooking chocolate — at the supermarket before heading back to the UK, so I would be ready to try the recipe at home.

Supersize this

Jacques Bloc cooking chocolate

Giant Callebaut Jacques Bloc Belgian cooking chocolate (compared to a puny Snickers bar)

I found the recipe to be just as quick and easy as it looked that tipsy night in Brussels. In fact, I decided to make it again this morning, but with a few ‘American’ tweaks. No, this doesn’t mean making it three times the size and replacing most of the recipe with a box of cake mix, but you would be forgiven for thinking so.

First, I wanted to see if it would work as a pan of brownies rather than a cake — would it hold together in little squares?

Second, it’s common here to line a pan with grease-proof paper (in the US this is called parchment paper), which prevents baked goods sticking to the pan, making it easier to clean up. But I know this is less common in the US, so I buttered and floured the pan instead.

Third, the recipe is measured in weights (grams) rather than volume (cups), so I wanted to see if I could convert it. I’m now devoted to cooking by weight rather than volume — I find it remarkably easier and more efficient. But I know cooking by weight is less common in the USA (and Australia), and I want everyone to be able to make this cake. Fortunately (sort of), when I got to the kitchen this morning I found that our scale needed new batteries, and we didn’t have any. So I had no choice but to measure by volume and hope for the best.

Overall, I think this recipe works best as a cake rather than brownies. Buttering and flouring is fine, except it makes it hard to remove the cake from the pan to serve it — greaseproof paper is far better in that regard. Also, the simplicity of this recipe is somewhat dimmed by measuring by volume instead of weight. The European method is easy to memorize: 150 grams each sugar, butter and chocolate + 50 grams flour + 3 eggs. But see the recipe itself for more on the Americanized version.

The ‘little black dress’ of baking

I gave a piece of my version of this cake to my Swiss friend B, and await her review. If I play my cards right, maybe she’ll share a secret Swiss chocolate cake recipe with me one day (knowing that it won’t be so secret anymore if she tells me …).

Belgian chocolate brownie

The brownie version of this recipe

It’s intimidating making chocolate desserts for friends from two of the most famous centres of European chocolate making: Belgium and Switzerland. But it’s worth the risk. I consider a simple, fool-proof chocolate cake recipe to be the ‘little black dress’ of baking — it’s perfect for any occasion, you can dress it up or down, and it never goes out of style. S’s recipe is the perfect example. I accessorized it with a ‘rose’ made of lemon peel and served it with single (pourable) cream. (In fact, some of the lemon from the ‘rose’ soaked into the cake and tasted very nice. Next time I might try adding some lemon or orange peel to the mix.) It’s equally good with fruit, ice cream or just a strong coffee, and with a few tweaks can be made into brownies.

I’ll be back in Brussels in a month’s time and plan to stock up on more giant blocks of cooking chocolate (hopefully fairly traded chocolate, so my conscience will be as satisfied as my taste buds). In the meantime, check out the recipe. Let me know if you try it and how it goes.


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