Friday, 6 March 2009

the art of dessert...with mayonnaise

When I was born, my maternal grandparents moved from the midwest to Sebastopol, fifty minutes away from my parents and the new bébé. While I was growing up, we would often go over there for meals, including mean Swedish meatballs, gravy-drenched Swiss steak, and my grandpa's famous mac and cheese casserole topped with cornflakes. And there would always be dessert. My mom's favorite angel food cake with fruit, or my dad's favorite coconut cream layer cake, or even just a bowl of Laila's lusted after lemon sorbet.

But sometimes, on dreaded, thankfully unfrequent evenings, there was jello salad with a blob of mayonnaise on top.

I remember the first time this was served to me: a thick slice of green jello, canned fruit cocktail jiggling in it, suspended in the gelatinous lump. And then the mayonnaise jar came out, and, as if in slow motion, my horrified young eyes watched as a large spoonful went thwack on top. Now I would like to think that I wasn't horribly rude, that I maybe even nibbled a bit of jello with that mayonnaise garnish. But I'm pretty sure that's not how it went. In fact, after that blob of mayonnaise the night is a dark blur, probably involving some very upset children, and maybe a few disappointed tears.

I am not a fan of mayonnaise. In fact, I'm pretty sure I have the mayonnaise-hating gene that my mom's sister Lori and brother David have. It just doesn't work for us.

And I have tried; potato salad, coleslaw, BLT's. But the white gooey cream just makes me feel ill. I can't help imagining it in a lump in my stomach, coating my insides with scary mayonnaise-ness.

And then there was mayonnaise cake.

This month's Cooks Illustrated had an article on something called "Emergency Chocolate Cake," made during World War II when things like fresh eggs weren't readily available, so creative substitutions were made. In other words: mayo. As I read the article, mixed with my horror was a kind of morbid fascination. Chocolate? Mayonnaise? It seemed so wrong, and yet...
So I made it. Of course I had to. I used hot coffee to melt bittersweet chocolate, I whisked in a lot of mayonnaise, I added flour, I baked. And you know what? It was awesome.

With no butter and only one little egg, the mayonnaise takes over on texture, making a super moist yet delicate crumb. The coffee takes a backseat to the chocolate, with just a hint here and there, but the simplicity of eating a chunk of straight chocolate cake, maybe with coffee or tea, maybe with your morning oatmeal (like I did this morning) is so satisfying. And I didn't think about the mayonnaise at all! No where in that chocolate did I find that slightest hint of whatever it is that makes me run whimpering from a normal mayonnaise dish. And like I said, I used a lot of mayonnaise.

No fancy techniques and no fancy ingredients (at least for those of us who keep plenty of chocolate around the house), this cake cake be thrown together at a moment's notice. The cake could be easily dressed up with fresh berries or frosting, but I preferred it plain, so I could savor the wildness of eating mayonnaise with gusto.

The Best Easy Chocolate Cake
from Cook's Illustrated: March/April 2009

1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup cocoa powder (they recommend Dutch-processed)
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate finely chopped
1 cup piping hot coffee
2/3 cup mayonnaise
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla extract

1) Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and 8 inch square baking dish (I didn't have one, I used an 8 inch diameter round dish).

2) Whisk flour, sugar, soda, and salt in a large bowl; set aside. In a separate bowl, combine chocolate and cocoa powder; pour the coffee over the chocolate and whisk till very smooth; let it cool slightly so the mayonnaise doesn't curdle. Whisk in the mayonnaise, egg, and vanilla. Stir this mixture into the flour.

3) Pour into prepared pan and bake 30 - 35 minutes (mine took the full 35).

4) Let cool completely before you cut into it, and you probably want to serve it straight from the pan.

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