- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2005

My business partners might not be too happy to hear me saying this, but if you really want to impress your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day next Monday, don’t go out to dinner.

Instead, consider making the effort to cook a special meal at home. Make a little effort to set a beautiful table, complete with flowers and candles (neither of which should be scented, so they won’t interfere with your senses of smell or taste). Choose a good wine that you know your beloved enjoys, perhaps including Champagne or some other sparkler.

Your menu doesn’t have to be elaborate, and it shouldn’t be so heavy that it puts a damper on romance. Start the meal with some passionate pink smoked salmon, perhaps. For the main course, cook something simple but of excellent quality, whether it’s a steak, lamb chops, a fish fillet, or a simple stir-fry of shrimp or scallops - whatever your loved one would enjoy the most. Add a sauteed vegetable and some rice and you’ll have a lovely plate.

I think the main Valentine’s Day cooking effort should go into the dessert, which undoubtedly should be chocolate. My Flourless Chocolate Cake, so dense and rich that it’s almost like a sublime fudge, is an excellent choice not only because it’s so easy to make well in advance but also because it offers such decadent pleasure for lovers of chocolate.

There’s no big secret to making the cake. The most crucial step is to start with the best tasting, finest chocolate you can find, made from the highest quality cacao beans and with a higher concentration of chocolate solids to cocoa butter. I’m especially partial to such imported brands as Valrhona from France or Callebaut from Belgium, as well as to the outstanding American chocolate made by Scharffen Berger in Berkeley, Calif. You’re likely to find at least one of those brands in gourmet shops and some well-stocked supermarkets.

After you’ve got your chocolate, take some care in melting it. First, use a sharp knife to cut it up into pieces of about 1/4 inch. A double boiler, whether you use one dedicated to that task or improvise one from a saucepan and bowl as I describe in the recipe, provides the very gentle indirect heat that will ensure your chocolate melts perfectly. (Direct heat, by contrast, can scorch chocolate and cause it to seize up into coarse, grainy, unusable lumps.)

Plan on making the cake several hours before dinner, or even a full day before. That should leave you plenty of time to look after all the other important details of what’s sure to be a memorably romantic evening.

FLOURLESS CHOCOLATE CAKE

Makes one 10-inch cake

8 ounces good-quality bittersweet chocolate, cut into small pieces

4 ounces unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

5 eggs, separated

Pinch of salt

2/3 cup sugar

Powdered sugar, for garnish

Unsweetened whipped cream, for garnish

Fresh raspberries, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a 10-inch round cake pan.

Bring about 1 inch of water to boil in the bottom half of a double boiler or in a medium saucepan. Reduce the heat to a bare simmer. Put the chocolate and butter in the top half of the double boiler or in a heatproof mixing bowl large enough to rest on the rim of the saucepan without the bowl’s bottom touching the water. Place the pan or bowl over the simmering water and melt the chocolate and butter, stirring them until blended.

Meanwhile, in another mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, pinch of salt and all but 3 tablespoons of the sugar. Stirring continuously, pour the melted chocolate-butter mixture into the egg yolks until thoroughly combined.

In a third, clean bowl, put the egg whites. With an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks that droop slightly when the beaters are lifted out. Still beating at medium speed, gradually sprinkle in the remaining sugar, continuing to beat the egg whites until they form stiff but not yet dry peaks.

With a rubber spatula, fold a generous dollop of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture, just until a few streaks of white remain. Add the chocolate mixture to the remaining egg whites and gently fold together until thoroughly combined. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan.

Bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and immediately invert a cardboard cake round and a wire cake rack on top of it; then, protecting both hands with pot holders or oven mitts and clasping the rack and pan together, invert them to unmold the cake onto the cardboard and rack. Leave the cake to cool to room temperature. Don’t worry that its center sinks and cracks slightly. Refrigerate until serving time.

Before serving, dust the cake with powdered sugar by spooning some sugar into a fine-meshed sieve held over the cake, then gently tapping the sieve. Cut the cake into wedges and serve with whipped cream and raspberries.

Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network.

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