Mrs WDC’s Amaretti Birthday Cakes
Years ago, my father sent me a cookbook from America: How Cooking Works Sylvia Rosenthal (1981). Dad was an engineer, so was clearly taken by the title and inscribed a note on the inside about why the ‘how’ part of the title made his book different. However, apart from a couple pieces at the front explaining techniques and methods, the remainder was formatted as a normal recipe-based cookbook.
At the time my cookery book collection was in its infancy and comprised just a few books, meanwhile, the internet was not even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, so there would not have been many chocolate cake recipes about. Perhaps for this reason it is understandable that the Amaretti torte recipe at the back of my dad’s book was hit upon.
Unfortunately, the ingredients were listed in American cups and ounces (happily without ‘sticks’ of butter). These days, with the internet, it is not difficult to convert. But back at the time, it proved quite a task. Definitive source for conversions were difficult to find. They needed to include conversions for cups of wet and dry ingredients and cups of heavy and light ingredients. Therefore, our simple cake recipe became a bit of a complex maths conundrum – rather fitting for a book about the science of cooking. The page on which the Amaretti Torte recipe appeared, is now covered with scribbled coloured-ink and pencilled matrices of equations, conversions, corrections, and crossings out.
Perhaps, the simple fact that it is an American recipe being followed in a UK household is why the resulting cakes have been so variable or hit-and-miss. The first efforts were brilliant, and the cake quickly became the favourite – and now default – birthday cake in our family. However, over the years the torte has randomly transmutated into into all kinds of variants – wet, dry, sunken, over-risen, white without chocolate or dark and too rich with too much chocolate. Of course, guests always expressed their delight at yet another amazing cake (for indeed the cake is nothing if not resilient and is delicious however it turns out).
To be fair the recipe has a few challenges – namely, finely chopped chocolate. What they don’t say in the book is how to chop it – what they were duty bound to say was the impact of different methods of chopping chocolate. When grated, chocolate becomes highly statically charged – so highly charged that particles of charged chocolate will fly about to stick to anything with an attractive opposite charge – which interestingly, happens to be just about every object and surface in the kitchen. If you try to contain the flying particles, say, in a blender, you will find that the finely chopped chocolate on release from the jar, will fly about like a pestilent swarm of midges until finally settling on opposite charged surfaces.
The other key element in the recipe is beating eggs and sugar till ‘light and fluffy’. Eggs and sugar will be ‘light in fluffy’ in a matter of minutes – but the book says to beat for at least 10 minutes. I’m sure the scientist in Sylvia Rosenthal, is trying communicate something important – perhaps the sugar crystals become smaller and attach to air bubbles in a more robust manner – thereby stabilising the rise and texture of the cake.
I know my dad must have been pleased with his cookery book gift. And indeed, it may well have instilled in me an interest in the science of cooking – I’ve read Harold McGee’s classic On Food and Cooking from cover to cover. Perhaps his greatest gift however, would have been to provide a definitive metric conversion for the torte recipe and perhaps a scientific guide on how to make the cake the same every time.