Sunday, November 27, 2005

birthday wish come true

Revisiting one's favorite things from childhood as an adult is occasionally disappointing -- as anyone who was forced to watch "Silent Movie" with me can attest. But this cake was my favorite then, and is without a doubt my favorite now -- beyond any other homemade or store-bought cake. My mother asked what kind of cake I wanted for my birthday, and I'm very glad I dredged up the memory. It combines the best of flourless dark chocolate cake and banana creme pie, while being a bit lighter than either (in texture, if not in calories).

The recipe in my mother's inimitable style, adapted from the New York Times, including a concise operating definition of "a pinch of salt":

Chocolate Banana Roll

In the 1960s, we were young (some of us were very young) and cholesterol was unknown and life was good. The Garden Bakery in the Bronx was a favorite source of indulgences, one of which was a creation of chocolate cake, whipped cream, and diced bananas. I did try this at home, experimenting with several different recipes for chocolate cake roll, "roll" being a key concept here. I found that a flourless cake rolls more easily than a sponge-cake type made with flour. The following recipe is adapted from one by Jean Hewitt, in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, June 8, 1975, page 68. I have included quite a lot of detail because baking is harder than cooking. Technique counts. You can't taste and season your way out of a disappointment. Every comment below comes from a disappointment in over a half a century in the kitchen. I suffered so you don’t have to. If you learn something from this, you can take it with you to other baking. (Garden Bakery is long gone. L )


6 EGGS, SEPARATED AND AT ROOM TEMPERATURE: Eggs must be very fresh for baking, especially with no other leavening. If you can’t get eggs directly from the Little Red Hen, look carefully at the dates on the packages in your super market and take the furthest-out date, no matter what the cost. The convention is that eggs for baking are "large." You need to separate eggs so NO yolk or other fat is in whites. Wash eggs, you don’t know where they have been. Crack each egg sharply on side of a small bowl. Pour out white from one half of shell into a second bowl, catching yolk in second half of shell. Put yolk in third small bowl. Crack second egg on first small bowl. All this caution is so that if a yolk breaks, you won’t contaminate the whites. It’s OK if a little white gets in the yolk. Fish out any stray bits of shell (unless you are adding chopped nuts). Egg separating gadgets are for sissies. Treat eggs as if they are contaminated with salmonella.

3/4 CUP SUGAR: Sugar can be regular table sugar. If you do have extra fine or bar sugar, it will dissolve more smoothly but don’t go out and get it just for this. Confectioners’ sugar will not give the right texture here.

6 SQUARES SEMI-SWEET CHOCOLATE: Semi-sweet chocolate should be used. There is more fat in milk chocolate and less in bittersweet and still less in unsweetened. They are not inter-changeable in this context. Use a good chocolate -- no dish rises above its ingredients. Sharfen Berger would be awesome. If you are going to use supermarket chocolate, the order of preference is Ghirardelli, Nestle or Baker’s, and Mrs Fields. There are two cups of chocolate chips in a 12 ounce bag. 

3 TABLESPOONS COLD, STRONG COFFEE: Good coffee would be good. Starbucks would be nice. I won’t tell if you make it with instant. (If you are desperate, water will work.)

PINCH SALT: The amount of table salt you can hold between thumb and first finger.

COCOA: You could amuse yourself by matching the brand of chocolate that you used in the batter.

11/4 CUPS HEAVY CREAM: Heavy cream is necessary for this to work. Chill bowl and beaters along with cream for fastest thickening. (Room temperature for beating eggs; chilled for beating cream.)

2 TABLESPOONS CONFECTIONER'S SUGAR, optional: Confectioner’s sugar should be smooth, sift or sieve. Table sugar will not mix smoothly in whipped cream.

1/2 TEASPOONS VANILLA: Could use a sweet liqueur in a compatible flavor, twice as much liqueur as extract.

BANANAS: One large or two small bananas at a perfect state of readiness. Don't dice until cream is whipping.


