Bête Noire: a Passover-friendly chocolate cake

IMG_2289.CR2Passover is upon us.  That historic Jewish holiday where we commemorate the freeing of the Jews from being slaves in Egypt.  To those of you who have never heard of Passover before, I bet you’ll be surprised how much you actually do know about this biblical story.  Featuring the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and a clash between two strong leaders, this story is just begging to be made into a movie (of course that’s already been done starring Charlton Heston).  This is the story of Exodus, with Moses confronting the Pharaoh and demanding him to “Let my people go.”

Spoiler alert!
Spoiler alert!

When the Pharaoh refuses to free the Jews from slavery, all hell breaks loose and God unleashes the ten plagues on Egypt to change the Pharaoh’s mind.  The plagues get worse and worse, starting with turning all water to blood, followed by disease, storms, and pestilence.  When all of these horrors failed to revise the Pharaoh’s decision, the tenth and worst plague was inflicted upon the people of Egypt: the killing of the first-born.  Not wanting to kill the first-born of his chosen people, God instructs the Jews to mark their doorposts with the blood of a lamb.  Then as the angel of death descended on Egypt to kill the first-born, the angel would pass over any houses with the lamb’s blood and spare the children inside.  Hence, the holiday is named Passover.

What better way to teach your kids about the Ten Plagues than with adorable finger-puppets?
What better way to teach your kids about the Ten Plagues than with adorable finger-puppets?
The Angel of Death passing over Egypt. The lamb's blood on the doorpost protected Jews from the angel's wrath.
The Angel of Death passing over Egypt. The lamb’s blood on the doorpost protected Jews from the angel’s wrath.

There’s a joke I heard a lot growing up in a Jewish household about the many Jewish holidays: “They try to kill us.  We survive.  Let’s eat.”  Now before anyone jumps down my throat with some Rabbinical correction, let me throw out a disclaimer that this does NOT describe all Jewish holidays.  But the sentiment does hold for a bunch of Jewish holidays, including Purim and Passover.

a Passover seder plate
a Passover seder plate

As with all good traditions, most Jewish holidays have a food ritual associated with them.  For Passover, there are many important foods.  Several representative foods are arranged on a multi-well Seder plate, including:

  • Bitter Herbs: taking up two spots, usually horseradish and romaine lettuce (which has bitter roots), symbolizing the bitterness of slavery in Egypt
  • Charoset: a mixture of chopped nuts, chopped apples, cinnamon, and red wine representative of the mortar the Jewish slaves used to build the pyramids
  • a Lamb Shankbone: a reminder of the lamb’s blood protecting the Jews from the tenth plague
  • Karpas: a green vegetable, typically parsley, that is dipped in salt water to remind us of the tears of the Jewish slaves in Egypt
  • a Hard-Boiled Egg: the egg has many potential interpretations.  Eggs are traditionally the first food eaten by mourners, so the egg on the seder plate reminds us that we are still mourning the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Personally, I like the idea that, unlike other foods, the egg gets harder as you boil it more.  This is similar to the Jewish people, where the more they oppress us, the stronger we become.
Mmmm Matzah!
Mmmm Matzah!

Aside from all of the representative foods on the seder plate, the most iconic Passover food is Matzah.  If we briefly go back to the story of Exodus, after the tenth plague, the Pharaoh finally relented and freed the Jews from slavery.  Afraid that he might change his mind, the Jews took to the road immediately.  Heading into the dessert desert, they needed to bring food with them, but had no time to let their bread rise.  The bread dough was baked before it could rise and yielded a crisp cracker, which we call matzah.

During the eight days of Passover, we refrain from eating any risen dough.  Usually this entails a pre-Passover purge of any leavened products from the house.  In place, we consume matzoh and other unleavened foods for the duration of the holiday.  When it comes to baking during Passover, the lack of leaveners rules out the use of traditional grain flours.  Technically, it is fermentative leavening that is forbidden, meaning that baking soda and baking powder, with their chemical leavening, is not strictly outlawed.  Many people withhold the use of these chemical agents, however, in the spirit of the holiday and go without any leavening for the eight days of Passover.

