Bruce Bogtrotter’s Chocolate Cake

by Cara Nicoletti on January 18, 2012

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Recently, when filling out an application for a food-writing job, I was asked to name my favorite food writers. I began to compile a list of the obvious suspects—Ruth Reichl, Laurie Colwin, MFK Fisher, Gabrielle Hamilton, all of whom I love and admire—but I simply could not get Roald Dahl out of my head. Sure, he isn’t actually a “food writer” but his books were what first made me fall in love with food descriptions. Dahl writes about food from a child’s perspective, with no pretension and none of the weird adult anxieties about food that come with growing old.

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To his characters food is still exciting and overwhelming, powerful, visceral, spell-binding, rich. Food is used as a weapon, reward, healing agent and instrument of destruction. Think the peach in James and the Giant Peach, Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, Mr. Twit’s food-filled beard, snozzcumbers in The BFG, and of course, the enormous chocolate cake that the Trunchbull forces poor Bruce Bogtrotter to eat in Matilda. I never heard back from that food writing job—shocking, I know—but what I did get out of answering that question was a very real and nagging hankering for a chocolate cake the size of my torso.

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I am lucky enough to live right down the street from a real life chocolate factory, and one that, in my opinion, gives Willy Wonka’s some serious competition. This undying need for the richest, chocolatiest cake imaginable gave me a good excuse (and trust me, I am always looking for a good excuse) to go and visit The Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory and pick up some chocolate.

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images courtesy of The Selby

If you aren’t familiar with the Mast Brothers the video below will give you some background. A little warning before you watch: you will feel devastated that you aren’t one of them.

Now, back to Bogtrotter.

I feel a kindred connection with poor Brucie, a slave to chocolate cravings so all-encompassing he will even risk the wrath of a principal who has “a lock-up cupboard in her private quarters called The Chokey” (104). An all-school assembly is held and Bruce is called up onto the stage, where the Trunchbull announces to everyone that he “sneaked in like a serpent into the kitchen and stole a slice of my private chocolate cake from my tea-tray! That tray had just been prepared for me personally by the cook! It was my morning snack! And as for the cake, it was my own private stock! That was not boy’s cake! You don’t think for one minute I’m going to eat the filth I give to you? That cake was made from real butter and real cream! And he, that robber-bandit, that safe-cracker, that highwayman standing over there with his socks around his ankles stole it and ate it!” (120).

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Then, in a move wholly unexpected, the Trunchbull has her cook bring to the stage  “an enormous round chocolate cake on a china platter. The cake was fully eighteen inches in diameter and it was covered with dark-brown chocolate icing” (124).

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She then tells him that he will eat the entire cake right there, and quickly, because “Greedy little thieves who like to eat cake must have cake!” (128). The whole school watches in horror, waiting for Bruce to be sick, or beg for mercy, or be hauled off to the Chokey, but to everyone’s surprise he keeps on “pushing the stuff into his mouth with the dogged perseverance of a long-distance runner who has sighted the finishing-line and knows he must keep going” until “the very last mouthful disappeared” (131).

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It is a moment of victory for children and chocolate addicts alike, and one that I still get immense pleasure out of. Only the densest cake would do for Bruce so I subbed sour cream where I would usually use buttermilk, omitted baking powder, and added espresso powder to make the chocolate flavors even more intense. The chocolate frosting got sour cream too, as a nod to Trunchbull’s poor cook who “looked as though her mouth was full of lemon juice” (124).

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Bruce Bogtrotter’s Chocolate cake

Makes 1 triple layer cake (I doubled this)

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups brown sugar, packed
  • 1 cup of soft butter
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons good vanilla extract
  • 2 2/3 cups AP flour
  • ¾ cup cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/3 cup sour cream
  • 1 1/3 cup boiling water
  • 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder

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Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting:

  • ½ cup softened butter
  • 6 ounces of good quality semi-sweet chocolate
  • 5 cups confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 2 teaspoons good vanilla

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Directions

In a mixing bowl, cream brown sugar and butter. Add eggs and beat on high speed until light and fluffy. Blend in vanilla. Combine flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt; add alternately with sour cream to creamed mixture. Mix on low just until combined. Add espresso powder to hot water and add to batter until blended. Pour into three greased and floured 9-in. round baking pans. Bake at 350 for 35 minutes. Cool in pans 10 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely. For frosting, in a medium saucepan, melt butter and chocolate over low heat. Cool several minutes. In a mixing bowl, combine sugar, sour cream and vanilla. Add chocolate mixture and beat until smooth.

