The modern chocolate cake comes to the table with its molten interior oozing out across the plate. More of a mousse than a proper cake, it is now a matter of honour that your cake can barely hold its shape, a distinct case of the wetter the better. The rich chocolate sponge, the sort you get for afternoon tea in posh hotels in Vienna, was pensioned off a good decade ago in favour of this infinitely more gooey confection. A cake as dark as Bisto, its texture barely a notch away from chocolate souffle. A chocoholic's wet dream.
As much as I bow down to today's cake with its claggy, uncooked texture, a cake so gungey and wet you could wring it out with your fist, I rather miss what you might call 'proper' cake. The modern chocolate cowpat will probably go by the name of Oblivion, Mud Cake or, in a stroke of supreme naffness, Death by Chocolate. Look, if I want a cake that wet and creamy I won't bother baking it, I'll just lick the raw mixture straight from the bowl.
The snobbery that has banished flour from most modern cake recipes is robbing us of the sacred thing that is proper chocolate cake. Now, that doesn't mean I hanker after the chocolate Victoria sponge of children's birthday parties, (well, I do a bit) but neither do I always want the clarty gunk that has replaced it.
The cake that really steams my pudding is one whose texture is held somewhere between the two, sensuously moist yet with a good, nutty 'crumb' to it. A finely balanced version that is definitely nearer cake than truffle. Anyone can make the mud variety, just as anyone can knock up a chocky sponge. Far more difficult is to find a texture that matches dark, heart-quickening intensity with tender, melt-in-the-mouth crumbs.
There have been two major chocolate cakes in my life: the obscenely rich espresso cake I included in Real Food and for which I still get letters of appreciation, and the crunchy, nutty hazelnut cake in Appetite which has nubby shards of dark chocolate running through it. Now there's a third. A version I have tinkered with for so long that every inch of my house now smells like the inside of a fabulously expensive Easter egg. It has butter, eggs and the darkest cocoa in it and is kept moist with a handful of ground almonds. The flavour comes from top-quality chocolate and a tiny cup of the darkest espresso and it has just enough flour to give it a lightness. It is suitable for tea and, served warm with a soft dollop of cream would make a decadent dessert, too.
The recipe passes all three crucial tests: depth of flavour, supreme lightness and fragility and, not least, a distinct stick-to-the-fork moistness. Much depends on your chocolate. No matter what may be the chocolate of the moment, I still think you cannot get a better flavour than with Valrhona, and no, I'm not on their payroll. This is chocolate with a clean long-lasting edge to it and a slow finish in the mouth. But it is only one of many suitable brands. What is essential is that the cocoa solids content is around 70 per cent. Anything lower and your cake will lack clout; higher and its dryness will leave you gasping for water. One thing is for sure: the better the chocolate the better the cake.
The moistness will depend not just on the addition of ground almonds, but how long you bake it. Short of the delicate moment when you mix it all together, it is the cooking time that is truly make or break. Remove it from the oven five minutes too early and you have chocolate milkshake; five minutes too long and you could use it as a frisbee.
What you are looking for is the moment, somewhere between 25 and 30 minutes, when your cake is spongy round the edge, but still a bit creamy in the centre. Test it with a skewer. It should come out without any wet cake mixture attached.
My perfect moment for such a slice of heaven is around 11am and again at about 4pm, when a thin wedge goes perfectly with a small, strong coffee. It acts as a pick-me-up, a little zip of energy to get you through till lunch or dinner. Or perhaps just through till your next slice of chocolate cake.
Chocolate almond cake
A shallow, intensely chocolatey cake that is both moist and extremely light. For the best dark and velvety cocoa powder, try shops that specialise in fine chocolates or look out for brands such as the Chocolate Society, Valrhona or Green and Blacks. Serves 10.
200g fine dark chocolate (70 per cent)
a small, hot espresso
80g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 level tbsps of very good quality cocoa powder
200g golden unrefined caster sugar
125g shelled almonds
You will need a shallow cake tin, 23-24cm in diameter, about 5cm deep, the base lightly buttered and lined with a round of greaseproof paper.
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Break or chop the chocolate into small pieces and melt in a bowl resting over a saucepan of gently simmering water. As soon as it has started to melt, pour the hot espresso over the chocolate. Cut the butter into chunks and drop it into the chocolate and coffee. Resist the temptation to stir. Sieve the flour, baking powder and cocoa together. Separate the eggs, dropping the egg whites into a large bowl. Whisk the whites till they are thick and stiff then quickly but gently fold in the sugar with a large metal spoon. Remove the chocolate from the heat and stir to dissolve the last of the butter. Mix the egg yolks together then stir quickly into the chocolate, just till the ingredients come together. Fold firmly but gently into the egg white and sugar. Don't skin the almonds, but blast them in the food processor until they resemble fine, fresh breadcrumbs. Lightly fold in the flour and cocoa mixture then the ground almonds. Work slowly and firmly but lightly. Don't over mix or knock the air out, and stop as soon as the last bit of flour is mixed in. Transfer into the cake tin and bake for 25 minutes. Test the cake for doneness with a skewer. It should come out clean, without any sticky cake mixture attached. Leave to cool a little before turning out and slicing.
Nuts: You could use hazelnuts instead of almonds, though I would be tempted to toast them first, then rub off their skins before grinding.
Cream: A tart cream, such as creme fraiche brings out the flavour of the cake more than a sweet cream.
Fruit: If you intend to eat this as a dessert then I recommend a handful of raspberries on the side.
Tips: It is essential not to let the chocolate get too hot as it melts. The water should be just simmering. Once the butter has started to melt, turn the heat off but leave the dish in place. Avoid the temptation to stir and fiddle, which will sometimes make the chocolate 'seize' into a lump.