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Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015 12:01 am

An appetite for love

Almost flourless chocolate cake with fresh raspberries and raspberry coulis.
Almost flourless chocolate cake with fresh raspberries and raspberry coulis.

From Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel:

Tita’s blood (which got into the sauce when she pricked herself on the roses) and Pedro’s roses proved quite an explosive combination. …when Pedro tasted his first mouthful (of the quail in rose petal sauce), he couldn’t help closing his eyes in voluptuous delight…. Tita wasn’t there, even though her body was sitting up quite properly in her chair. It was as if a strange alchemical process had dissolved her entire being in the rose petal sauce, in the tender flesh of the quails, in the wine, in every one of the meal’s aromas. With that meal it seemed they had discovered a new system of communication… through which the singular sexual message was passed.

For millennia, certain foods have had the reputation of being aphrodisiacs. Sometimes it was primarily because a food was thought to resemble a sexual body part: the phallic shapes, say, of asparagus, bananas (including banana flowers), carrots and cucumbers; raspberries and strawberries that resemble nipples; oysters and fresh figs that suggest female genitalia.

Then there are avocados. The ancient Aztecs called avocado trees ahuacatl, testicle trees, because the fruits grow in pendulous pairs.

The list of foods and herbs thought to have romance-inducing qualities is extensive and mostly ancient. But scientists have found that many contain components that may have contributed to their reputation. Here are a few, cited by Lee Ann Obringer in “How Aphrodisiacs Work.”

For centuries, sweet basil was reputed to stimulate sex drive, boost fertility and a general feeling of well-being. Women would rub their breasts with it because the scent was said to drive men wild. An Italian friend of my grandparents told me that young men in Italy went courting with bunches of basil tucked behind their ears. Basil has been found to have the property of promoting circulation, as have other reported aphrodisiacs such as garlic and ginger.

The capsaicin contained in chili peppers is a good pain reliever, but also generates a physiological response that’s similar to making love: increased heart rate, circulation and sweating.

In the medieval era, mead, a ferment beverage made from honey, was drunk to promote sexual desire. In ancient Persia couples drank mead every day for a month after their wedding to get into the proper frame of mind for a successful marriage – the basis for our term “honeymoon.” Honey contains high levels of B vitamins (essential for testosterone production), as well as boron, which helps women metabolize and utilize estrogen.

Back to oysters: Probably no other food has as mighty a reputation as an aphrodisiac as oysters. They’ve been documented as such by the Romans since the second century A.D., when the satirist Juvenal wrote of the wanton ways of women after drinking wine and eating “giant oysters.”

There do seem to be scientific reasons for the amorous reputation of oysters. They’re high in zinc, which has been linked with improving male sexual potency. Recently oysters, along with mussels and clams, have been found to contain D-aspartic acid and N-Methyl-D-aspartic compounds that may be effective in releasing sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen.

Last but not least, chocolate has long been linked with love and romance. The Aztec king, Montezuma, legendarily drank 50 goblets of (unsweetened) chocolate a day to increase his power in general and his sexual abilities in particular.

Modern researchers have found that chocolate contains phenyl ethylamine and serotonin, “feel good” chemicals that occur in humans naturally and are released by our brains when we are happy or feeling loving and/or passionate, producing a euphoric feeling like being in love. Additionally, researchers at the Neuroscience Institute of San Diego, California, say that chocolate may also contain a neurotransmitter called anandamide that has an effect on the brain similar to that of marijuana. The amount of anandamide is tiny, not enough to make one “high,” but it can make another contribution to those chocolaty good feelings.

Though it’s fun to speculate (and experiment), whether and how much the nutritional and chemical components of foods play into their reputations as love potions will always be a matter of conjecture. But one thing’s for sure: As it’s been said, the most important sexual organ is the brain. With the right attitude, the right setting and the right sense of adventure, you can make anything you eat into an amorous adventure.  

You can entice your lover – or beloved friends and family – with this decadent cake that’s like an ultra-fudgy brownie, smothered with more rich chocolate. The sweet/tart raspberry coulis (a.k.a. fruit purée) and whole berries are perfect foils for the intensely flavored cake.

If you’re not up for making the whole recipe, both the ganâche (a mixture of chocolate and heavy cream) and the raspberry coulis are quickly and easily made, and provide delicious sensory experiences alone or in combination; suggestions follow.       

Almost flourless chocolate cake with fresh raspberries
and raspberry coulis

• 8 oz. good quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (I especially like Ghiradelli 60% chocolate chips)  
• 12 T. (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
• 1 c. plus 2 T. sugar     
• 1/4 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour
• 6 eggs, separated
• 1 tsp. instant coffee or instant espresso, optional

For the coulis:
• 1/4 c. sugar, or to taste
• 2 c. fresh or frozen raspberries

For the ganâche:       
• 8 oz. good quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate  
• 1 c. heavy cream

For the garnish:
• Fresh red raspberries

Preheat oven to 350 F.  

Line the bottom of a 9-inch cake pan with parchment or waxed paper; butter and flour it.  

Melt the butter and chocolate together in a large plastic covered bowl in a microwave on low to medium power. (Microwaves vary – the defrost setting is usually ideal, but sometimes can be too hot or too cool. Check and stir every couple minutes until melted.)  

Cool to lukewarm, then add the sugar and flour and combine well. Add the egg yolks, lightly beaten.  

Whip the egg whites in a separate bowl until stiff, but not dry-appearing. Gently but thoroughly fold half the egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Fold in the remaining whites using as little motion as possible to just barely combine. Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35–40 minutes. A crust will have formed on top, but the inside will seem somewhat undercooked. Don’t worry. The cake firms up when cool. Cool in the pan on a rack.  

Make the ganâche by heating the cream in a heavy pan to just below simmering.  Remove pan from heat and add the chocolate. Lower the heat to the lowest possible setting, return pan to stove and whisk until smooth. Keep warm.

When cake is completely cooled, turn out onto a rack that has been placed over parchment or waxed paper. Spoon the warm ganâche over the cake, allowing it to drip over the sides. Use a small spatula or knife to cover the sides completely.  

Make the coulis by putting thawed frozen raspberries or fresh raspberries in the container of a blender with the sugar and blend until berries are pureed and the sugar is dissolved. Strain through a fine mesh strainer to remove the seeds.

To serve, either place a spoonful of the coulis on a plate and swirl to cover the bottom or put coulis in a plastic squirt bottle and make decorative squiggles on the plate. Place a slice of cake on the plate and scatter fresh raspberries over the top.  

Alternative uses for the raspberry coulis and ganâche:

Top chocolate ice cream with the raspberry coulis; raspberry sorbet with the warm ganâche, or vanilla ice cream with both.

Warm ganâche makes wonderful fondue. Add a tablespoon of liquor such as Amaretto or

Kahlua if you’d like. Use to dip fresh fruits such as strawberries and bananas.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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