Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Sunday, October 9, 2016

A Cauldron of Molten Chocolate Cake In A Mixed Bag of Tricks

“Except for cases that clearly involve a homicidal maniac, the police like to believe murders are committed by those we know and love, and most of the time they're right - a chilling thought when you sit down to dinner with a family of five. All those potential killers passing their plates.”
― Sue Grafton, A is for Alibi

For the dedicated caregiver, family meals are an iffy proposition. Getting any group of people to sit together at one time is enough of a challenge, but when they are a motley assemblage of schedules, age, sex, and attitude that happen to share the same genes, it can be downright hostile. Individual preferences can't be easily catered to - and yet each family member will expect some nod to their tastebuds as they stuff their gullets (lest you risk their crying about your horrible neglect into their Gestalt therapists notepads for years to come) ; and when matters become further complicated since Sally is vegan, Tommy wants pancakes all-day, everyday, while little Jerry refuses to eat anything that hasn't been rolled into a tube and preserved by nitrates? Fuggetaboutit! It's a wonder that more homecooks aren't convicted murderers because, frankly, poisoning their nearest and dearest's gluten-free pasta is the only way to ensure everyone has received equal consideration.
I myself am not a parent, but I've have seen many a busy one who, in desperation to fulfill the needs of the collective (and maintain some semblance of sanity), give up entirely on anything vaguely nutritive, and find themselves repeatedly resorting to the panacea of fast-food restaurants: Taco Bell and McDonald's to the rescue. (No wonder McDonald's "You Deserve A Break Today" and "Have You Had Your Break Today?" slogans were named the #1 Advertising Jingles of the Century by AdAge.). Sure to us, the child-free culinarily virtuous, it's still poisoning, but it's a slow poisoning: comprised of several legal lethal injections, one "Happy Meal" at a time.
The happiest day of the year for the childbearing set, when an American parent is almost free from the angst of wondering how many spoonfuls of sugar will help the meal-time medicine go down, has got to be Halloween. It's an endless downpour of confectionary bliss: Snickers and Reese's Peanut Butter Cup and M&Ms ... OH MY! Enough to put the sweet cherubs into a sugar coma for one long blessed mid-autumn evening. Although Halloween itself has never held any true interest for me. I had too many real life ghouls and goblins to contend with growing up, making the thinning of the veil between underworld and real world just another a silly thought.. besides those worlds are constantly overlapping, of course! What are ghosts but persistent memories? Picturing a parade of merry Medeas and Cronuses singing, "Free at last! Free at last!" (at the suggestion of a sympathetic pal whose advice I sought for writing something less than ordinary about All Hallow's Eve), I nearly conjured up a recipe for adeptly poisoning trick-or-treater's candy and getting away with it, but reconsidered on moral grounds. I don't want to contribute to the delinquency of a procreator. Though, sadly, historically speaking, there are no lack of begetters who have resorted to poisoning their begotten for a brief respite from family life.
Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, claims that Mary Ann Cotton was the world’s most renowned “arsenic murderess.” Between 1865 and 1873 in the North of England, she murdered three of her four husbands, as well as a lover, to collect on their insurance policies. It’s believed that she could’ve killed up to 21 victims—including 11 of her 13 children—and was ultimately hanged for her crimes. Within that time frame, American Lydia Sherman operated in much the same vein. Using rat poison as her first toxin of choice, she offed her third husband by adding spoonfuls of the pesticide to his mug of hot chocolate.
You see? Those good old days of yesteryear are not as idyllic as we are led to believe. Nostalgia is a distorted rearview mirror whose surface is coated with rainbows, instead of aluminum, but some times are better misremembered anyway, particularly when we didn't actually experience them (insert wink emoticon for those whose diets are irony-deficient). The only true family-style "happy meals" not served at McDonalds are likely those imagined in the pages of fiction and written into scenes for children's films/ television shows. So with this fuzzy logic I looked forward to my backward glance at cartoon life as I myself sought to prepare an article for you dear readers that would kill two pterodactyls with one boulder: viz. write something vaguely Halloweenish and foodly.
I was going to subject you to a Dinner of the Damned cooked up by Dante's Inferno - a 9 course meal for those infernal circles of Hell. I wanted each course to be from Dante's 13th Century Fiorenza and directly correspond to an individual diner from each level, a representative of the group as a whole: letting the food course fit the sinner and his sin. To make it more relevant for the average reader of today's social media-infected crapitola (I'm not referring to you, of course, discerning reader),  my dinner guests would be culled from a list of trending celebrities, fictional characters, notorious murderers, sports icons, and historical figures who were born after Dante wrote his classic poem, but I soon realized that not only would the audience for such an undertaking be limited to those three people on earth (still amongst the living) who actually read Dante's Inferno in its entirety, but also that the article's scope would exceed the space that this humble column allows.  Honestly, I feel as though most months I already stretch the limits of readers' (and editors') patience with my prolix meanderings on the arcana of foodisms, BUT Dinner at Chez Dante's the only idea that occurred to me that hadn't already had volumes written about it ad nauseum in food circles ... probably for good reason! 

