Sometimes recipe mysteries go unanswered. Maida Heatter’s first cookbook, “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts,” (Knopf, 1974) features her favorite chocolate cake recipe. She calls it queen mother's cake because England’s queen mother loved it and served it often at her royal parties. Ground almonds replace the flour, and eggs and chocolate give the cake a special moistness. As soon as I read the recipe, I ran into the kitchen to bake it!
Just so you know, Maida's instructions say to bake the cake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes and then to reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 50 minutes. Total baking time — 1 hour and 10 minutes.
When I made Maida’s recipe for the first time, it turned out dry and crumbly. "Hmmm," I thought. How could that be when I knew Maida tested her recipes over and over to make sure they worked?
Then, when Maida published her all-chocolate cookbook, I thought, “She must have fixed the recipe by now.” But I was wrong. The recipe is identical to the version in her first cookbook. A few years later, Saveur magazine wrote a lovely story about Maida and included the recipe for queen mother's cake. And guess what? Not one word of instruction had been changed from Maida’s first cookbook!
I began to think I had gone a bit mad. I've searched the internet for different versions of the cake and I've found that the recipe itself is always the same, but in a few cases, times and temperatures have been adjusted downward from the original recipe. So I'm not alone in saying Maida Heatter bakes queen mother's cake at too high a temperature and too long!
Here’s how I bake the cake now. I do start the cake in a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes, as Maida says, but then I reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and bake for an additional 30 minutes only. At that point the cake is fully baked and wonderfully moist.
I blogged about Maida’s recipe and my modifications, and I received comments from bakers saying that their cakes also turned out dry and overbaked with Maida’s baking times.
So the central mystery remains, but read on for how you can make a sensational queen mother's cake. Just be sure to use an oven thermometer to make certain of your oven’s temperature.
Queen mother's cake
This moist cake is delicious simply iced with a chocolate ganache or you can serve it with a spoonful of whipped cream and a few berries for a more festive dessert. I've added vanilla to the cake because in my way of thinking, chocolate and vanilla just belong together.
Makes 12 portions.
For the cake
6 ounces whole almonds, blanched or not (with or without skins)
6 ounces semisweet chocolate (about 60% cocoa), or bittersweet (about 70% cocoa) chopped (do not use morsels!)
¾ cup sugar
6 ounces (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter
6 large eggs, separated
1 tablespoon vanilla
⅛ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
For the ganache
½ cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons instant espresso or coffee powder
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70 to 72% cocoa), chopped
1. To make the cake, put the almonds on a baking sheet and cook in a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes. You should get a lovely aroma of toasted almonds. Watch carefully so the almonds don’t burn. Transfer to a plate and cool completely.
2. Adjust a rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven and preheat the oven to 375°F. (Make sure you use an oven thermometer). Butter the bottom and sides of a 9'' x 3'' springform pan, and line the bottom with a round of baking-pan liner paper cut to fit. Butter the paper. Dust the pan all over with fine, dry bread crumbs, and tap out the excess. Or, to make the cake completely gluten-free, dust the pan with unsweetened cocoa powder.
3. Place the chocolate in a small saucepan. Heat about 1 inch of water in a medium skillet over moderate heat. When the water comes to a simmer, set the saucepan in the skillet, cover loosely with a paper towel, and wait a few minutes until the chocolate is partially melted. Then uncover and stir with a small whisk or heatproof silicone spatula until the chocolate is just melted and smooth. Remove the pan from the water and set aside until chocolate is tepid or at room temperature.
4. Put the cooled almonds and ¼ cup of the sugar (reserve remaining ½ cup sugar) into a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process until the nuts are very fine and powdery, stopping a couple of times to scrape the sides of the work bowl. Process for about 1 minute total to make sure the nuts are really fine.
5. In a stand electric mixer, beat the butter with the paddle attachment until soft and smooth. While beating on medium speed, gradually add the remaining ½ cup of sugar and the vanilla and beat to combine. Scrape the bowl and beater, and beat 5 minutes on medium-high speed. Stop to scrape the bowl and beater twice. On low speed, add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating until smooth. On low speed, add the chocolate and beat on medium speed until completely incorporated. Add the almonds and beat on low until incorporated. Scrape the bowl and beater as necessary to keep the batter smooth.
6. Now, the whites should be beaten in the mixer bowl. If you don't have an additional bowl for the mixer, transfer the chocolate mixture to any other large bowl. Wash the bowl and beaters in hot soapy water. Dry them and they're ready to use for the egg whites.
7. Beat the egg whites with the salt and lemon juice, starting on low speed and increasing it gradually. When the whites barely hold a soft shape, increase the speed to medium and continue to beat until the whites hold a straight point when the beaters are slowly raised. Do not overbeat. The whites should look creamy and hold a shape. When you tip the bowl, the whites should not slide around in it.
8. Stir a large spoonful of the whites into the chocolate batter to soften it a bit. Then, in three additions, very gently fold in the remaining whites. You'll see traces of whites after the first two additions. Do not fold thoroughly until the last addition, and do not handle more than necessary. Scrape the thick batter into the prepared pan. Rotate the pan briskly in order to level the batter.
9. Bake for 20 minutes at 375° and then reduce temperature to 325° and continue to bake for an additional 30 minutes (total baking time is 50 minutes). Do not overbake; the cake should remain soft and moist in the center. (The top might crack a bit; it's okay.)
10. Wet and slightly wring out a folded towel and place it on a smooth surface. Remove the cake pan from the oven and place it on the wet towel. Let stand until tepid, 50 to 60 minutes. (Maida says she doesn't know the reason for this step, but she always does it. I do, too).
11. Release and remove the sides of the pan (do not cut around the sides with a knife — it will make the rim of the cake messy). Now, let the cake stand until it is completely cool, or longer if you wish. The cake will sink a little in the middle; the sides will be a little higher. Use a long, thin, sharp knife and level the top. Brush away loose crumbs. Place a rack or a small board over the cake and carefully invert. Remove the bottom of the pan and the paper lining.
12.The cake is now upside down; this is the way it will be iced. Place four strips of baking-pan liner paper (each about 3'' x 12'') around the edges of a cake plate. With a large wide spatula, carefully transfer the cake to the plate; check to be sure that the cake is touching the paper all around (in order to keep the icing off the plate when you ice the cake). If you have a cake-decorating turntable or a lazy Susan, place the cake plate on it.
13.To make the icing, scald the cream in a 5- to 6-cup saucepan over medium heat until it begins to form small bubbles around the edges or a thin skin on top. Add the espresso or coffee powder and whisk to dissolve. Add the chocolate and stir occasionally over heat for 1 minute. Then, remove the pan from heat and whisk or stir until the chocolate is all melted and the mixture is smooth. Let icing stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes or a little longer, until icing barely begins to thicken. Then, stir to mix, and pour it slowly over the top of the cake, pouring it onto the middle. Use a long, narrow metal spatula to smooth the top and spread the icing so that a little of it runs down the sides (not too much — the icing on the sides should be a much thinner layer than on the top). With a small, narrow metal spatula, smooth the sides. Remove the strips of paper by pulling each one out by its narrow end toward you.
14.This cake is wonderful all by itself. Just cut into portions with a sharp knife and set on dessert plates. Or place a spoonful of lightly sweetened whipped cream next to the cake.