Yesterday was one of those golden spring days. You know, one of the first really warm ones? Where you don’t have to wear a jacket, and it seems like everyone in the entire world is outside? The city feels like a spring-themed I Spy book—everywhere I turn I see things I’d missed all winter: frisbees whizzing through the air in Washington Square Park, a Mister Softee truck rounding the corner ahead of me on Chambers Street, guys jogging in shorts and t-shirts down the West Side Highway.
It’s iced coffee weather. Kite weather. The kind of day where everything feels good and possible. Happily, this coincided with having out-of-town visitors, which is precisely the encouragement I need to plan a few adventures. They picked a perfect time to come, as there’s no better way to see New York than to just wander the streets without agenda or rush.
(Lest you think it’s all sun and smiles here, I’ll briefly say—since we’re all friends here—that Sunday arrived bearing cold and rain, and my mood has matched the weather mightily. Pathetic fallacy, I think it’s called, if I remember my high school English classes? Feels more just straight pathetic (LIFE, man, gets you sometimes), but I’m soldiering ahead as one does.)
We started with dinner on Friday night at Via Carota: a bustling, cozy restaurant on Grove Street in the West Village that feels like it’s been picked up from a tiny town in Italy and deposited in New York. It’s perpetually packed; they don’t take reservations, you have to simply show up and hope for the best. Or at the very least, you let the host scrawl your name on a chalkboard post under a long list of other hungry diners.
Somehow we got there at the exact right moment and there was a table for 4, “right this way, please.” (I heard the guy behind me request a table for 4, only to be told it would be a two hour wait. How’s that for timing?)
Seated at a long low table, we shared a towering salad of crisp baby lettuces dotted with fresh herbs. The genius of this salad lies in the seasoning: a pitch-perfect vinaigrette that barely coats each leaf, and just a hint of flaky sea salt sprinkled around.
We ate grilled artichokes with our fingers, dipping them into a little ramekin of garlic aioli. A plate of grilled mushrooms arrived; we dug in to find a layer of melty smoked scamorza cheese hiding underneath. There were dishes of fat green olives (so ripe they taste like butter), crispy sea bream draped over wilted escarole, and bowls of fat pappardelle noodles under a wild boar ragu. For dessert: a bowl of ripe raspberries and blackberries blanketed with a custardy zabaglione.
We continued the next morning with a late breakfast at Le Coucou on Howard Street—a place I’m always wanting to take everyone I like, as it’s certainly one of the most beautiful restaurants in the city. The food is flawlessly French, and the little touches—delicate patterned china, silver sugar tongs, quietly perfect service—elevate a meal there to the level of luxury. (Best of all, it’s bizarrely not overpriced which always wows me.) I think of it like going to a swanky spa: I feel chicer and calmer and more refined afterwards. (Okay, I guess I am just describing what I imagine it feels like to be a French woman).
Fortified by poached eggs and grilled country bread and strong French coffee, we walked the streets of Soho in the sunshine. That night, we reconvened for crackly thin-crust pizza and heaping bowls of vegetables at Marta, a warm and buzzy Danny Meyer spot just north of Gramercy. The back wall of the restaurant is taken up by a bright open kitchen with two huge wood-fired ovens; as I walk past, I watch the cooks sliding the dough in and out on oversized paddle-like peels; the counter is covered with pizzas—bubbling with cheese, blackened around the cracker-like edges.
We had two exquisite salads—and coincidentally, the next day I open the latest Bon Appetit issue to see an article by my friend Sarah Jampel, all about how to make a perfect restaurant salad. She opens the article by saying that lately when she goes out to eat, she returns thinking about the salads…of all things! This leads in to a series of tips on how chefs do it right. The takeaway: “treat your salad like a seesaw”. For every crunchy thing, add something soft. For sweet, add salty. For heat, add creaminess. And so on.
Our favorites were the wide, shallow bowls heaped with colorful, crisp chicory lettuces. There were some herbs dotted in—parsley and fresh dill. Walnuts, pickled cherries, and whisper-thin slices of radishes.
And of course, there was pizza: a red pie topped with mushrooms and spicy Italian sausage, and a white pie mounded with an entire salad’s worth of fresh greens.
The unexpected star of the entire meal was dessert. We ordered the tartufo: a softball-sized scoop of wickedly dark chocolate gelato surrounding a core of cherry gelato, topped with whipped cream. It was predictably rich and excellent and delicious. We also ordered the apple crostata, which one might expect to pale in comparison with chocolate ice cream, as things tend to do.
