Pastry chefs are tinkerers. I wouldn’t be surprised if a disproportionate number of us had engineers or scientists or inventors for parents. If you own or are in charge of a pastry kitchen, you probably have endless tales of re-inventing, re-jiggering, and “hacking” various tools, equipment, and methods in order to make things work better or faster. It comes with the territory and it’s part of the fun—and almost as rewarding as making fantastic desserts in the first place.
When I teach, I insist that recipes be following exactly, at least the first time. I stress that the smallest details matter, and that the very same ingredients mixed in a different order are likely to produce different, and not always desirable, results. I stand by that.
But once you get some real baking chops, the creative brain can’t help rethinking things.
In the 1970s, my former pastry shop, Cocolat, was famous for French “gateaux” and chocolate tortes. One such was the renowned Queen of Sheba torte. It was introduced to Americans by Julia Child—and then riffed on and popularized by dessert chefs and writers like me and Maida Heatter before me. If you think you aren’t familiar with it, I assure you that you’ve tasted dozens of them, often called by other names (including “fallen chocolate soufflé”) or with minor tweaks in the ingredients. You’ve probably made one as well, and just not known it.
The Queen of Sheba is a single-layer, moist, slightly dense, ultra-rich, and deeply chocolaty torte made with ground almonds (a.k.a. almond flour) and a few tablespoons of AP flour, tons of melted chocolate, butter and eggs and often a little brandy. Typically the eggs are separated and the whites are whipped and folded into a heavy batter of chocolate and melted butter—there’s no baking powder or soda or leavening other than the air whipped into the egg whites. The torte rises in the oven and then sinks as it cools, often leaving a pleasing cracked crust on top. They are so rich that no frosting or filling is required—though chocolate glaze is often applied anyway.
As Cocolat grew and became multiple shops in the 1970’s and 1980’s, hand folding whipped egg whites into the batter for 60 or 100 tortes required not just a clean hand—but an entire arm! The baker had to reach into an 80-quart (later 120-quart) mixer bowl of batter to scrape the bottom as she folded in a mountain of meringue. When we said we were up to our armpits in batter (or chocolate?), we really meant it.
The solution was a clever change of mixing methods. Beating soft rather than melted butter and cold (whole) eggs into warm melted chocolate thickened the chocolate and caused it to become fluffier and more aerated with continued beating. You can even see the batter lighten in color as more air is incorporated into it! The new method eliminated separating hundreds of eggs and hand folding the batter. It also saved the extra time and the extra bowl required to whip the whites. Best of all, the flavor of the tortes improves. Win win win.
For the home baker, the revised method means that you can make a fabulous French torte all in one bowl—without separating eggs, folding egg whites, or bringing ingredients to room temperature. Like I said, it’s a win win win.
P.S. Don’t forget to follow the revised recipe exactly!
- 6 ounces (170 grams) dark or bittersweet chocolate with 66%-72% cacao, coarsely chopped
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick/113 grams) unsalted butter, slightly softened but cool, and not super squishy, cut into chunks
- 3/4 cup (150 grams) sugar
- 2 tablespoons brandy or rum, optional
- 1/8 teaspoon pure almond extract
- 1/8 teaspoon (generous) salt (I use fine sea salt)
- 4 large cold eggs
- 3/4 cup (75 grams) almond flour/meal (blanched or not) or 3/4 cup (62 grams) fine almond flour
- 2 tablespoons (15 grams) all-purpose flour
- Iightly sweetened whipped cream, for topping
Do you have a beloved recipe you tinkered with until it got even better? Tell us about it in the comments!