Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tuesdays with Dorie—Chocolate Armagnac Cake

Chocolate Armagnac CakeI love a recipe with a story, and this one starts with "You're fired." For creative insubordination. Dorie Greenspan was the apprentice pastry chef at one of the trendiest restaurants in New York City at the time: The Soho Charcuterie. She was bored making the same two desserts over and over every day so she tweaked this cake slightly and sent it out for service.
"I was fired .. for "creative insubordination" — how could I have known how angry everyone would be when, without mentioning it, I did away with the rum-soaked raisins in the chocolate cake and replaced them with Armagnac-soaked prunes!"
— Dorie Greenspan in an article for Les Dames Escoffier International
I can only imagine that the owners of Soho Charcuterie (who closed in 1985) now regret their lack of vision and trust in such a star of the food world that Dorie became after leaving their establishment.

The Cake
Dorie's Chocolate Armagnac Cake is a variation on a Chocolate Whiskey Cake known as Le Doris that was created by Simone "Simca" Beck (one of Julia Child's co-authors of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I: 40th Anniversary Edition). The Chocolate Whiskey Cake appeared in Simca's cookbook, Simca's Cuisine, and it was the one served at The Soho Charcuterie.

Prunes for Raisins, Armagnac for Whiskey, Pecans for Almonds
I was curious and decided to make the two versions of the cake to taste side-by-side. To see what the hubbub was about. To taste the cake worthy of firing someone for. So I found the original version of Simone Beck's recipe for Chocolate Whiskey Cake, compared it to Dorie's and basically substituted raisins for prunes and almonds for pecans. I wanted to buy Armagnac, but at $99 CAD for a bottle, I had to settle for cognac. I ended up using cognac in both versions so it's not a true taste test, but it was close enough.

The result: I couldn't tell the difference. I asked my daughter who has a palate that can taste fine subtleties, and she couldn't taste the difference. I asked my husband, and he couldn't taste a difference. We couldn't tell which one had pecans and which had almonds either. If we got a bite with a prune or a raisin, we could figure out which one was which, but that was the only way, and it was so slight as to be almost undetectable.
Gremolata: Why did you get fired?
Dorie Greenspan: Prunes.
— From an interview between Malcolm Jolley and Dorie at Gremolata
Another food writer, Florence Fabricante, award-winning author for The New York Times has her own version of this cake too. Her changes include increasing the quality and amount of chocolate, using brown sugar, currants instead of raisins, and sometimes almond flour instead of all-purpose flour. She also uses Irish whiskey.

Every baker is a recipe hacker. I, too, use what I have available, leave out what I don't like, adjust the technique, find a unique way to present it. A recipe is a sweet muse.

Virtual Dorie
I saw Virtual JFK on the weekend, and it made me think about what-if scenarios. What if Dorie had used currants instead of prunes? Would she have been fired? Would she have settled into a career as a pastry chef? Would we have Baking: From My Home to Yours and bake each week through this wonderful cookbook? It's thanks to her tweaks and experimentation that we have so many beloved recipes. Cheers to her creative insubordination.


Makes 8 servings (I halved each recipe)

Ingredients for Chocolate Armagnac Cake and Chocolate Whiskey Cake
In the photo:
water, cognac & prunes/water, cognac & raisins
pecans, flour & salt/almonds, flour & salt
eggs, water, butter, chocolate, sugar/Glaze ingredients

Dorie's Chocolate Armagnac Cake
For the Cake:
2/3 cup finely ground pecans (or walnuts)
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
12 plump, moist prunes, pitted if necessary and cut into bits
¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons water
¼ cup Armagnac (or cognac, brandy or Scotch whiskey)
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
3 large eggs, separated
1/3 cup sugar

For the Glaze:
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

Simone Beck's recipe for Chocolate Whiskey Cake
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, more for pan
1/3 cup dried currants
½ cup Irish whiskey
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, 70 percent cacao, in pieces
3 large eggs, separated
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
Confectioners' sugar
1 cup heavy cream

You can find the recipe for Chocolate Armagnac Cake in the book Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan or here. To see how the rest of the TWD group fared with this week's recipe, click here and then click on each blogger! Thanks to LyB from of And then I do the dishes who chose the recipe for this week.