But it was insanely good, so much so that we all descended on it with our spoons, fighting each other for bites that had a little of each component: crispy, flaky puff pastry and soft, cinnamon-y roasted apples and not-too-sweet vanilla ice cream and a thin shell of caramel sauce.
Of course, all of those fireworks are merely extras to the fun of being out on a Saturday night, somewhere bright and busy, and feeling that high electric energy that infuses a city on a spring weekend.
And what did I glean from all of this? Glad you asked. I am now prepared to make the world’s best salads at home. I am recommitted to my (late-in-life) love of olives. I have a new life goal: to make a perfectly cooked French omelet.
And, above all, I am reminded that simplicity goes such a long way when you start with very good ingredients. Pick delicious foods—artichokes in spring, very good dark chocolate, warm sourdough bread—and don’t do too much to them. This in particular applies to dessert, like that apple crostata or those berries in custard.
It reminded me of one of my very favorite cakes—the “if-you-want-it-to-be flourless” chocolate cake. This cake (a riff on Molly Wizenberg’s Winning Hearts and Minds cake) is perfect. Full stop. Everyone loves it (and if you especially like chocolate, even better). It’s so, so simple (just 4 ingredients, really) and as a result, the chocolate is the forefront of the cake, amplified in flavor by virtue of eggs and butter and sugar.
Depending on the type of chocolate you use, sometimes the top gets all crackly and shiny, like a really good brownie—I find that using semisweet chocolate chips reliably gives me that look (like the photo below) whereas dark chocolate bars give me the look of the version pictured at the top of the post. Both are delicious!
It’s also relatively foolproof in my experience, and can withstand just about any variation you throw at it. Sometimes I use all dark chocolate, sometimes I use semisweet and dark. I’ve varied the brand of chocolate I use. I’ve tried European-style butter and regular old grocery store butter. I sometimes add a little flour, and sometimes I don’t. I’ve tested it with a little gluten-free flour, and that works fine, too. I’ve baked it in numerous ovens in numerous kitchens. I’ve made it in 9” pans and 8” pans and once, as mini brownie-style cakes.
I serve it plain. I serve it with ice cream. I serve it with whipped cream.
It freezes spectacularly well, and as it’s intended to be quite squidgy on the inside, you don’t need to fuss too much if you slightly undertake it or overbake it. It will never be dry, and if it’s a little softer than you expected, eat the center with a spoon!
*Note: This cake is a one-bowl affair, and I highly recommend using a digital kitchen scale to weigh the ingredients. It’ll save you time and prep, and ensure perfect balance of all the ingredients!
**Second note: Because you really do taste the chocolate, choose a chocolate you like. If you like something fruitier, go for that (like Scharffen Berger or Valrhona dark). Smoother and more mellow? Try Ghirardelli. Something richer and creamier? Callebaut.
*Third note: Molly’s original recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of flour. Do you need this? In my experience, no. I think it stabilizes the texture just slightly, so if you feel like throwing it in, go for it. But don’t feel the need to, as I usually don’t. If you’re gluten-free, it works nicely with a gluten-free flour blend too.
The Ultimate Flourless Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg
7 ounces (200 grams) dark chocolate
7 ounces (200 grams) unsalted butter
1 1/3 cup (250 grams) granulated sugar
5 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (optional, I like the flavor)
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon espresso powder (optional, for enhanced chocolate flavor)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line an 8” or 9” pan (a springform is ideal) with parchment and grease the parchment and sides of the pan well.
In a large heatproof bowl over a double boiler (or you can do this in the microwave), melt the chocolate with the butter until smooth.
Add the sugar, salt, and espresso powder (if using), and stir well, then set it aside to cool just slightly. Continue whisking after a few minutes; it’s okay if it’s gritty-looking, it’ll smooth out as you go.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. Add the vanilla (if using) and continue mixing until the batter is smooth and shiny.
Pour it into your prepared pan and bake for about 25 minutes—note that depending on your pan size and oven, I find that the bake time can vary pretty dramatically with this cake. I recommend starting to check at 20 minutes but knowing that it could take considerably longer than 25 minutes. You’ll know it’s done with the cake looks mostly set on the top but just slightly jiggles still in the center.
Remove from the oven, run a knife around the edges to loosen it, and let it cool for at least 20 minutes.
Serve it warm or cold. It’s excellent the next day, and even better I think if you freeze it.