Where does one start with a woman like Elizabeth David? Well, perhaps we can start with something this perfect flourless chocolate cake. A slight crust on top, moist inside, this barely-an-inch-tall cake is decadent, yet light, and disappears when it hits your mouth like a kiss. This cake must have had such an impact on ordinary British kitchens in 1960 when this recipe came out in Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. She is truly one of the reasons that we are all now obsessed with food.
English food writer Jane Grigson says it all when she describes, “Basil was no more than the name of bachelor uncles, courgette was printed in italics as an alien word, and few of us knew how to eat spaghetti or pick a globe artichoke to pieces. … Then came Elizabeth David like sunshine, writing with brief elegance about good food, that is, about food well contrived, well cooked. She made us understand that we could do better with what we had.”
I can’t help but feel an affinity with Elizabeth David, perhaps for her art background and nomadic tendencies. Born in 1913, she studied art in Paris, and led an expat life, first in Greece then Egypt, before returning to post-war England where she found the food less than acceptable. She wrote about real food, the genuine food of her travels (particularly French and Italian cooking) and the places she had lived. She not only introduced Britain to colourful and fresh flavours of the Mediterranean but also to the absolute pleasure of food and eating.
She fiercely protected the integrity of food. I love her articles in Is There a Nutmeg in the House? and An Omelette and a Glass of Wine on the British misuse of risotto and pizza as an “empty the fridge” dish, even decades after she had showed them better, or the uselessness of the garlic press (she refused to sell them in her kitchenware shop that she eventually opened), the under-use of nutmeg and the horrors of the stock cube.
One of my favourite accounts by far about Elizabeth David (and this gorgeous chocolate cake) has to be the one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall from the forward of At Elizabeth David’s Table.
I met Elizabeth David in the spring of 1989 while working at the River Café. I was doing puddings at the time and when I came into work Rose Gray said to me, ‘Elizabeth David’s coming to lunch, and I want you to put her chocolate cake on the menu.’ She meant the famous one from French Provincial Cooking, with ground almonds instead of flour, and a dash of strong coffee, and I was cooking it once or twice a week at the time. But what Rose didn’t know, and ED certainly didn’t know, was that I’d slowly been upping the amount of chocolate in the recipe, to the point where it was nearly double the original quantity.
I felt that made it a richer, more indulgent cake, not better than the original, but more suitable for pudding. Dilemma! Go back to the original recipe, or present my bastardised version to the great lady herself? Well, I guess it’s a mark of my youthful arrogance that I chose the latter option.
No great surprise that when it came to pudding she ordered the cake which had her name on it.
I watched from the wings nervously as she worked her way through it, a modest spoonful at a time, while chatting to her companion, until all that was left on her plate were a few chocolatey crumbs and an untouched blob of crème fraîche, which we always served with the cake. She clearly didn’t approve of that. But the cake, at least, seemed to pass muster. Well, I thought to myself, she’s getting on a bit, probably hasn’t even made the cake for a couple of decades. I went back to work, smiling to myself.
A few minutes later, Rose tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Elizabeth would like a word with you…’
My legs turned to jelly and, as I stumbled over to her table, my mouth went peanut-butter dry.
‘You cooked this cake?’ She fixed me with her bright, all-seeing eyes. I wanted to run and I wanted to lie, but I knew I couldn’t do either. ‘Er, yes, I did.’
‘But it’s different from the one in the book, isn’t it?’
‘Er, just a bit. I’ve… er… bit more chocolate…’ I mumbled. She held her look and
I realised a deeper explanation was required. ‘Bit… richer… more puddingy.’
She let me ramble on, reddening, for a few seconds, then stopped me with a slight but firm raising of her scant eyebrows.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘whatever you’ve done to it, it’s good.’ She turned back to her companion and, realising the discussion was over, I nodded my thanks and sloped away.
I have never received a more thrilling compliment for anything that I have ever cooked. And I never will.
Elizabeth David’s Chocolate Cake
Elizabeth David’s flourless chocolate cake could not be simpler nor more delectable.
- 115 g bitter dark chocolate
- 85 g caster sugar
- 85 g butter
- 85 g almond meal
- 3 eggs, separated
- a dash of black coffee
- 1 tbs rum
Preheat oven to 145°C.
Melt chocolate in a cool oven or in a double broiler. Add the shots of coffee and rum, then, while the chocolate is still warm, stir in the butter, it should melt and combine to a smooth mixture. Add the sugar and ground almonds. When the chocolate mixture is cool, stir in the egg yolks one by one.
In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks then fold them gently into the chocolate batter.
Pour into a buttered tart or cake tin with a removable base. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until set and a crust forms on top. If you can like you can dust with icing sugar, but this beautiful cake is best left simple in my opinion.