Gustave Doré's depiction of Minos judging sinners at the start of Canto

It's quite remarkable the ostensible appetite publishers and food writers believe homecooks have for the stuff. The pantheon of food literature written on everything remotely macabre is enough to choke the Kraken's throat. From Lemonysnicket's Pasta Puttanesca to the Addams Family's "Mushrooms Fester" and "Hearts Stuffed", to copious recipes adding a touch of eye of newt and suggesting popping over to the neighbors for a cup of cyanide. I found Harry Potter's Butterbeer Sauce with Golden Snitch Truffles and Nosebleed Nougats, Turkish Delights from The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Ring's Lemba Bread, Sleepy Hollow's Slapjacks. An endless array of whimsical ghoulish stomach-churners... there's even a Necronomicon Cookbook featuring such comestibles as Cthulhu Pot Pie and Chthonic Casserole of Yog Sothoth for the ardent H.P. Lovecraft fan. After all this, I still considered writing a recipe for Buffalo-style Hippogriff wings... but thought better of it. I didn't want teenybopper vegan Harry Potter fans (or their virtue-signaling parents) writing me death threats. Then I opted for riffing on MFK Fisher's, "How To Cook A Wolf" with "How To Cook A Werewolf", and, as she did in her essay, subtly turned it into an exposition on the current state of national politics, but lost the stomach for yet another didactic bit of social commentary served up as infotainment. This election season has already taken several huge slurps from the chicken soup of my soul.
Recreating Lucrezia Borgia's Banquet of Chestnuts seemed promising until I discovered it was more orgy than banquet: mostly just chestnuts scattered on the floor as guests ground each other into meat patties on top of their fragrant carpet of nuts. I was also disappointed to learn darling Lucrezia didn't really poison everyone she dined with. Dropping that theme, I then began research on great chefs who were murderers, but, although it turns out many sociopaths are attracted to restaurant work, none are actually chefs. Surprising, eh? I thought for sure I'd find a skeleton or two in Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen pantry.
From there to a Murderer's Row Dinner Banquet menu filled with final meal requests was just a hop, skip and a thump, but the Death Row'ers requests were disappointingly pedestrian (Hannibal Lecter would look askance at the mundane meal choices). Except, that is, for kidnapper and murderer, Victor Feguer, hanged in 1963 - the last person executed in Iowa. As his final meal, Victor requested a single olive with the pit still in it, with the hopes that it would grow into an olive tree from inside his body. Another request of note was interesting not so much for its content as for its wickedly ironic tone: Ricky Ray Rector was executed in 1992 for the 1981 murder of police officer Robert Martin in Conway, Arkansas. He requested steak, fried chicken, cherry Kool-Aid and pecan pie, but left the pecan pie on the side of the tray, telling the guards who came to take him to the execution chamber that he was "saving it for later." 
Even the infamous Jeffrey Dahmer, Milwaukee's favorite cannibal, American serial killer and sex offender left my ladle cold. He didn’t have a scheduled date for execution when he met his end, but, before fellow inmate, 25 year old Christopher Scarver, beat him to death, apparently he did consume what would undoubtedly be a USDA-approved last breaking of the fast: one hard-boiled egg, toast, cereal and coffee when he woke on the morning of November 28th, 1994. At 7:50am, Jeff and two other inmates were brought in to clean the prison gymnasium. Twenty minutes later, guards found Dahmer and one of the other inmates beaten severely, one hour and one minute later, Dahmer was pronounced dead en route to the local Divine Savior Hospital. Dahmer's head was destroyed with a broom handle, then smashed against the floor and wall. There was blood everywhere. The other inmate was in critical condition. Apparently, Jeff's last words to Scarver were, "I don't care if I live or die. Go ahead and kill me." Such a good sport. That led me to wondering what he used to give away as candy to trick-or-treaters...and attempting a little exposition on the Halloween habits of serial killers, but I reached yet another dead end. 
And on that cheery note, I direct you to the next platter of this article's smorgasbord:
A Munster's Family Menu.
THE MUNSTERS was a situation comedy on CBS between 1964-68. They were not as wonderfully weird as the Addams Family (whose popular show ran against The Munsters on a rival network at primetime). The Munsters lacked the income, sophistication and mordancy of the Addamses - they were the working class-version. Despite being supernatural creatures (with Frankenstein's monster as the head of the family, vampires for both mother and grandfather, a werewolf as an only child, a "normal" cousin who is adopted by the family, and a pet dragon), Herman and the clan were remarkably less outre than they were blithe spirits trying to get along in a world in which they couldn't quite assimilate, but not for lack of trying;  somehow, they still considered themselves a typical mid-20th century American nuclear family, much of the comedy in the script relied on a cheerful obliviousness to their effect on their human neighbors. The Munsters lived at 1313 Mockingbird Lane in the city of Mockingbird Heights, a fictional suburb in California. The story lines were topical, incorporating themes of the era. Herman, like many husbands of the 1960s, is the sole wage-earner in the family; though Lily and Grandpa often made futile and hilarious attempts to assist him financially from time to time. Lily and Herman were depicted as equal partners in the marriage. A devoted housewife, Lily prepared most of the meals and eagerly encouraged her little boy Eddie to eat with a "Don't just sit there, wolf down your food." In one memorable episode, "Will Success Spoil Herman Munster?", in order to save Herman from divadom when a song Herman records became an instant hit on a popular radioshow, Grandpa Munster (who was not only a vampire but also a mad scientist concocting potions in his basement laboratory) baked his Nothin' Muffins promising his daughter Lily "one bite turns anything good into nothin", feeding them to Herman, ending Herman's singing career and all was doves and olive branches in the Munster household once more. 

