I’ve been spending entirely too much time watching episodes of The French Chef with Julia Child that my friend Craig gave me.
I find Mrs. Child oddly hypnotic. There is something about her uniquely-accented voice and the not-entirely graceful movement of her formerly 6′ 2″ body that compels me to watch her.
And watch her I do. Over and over again.
This week, I’ve been enjoying an early, black and white episode wherein she gives a champagne and coffee party in honor of:
“…the Queen of Sheba, which turns out to be this dark beauty, made of chocolate, and almonds, and rum, and butter!”
She then invites us into her kitchen where she promises we’ll make:
“the best chocolate cake you ever put in your mouth.”
That’s one heavy promise, but I love her enthusiasm.
I decided to put my money where Mrs. Child’s mouth is and examine this cake and the woman behind it, however superficially.
And one or two other things, of course.
First, there is the name:
The Queen of Sheba
The legend of the Queen of Sheba can be found in both the Old Testament and the Qur’an. As a polytheist monarch of tremendous wealth and wisdom, she was intrigued by King Solomon of Israel, who was famous for his own wealth and wisdom, plus the odd little fact that he and his people worshipped only one god (1 Kings 10:1-13). She set off to visit him, laden with spices, gold, jewels, and a series of riddles to test his alleged wisdom. She was more or less awed by him, and he rather impressed with her. She returned to her southern Kingdom with “all that her heart desired”, including a new, solitary god.
Despite what the vampy costume of Betty Blythe might suggest in her 1921 epic The Queen of Sheba, most accounts suggest that the relationship between Solomon and herself were of a respectful, intellectual nature.
Unless you choose to believe the Ethiopians. They claim her as their own. In fact, the legitimacy of their nearly 3,000-year, dynasty was founded on the belief that Solomon gave her slightly more than gold and jewelry as a parting gift.
Whatever you choose to believe, it is clear why the “best chocolate cake you ever put in your mouth” was named after her– she was dark, rich, and sophisticated. A queen fit for the queen of cakes.
Of course, I couldn’t end it there. Not with Oscar season around the corner. Nor an obvious tangent staring me in the face.
Come Back, Little Sheba
One of the few vintage, Oscar-winning performances I have yet to see is that of Miss Shirley Booth’s turn as Lola Delaney in Comeback, Little Sheba from 1952. The dowdy, shuffling, and unambitious Lola and her husband “Doc” (played by Burt Lancaster) are 20 years into a loveless, shotgun marriage. The baby was lost and both find comfort in their own particular ways; he with alcohol, she with a little dog named “Sheba” on whom she lavishes all of her attention until it runs away from her, most likely from fear of emotional smothering.
And that’s before the film even begins. I won’t give the rest of the plot away, most likely since I have no idea what happens next. I’m hoping it’s some kind of sex comedy, but my hopes aren’t aimed too high, since films about deep regret and personal failings aren’t generally funny. Or sexy.
In stretching the limits of credibility, I have begun to think of this cake as somewhat appropriately linked to this film. Both are reportedly richly-layered, slightly crestfallen, alcoholic, and a bit nutty.
Almonds, you know.
Which leads to a warning to keep one’s logical stream-of-consciousness in check. Miss Booth may have won the Academy Award for her performance in Come Back, Little Sheba, but her biggest success came later as the star of the popular 1960’s situation comedy Hazel, in which she played the title role of a dictatorial-yet-endearing live-in housemaid.
Though critics have complained that the show was contrived and only “mildly amusing,” Hazel does have her die-hard fans, who are referred to as “hazelnuts.” Irritating, certainly.
The evident danger here is heaping too much honor upon Miss Booth by substituting the above-mentioned nuts for the traditional almonds, but that would be another cake entirely.
I still intend to honor Miss Booth. Or at least the dog who had sense enough to run away from her emotionally-starved owner by making this major player in the classic repretoire of chocolate desserts into a minor figure size-wise, while still keeping the integrity of the classic recipe.
I have omitted the chocolate glaze used by many recipes, including Julia Child’s. I simply think it’s gilding an already-perfect lily. Oh, and I’m lazy. It is a rich cake, with a slightly gooey, warm center. More chocolate only makes it heavier. Still, I think it is a cake that would make its ancient namesake proud.
I doubt very much that Lola Delaney would have either the emotional wherewith all or even the equipment to make one herself, but Hazel would certainly find it easy to whip up for Mr. B when she wasn’t busy whipping the rest of his family into shape. And , chocolate glaze or no, I think Mrs. Child would still enjoy putting one in her mouth.
Sadly, this is not as popular a cake as it used to be. Chocolate trends of the past several years have lead to denser, darker, more chocolaty, chocolate cakes. The virtue of this cake is it’s balance of chocolate and nuttiness, with just a hint of rum underneath. As befitting a queen, it demands respect by virtue of its subtle complexity rather than by beating the palate with her sceptre. And that’s all too bad because I think this little Sheba is definitely ready for a comeback.
The following will make one large Reine de Saba in an 8-inch cake pan, or make six petite versions in a large (3 1/2-inch diameter) muffin tin. Comme tu veux.
4 oz semi-sweet chocolate (bittersweet may be used, but I’m going the Child route here)
2 tablespoons rum or coffee
1/4 lb butter at room temperature
2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 egg, separated
2/3 cup finely ground almonds
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/2 cup cake flour, measured then sifted
one good pinch of salt
Pre-heat oven to 350F and place rack in the middle.
1. Melt the chocolate and rum or coffee (choose your poison) in a pot set over simmering (not boiling, please) water, stirring to combine. Cover, turn off heat, and leave alone. You’ll come back to it later and it isn’t going anywhere. Cream the butter and 2/3 cup sugar together until pale yellow and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks until paler and even fluffier than before. Add almond extract.
2. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites on low-to-medium until foamy, then increase speed as you like, adding 1 tablespoon of sugar and 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar until soft peaks form.
3. Return to your melted chocolate and give her a little stir. The consistency should be somewhat satiny and fluid. Beat in a bit of butter/yolk mixture at a time, stirring constantly so the yolks do not curdle. Repeat until all is one.
4. Combine almond meal, flour, and salt. Now add this dry mixture to your chocolate goo, incorporating bits at a time. When this has been accomplished, gently fold in egg whites, starting with about 1/2 a cup and working the rest in ever so skillfully.
5. Immediately set to placing about 1/2 cup of your batter into each of the six muffin tins. Give her a good, hard bang or two on your kitchen counter to level and remove any bubbles in the batter. Bake for 12 minutes, then begin to peek into your oven obsessively until finished. A pale, chocolatey crust should form, but the cakes shold jiggle a wee bit, too. Ideally, a toothpick inserted about an inch from the edges should come out dry, but one poked into the center should not. When this has been acheived, remove from oven and let cool for, oh, I don’t know, let’s say an hour, because you’ve got other things to do. When ready to remove from pan, run a sharp knife around the edges of the cakes, invert onto a tray, and you’re done.
Not exactly. At this point, you may either top them with a chocolate glaze or simply dust them with powdered sugar.
Serve them to friends at your upcoming Oscar party, or just feed them to your pets and watch their little hearts explode from the chocolate.