Chocolate cake

The chocolate cake that saved my vacation

I do not see how it is possible to accumulate loyalty points without also accumulating incidents. There will inevitably be delayed flights, bad meals, drivers making long trips around town, lost scarves, or hours spent wandering around in jet lag dazed because your room isn’t ready. Despite these annoyances – which I know well (I still miss the hand-knitted gloves I bought in Copenhagen and left on the flight to Stockholm) – I had always considered myself a lucky traveler. Until Lisbon. It was there that, earlier this year, I was struck down by the pride, the tragic flaw of Macbeth and many of us who grew up in New York City.

I ignored the concierge when she implored my husband, Michael, and myself to take the sleek black bus across the street and avoid the # 28 tram, a tram that runs through the city center, passes a set of monuments, curves, so that the shore appears periodically and majestically, and then stops on a hill with a view. Mentioned in many guidebooks as the perfect way to quickly get to grips with the terrain and be a pickpocket, I thought I could beat all the odds. I’m sure it was the hunky pig hat dude, the one who turned to me when everyone on the tram was face to face, who got all my credit cards and cum too. I sat on a bench at the end of the line and cried.

Michael says the first full sentence I said after finding out about the theft was, “Don’t tell the janitor!” I really didn’t want to hear him say, “I told you so.”

In the hours it took to call emergency centers on two continents, I went through all stages of shock, anger and shame. I would never come to acceptance, and I hadn’t reached resignation, but have I ever been hungry. Hungry, in fact, and hungry for the comforts I can usually get from food. Armed with the list of must-haves that we had spent days preparing, we set off, each of us knowing that it would take something extraordinary to straighten me out. The fact that I didn’t go straight to the nearest chocolate store shows how out of whack my instinct was.

I wish we had these huge prawns in sizzling garlic butter shortly after what I called ‘the distraction’ as it was halfway that I realized the missing case also had my driver’s license and a copy of my passport. I barely remember the taste of these prawns. Nothing unfortunate happened when I ate Pasteis De Nata, Portugal’s most famous dessert, a small flaky tart filled with pastry cream and baked at such a high temperature that the cream darkens and deforms; I ate a few of them every day, even taking a class to learn how to make them. In other circumstances, the tarts would have been all I needed to be happy; clearly I was not ready for happiness.

It wasn’t until our last morning in Lisbon, when we visited the LX Factory, a group of abandoned buildings turned into spaces for artists, designers, artisans and cooks, that I knew I was coming. It was the cake at Landeau Chocolate that brought me to my senses.

Airy cafe in the center of the noisy complex, Landeau Chocolate is decorated with a mix of industrial lighting, flea market finds and beautifully photographed independent magazines, but the center of attention is this chocolate cake, the only offering on Landeau’s menu. It rests on the counter, a model of elegance and sobriety; it is beautiful, but not uncommon. It is only after a bite or two that its shine is revealed.

The cake part of the dessert is dark and dense and has, as wine folk often say, a long finish: the flavor holds on, playing bass on the softer, lighter notes of the cake. It’s topped with a chocolate cream – a mousse, maybe, or a ganache, or something a magician conjures up. And it’s covered in cocoa, so much cocoa that you can’t think of it as a decoration; it’s really a third element. Each spoonful is a complete composition: the textures go from firm to feathery, the flavors gain in intensity.

I bought a slice of it to have it on the flight back to Paris, and a day later I tried to recreate it at home. What I ended up doing was a flourless chocolate cake with body, a whipped ganache with a velvet-like texture, and a dessert that was, like all my favorites, beautiful in its simplicity. Better yet, he achieved what the original had, this almost miraculous feat of being rich and daring, but not heavy. It’s true that every time I do it, I think about tram 28, but the inconvenience is fleeting, the chocolate heals.

Recipe: Lisbon chocolate cake


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