Chocolate-covered Matzah is a common solution to those sweet cravings during Passover
Chocolate-covered Matzah is a common solution to those sweet cravings during Passover

This lack of leavening can leave many bakers scratching their heads trying to come up with ideas for legal Passover desserts.  Many traditional cakes and cookies are out, but that’s no reason to give up hope.  The list of desserts that don’t require leavening is actually pretty impressive.  There are your whipped desserts, like meringues and mousses, that use the protein in eggs to hold pockets of air and lighten the dessert.  There are cookies that use nut flours in place of grain flour, like macarons.  And then there are the denser delicacies, like truffles, fudge and the Bête Noire I’m featuring in this post.IMG_2311.CR2 IMG_2277.CR2

I’ve had this dense flourless chocolate cake for many Passovers growing up and it’s one of my mother’s continually stellar recipes.  Just because this cake is Passover-friendly, doesn’t mean you should only think of it during that one week each Spring.  As you’ll see, it’s a super-simple, wonderfully effective recipe.  Since the chocolate is the main flavor in this cake, make sure you use a good-quality brand.  If you have trouble finding unsweetened (100% cocoa) chocolate, see the note at the end of the recipe for a substitution suggestion.IMG_2261.CR2 IMG_2258.CR2

Bête Noire: a flourless chocolate cake

Yield: One 9-inch cake

A dense chocolate cake that'll put a smile on any chocoholic's face. Also a great recipe for Passover.


    For the flourless chocolate cake:
  • 8 oz (227 g) unsweetened chocolate (*see note below)
  • 4 oz (113 g) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 1/3 cup (267 g) granulated sugar
  • 16 tablespoons (228 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into small pieces
  • 6 large eggs, at room temperature
  • For the chocolate ganache:
  • 1 cup (237 ml) heavy cream
  • 10 oz (283 g) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • To garnish:
  • powdered sugar
  • fresh berries (i prefer strawberry or raspberry)


    For the flourless chocolate cake:
  1. Cut a piece of parchment paper the size of the bottom of a 9” cake pan. Butter the cake pan, put the parchment paper in the bottom of the pan, then butter the parchment paper. Set aside.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C) with the rack in the center of the oven.
  3. Place both chocolates in the bowl of a food processor and process until the chocolate is in tiny pieces. Leave the chopped chocolate in your food processor.
  4. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs lightly.
  5. Place the sugar and water in a saucepan on the stove and bring it to a rolling boil.
  6. Set a large kettle of water to boil.
  7. With the food processor on, add the boiling sugar syrup to the chocolate. Then add the butter, piece by piece. Finally, add the eggs. Process only until the mixture is very smooth.
  8. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan.
  9. Place the cake pan into a large oven-proof pan and place into the oven. Make a water bath by pouring the boiling water from the kettle into the larger pan, being careful to not get any water into the cake pan.
  10. Bake for 25-30 minutes.
  11. Transfer the cake pan to a cooling rack and let it sit for 10 minutes, then run a sharp knife around the sides to release the cake. Cover the cake with plastic wrap and invert and unmold the cake onto a cookie sheet. Invert a serving plate over the cake and flip it over, so the plate is on the bottom and the cake is on top.
  12. For the chocolate ganache:
  13. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm the heavy cream until the first bubbles appear, stirring occasionally to prevent the bottom from burning. Do not let the milk boil.
  14. Remove the pan from the heat and add the chopped chocolate. Let it sit for 30 seconds, then stir very gently until all of the chocolate is melted and the consistency is very smooth.
  15. Allow to cool slightly, then pour over the cake. Using an offset spatula, evenly spread the ganache over the top and sides of the cake.
  16. Store the cake in the refrigerator.
  17. When ready to serve, dust the top of the cake with powdered sugar and garnish with fresh berries.


*Unsweetened Chocolate is simply chocolate: no milk and no sugar. If you were buying this as a high-end dark chocolate bar, it would be 100% cocoa. In the United States, you can find Unsweetened Chocolate in the baking isle, often labeled as Baking Chocolate (though check the label, because there is also Semisweet Baking Chocolate that contains some sugar). In Europe, Unsweetened Chocolate may be trickier to find.

The goal of using a ratio of the two chocolates in this recipe is to get the right cocoa content. If we take unsweetened chocolate as 100% cocoa and semisweet/bittersweet chocolate as around 35% cocoa, then once you combine the chocolates, you'll have a total of 12 oz (340 g) of chocolate with an average cocoa content of 78%. In Europe, you can use Dark Couverture Chocolate in place of Semisweet or Bittersweet Chocolate. Whether in Europe or America, feel free to substitute 12 oz (340 g) of a good-quality extra dark chocolate with around 78% cocoa in place of the other two chocolates in this recipe.

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If you don't have a food processor, you can finely chop the chocolates by hand. When it comes time to mix all of the ingredients, you can substitute a mixer for the food processor.

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Recipe adapted from Growing up on the Chocolate Diet .



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