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Swann’s Way Madeleines

by Cara Nicoletti on December 5, 2011

1 madeleine pan

Remember how in the last post I said that Virginia Woolf’s Beouf en Daube was one of about seven literary meal holy grails? Well I’m about to tell you about another one—Marcel Proust’s madeleines. Everyone knows about the madeleine’s from Swann’s Way, it is one of the most glaringly obvious and devastatingly powerful food scenes in all of literature. Now here is where I admit to you that the madeleines are the only reason that I ever even attempted to read Proust. That, and the fact that “Swann’s Way” was the name of our summer house growing up. I’m not entirely sure who named it this, but that was always what we always called it. It was a crumbling farmhouse from the 1800’s, with those grey-brown weathered shingles you only find in New England, a fireplace so deep and wide it could comfortably accommodate four sitting children and a huge hanging cast-iron cauldron, a stone barn covered in neon yellow and cushy green moss filled with mice, owls, stray cats, and ghosts—lots and lots of ghosts.

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I spent the loveliest years of my childhood with my sisters and cousins in this house, swinging on the creaky white swing-set, running around in the crabapple orchard behind the house (throwing those crabapples with all of my might at the sassy neighbor boy), lounging under the ancient weeping willow surrounded by lavender so strong-smelling it actually hurt your tiny nostrils. In the morning there were boxes of Fruity Pebbles and Entenmann’s old-fashioned donuts soaked in thick whole milk, and at night there were sunburns and fresh fish and jugs of wine and English Beat records and sometimes, if we were lucky, Hungry-Man tv dinners and Roger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.

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The other day during a particularly harrowing shift at work I got to thinking about myself as a kid, and how easy and uncomplicated it used to be to just love something and be good at it. I was absorbed in a memory of how absurdly far I could throw a baseball as an eight-year-old when my phone went off with an email from my cousin, Cam.  The email was sent to me, my older sister, Ande, and my cousin, Caroline. Almost as if he had been reading my mind the email said: “I just got so nostalgic remembering how we used to come home sweaty and sun-kissed from Briggs Beach to curl our legs up in front of our Swanson’s Hungry-Man dinners and MTV. When they played music videos! When we would wait for Blind Melon and Four Non- Blondes and eat mashed potatoes that were cold in the middle but delicious on the outsides. And Beavis and Butthead and sandy feet. God I love you guys.” This started an email chain of remembering that went on all day, ending with Caroline remembering “the pit in my stomach at the feeling of the summer’s end, the mildew of the house and those great falling chestnut leaves. It brought me back to the cold nights driving there with Dad and that transition from long warm busy days to the dark cold ones of the house in winter. I guess there was a reason they named the house Swann’s Way… ‘The true paradises are the paradises we have lost.’ I wish the walls could talk. They would say that those were the best years the house has ever seen.”

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All of these sensory, memory-triggering experiences that my sister, cousins and I were exchanging that day are what Proust would call “involuntary memory.” In Swann’s Way it is the eating of a madeleine dipped in tea which triggers one of these full body memory experiences for Proust.

No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?

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And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

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This is how the egg mixture should look after the sugar is added and whipped for 2 minutes

This was my first time making madeleines and I did lots of reading and testing and combining of recipes before I got a madeleine I really loved. It’s a simple little cake but one that people have very strong opinions about and attachments to (ask Proust). These madeleines are perfectly fluffy with crisp edges and they are full of warm brown butter flavor and hints of lemon.

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Proust’s Madeleines
Makes about 3 dozen
Ingredients:

  • 1½ sticks of unsalted butter (6 ounces) plus extra for greasing pan
  • ¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 4 large eggs
  • pinch of fine sea salt
  • 2/3 cups sugar
  • 1 large lemon zested
  • 1 teaspoon good vanilla
  • powdered sugar for dusting

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Directions:

Pre-heat oven to 350. Brown the butter in a pot over medium heat. Strain the milk solids out of the browned butter using a fine mesh strainer (a paper towel works fine too). Set aside to cool to room temperature.

Grease your madeleine pan using the extra butter and dust lightly with flour (I’m sure Pam or some other cooking spray would work fine for this step too).

Add the eggs and the salt to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment and whisk until thick and roughly doubled in volume. With the mixer still running add the sugar in a slow steady stream. Continue whisking until the mixture is thick, about 2 minutes (mixture should fall from a spatula in ribbons at this point). Gently fold lemon zest and vanilla into the egg mixture, being careful not to over mix. Now fold in the flour until just incorporated then gently fold in brown butter. Scoop into madeleine molds (about 2/3 full) and bake at 350 for about 12 minutes or until the edges are nicely browned. Invert onto a serving plate and allow to cool before dusting with powdered sugar.

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To the Lighthouse Boeuf en Daube

by Cara Nicoletti on August 15, 2011

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Recently, on a 93 degree day, I found myself with four pounds of beautiful, fresh stewing meat and no idea whatsoever of what to do with it. The fact is, I have been wanting to recreate the Boeuf en Daube from To The Lighthouse since even before the advent of Yummybooks, but had always felt too intimidated by its fancy French name and three day marinating time—not to mention the terrifying prospect of having to re-read To the Lighthouse.

