Three ingredients to elevate a chocolate cake: brewed espresso, cocoa powder, and flaky sea salt.

By Jillian Bernardini - Aug 28, 2013 - 01:43 PM
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Roaming through the wide array of positions in the food industry during my years of undergrad, one chef in particular shared her amazing culinary experience, unique cookery tricks, and ingredient tips with me.  Fervently taking notes every Saturday night, I plated and prepped desserts for her as she worked the line with her sous chefs, while her daughter ran front of house.  I cannot thank her enough for being incredibly honest and wise through and through. 

The other day, I paged through these old notes, reminiscing about chocolate souffles, lemony cheesecakes, and housemade breads. Everything from scratch. These are not simple 5-step or 4-ingredient recipes. They had depth and structure, telling a deeper story through each ingredient having its own purpose.  It got me thinking about chocolate [of course], and chocolate cakes. I learned this chef's incredibly rich, luscious "chocolate syrup cake" during a culinary fundamentals course I took with her over one summer. 

She took simple a simple chocolate cake to the next level by pouring in an entire can of the good ol' classic chocolate syrup. I wanted to take this technique, add other flavors to enhance it, and make a dessert that can bring anyone to their new form of "happy place."

Three ingredients immediately came to mind. The first: freshly brewed, dark roast espresso. Sure, the caffeine kick helps, but swapping in espresso for the liquid component to a cake batter will purport the chocolate to a new level. 

The second: good quality, unsweetened cocoa powder, not only in the batter, but also to coat your baking dish or cake pan! Whenever a chocolate cake recipe requires you to "butter and flour" a baking vessel, swap in the cocoa powder for the flour. Delicious results include a nice chocolatey crust and uniform color all around, which is ideal if the cake is sans-frosting. 

The final, and quite trendy ingredient: big, flaky Maldon-or-similar sea salt, generously sprinkled all over the top of a chocolate cake [midway through baking and extra to garnish!]. Salt and chocolate, salt and caramel, salt and chocolate covered see where I am going with this.

Having a piece of chocolate or a bite of something rich in chocolate decadence that also glimmers with flakes of sea salt, is one of the most amazing food experiences for the taste buds. The sea salt breaks through the richness of the chocolate, while at the same time makes the mouth literally water for more. Literally salty and sweet, perfect combination. 

So a final plea bargain for you here, make my newest recipe experiment pretty please: Chocolate Espresso Pudding Cake with Sea Salt. The cake is supposed to be incredibly moist, so watch for the batter to begin pulling away from the sides to know that it is ready to cool. My coworkers found it to be the perfect pick-me-up before a long night at the restaurant....chocolate, salt, and espresso, all inspiration gained from the chef that made me first fall in love with desserts. Cheers.

Chocolate Espresso Pudding Cake with Maldon Sea Salt

¾CUPall purpose flour
¼CUPunsweetened cocoa powder, plus more for pan
2TSPNbaking powder
4TBSPNSunsalted butter, softened, plus more for pan
CUPgranulated sugar
1TSPNvanilla extract
1XHershey's syrup can, 16 oz. (about 11/2 cups)
2TBSPNSMaldon sea salt, for garnish
  1. Set the oven at 350 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan or 8-inch square baking pan. Take a round of parchment paper that fits the bottom of the pan, place that into the pan, butter it and dust the parchment and sides with cocoa powder; set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt to combine. Whisk together; set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk the egg, butter, and sugar together until thickened and thoroughly mixed. Stir in the milk, espresso, and vanilla extract. 
  4. Pour the chocolate syrup into the egg mixture, and stir to combine. 
  5. Sprinkle the flour mixture over the top of the syrup mixture, and gently fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients just until combined. Do not overmix.
  6. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan, and gently tap the pan on the surface of the counter to tap out any air bubbles. Place in the middle rack of the oven, and bake for 25 minutes.
  7. Halfway through baking, sprinkle half of the sea salt onto the cake. Once the cake is set and begins to pull away from the sides, remove from the oven and place on a cooling rack. Sprinkle the remaining sea salt on the top, allow the cake to cool, then slice and serve.