Last month, we visited family and friends in the Bay Area for a long weekend. The highlight for The Bug was an overnight trip with her best friend at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. While they were getting settled there, trying to decide whether to sleep next to the shark tank or a more benign aquarium of fish, Matthew and I met dear friends for a memorable Indian dinner at Amber Dhara in Palo Alto.
The newest member of the Amber family of restaurants, Amber Dhara serves Indian food with a distinctly modern and fresh twist. Vijay Bist, founder of the successful restaurant group, fulfilled a longtime vision when he opened Amber Dhara last fall, describing his goals for the food as “seasonal, regional, sustainable and unique.” In the hands of Chef Vittal Shetty, traditional dishes are de-constructed and served with fresh perspective: Sag Paneer (paneer is a fresh cheese common in South Asian cooking) for example, morphs into Trio of Tandoori Paneer. The warmed cheese is served with sun dried tomato, hazelnut cilantro and malai. A vivid swipe of fiery, chili garlic chutney on the plate provides vibrant color and some very serious heat. Chef Shetty takes an inclusive approach with his grilled breads. Our favorite was Naan with Roasted Cashews, Kashmiri chili flakes, Sonoma goat cheese, and wild flower honey. A beautiful — and natural — blend of east and west, the flavors, textures and aroma were intoxicating. I could go on and on about the different dishes we enjoyed, but I need to cut to the chase: dessert.
I often don’t eat dessert when we’re out for Indian food (only because I’m typically too stuffed), but our server encouraged us to try her favorite confection, Chef Shetty’s velvety, Five Spice Chocolate Cake. Flour-less, this is a moussey cake, airy-light from fiercely whipped eggs with a cracker-thin top crust for contrast. The bittersweet chocolate flavor is heightened by the addition of Five Spice Powder (which contains cinnamon, anise seed, cloves, ginger and fennel seed), giving the cake an exotic aroma and flavor. Chef Shetty serves the soft cake slightly-warm with a scoop of cardamom ice cream on the side, creating a complex blend of intense flavors. Ice cream typically isn’t my thing, but I am thinking about buying an ice cream maker just so I can try to make that subtlely-flavored ice cream.
I mentioned to our server that I found the dessert enchanting (this was after raving after each course was cleared). A few minutes later, the smiling Chef came to the table, shook our hands, accepted our accolades, and suggested I send him email so he could share the recipe. Really. True to his word, he answered my mail quickly and graciously shared the recipe for this memorable dessert.
The Bug may have missed out on our dinner at Amber Dhara, but she raved about the deep chocolate flavor and spicy kick when she tasted the Five Spice Chocolate Cake I baked for us over the weekend. I suspect we’ll be looking for excuses to make Chef Shetty’s masterpiece again soon.
Below is the recipe, which comes together in a straightforward manner. A syrup is made on the stove with sugar, water and a generous amount of the five spice powder. After it comes to a boil, the syrup is whisked into a bowl that contains nearly a pound of chopped, high-quality, bittersweet chocolate. Once the chocolate has melted completely, softened butter and vanilla are mixed in until the batter is completely smooth. Sugar and six eggs are beaten until they are billowy and light yellow in color. Once they reach volume, the eggs are folded carefully into the chocolate mixture. The batter is poured into a springform pan and baked for nearly an hour in a water bath in the oven. Cooling on a rack follows, a bit of time in the fridge to firm up, and it’s ready for serving.
- 14 oz good-quality dark chocolate, finely chopped (I used a mix of 60-75 percent cacao bittersweet chocolate; be sure to chop it finely so it melts in a timely way)
- 1¼ cup (275 g) castor sugar (superfine is a good substitute for castor, but I used regular sugar and it worked fine)
- ½ cup (125 ml) water
- 5 tsp Chinese five spice powder
- 10 oz unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small chunks
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 6 eggs
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 28 cm (9-inch) springform or regular cake tin and line the base with buttered parchment paper. If you are using a springform pan, wrap it tightly in extra-wide foil as the cake bakes in a water bath and you don't want any water to leak into the batter through the seals in the tin. Sit the prepared tin in a roasting pan.
- Put the chocolate into a large stainless steel bowl. Set a fine sieve over the top of the chocolate and set the bowl aside.
- Pour ½ cup (110 g) of the sugar, the water and five spice powder into a small saucepan and stir to dissolve the sugar over high heat. Stop stirring and bring the mixture to a boil. As soon as it boils, remove it from the heat and immediately strain it through the sieve into the chocolate. Whisk the mixture constantly with a balloon whisk until the chocolate has pretty much melted. Add the butter and vanilla extract and whisk until mixture is smooth, then set it aside; you need to work quite quickly during this stage as five spice syrup needs to be boiling hot to melt the chocolate and incorporate the butter easily. If at any time the mixture becomes a bit too thick and the chocolate or butter haven't melted completely, gently - and very carefully - warm the bowl over low heat or sit it in a bigger bowl of hot water, stirring all the while, to melt the last little pieces. (Set up a double-boiler when you begin the syrup so you'll have it ready. I needed it to melt the last bit of chocolate before moving forward.)
- With an electric mixer, beat the eggs and remaining ¾ cup sugar together on medium speed until they're light and fluffy, 4-5 minutes maximum (It took about 8 minutes for my eggs to turn light yellow and get billowy). Stir about a quarter of this egg mixture into the chocolate mixture to lighten it a bit, then fold in the remainder thoroughly.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and shake it gently to level it. Pour very hot water (just off the boil) into the roasting pan to come about half-way up the sides of the cake pan. Carefully transfer the whole lot to the oven and bake the cake for 45-50 minutes until the top feels wobbly / firm and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out with moist bits, but no wet chocolate mixture clinging to it.
- Remove the roasting pan from the oven.
- Carefully lift the cake tin out of the water bath and sit it on a wire rack to cool (if you've wrapped the pan in foil, peel it away as some water or condensation may have seeped in. (Do this carefully, the steam from under the foil is quite hot.)
- Once the cake is completely cool, gently loosen it around the sides with a palette knife and carefully invert it onto a serving plate. Remove the parchment paper; if the cake seems to be sticking to the bottom of the tin, which it can do, especially in cool weather, then warm the base of the pan very gently and carefully over low heat to help loosen it. (After my cake had cooled, I put it in the fridge to firm up a bit before removing the parchment paper. It is a soft cake, even after being refrigerated, so be prepared to handle it very carefully.)
- When you're ready to serve, cut the cake with a hot, dry knife, dipping the blade into very hot water and wiping it dry between each cut. This cake keeps well in the fridge for up to 10 days and freeze well for up to a month.
- Gently microwave the cake for 10 - 15 seconds , serve it with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.