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If you don’t have cheesecloth a coffee filter tied with twine or an empty teabag will do the trick

I have a complicated relationship with Virginia Woolf dating back to one excruciatingly boring course I took on modernist writers while in college. Perhaps it was the oppressive fluorescent lighting and corrugated office ceilings in the lecture hall, or the professor’s monotone and uninspired rants, or the sea of NYU students raising their hands to “ask questions,” which really meant telling some pointless anecdote about their own lives—I digress. Whatever it was, Virginia and I just could not get along.

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The professor loved to use the words “otherworldly” and “ethereal” when describing Woolf, and when one day a student finally asked for an example of this ethereal otherworldliness the professor mentioned as proof that there is “hardly any food at all in any of her novels.”  It was at this point that I started to doubt that the professor had ever even read any of the books he was teaching us—he was so terribly, terribly wrong! For all of my irritation and frustration with dear Virginia her food scenes were actually one of the main reasons I persevered through her novels.

In A Room of One’s Own there are “soles, sunk deep in a dish, over which the college cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream,” and “partridges, many and various [which] came with all their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the sweet, each in its order;” and “potatoes, thin as coins but not so hard, their sprouts foliated as rosebuds but more succulent” and “a confection which rose all sugar from the waves. To call it pudding and so relate it to rice and tapioca would be an insult.” In The Waves there are Neville’s “delicious mouthfuls of roast duck, fitley piled with vegetables,” butter seeping through Bernard’s crumpet and “the delicious hotness & scent of pheasant & the grey dry bread crumbs; & the heaping up of soft bread sauce, and the [half] pungent, curious taste of brussel sprouts.” In Mrs. Dalloway there are the chocolate éclairs that Miss Killman, in her white gloves, so greedily eats. And in To the Lighthouse there is the boeuf en daube—the holy grail (or one of about seven) of all literary meals.

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…they were having Mildred’s masterpiece—boeuf en daube. Everything depended upon things being served up the precise moment they were ready. The beef, bay-leaf, and the wine—all must be done to a turn. To keep it waiting was out of the question.

 An exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish and she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass to choose an especially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savory brown and yellow meats, and its bay leaves and its wine and thought, This will celebrate the occasion…

“It is a triumph,” said Mr. Bankes, laying his knife down for a moment. He had eaten attentively. It was rich; it was tender. It was perfectly cooked” (94, 117, 123).  

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One can’t mention Virginia Woolf and food without mentioning that Woolf herself battled anorexia nearly her entire life.  Thousands of theses and multiple books have been written on the subject of Woolf’s relationship to food–whether her disease was caused by childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her brother, or whether it was, as Madeline Moore theorizes, “one of Woolf’s ascetic practices, adopted as a last-resort gesture of feminist political defiance adopted in a situation of disempowerment” (Glenny, 21-22). Whatever its cause, Woolf’s struggle allowed her to create some of the most powerfully symbolic eating scenes in all of literature. You could dissect the boeuf en daube scene in To the Lighthouse for hours–how it represents Lillie’s struggle to resist the entrapment of becoming a wife and mother, specifically a mother like her own. Or how the preparation of the meal is representative of  the microcosm that is Mrs. Ramsey’s world and how the moment of its serving is the moment of her greatest introspection (“But what have I done with my life? thought Mrs. Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table”–17). But all I really want to impart to you right now is that boeuf en daube is absolutely delicious and well worth the effort to make, even in the middle of August. It got better and better over the course of about 3 days, and if you can’t possibly imagine eating a hot stew right now I will tell you that in this house we enjoyed it cold on thick slices of sourdough and it was fantastic.

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To the Lighthouse Boeuf en Daube (adapted from Martha Stewart)
Ingredients

  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
  • 3 strips orange zest, (2 to 3 inches each), plus 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
  • 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat side of a large knife
  • 1 celery stalk, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces (about 1/2 cup)
  • 3 medium carrots, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces (about 1 1/4 cups)
  • 1 bottle (750 mL) rich red wine, such as Cotes de Provence, Cotes du Rhone, Syrah, or Shiraz
  • 4 pounds beef chuck roast, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup homemade or low-sodium store-bought beef or chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup nicoise olives, pitted and rinsed
  • Coarse salt

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Directions:

Make a bouquet garni: Put thyme, bay leaf, cloves, peppercorns, and zest on a piece of cheesecloth; tie into a bundle. Combine onion, garlic, celery, carrots, bouquet garni, and wine in a large non-reactive bowl. Add beef, and toss to coat. Cover, and marinate in the refrigerator 24-36 hours, stirring occasionally.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Remove beef from wine mixture; pat dry with paper towels. Set aside. Transfer wine mixture to a heavy pot; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer 5 minutes. Set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook half of the beef, turning, until deeply browned, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. Repeat with remaining oil and beef.

Stir tomato paste into stock; add to the skillet, scraping up browned bits with a wooden spoon. Add to wine mixture. Stir in olives and beef. Season with salt. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.

Cover daube; transfer to oven. Cook 2 hours. Reduce oven temperature to 275 degrees.if daube starts to boil. After 2 hours, stir in orange juice. Cook until beef is very tender, about 30 minutes more.

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