It is with our passions as it is with fire and water; they are good servants, but bad masters. – Roger L’Estrange, Aesop’s Fables, 1692
I recently had a discussion with a young man whose family produces truffles, who spoke to me passionately about his métier, his work, and his passion for the black diamond of Chinon. As we drained our cups of coffee and began our goodbyes, he paused and said “I really love your political posts on Facebook.” I responded with a sigh. “I’ve been advised to stop posting political statement and links,” I told him. “It’s been suggested that it is dangerous and could alienate professional contacts, it could hurt my reputation as a food writer and author, and it could anger potential hotel clients. So no more.
And it makes me sad to think that I must stifle myself from speaking out on something that I am so passionate about. Politics and the fight for who wins the American election is so important and so consequential! Next to that food, well, is a mere luxury and often seems so meaningless.”
“Ah, no, there you are wrong!” he answered gravely. “Just think how beautiful it is to talk about food, to share a recipe, to reveal a food’s history or the cultural significance of a dish, to prepare a meal for others. Food always makes people happy. Whoever is reading your blog or your social media posts, you will be sure that your food is making them happy. And making even a handful of people happy is so important!”
I was suddenly struck by how right he was, this young man no older than my sons. Here I had the greater power of being effective in my hands all along, my first passion food.
I have always been a political beast, from the moment I stared in awe and envy at my older brother’s McGovern for President in ’72 campaign button pinned to his t-shirt and tried to understand the satirical political cartoons he drew for his high school art show. I packed my bags and left the States years later in part for political reasons, saying to myself “either I stay and go into politics or I leave and try and discover what else is out there, find another political and social system that is a better fit.” If I had been a bolder, more confident and assertive young woman, I would have stayed.
And so I left, politics on my mind. And cookbooks in my suitcase.
I eventually married a man who followed politics as well and as passionately as I, and together we cooked, shared food with others, bought more cookbooks, discovered new cuisines, and traveled and ate, read and researched about the origins, history, cultural significance of dishes, reveled in food and the joy and wonder it brought to others even as we did not talk politics over a meal. We rarely discussed politics as we avoided divergence and heated arguments, yet we thoughtfully voted in elections – he here, me there – and raised our sons to listen, understand, and vote.
And I started a food blog and began writing about food, and here I am writing my first cookbook. Passionately. Yet each world event that affects us, each Presidential election, I get caught up in the whirlwind, in the heat and insanity, in the weightiness of the outcome, and begin to wonder if I’m in the right business, I start to feel as if my voice and energy should be used towards something bigger, more important, more meaningful. And so I rant and rave, I write long, detailed explanations on social media trying to wield influence, hoping someone on the other side is listening, and I am transformed, once again, into a manic political beast.
And then this handsome young man, going on and on and on passionately about truffles, brought me back to earth with one simple, honest reflection. I had forgotten something so essential along the way, as I allowed myself to be caught up in the political maelstrom that is a Presidential election, that food soothes and comforts, that food breeds understanding and tolerance, that food brings together all kinds of people, no matter their political leanings.
That food can make people happy.
And so I offer you dessert, a Chocolate Espresso Pecan Torte, a recipe adapted, twisted, tweaked and personalized from Jayne Cohen’s marvelous cookbook The Gefilte Variations.
Although it is indeed a Passover cake made without flour and without leavening, it is perfect all year round, for any occasion. Much like an elegant brownie, dense and moist yet caky and feather light, delicately aromatic with pecans and with a warm hint of coffee, earthy, rich, and sweet, this must be one of my favorite desserts, one I make for Passover and all year round. I’ve not yet tried making a gluten-free version of this torte, but you should be able to replace the 3 tablespoons matzoh cake meal with chestnut flour.
- ¾ cup (150 grams) sugar, divided
- ½ cup (125 ml) water
- 6 ounces (175 grams) fine-quality, semisweet or bittersweet chocolate or a combination of the two (see note)
- 6 large eggs, separated
- Pinch salt
- 1½ - 1¾ cups (150 – 180 grams) pecan halves
- 3 tablespoons matzoh cake meal (or chestnut flour)
- 1½ teaspoons fine instant espresso powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Set rack to lower third of the oven. Line a 9-inch (23 cm) cake pan with parchment paper.
- In a small, heavy-bottom saucepan, combine and heat ½ cup (100 g) of the sugar and the ½ cup (125 ml) water over medium heat just until it comes to a boil and the sugar has completely dissolved. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the chopped chocolate. Stir until the chocolate has melted and smooth. Set aside to cool.
- Separate the eggs very carefully. Place the whites in a large, very clean, grease-free mixing bowl, preferably plastic or metal if possible, with a pinch of salt. Place the yolks in a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer until light and creamy, about 2 minutes.
- Grind the pecans with the remaining sugar and the matzoh meal in a food processor; do this in 2 batches if using a small processor.
- Stir the ground ingredients and the espresso powder in with the beaten egg yolks. Stir in the cooled chocolate and the vanilla until the batter is smooth and well blended.
- Using very clean beaters, beat the egg whites with the pinch of salt on low speed for 30 seconds then increase speed to high and beat the whites until stiff peaks form and hold and the whites feel thick like marshmallow cream when touched.
- Using a spatula, fold about a quarter of the whites into the chocolate batter to lighten, then fold in the rest of the whites in two additions, incorporating them gently but firmly, scooping up from the bottom and around the sides, folding over as you turn the bowl with your other hand. Fold only until no more white lumps are visible; do not overfold.
- Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, smooth the surface then bake for about 30 minutes or until set yet still slightly gooey in the center. The top should have a pale, matte appearance.
- Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool in the pan on a wire rack.
- When completely cool, carefully slide a knife blade around the sides to loosen the cake and turn out onto a cake platter. Be very careful as the surface may crack and crumble a bit around the edges. The center will have sunk slightly in the center.