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Plus ça Change,

[Last bits of summer, September 2009.]

[Plus le Meme Chose, non?]

October slips in on a rush of 70-degree mornings and the sun beams down as if to say, Silly you. There are days more of me so do not lament those dark 6.30 wake-ups just yet. Coffee tastes especially good lately and I have pretty pink flowers on my table courtesy of my mom. Fall is here at last and for real: the light is blue and golden and sweet and finally — and truly — I feel ready for it. I am ready to kick some leaves around, to make roasted vegetable soups and applesauce. And while some people may shudder at the thought of baking pumpkins for dinner it’s nearly time for that, too.

So far this fall my kitchen has been put to good use: last weekend I had a lunch party for the first time in ages. My guests were the same as the ones invited to my last proper luncheon, all the way back in July of 2008, and even bits of the menu were the same. I can be rather humdrum in my choices sometimes but as no one really seems to mind, I think it’s OK.

I started out, as is my wont, with a plate of lemon-pepper smoked salmon from the fish seller at my farmers’ market, a bowl of olives, bread brought me from Sebastopol, and plenty of homemade hummus. It was a hot afternoon so I poured water and white wine and even a a few gin and tonics in equal measure to ease the heat, and then a breeze picked up and swept through my apartment which eased it even more.

For the lunch I roasted a head-and-a-half of cauliflower and tossed it with sauteed green beans and a handful of quickly toasted pine nuts. I also roasted a big pan of fingerling potatoes with crushed garlic and olive oil until just barely tender, and piled them in a pretty bowl. I’d gone to the Ferry Building fish market the day before and bought a pound of local, wild-caught halibut which I doused fairly liberally with white wine and a splash of olive oil, covered with lemon slices, and then baked for about 20 minutes until flaking and cooked through (after taking it from the oven I slid it onto a nice plate and topped with sauteed shallots and crimini mushrooms).

For my vegetarian offering I layered tomatoes from my parents’ neighbors garden with a freshly-picked zucchini from my boss’ garden, poured in two lightly beaten eggs mixed with about a 1/2 cup of milk and some parmesan cheese and baked for about 25 minutes — a sort of faux quiche/souffle thing that was experimental but surprisingly delicious. Of course there was a large salad made from greens I’d gotten that morning at the farmers market strewn with little tomatoes and radishes and dressed with Stonehouse olive oil and balsamic vinegar. For dessert I served a chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and a small vegan plum galette.

I really thought I’d have leftovers — I imagined dining off cauliflower for days — but I forget how much six people can eat (especially, ahem, two guys with hearty appetites) and there was not a scrap to be savored later except for the cake. I also forget sometimes how much I love having little parties — of course there’s some work involved but I always see this as a cheerful enterprise — both so as to indulge in my penchant for cooking but also as a means to bring people together.

I do love to bring people together and it was a lovely afternoon, not least of all because I didn’t have to do the dishes.

October each year is full of the unexpected (a new sweater, a trip abroad) as well as the usual (loads of apples to be made into sauce, trying and perpetually failing to send out the birthday cards to my fellow Libras on time); perhaps the best thing about it is that, like fall itself, this beloved month can be full of twists and turns — wholly and entirely unpredictable. I am eager to see what comes next.

So maybe it’s not so much plus ça change, plus le meme chose but instead the more things change, the more they stay the same albeit with a few amendments/changes which actually are the best amendments/changes imaginable — such as the new-to-me chocolate cake I baked on Sunday — in menus as well as life.

Anyway: this cake. It’s quite simply the best chocolate cake I’ve ever made (and I have made a lot of chocolate cakes), simple and sweet and true (just like October perhaps?). It’s rich and dense with chocolate but not too, if that makes sense. There’s a fair amount of butter but somehow the cake is still light and doesn’t feel overly heavy; this, to me, is the mark of a good cake. I’m filing this recipe away to make again and again, for birthdays and everydays alike. It’s the perfect way to usher in fall’s most brilliant month — October, welcome, and please stay as long as you can.

The Best Chocolate Cake, via David Lebovitz
Vanilla ice cream served alongside is a necessity.

For the cake:
9 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1½ cups flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature

1½ cups granulated sugar

2 large eggs
½ cup coffee
½ cup whole milk

For the ganache frosting:
10 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

½ cup water
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter two 9″ x 2″ cake pans and line the bottoms with circles of parchment paper.

To make the cake layers, sift together the cocoa powder, cake flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder in a bowl.

In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar about 5 minutes until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time until fully incorporated.

Mix together the coffee and milk. Stir half of the dry ingredients into the butter mixture, then add the coffee, and finish with the other half of the dry ingredients.

Divide the batter into the two prepared cake pans and bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool completely before frosting.


Melt the chopped chocolate with the water in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, stirring occasionally until melted. Remove the bowl from the pan of water.

Cut the butter into small pieces and whisk them into the chocolate until completely melted and the ganache is smooth. Cool until spreadable, which may take about 1 hour at room temperature.

Fill and frost the cake layers with the ganache.


  1. I made the cake today! And just like every other Cucina Nicolina recipe I try, it was perfect!
    Now I have to be honest and say that as a 39 week pregnant lady I feel the same way about a stick of butter sometimes, but I swear this is really good. :)

  2. I’ve been making a chocolate cake with Darjeeling tea. The frosting is also made with tea. And cream cheese. And lots of cocoa.

    Oh my. It’s so good. I wisely sent most of the cake home with my kids and left just one piece each for Rick and I, since at our ages, we can’t get away with eating cake until it’s gone.

  3. Thank you so much for posting a choclate cake recipe! My laptop was stolen last year and I cried and cried. Not because of the photos and music I lost, but for some of my favorite recipes that had not yet been penned into my kitchen-copy cooking notebook! One of the lost gems was a perfect Devil’s Food cake recipe. Not only was it the perfect cake for secret solo indulgences with a good coffee, but it was also a hit at several special ocassions. Since my loss I’ve been hunting, wishing, and baking. After all, a girl under such circumstances has to keep trying to recreate the perfect choclate cake doesn’t she?! ‘Alas I haven’t found the recipe again yet. I hope yours is the one to finally solve my quest.
    Hope you enjoy the fall. It has been so nice to smell that bit of dew in the morning air up here in the Foothills!

  4. i’ve found that the best chocolate cakes are the ones with coffee. You can’t taste it, but it really enhances the chocolate flavor.

    I’ve been LOVING this weather! From the cold mornings to the glorious sun-filled afternoons… It’s perfection. I am savoring each moment, especially since the cold and depressing winter is only a few months away…

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