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In oven, put straight shelf at second notch from top. Preheating should take about 15 minutes to get to an even temperature. Have you ever checked your oven against a thermometer? (There is a belief in cooking circles that a thermometer that cost $3.59 is more accurate than a stove that cost $500 or more.) If you have reason to believe that your oven is too hot, go for 325 degrees F.

  2. Beat egg yolks until creamy and gradually beat in sugar until the mixture is very thick and light in color. Yolks are easy. (Preplan how you are going to beat the whites. Do you have a one-bowl mixer, a two-bowl mixer, a hand mixer, or a whisk and a strong arm? You will need a clean bowl and beater for the whites. If you are experienced and fast you can beat the whites first with the clean utensils and dump them into another bowl and reuse the "dirty" things to beat the yolks, which are not fussy, before the whites collapse. Or you can beat the yolks, dump them into another bowl, wash and dry the bowl and beaters, and then do the whites.)

  3. Meanwhile, place chocolate and coffee in the top of a double boiler and set over hot, not boiling water, to melt. It is very critical that the chocolate be melted at the lowest possible temperature. Over-heated chocolate will "seize up," or turn granular, and will not mix smoothly. If that does happen, put the ugly chocolate on ice cream for later and begin again. If you don’t have a double boiler, look for a metal bowl that will fit into a pot or a small pot that will fit into a larger one. You can use a microwave (unknown in 1975). Check the directions for the microwave for melting chocolate or the chocolate’s directions for being melted in the microwave and keep it cool. Cool it to room temperature so that you won’t scramble the eggs. I told you this was all about technique!

  4. Stir the melted chocolate into the yolk mixture. Beat the egg whites with salt until stiff, but not dry, as for a souffle. Whites are beaten sufficiently when they stand in peaks when you pull up the beaters and stick to the bowl when you tip it. If you over-beat, they "break," or look dry and grainy and will not mix smoothly or appropriately help the cake to rise. Carefully fold the whites into the chocolate mixture. "Fold" is a different motion than "mix." You use a spatula or whisk and gently lift the stuff at the bottom of the bowl up and over until all is blended, more or less. Don't over-blend. The objective is to keep the air that was beaten into the eggs in the mix. It will expand in the oven and make the cake rise -- or so they would have you believe. (If you master this, you can move on to a sponge cake or souffle!)

  5. Turn the mixture into a 10-by-15 jelly roll pan that has been greased, lined with wax paper and greased again. Correct pan is helpful here. You can live dangerously and use a roasting pan whose size is close. No one uses wax paper and grease anymore! (Grease?) Can use parchment paper or foil instead of wax paper. Then can use PAM or similar product. Can use butter or shortening. Oil will burn in an ugly way here. Take care with this, very frustrating to spend all this time and effort and then break it up getting it out of the pan. Spread the mixture evenly with a spatula. When you are spreading with spatula, make sure that the batter is pushed evenly into the corners.

  6. Bake 15 minutes. Do what it says. Don’t open oven for 15 minutes. Set the pan on a rack and cover the top of the cake with a damp kitchen towel and allow to cool to room temperature, at least one hour. Wet towel and wring out as dry as possible. Question here is how long you can leave it. Cake in the morning, filling in the afternoon is fine. Could make cake the day before, but leave it in coolest room. Refrigerator might harden it and make rolling difficult.

  7. Sift a layer of cocoa evenly over a piece of wax paper that is slightly larger than the jelly roll pan. Turn the pan, and the cake, upside down onto the cocoa covered wax paper. Carefully remove the wax paper on top. Probably best done just before preparing filling, so cake will not dry out. Heavy layer of cocoa so cake will not stick. Sifter is not necessary, can use a sieve.