The series often depicted the family eating together with gustatory relish on a diet that included the following:

Chopped Lizard Livers
Cold Rhinoceros Tongue Sandwiches.
Fillet of Dragon.
Eggs (Gloomy Side Up)
Cream of Vulture Soup (Herman's favorite)
Curried Lizard Casserole
Rolled Hyena-foot Roast
Bird's Nest Stew (Grandpa's favorite)
Warm Ladyfingers with Pickled Frog Ears
Dodo Bird Roast
Cream of Buzzard or Iguana Soup
Cactus Salad
Salamander Salad with Centipede Dressing
Bloody Mary or Bat's milk (served hot).
Devil's Food Cake for dessert

Well after the demise of the show, Al Lewis, the actor who played Grandpa Munster in the series, owned & ran his own Italian restaurant on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. Between 1987 to 1993, you could find the tall, affable Lewis—once a basketball star at Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York— on Bleecker and Leroy Streets. Grampa’s Bella Gente Italian is where he capitalized on his Munsters' fame, living a fruitful afterlife, parlaying his passion for plasma into one for pasta. I myself once enjoyed a perfectly adequate dish of linguine there just prior to its closing. Without so much as a whisper, the kitchen door eerily swung open. Dark and imposing against a swirling backdrop of steam rising from the pots of boiling water beyond, his theatrical figure in the doorway, tufts of gray hair, and arched eyebrows made him instantly recognizable even without the pasty makeup. He was the host of Bella Gente as well as the owner, personally meeting and seating every guest: spry, spirited looking very elegant and dapper dressed in a red bow tie and tweed suit (though I do remember being disappointed he wasn't dressed in the full Munster's vampire regalia, but I was young, please don't hold it against me). He'd stand out in front of his restaurant every night, beckon customers, happily posing for photos. After Grampa’s Bella Gente closed, Lewis opened two comedy clubs, and hosted a political talk show on WBAI in the 1990s - becoming a colorful addition to radical N.Y. City politics, as well as a frequent and raucous guest on the Howard Stern show, memorably haranguing the FCC with a flurry of bleepable expletives.

Lewis ran for governor in 1998 on the Green Party ticket (and scored 52,000 votes). An actor onstage and off, he indulged in a bit of self-mythologizing: "I'm not a politician. I've been a performer all my life. But I'm a very political person and have been that way fifty, sixty years. I was involved with topical events of the day like the attempt to stop the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the imprisonment of Tom Mooney and Warren K. Billings, the trial and imprisonment of the Scottsboro Boys..." 
And: "Charles Manson babysat my kids," he once bragged. "He didn't chop no heads off. He was very nice with me."

