Three Perfect Chocolate Cakes

Save this storySave this storySave this storySave this storyYou’re reading the Food Scene newsletter, Helen Rosner’s guide to what, where, and how to eat. Sign up to receive it in your in-box.

It’s a wonderful time in New York City to be a person who wants a slice of cake. Yes, I see the crafted beauty of a layered entremets, I revel in the elegance of a molded mousse, I will happily eat a cupcake, and I’ll rejoice in a late-summer pie. But there is something perfect and eternal about the slice: a piece of something bigger, a shared opulence, a bit of family style, a bit of birthday-party glee. Cakes themselves go in and out of fashion—one year is all about rainbow sprinkles, the next about strawberries and cream—but a chocolate cake transcends time and trend and season. A chocolate cake is a chocolate cake is a chocolate cake, especially at the end of an otherwise excellent meal. Here are three that have recently stolen my heart.

The Tall, Dark, and Handsome

At Claud, an unabashedly cool restaurant in the East Village, I found myself in a seat that offered an unobstructed view of the restaurant’s minuscule and hyperefficient open kitchen. As the evening unfolded, I was distracted, again and again, from the exquisite, French-ish small plates, and from the glittering conversation of my friends, by the sight of a cook reaching for a great megalith of a chocolate cake to saw off serving-size portions. Watching the slice fall and hit the plate was like witnessing a glacier calve: a slow separation intensifying toward collapse—a visual thunk. When my slice arrived (on the menu, it’s listed as a dessert for two, which is not inaccurate), it was as enormous and gravitationally attractive as it seemed from across the room—a wedge of darkness, six layers of night-black devil’s-food cake alternating with strata of an intense and creamy ganache, developed by the Claud chef and co-owner Joshua Pinsky. The whole thing is enrobed in a thin layer of chocolate glaze, and fuzzed with chocolate shavings. It was served lying flat on a black plate, shadow on shadow. The highlight, and what makes the whole thing worth every penny of its twenty-two-dollar price, is a bright-white sparkle of flaky sea salt that runs the length of the slice’s open face. The unexpected spray of salt on a dessert has become, well, pretty expected these days, but on this slice of cake it’s both inspired and necessary. By their nature, devil’s-food cakes are sweeter than standard chocolate cakes, and yet more bitter, so intense that often a few bites are more than enough. Claud’s spray of finishing salt relaxes that intensity, opens up the palate, slows down the frenetic hunger that chocolate cake seems to always bring out in me. It makes space to luxuriate, to give in.

The Nostalgia Bomb

I visited the sharp new Brooklyn restaurant Gertrude’s (a sister establishment to the Jewish-inspired diner Gertie) during its friends-and-family period—early days, while a restaurant is still getting into the swing of things, and working out any kinks. So I made sure, when a server came to take my order, to make hay out of my need—a physical, medical, legal, emotional need—to have a slice of the seven-layer cake. After a round of crispy beef tongue and some particularly excellent latkes, my server came back to deliver some news. “We’ve run out of cake,” she said. And then a shoulder shimmy, and a secret little smile. “But I saved you the final piece.” A prayer of thanks for the mercy of a loving server—this cake is a thing of beauty, with three layers of chocolate cake and three layers of vanilla cake staggered in between. That makes six—where’s the seventh layer of this seven-layer cake? I wondered if it was the frosting, a pale and airy chocolate buttercream that mortars the other six layers together, or the inky-rich ganache that covers the whole thing—Eli Sussman, the executive chef and co-owner, explained to me that it’s actually a reference to the kind of kosher seven-layer cakes of his (and mine, and plenty of other Ashkenazi kids’) childhood. Gertrude’s is a fun, unstuffy restaurant, but the food is grownup food—this cake, in contrast, lands like something out of a buried childhood memory. It feels like a picture-book illustration of a cake, like being given a special treat for being a good girl. The cake itself is as butter-rich as poundcake; a dollop of not-too-sweet whipped cream keeps the richness from getting too overwhelming. Don’t worry about missing the window on cake availability, by the way—Sussman assures me that there’s now plenty of slices to meet the considerable demand.

The Vamp

Strip House, the venerable steak den on Twelfth Street in the Village, can be forgiven for its gimmicky name; when it opened, in 2000, the operators played up the double-entendre by hanging up framed prints of nineteen-thirties burlesque performers, and tinted the dining room with sultry red lights. Is it actually sexy to eat a steak? Does it make it sexier if the side is creamed spinach perfumed with truffles, or a twice-baked potato gratin? It doesn’t really land for me—even if the steak, as at Strip House, is both manly and tender. What does get my engines revving is the restaurant’s twenty-four-layer chocolate cake. It’s not a newcomer, the way the cakes at Claud and Gertrude’s are. In fact, it has achieved escape velocity from the world of New York City dining, having been hailed as a topnotch dessert by the Food Network, made available for nationwide mail order, and served with a flourish at Strip House’s Las Vegas location (not to mention the one in midtown). Those attributes would normally be glaring red flags; the cake is the sort of absurd and opulent dessert that could slip easily into the realm of photo op, all good looks and no flavor. But trust me on this: it really delivers. Twelve thin layers of cake alternate with similar-sized layers of a shockingly chocolaty, custardy frosting that seems far too satiny to maintain the structural integrity of the slice, which arrives standing vertically and draws the lusty gaze of anyone it passes on the way from the kitchen to the table. On a recent visit, when the woman running the host stand asked my friends and me if she could seat us for dinner, we asked if we could just sit at the bar for cocktails and a slice of cake instead. Her eyes lit up. “That honestly sounds perfect,” she said. A Manhattan, a mountain of chocolate, a dimly lit room—heaven. ♦


No votes yet.
Please wait...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *