I made a cake on Pi Day. I could’ve made pecan pie —my fave!— or strawberry rhubarb pie, but instead I went for a sort of high-maintenance cake: the Gâteau Victoire inspired by Julia Child and served at Zuni Café in San Francisco. This, a dense, flourless, chocolate cake on the most Pi of Pi(e) Days in years. I hope this isn’t bad luck or anything. As my little sis Lila once told me, “I have feelings about pie. But I also have feelings about cake.”
On the first night of our Northern California honeymoon, Danny and I had a late dinner reservation at 9:30 p.m. at Zuni. And since we’d woken up as Mr. and Mrs. that morning in Miami, it was really after midnight for us.
We started our late late dinner with a beet and blood orange salad and a mushroom dish before sharing a Mexican-inspired pork shoulder and beans. And then an unexpected wedding gift came to our table in the form of a sliver of dark cake. With a candle! Though I couldn’t think of anything to wish for then.
I took a bite, and it quickly became clear this was not an ordinary chocolate cake. For such a dense cake, it managed to be airy, and the chocolate melted on my tongue. It’s no wonder the cake has been served every day at Zuni since 1982.
The ingredients are simple and you probably have all of them on hand on any given day. The technique, however, is definitely not basic. Without flour, how do you create lift and body in a cake? Eggs + air. I grabbed more eggs than I ever thought belonged in a cake and beat them for 20 minutes. Have faith. They do quadruple in size as promised, giving you eggs fluffed up with a zillion tiny air bubbles, which are vital to the success of this cake.
This is more work than I’d normally put into a cake, but I was making it for an engagement party, and I was totally charmed when the recipe asked me to make whipped cream as an ingredient for the cake batter. YES.
I get a little nervous when baked goods call for folding in ingredients. Here, you want to fold rather than stir so you don’t deflate the whipped egg mixture, but it can be hard to know what’s enough or not. The melted chocolate and whipped cream sink to the bottom of the bowl holding the egg mixture, like rain falling through a cloud.
You’ve got to scrape up from the bottom of the bowl to fully incorporate the chocolate. Your mixture will start to look familiar, like chocolate milk, but you want to take it past that point in terms of color. Then the whole thing bakes for a while, and then it rests. Wait, then you have to let it rest some more! This cake is a bit of a diva, in that way, and it’s fabulous.
This dense cake, inspired by a Julia Child recipe, has been served daily at Zuni Café since it was introduced, in 1982. Recipe on Saveur.
1 1/2 teaspoons butter
5 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
6 tablespoons sugar
10 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
6 tablespoons strong brewed coffee
3/4 cup heavy cream
Heat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch cake pan with butter, line bottom and sides of pan with buttered parchment paper, and set pan aside.
Combine whole eggs, egg yolks, and sugar in a large heatproof bowl, set bowl over a pot of very gently simmering water, and stir until mixture is room temperature. Remove bowl from heat and beat mixture with an electric mixer on medium speed until quadrupled in volume, 15–20 minutes. Melt chocolate and coffee together in a medium heatproof bowl set over the pot of simmering water, stirring often. Remove bowl from heat. Whip cream in a medium bowl until soft peaks form.
Fold one-quarter of the egg mixture into the melted chocolate, then fold chocolate mixture and whipped cream into remaining egg mixture. Pour batter into prepared pan and set pan in a roasting pan. Pour hot water into roasting pan to a depth of 1 inch and transfer to oven. Bake cake until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, about 1 hour. Turn off oven, leave oven door ajar, and let cake rest for 30 minutes. Remove cake from oven in its water bath and let rest for 30 minutes more. Remove cake from oven water bath, invert onto a plate, and peel off parchment. Serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream, if you like.
Makes one cake.