Chocolate Armagnac Cake
I didn't have two springform pans the same size so I used one springform
and one small round pan. One cake was flatter than the other because of this.

Tasting Notes
This almost flourless cake is intense, fudgy, rich, velvety chocolate decadence with a slight kick from the cognac. The dense chocolate is taken to an al dente stage that melts immediately on your tongue. Though delicious on its own, a whiff of whipped cream or a swirl of vanilla ice cream and a strong espresso makes it perfection. To me, that is.

My daughter, on the other hand, asked after taking one bite and tasting a raisin: "What's in this?!" And then after finding out, she wondered: "Can you make it without raisins and prunes?" I'll try.

Update: Now that we've had a few days to savor these cakes, I have to say that we finished the prune version first. The prunes melted into the cake, making it moister. In the raisin cake, the raisins were not subtle. If you got a bit with a raisin, it tasted like raisin and chocolate. I think if I had soaked the raisins longer, this wouldn't have happened.

Recipe for Next Week (March 10)
Lemon Cup Custard on page 387 chosen by Bridget of The Way the Cookie Crumbles

My Bucket List

  • Visit the Armagnac region of France and sip some Armagnac.

    Pruneaux à l'Armagnac
    • Chez Pim's Pruneaux à l'Armagnac: Prunes in Armagnac
    Pruneaux au vin blanc (Prunes cooked in white wine)

    Other Tipsy Cakes
    • "For Dessert, a Cake That Asks for a Snifter of Irish", Chocolate Whiskey Cake by Florence Fabricante
    • Serious Eats "Cook the Book: Chocolate Whiskey Cake"
    • "When Temperance Isn't in the Cards", Whiskey-Soaked Dark Chocolate Bundt Cake by Melissa Clarke
    • Culinary Underground's Simca's Le Doris

    Other versions of Chocolate Armagnac Cake before today
    • Cooksister's Chocolate, Prune and Armagnac Cake
    • Spicy Ice Cream's Chocolate Whisky Cake
    • What Geeks Eat Chocolate Armagnac Cake

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    Maria said...

    I love that you did a taste test. I would be up for tasting both:)

    doughmesstic said...

    So you made both. You would!! :)
    I am with your little girl though - no raisins or prunes would be better!
    Nice job again this week - I love all of your background info.

    natalia said...

    Wow you were so brave !! I loved the prune version a lot !!

    PheMom said...

    Great write up as always! Both of your cakes look great!

    Anonymous said...

    They both sound wonderful. Well done!

    Kimberly Johnson said...

    I'm with your daughter - I want this cake without raisins! I loved the chocolate flavor, especially the glaze.

    Brilynn said...

    I've made this cake a few times now but always with prunes and armagnac, I love it!

    Jennifer said...

    I loved the prunes in the cake. My kids did not. Darn it, because flambee-ing the prunes was the funnest part!

    Unknown said...

    wonderful work! Am I the only one who can appreciate the fork in your picture?

    Jacque said...

    Oooh, nice job this week! A+ for you :)

    It's interesting that there was no difference in taste. It makes me wonder what was up at the restaurant where Dorie was fired. Could the customers really tell a difference?

    Anyway, your cakes look fantastic.

    Irene said...

    I love stories like that, but I can totally see it from the chef's perspective - you have to ask before you can change stuff! I like the no-fruit version myself. :)

    Steph said...

    I love a good taste test. I guess the chocolate makes it hard to tell the difference, but I'm sure both cakes were delicious!

    Btw, I was thinking the other day about butter and I'm not sure if it was you who did a butter review. I tried looking for that page and was unable to find it. For some reason when it came to butter (practically the most important ingredeitn) I didn't think too much of it and used whatever was on sale. It wasn't until I bought some Lactantia when I realized how much of a difference it makes in cupcakes. The selection of butter we have isn't that big, but I was wondering which brand you like using?

    kimberly salem said...

    beautiful cake! so in the end she got fired for something barely noticeable ;) maybe when using the armagnac it would be a lot different, but WOW that is expensive! i didn't buy any either ;)

    Jules Someone said...

