Hot Thoughts & Chocolate Cake with Almond Cream Filling

I looked at the temperature recently and saw 1 degree Fahrenheit. That’s -17 Celsius for those of you not cozy with Fahrenheit. It doesn’t really matter which scientist your thermometer is named after; this is cold! The wind chill factor brought the temperature to -20 F ( -29C), or worse. The branches in the trees sounded like they would snap off any minute and spear you to the ground, and if you haven’t kept up with lip protection, you’re done.
Read a lot of books, be artistic in warm studios, bake goodies, and think about warmth and heat any way you can.

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Once I was in Morocco where it was lovely and warm. It was filled with oasis, and palm trees, and casbahs right out of 1001 Arabian Nights. We drank a lot of mint tea and kept a steady look-out for flying carpets.

Spices sold at Souk

Spices sold at Souk

I went there with two Greek friends because we wanted to see if one can drive right up to the dunes in the Saraha.  I had said probably not, thinking that a car would falter in the sand before one could see any dunes; whereas Nikos and Nikos said that no, one could drive right up to the edge of the desert. It had been quite the discussion.
“This I’d like to see.” I said.
“OK!” they answered.

This is a Citroen 2CV. It doesn't go very fast, but it gets there.

This is a Citroen 2CV. It doesn’t go very fast, but it gets there.

We loaded up an ancient, hot pink, Citroen CV2 with camping equipment, cooking equipment, snacks, and a lot of keftedes (Greek meat balls), and drove from Athens, Greece, all the way to the edge of the Sahara, circumventing the Mediterranean through Balkan countries, Austria (pit stop), Italy, France, Spain, crossing over to the African continent from Gibraltar.

Athens to Morocco route

Big Oasis

Big Oasis

Fossil Land

Fossil Land

This trip was very cool, but I want to tell you about the weirdest thing that happened there. It was one of those defining moments for tourism.

Arrival at the Dunes. Notice camel in background.

Arrival at the Dunes. Notice camel in background.

Picture our little tent set up next to miles and miles of sand dunes in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing around except the Sahara and a small rectangular cement structure the size of two large shipping containers. This is a cafe serving tea, tagine, couscous, and Coke . The cafe has a few low tables and three chairs. It also has a wide bench built along the interior walls which were often filled with sleeping Bedouins who were resting between trips to other cafes, or oasis, or wherever Bedouins go hang out. There was a smaller room sectioned off as the kitchen and there was an outhouse out back, which was the reason we set up camp in relative proximity to the Cafe Sahara. We were about a football field’s distance away from the cafe.

Escaping the sun in the Cafe Sahara

Escaping the sun in the Cafe Sahara

We spent many days there doing fun things like skiing down the dunes, lying on the sand while looking up, or just hanging out with the two dudes that ran the cafe. Either one of them would sometimes get on an ancient moped they had traded their camel in for, and drive off in a dusty cloud to bring supplies from a town two hours away. Sometimes they’d also leave to go hang out with the other cafe keepers a dozen miles further south in order to bring back news of relatively current events. Those cafe keepers further south apparently still had their camels because they invited to meet us at the local camel fair where my two friends were invited to trade me in for five healthy camels of mixed genders. This was meant as a great compliment to myself to be valued as much as five camels.

So there we were in our little tent, lying on our air mattresses early one morning. The sun still hadn’t risen, but I was awake and pondering my existence, when I felt a strange kind of vibration coming from the ground. It was not enough to make me nervous, but we had become so attuned to the prevailing sounds of wind or nothing, that this was unusual. I shook my friends awake, and they agreed that this vibration was weird. We crawled outside, got up, turned around, and looked at all horizons, but we saw nothing.

The silence was broken by the generator and lights going on over at the cafe. The vibrations we had felt were overwhelmed with those from the generator. The Cafe had never “opened” before dawn since we had arrived there and we wondered what was up. Both Ishim and Kaddah were up and about, busily loading trays from a box filled with stone fossils located just outside the cafe entrance. We had assumed that this was their own private fossil collection and had even added some that we had  found around where our tent was. The desert is full of them.

It was still dark as we sat down to make some tea and munch on some cookies. We watched our two friends look towards the still dark western horizon, then head in the opposite direction towards the growing light in the dunes; trays strapped in front of them much like cigarette girls used to have back in the 1950’s.

cigarette girl

Finally we saw two lights towards the west, growing from pin pricks to headlights blazing through clouds of sand and dust. The ground we were sitting on was really  rumbling now. It was a huge tour bus. Its windows were reflecting the growing light in the east as it slowed down to a stop not far from the cafe and the outhouse.
But it wasn’t alone. It had a huge trailer!
This trailer was just as high and as long and as wide as the bus. It had tiny windows along its sides, and it was bright red. It appeared as if the trailer provided some kind of sleeping accommodation for the bus passengers. It was the most bizarre thing we had ever seen and we were bit annoyed that it intruded on what we had adopted as our own vast desert privacy.
They are called Rotel Tours.

