Monday, 28 January 2008

Perfect chocolate cake (Βραστό κέικ σοκολάτας)

The first time I had this perfectly moist chocolate cake was in my perfect colleague's perfect house. We were both teachers of English working for a private language school. Language schools always work in the afternoon and evening; as soon as children finish state school, they come home, have lunch, then start doing their homework for afternoon classes. Then they attend all those afternoon tutorial-style schools and clases and lessons (sometimes in a classroom setting, other times with a private tutor in their own home), one of these lessons being English. We often had to get together to discuss the progress of the ctudents, coursebooks and teaching methodology. Sometimes we would meet up at the school itself: a ground-floor apartment, the former home of the owner. But since my colleague had just got married, it was the perfect chance to open her perfect home for a perfect afternoon tea on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Having arrived at the apartment building where her home was located, I was not prepared for the stark contrast between the indoor and outdoor settings. The apartment block looked as awful as any other built in the times when space was limited and money was stretched a long way. The whole block was square and white; the window shutters were made of a common substitute for wood: dirty-brown coloured aluminium. Once I entered, I realised how seriously wrong I was in my judgement: I did feel a little underdressed, having come in jeans, woolly pullover and sneakers. I didn’t know where (or how) to sit. The living room looked like the perfect Home and Garden photo shoot, with its appropriately placed heavy furnishings in the classic ‘Look at me, I’m rich’ style: Viennese chairs with studded padding and thick velvety fabric, wall units displaying a collection of crystal ornaments, curtains fanning out onto the floor. I could just imagine a young child crawling along the floor, grabbing the curtains with oil-stained hands, while the wall unit was covered in fingerprints. I'm sure her cleaning lady would be very understanding.

It is a custom here in Crete, for those whose parents can afford it, to create a perfect environment for the newlywed couple before they get married, so that when they do get married, they can live happily ever after, if such a thing exists. The sham of the perfect marriage is still being continued, despite the constantly rising number of perfect marriages that have ended up in a perfect divorce settlement, which usually goes along the lines of "if your parents gave it to you, then you can keep it." Crete is a wealthy area of Greece; new economic migrants as well as Greeks from other parts of the country are quite happy to move here because of the better employment opportunities for those who want to live away from large urban areas. The shops are geared towards rich people: there’s a bridal shop (or more than one) in every main shopping street, and I swear I saw Burberry trousers for children being sold in a posh baby’s clothes shop, with a price tag of 100 euro (and a coat to match for 200 euro). The stuck up rich are everywhere here. They work in their hotels in the summer, and go to Thailand in the winter. They drive their jeeps on our narrow roads, and use their cellphones indiscriminately. They keep company with their own kind, and you can only join it if you ‘are’ something (ie a lawyer, or a doctor, or a public servant), or you ‘have’ something (ie money).

The house reminded me of my mother’s aspirations for the perfect home in Wellington. When we had originally bought the house, it had bay windows, as all the 100-year-old-plus Victorian wooden houses of Mt Victoria had in the mid-70s. But when my parents bought it, they tore them down with a vengeance and replaced them with ugly silver aluminium window frames, as large as shop windows. Why on earth did they do that? To save on building over the gaping holes they left behind with wood, because it was cheaper to cover a large area with glass and aluminium than it was to cover the same surface with wood. The end result was that we lived in the ugliest house on the street – that is, if you looked at it from the outside only. Inside, the whole place resembled a Minoan palace, with arches in the hallway and a huge double lounge-cum-dining-room, separated by concertina glass doors decorated with ballerinas and a map of Crete with a Cretan man in traditional dress leading looking out over the island. The television was in the less formal sitting room adjoining the kitchen, rendering the formal lounge a dust-gathering white elephant most of the year round. We used this room just three times a year: at my father’s nameday at Christmas, on Easter Day and at my sister’s girly birthday parties.When my sister and I left for Europe, the house must have become dull and lifeless. Life is more simple these days: I vowed never to live like my parents, ever. I now live in a comfortable home where every single room is used on a daily basis. It follows the Goldilocks law of ‘just right’: not too big, not too small, not too cold and not too hot.

My perfectly dressed, perfectly coiffed colleague (with a perfect body) served us coffee in cups with saucers and tiny silver spoons to stir our sugar with. I had almost forgotten what it was like to drink coffee using anything other than a large thick mug. She brought out the velvety-smooth chocolate cake, along with some melt-in-the-mouth biscuits and syrupy apple pie, all home-made by herself. She served us a piece of each sweet, and then sat back cross-legged in her classic high-backed upholstered armchair sipping her coffee. ‘Aren’t you having any cake yourself?’ I asked her. ‘Oh no, I don’t really feel like any right now.’ Cakes are never part of a daily-weigh-in calorie-counting-fanatic’s diet.

I liked this cake so much that I asked her for the recipe. She gladly passed it on to me. I also realised that this is the cake that is often served at cafes and trendy coffee shops in Hania.In fact, I've seen it included in some Greek recipe websites, all under the general label of boiled cake (βραστό κέικ), which shows how widely its fame has spread. The texture, taste and appearance are all the same, with the exception of the extra sauce that is poured over each huge individual slice, which I found out how to copy (see the instructions that follow). Although I have inherited my mother’s Royal Albert cup-and-saucer collection, I cannot imagine I will ever use it when serving this cake. My children are too young to ask me yet what it’s used for, but maybe one day when I make this cake again for their birthday (as they always ask me to do), I might get it out and read this story to them to help them understand a little more about where it came from and the grandmother that owned it, who they have never met.

To make this perfect chocolate cake, you need:
6 eggs, separated
12 tablespoons
of water
5 tablespoons of cocoa powder
2 tablespoon
s of lemon juice
2 tablespoons of cognac (brandy)
2 vials of vanilla powder
300g margarine
2 cups of sugar
1 3/4 cups of self-raising flour AND
2 teaspoons of baking powder
Boil everything together EXCEPT t
he eggs, flour and baking powder. Beat the egg yolks and add them slowly to the cooled chocolate mixture, taking care that the eggs do not ‘cook’ in the warm chocolate mix. This is not really a disaster, but it will have an effect on the final appearance of the cake. Then pour out one large glass of mixture and set it aside, in the freezer. It will not freeze, but it does need to be quite cold for the recipe to work.

Now add the flour and baking powder to the remaining mixture, then beat the egg whites till stiff, and fold them into the batter. Pour it out into a greased pyrex dish. Bake for 25 minutes at 200C. The cake will be ready when you insert a knife into it and it comes out clean. Cut the hot cake into squares but don't lift the pieces out of the pyrex dish. Pour the freezer mixture over all the cake, ensuring that it goes into the cracks. This cake can be served at room temperature, but don't put it into the fridge, because it shrivels and hardens.

To make a more spectacular dessert, bake the cake as instructed, and make up another batch (or half, if you don’t want to be too wasteful concerning egg whites) of the sauce mixture: use all the ingredients, EXCEPT the egg whites, flour and baking powder, as described above. Put the mixture in the fridge and when it is time to serve the cake, pour the extra sauce (slightly warmed to a pouring consistency in the microwave) over each individual piece served, so that it spreads over the cake and around the plate. Served in this way, the cake will remind of something you have eaten at a trendy upmarket café. It is divine when served with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream or some whipped cream.

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