    You are very thorough! The cakes look lovely. I went with the raisin/whisky version. Tasty!

    chocolatechic said...

    I love your square shot glass.

    Your cake looks wonderful.

    steph- whisk/spoon said...

    i love creative insubordination! interesting taste-test results...sounds like maybe dorie was needlessly fired!

    Anonymous said...

    How interesting that you all couldn't taste the difference. I almost made the two versions (well almost may be an exageration. I thought about doing it for a split second), but didn't because I didn't want the extra work.

    Your cakes look gorgeous by the way.

    Treehouse Chef said...

    What a great post. I enjoyed reading the article and printed out both recipes. Lots of good info with a great story. The photos really looked yummy!

    Welcome to our crazy blessed life said...

    Your pictures are gorgeous! Funny that you couldn't tell the difference in the two cakes.

    Di said...

    Great idea to try both fruits. I'm still trying to decide which one to use (I'm a bit behind in my baking). I'm curious how this will compare to the flourless chocolate cake I just made.

    vibi said...


    So? Did I miss it... or you're not telling us which you liked best!!!???

    Hummm... everyday seems to be a tasting test day, at your house! LOL ... do you have space for one more, can you adopt me? lol

    The Food Librarian said...

    Just lovely again! Your blog makes me drool all the time!

    Pamela said...

    I'm among the many that are impressed by the fact that you made both. Great job!

    Linda said...

    Wow, by making both versions, you've answered my question - there isn't much difference between the two recipes! Loved your post on this --- thank you for sharing!!!

    Anonymous said...

    Not only do I like looking at your pictures, I love the information you give.

    Anonymous said...

    I didn't know the history behind this cake :), how interesting; talent is often criticized before it's well-received. This looks so moist, the way a good chocolate cake should be!

    Peggy said...

    I cannot even believe you made both cakes! What a trooper you are. I struggle to get one done right. I really liked the prune version, but I think raisens would be good too. Basically I loved this cake!!

    La Bella Cooks said...

    This glaze looks heavenly!

    Jin Hooi said...

    well done for the taste test !!! your cakes look great !!

    Anonymous said...

    It's not really a cake that seems to appeal to kids, all the more for us grownups! I love your investigative approach in creating a head-to-head tasting.

    Leslie said...

    drool drool drool

    Sharon said...

    I love the looks of the cake and also the color of your plate!

    Elyse said...

    I love that you did the side-by-side taste test. What a great and creative idea. The cake looks absolutely delicious. So moist and chocolatey!

    AmyRuth said...

    You are so right about the "what if's?" An amazing concept in life. thanks for sharing the wealth of info about this cake. I am fascinated with the notion that there was no discernible difference. Amazing. Either way, I really am glad you educated us about this dorie adventure. Great cake!

    Unknown said...

    Wow, you made both variations? Great job! This wasn't my favorite recipe but your cakes look lovely.

    Anonymous said...

    Yours, both of them, look gorgeous and you really, really, should be cooking professionally somewhere...you are such a star at all of this. That cake disappeared faster than you can imagine around here...it was one of their favorite things we have made. They want another one soon. I should just have made them in twos like you did!

    Engineer Baker said...

    Beautiful writeup - I agree, recipes are meant to be fiddled with, changed according to your tastes. I'm glad I went with the prune version though, because I really liked the moistness of the final product.

    LyB said...

    Wow, both cakes look fantastic! Thanks for taste testing two different versions for us. :) And thanks for baking along with me!

    Serge the Concierge said...


    Agen, Les Pruneaux d'Agen

    After Interviewing Pascal Aussignac on 'Cuisinier Gascon' I thought I had to think about what to eat with Armagnac.

    In Armagnac with That Rhubarb Tart or Duck Magret, Tasting and Pairing with Denis I wrote about a session I had to discover that.

    'The French Guy from New Jersey'