The doors of the bus opened and out ran a few dozen people with cameras hanging from their necks. Some ran very fast, while others tried to keep up at a brisk pace. They all headed straight for the dunes, slipping and sliding in the sand as they grappled over the dunes and tried to go deeper into the desert. They stopped when they reached one of the higher dunes, cameras poised towards the sunrise. We looked at this scene with our mouths hanging open in astonishment. Ishim and Kaddah could be seen weaving in and out amongst the tourists who in turn swatted them away like flies as they tried to capture their version of Dawn in the Sahara.

The sunrises were all breathtaking over the desert. It was as if the sun’s rays were like a paintbrush dipped in gold. I never did take  a picture because when I managed to be awake, I was too absorbed in the experience. I always vowed that I would do it the following day. To be honest, I prefer having this memory.

Once the sun had cleared the horizon, the tourists snapped the covers back on their lenses, and returned in single file back to the bus. No one stopped at the Cafe, but the boys did manage to sell a few fossils.  Before they all climbed back inside the bus, one of the tourists stopped, and briefly waved to us. We waved back. The bus started its engines, swung itself and its trailer around in a huge dusty arc, and headed back to the direction from whence it came, getting smaller and smaller before it completely disappeared. We then headed over to the cafe to go borrow the skis again.

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Skiing the dunes

Chocolate Cake with Almond Cream Filling
Adapted from a recipe in Sky High Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne

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This recipe makes one small 8″ round cake, which one can then slice into layers. It will serve 6 – 10 people. If you want a larger cake, double the recipe and divide the batter into three 8″ pans.

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3 ounces (about 100 grams) unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
2/3 cups sugar
1/4 cup strongly brewed coffee
2/3 + 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2  stick unsalted butter (120 grams), room temperature
1/4 cup dark honey, preferably buckwheat or chestnut
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon natural vanilla extract (or 1 packet vanillin)
5 drops of natural almond extract
1/3 cup yogurt or buttermilk
Almond Cream Filling
1/2 cup apricot or seedless raspberry jam (I used apricot since I made some last summer, but the red raspberry would probably be more aesthetic on a Valentine’s Cake)
Bittersweet Frosting

Preheat oven to 350F (170C).
Butter the interior bottom and sides of your cake pan, then dust with flour.

Combine chocolate with half the sugar and the coffee in the top part of a double boiler, or in a glass or metal bowl placed over a saucepan of boiling water. Once the chocolate has melted, remove from heat and blend this mixture well until smooth. Set aside and allow to cool while you prepare the rest.

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and baking soda. Set this aside as well.

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With your mixer, cream together the remaining sugar and the butter. Add the honey then the eggs, one at a time. Add the vanilla and almond extracts.
On a lower speed, alternate adding the dry ingredients with the buttermilk. Lastly, add the melted chocolate mixture.
Pour into your prepared cake pan and bake for 30 – 40 minutes, or until a cake tester, or toothpick, comes out clean when stuck into the center. Let cake cool in its pan at least 10 minutes before turning out on a wire rack to cooling for at least an hour.

Almond Cream Filling
(If you prefer a vanilla cream, omit the almond flavor in the recipe)

Makes a little over 1 1/2 cups

2 whole eggs, room temperature
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and the egg yolk until frothy.

In a heavy saucepan, mix the sugar and the flour. Add about half the milk and whisk until smooth. Add the eggs, blend, then the remainder of the milk. Over medium to low heat bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Once it starts to boil and thicken, keep stirring for another three minutes. Remove from heat, then add the vanilla and almond extracts.
Pour into a bowl, and cover with some plastic wrap over its surface as to avoid a skin forming as it cools. This will need to cool completely before we can use it, so you might want to make this a day ahead.

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Bittersweet Chocolate Frosting

4 ounces (120 grams) of bittersweet chocolate
just under 1/2 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon dark rum
1 tablespoon coffee liquor

Coarsely chop the chocolate, then put it into a food processor.

In a heavy saucepan, scald the cream until little bubbles start to form around he edge. You do NOT want it to boil. Finely chop the chocolate in the food processor, then while it is running, drizzle in the hot cream through the feed tube. Process until the mixture is smooth then transfer into a small stainless steel bowl.

Whisk in the butter until melted and blended. Let this mixture cool slightly, then ad the rum and coffee liquor. Cover and refrigerate until the frosting starts to harden, then whisk it to get it fluffy and smooth. Alternatively, you can let it cool outside of the fridge until it has reached room temperature.

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Assembling the cake:

Slice your cake into either two, or three, layers.

Spread the cooled Almond Cream between the two layers, or divide it evenly in half to spread between three layers. When spreading the cream, don’t bring it all the way to the edge.

When the top layer is in place (smooth side up), heat the apricot or seedless raspberry jam until it bubbles, then spread evenly over the top of the cake, not quite reaching the edge.

Generously cover the sides of the cake with frosting, leaving a small amount to pipe a rim around the top of the cake. Pipe out a few small rosettes with any remaining frosting.

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