Valentine’s Day has long been associated with love. Religious scholars still can’t agree on who St. Valentine was. Theories include one that he was a priest in the Roman empire jailed for helping persecuted Christians, and one that he was a priest who secretly married couples when marriage was forbidden. Some say he was a man imprisoned for his faith who wrote letters to his jailer’s daughter signed “your Valentine.” All the stories end with his being beheaded.
Legend has it that Charles, Duke of Orleans, sent the first real Valentine card to his wife in 1415, when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. (He kept his head.) Then, in the late 1500s, Henry VIII (who certainly knew a thing or two about the chopping block) established Feb. 14 as St. Valentine’s Day, and many of the rituals we know today — the giving of gifts and cards, the professions of love — were born. But the stroke of brilliance came in 1861, when the British chocolatier Richard Cadbury created the first heart-shaped Valentine’s chocolate box. Since then, chocolate — believed to be an aphrodisiac since the Aztec and Mayan civilizations — and Valentine’s have gone together.
If you need a reason to make the most exotic, sophisticated, dense, chocolaty dessert imaginable, Valentine’s Day is it. And here, from a cookbook dedicated to the art of triple-layer cakes — “Sky High” by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne (Chronicle Books, 2007) — is the most decadent dessert I have ever encountered, “The Valentine Sweetheart Chocolate Cake.” It’s not a “sky high” confection, measuring barely more than 3 inches in height, but what it lacks in stature it makes up for in sheer chocolaty wallop. I call it the “million dollar” cake because the ingredients (two pounds of chocolate, a half pound of butter, a dozen eggs, saffron and rosewater) will cost you a small fortune. But it is worth every cent. It’s a cake over which your loved ones will lose their heads.
Note: There is no error here. The recipe calls for no flour.
CHOCOLATE VALENTINE SWEETHEART CAKE
For the cake:
1/2 pound unsalted butter plus more for buttering the pans
1 pound bittersweet chocolate
6 whole eggs
6 egg yolks
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
2/3 cup unsweetened coconut milk (sold in the Asian aisle of the supermarket)
For the Spiced Chocolate Ganache frosting:
1 pound bittersweet chocolate
2/3 cup unsweetened coconut milk
2/3 cup heavy cream
3 cinnamon sticks, broken up
1 small dried hot red chili pepper
1 teaspoon loosely packed saffron threads
1/2 vanilla bean
1 tablespoon rosewater (available in natural-food stores and some supermarkets)
Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 300 F. Butter three 7-1/2-inch heart-shaped pans, or three 8-inch round cake pans. Line the bottoms with baking parchment or waxed paper and butter the paper.
Divide the 1/2 pound of butter into 16 tablespoons and place in a heat-proof bowl. Coarsely chop the chocolate and add to the butter. Place the bowl over (not in) simmering water. Cook, stirring, until melted, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the eggs, egg yolks, brown sugar and coconut milk, taking care not to whip in any excess amount of air. Divide the batter among the prepared pans.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the layers are set around the edges and still retain an area about 3 inches in diameter in the center that remains shimmery, loose and shiny; this part will set up when the cake cools. (Overbaking will cause the cake to rise up and sink back down like a souffle, and the texture will suffer.) Let the layers cool to room temperature. Cover the cakes in the pans with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate until firmly set, several hours or overnight.
Make the frosting: Coarsely chop the chocolate and place it in a heat-proof, microwave-safe bowl.
In a medium nonreactive saucepan, combine the coconut milk, cream, cinnamon sticks, chili pepper and saffron. With a sharp knife, cut the half of the vanilla bean in half lengthwise, then use the tip of the knife to scrape the seeds into the cream. Add the pod to the pot. Bring to a simmer and continue simmering over very low heat for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Discard the chili pepper. Allow the cream to sit and infuse for another 10 minutes. Strain the warm cream over the chopped chocolate and add the rosewater. Let stand for another 10 minutes. Whisk until smooth. (If, at this point, the cream has cooled too much to melt the chocolate, put entire bowl into the microwave and microwave on high for 1 minute; then whisk until smooth. If you don’t have a microwave, return it to the saucepan and heat gently.)
When the frosting is made, remove the cakes from the pans: Carefully and gently heat the bottom of a layer over a burner on the stovetop over low heat for just a few moments. Invert the cake onto a serving plate and tap out the layer. Peel off the paper. Repeat with remaining layers, tapping them out onto a baking sheet to await assembly.
Assemble the cake. The recipe says to spread 1/4 cup of the icing onto the first layer of the cake, but I had so much icing I used about 3/4 cup. At any rate, eyeball it so that you have enough for the two middle layers, top and sides. Refrigerate the frosted cake for 30 minutes or longer so the icing sets, but allow to return to room temperature before serving to really appreciate the taste and texture. If desired, decorate with a small spray of roses and strew rose petals around the cake. (To avoid pesticides, look for organic roses, available at many florists, or omit altogether. The cake looks great even without them.)
To serve, use a very sharp knife to cut into the smallest possible slivers.
Yield: at least 16 servings
Recipe from “Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes” by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne (Chronicle Books, 2007)
Marialisa Calta is the author of “Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the American Family” (Perigee, 2005). For more information, go to www.marialisacalta.com.