divine decadence at cafe cluny

February 1, 2009 | add comment

Originally published in WestView

Oh, the many sweets to be found in the West Village—chocolate chip bread pudding at Blue Ribbon Bakery, profiteroles at August, “banoffee” pie at the Spotted Pig, the list goes on. There is one West Village treat, however, that is far superior to all others. It makes Jacques Torres hot chocolate seem rather ordinary and turns Magnolia cupcakes into dog scraps.

This dessert, though served at Café Cluny, is baked in TriBeCa and shipped, ever so gently, up to the neighborhood. I speak of my beloved dark chocolate torte. If you have yet to try it, drop this paper immediately and find your way over to the corner of West 4th and West 12th Streets. It is a rich slice of heaven, topped with a dollop of mascarpone.

Because of Café Cluny’s pint-sized kitchen, the torte is made farther downtown at sister restaurant, the Odeon. Both are owned by Lynn Wagenknecht and partners, as is Café Luxembourg. Jackie Zion, pastry chef at the Odeon, invited me into the kitchen to learn how to make this delectable treat.

As she prepped her station, I learned about Jackie’s first job, one that you might say set her down a culinary path. At age 14, she worked at a Dairy Queen in Bergen County, New Jersey. In between making Blizzards, changing mixers and decorating cakes, she realized how much fun she had bustling around a kitchen and learned a valuable lesson early on. “When you see somebody with an ice cream cone,” she said, “they’re just so happy.” This simple truth stayed with her.

Jackie went on to study fine arts but became disenchanted with the growing emphasis on digital techniques. She yearned for something more tangible and soon enrolled in the New York Restaurant School to study as a pastry chef. “I’m a bad cook,” she said with a laugh, explaining that what she loves about baking¾as opposed to cooking¾is the precision it demands.

Aside from making all of the desserts for Café Cluny and the Odeon (their menus have little overlap), she makes ice cream for Café Luxembourg. Jackie enjoys making this versatile sweet because it gives her a chance to explore myriad flavors. The day of my visit, I helped her fold melted chocolate into mint ice cream to make mint chocolate chip. She had steeped mint leaves in the milk and cream to give it an exceptionally refreshing flavor.

The dark chocolate torte has been on the menu at Café Cluny for about a year. One of the restaurant owners had shared with Jackie a recipe that she began toying with. The original called for solely unsweetened chocolate. She instead balances equal parts unsweetened and 72% chocolate. Her favored brand is San Francisco-based Guittard. Coincidentally, my former boss (and the woman somewhat responsible for my move to New York) is now part of the Guittard family. The chocolate remains one of my favorites and is ideal for baking.

If the choice of Guittard wasn’t enough to earn my loyalty, Jackie’s comment that “white chocolate is not even chocolate” swiftly did so. She doesn’t strike me as a snob on any front, but when it comes to chocolate, let’s be honest, dark is best, milk has its place, but white is just wrong.

As Jackie made the dessert, I picked up a few insider tips, like relying on superfine sugar because it dissolves better and using kosher salt for its taste. Now, any pastry chef worthy of the title knows that water and chocolate don’t get along well. Jackie employs an unconventional method to get around this. First, she combines water with butter and sugar over heat. She then removes the mixture from the stovetop and folds the chocolate to smoothly melt it in.

The torte is less complicated to make than I had anticipated, and the finished product is delicious. As always, it is the perfect blend of bittersweet flavor and a creamy, almost ganache-like texture. The accompanying mascarpone is unsweetened, though Jackie had me try it sweetened, which is her preference. It’s nice, but I am partial to the former. Be warned, this dessert is incredibly rich. You may want to split a slice. Or, if you’re like me, pair it with a glass of red wine and have it for dinner. It makes for a brilliant entrée.

Café Cluny Dark Chocolate Torte

6 oz. 72% chocolate
6 oz. unsweetened chocolate
5 eggs
1 cup plus 2 Tbs. superfine sugar
8 oz. unsalted butter
1 cup water (plus more for water bath)
Pinch of kosher salt

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Whip eggs with 1/3 of sugar and pinch of salt for ten minutes or until size quadruples. Heat rest of sugar with water and butter in small saucepan. Once melted, remove from heat and add chocolate. Whisk until chocolate has melted. Combine with egg mixture, blending until smooth. Pour into 9-inch pan, bake in water bath (add water to height of batter) for 30 minutes. Let set once it is out of the oven. Serve warm (microwave if needed), sprinkled with powdered sugar. Place a dollop of mascarpone on each slice.

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