A fascinating character who held a PhD in child psychology, Al Lewis seemed to have found the secret to living a happy life, "I absolutely must have fun at what I'm doing," he once said in an interview with the New York Daily News "If I don't, I leave, I quit. I don't care how much money is involved if the work is a drudge." He died at his Roosevelt Island home on February 3, 2006. At his funeral, one friend said, “Who was Al Lewis? A raconteur. The de facto mayor of Roosevelt Island. The best-dressed man on Roosevelt Island. He held court in front of 546 Main Street, the senior citizens center…” It should be noted that Grampa Munster’s signature ride, the ‘dragula’ gold coffin on wheels, rolled his remains up to the door of the church. 
Inspired by Grandpa Munster's penchant for mixing volatile politics like potions, I offer up these molten lava cakes - a bubbling cauldron of chocolate, but, unlike the cauldron featured in the song of the witches from Macbeth, you only need a few ingredients, none of which include howlet's wing. Save that for your next spell:

Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1
A dark Cave. In the middle, a Caldron boiling. Thunder.
Enter the three Witches
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin'd.
Harpier cries:—'tis time! 'tis time!
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot!
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf;
Witches' mummy; maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark;
Root of hemlock digg'd i the dark;
Liver of blaspheming Jew;
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver'd in the moon's eclipse;
Nose of Turk, and Tartar's lips;
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,—
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.


Crusty on the outside, all warm chocolate ooze on the inside, this is pure sensuality on a plate. The now ubiquitous dessert has remained a restaurant classic since its invention in the late 1980s & is one of the easiest ways for any homecook to replicate a Michelin-starred chef's dish (hell, even Betty Crocker sells a bastardized one-minute microwaveable version of it named Warm Delights, which are essentially single-serving bowls of regular old cake mix). In New York, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, chef-owner of JoJo, created the molten chocolate cake. It happened by accident: He pulled a chocolate sponge cake (the recipe is his mother’s) out of the oven too early, tasted the cake, and discovered that the raw gush of its underdone center was delectable. He called the cake a Chocolate Valrhona Cake, and served it with vanilla ice cream, and a new classic was born. I suggest you serve it with a raspberry coulis to make it more Halloweenish (though coffee, vanilla, caramel or peanut butter ice cream will all work, too.) Tell your brats the raspberry coulis is bat's blood, if they look down their noses at you for not providing something kitschier for them to eat. With any luck they'll stick to Kit Kats and candy corn and you can have these treats all to yourself! 

½ cup unsalted butter, plus more for buttering the molds
4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
4 large eggs
¼ cup sugar
2 teaspoons flour, plus more for dusting the molds

Put the butter in a medium bowl and melt it in the microwave. Add the chocolate to the hot butter and stir until melted.
Crack 2 eggs into a bowl, and add 2 more yolks (discard the extra whites, or save & whip into a meringue as a fun topping for the cakes). Add the sugar, and beat or whisk until light and thick, about 1 minute. Add egg mixture and 2 teaspoons flour to the melted chocolate; beat until combined.
Butter and lightly flour four 4-ounce molds or ramekins (make sure not to miss any spots, or the cakes will stick). Tap out the excess flour. Divide the batter among the molds. (At this point you can refrigerate them for up to 3 hours; just bring them back to room temperature before baking.)
When you’re ready to bake, heat the oven to 450. Put the molds on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until the cakes have puffed up a bit, the tops are barely set and the cakes still jiggle slightly when shaken, 7 to 9 minutes (better underbaked than overbaked). Let sit for 1 minute.
Put a plate on top of the ramekin and (with a potholder to protect your hand) carefully invert the cake onto the plate. Let it sit for 10 seconds, then lift up the ramekin. Serve immediately with raspberry coulis (recipe below).

Serves 4 lucky ghouls.


1⁄3 cup sugar
3 Tablespoons of water
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice 
1 lb fresh raspberries or 1 (12 ounce) bag frozen raspberries, thawed
1 teaspoon kirsch (optional) or 1 teaspoon framboise eau-de-vie (optional)


Heat the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until the sugar dissolves completely, about 5 minutes.
Put the raspberries, lemon juice, and the sugar syrup in a blender and puree.
Strain through a fine mesh sieve to remove the seeds and stir in the kirsch or framboise, if using.
The sauce keeps well, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for 4-5 days and freezes perfectly for several months.
Yields 1 1/2 cups

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