  8. Beat the heavy cream, with sugar if desired, and vanilla until thick. Use chilled cream and utensils. Recipe calls for 1 1/4 cups. Cream will come in 1/2 pint or pint. Half a pint is skimpy. Pint is too much. Beat cream until it starts to thicken before adding sugar and vanilla. Whipped cream with confectioner’s sugar and vanilla is known in some circles as Crème Chantilly. Now the fun part -- dice bananas in small dice and gently fold in. You know how to fold. Don't be too generous with cream, bananas, or other additions or the roll will be loose and sloppy as in photo. (Do as I say, not as I do.) Spread over the chocolate roll and, using the wax paper underneath as a guide, roll the cake like a jelly roll and slide seam down onto a board or platter. If rolling tears the outside surface of the cake, you can sift a bit more cocoa on the tears. Chill several hours. Refrigerate and serve within a few hours of filling. Bananas will brown but leftovers (?) are still tasty the next day.

    Yield: Twelve to 16 servings.


For other possibilities, I have added berries to the completed cream. Could use small strawberries or large blueberries, carefully washed and dried. Fold in gently so as not to break the berries or stain the cream with the juice. Raspberries would probably be too soft for this treatment. Could use up to a tablespoon or so of sweet liqueur instead of vanilla. Don’t add very much, alcohol makes whipped cream collapse. Or use 1/4 of a teaspoon almond extract instead of 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla. I once had a recipe that called for crushed pecan praline. More accessible peanut brittle was great, mixed into the cream after it was whipped, maybe about 1/2 to 1 cup. No sugar or vanilla necessary. That makes a sturdier roll than fruit. Notice that since cake recipe has no flour or leavening, it could be used for Passover. Very ecumenical recipe, it could also be iced and called a "Buche de Noel." Praline or brittle filling would work well for that.

(November, 2005)


At 1:22 PM, Anonymous Mams said...

Happy to have pleased you and honored to be included in your blog.

Food magazines often include acknowledgments of the photographers and of the sources of the dishes. David, the blogger, took both photos.

The oblong plate in the first photo was a gift from Phyllis. Thank you, Phyllis. The fork in the second photo is from a set inherited from Grandma Dina. The pink dishes have a particularly dramatic history. In 1940 as Paris surrendered to the Germans, Grandma Dasha left two crates in the basement of Grandpa's Belgian boss and fled. In 1951 Fernande, the grown daughter of the boss, came to the US and brought the crates. The dessert set arrived with all 12 settings intact. I use it only occasionally to minimize risk, but I think it should be used to celebrate its survival.

At 11:32 PM, Blogger nightquill said...

Re the oven thermometer: You are not comparing a $3.50 thermometer to a $500 oven. You are comparing it to a 12 cent potentiometer in the knob. One of the things I try to beat into my physics lab students is that you always measure with some measuring device and never trust a dial to more than 1 significant figure.

At 8:18 AM, Anonymous Mams said...

After some further baking, I have re-thought the casual advice in Direction 6. Anything that depends on egg whites is better sooner than later. I left your birthday cake layer overnight in a cool room with a damp towel on top. On second thought, it would have been more tender if baked the same day as eaten. A different cake roll recipe I once made with flour and rolled in a dish towel when hot would probably keep overnight better but crack in rolling and unrolling. It is a management decision: expendiency versus tenderness vs smoothness of rolling. If you make this a 100 times, you will get it right.

Another thought was another possibility for a holiday roll would be crushed red and white peppermint candy instead of the nut brittle.

This (March) was the first time I saw the comment on thermometers. I understand. I used to make a living measuring human performance. I am having trouble convincing my physician that a blood pressure measurement taken by a PA using her ear is not necessarily more accurate than that taken by a machine made for home use. Remember the astronomer's "personal equation?" No two people are going to see a star cross a transit (I don't know if "transit" is what I want to say) at exactly the same fraction of a second. In the past, psychology was the "propaedeutic" science. Human performance had to be considered in evaluating the accuracy of measurement in every science. Technology has probably considerably reduced science's dependence on human judgment. Ironically, the physicians keep records on a computer network, but diagnose blood pressure archaically.

At 12:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just got the joke -- you want to wash an egg because you *do* know where it's been.


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