Tuesday, April 3, 2018

THE DISCOVERY OF CHOCOLATE by James Runcie, with 2 ways to make chocolate cake as God intended

Five years ago I learned about Cook the Books, an online book club featuring not only books about food, but people who read those books and invent recipes inspired by them. One of those people even wins a prize. What could be more fun?

Back then they asked David and me to judge contributions based on Andrea Camilleri's The Shape of Water (the book, not the current movie by the same name, which bears no relation to it). Here's what we decided, and wrote.

Ever since, I've been reading their bimonthly emails announcing more books and more recipes. In February I noticed that they were featuring The Discovery of Chocolate by James Runcie (author of the books that inspired Grantchester, for you James Norton and Masterpiece fans), so I immediately ordered it. If, in the intervening weeks, I hadn't also acquired a new puppy, had a family reunion, celebrated 50 years of marriage, and survived Easter while being married to a church music director, I might have blogged about The Discovery of Chocolate in time to join their contest.  I liked the book more than any of their contestants did (and I'll tell you why), and I have a couple of killer chocolate recipes.

About the book:
I've read a lot of comments from people who hated it, or were mystified by it, or were bored by it, or thought it should have been written differently. As a former editor who helped authors develop their books in hopes of getting people to buy them, I respect those comments. Runcie's book fits no categories - not even magical realism, which many commenters think it is. It could be a hard sell.

But as a big fan of Voltaire's Candide, I chuckled all the way through Runcie's mash-up of impossible stories.* Candide is a classic and The Discovery of Chocolate is a bit of fluff, but both books are wickedly funny, both authors wink as they toss out allusions for readers to recognize, and both sweetly expose cruelty, pomposity, and hypocrisy through the naïve observations of their credulous protagonists.

Like Candide, Diego voyages throughout the world, having one bizarre adventure after another. Both characters are inspired by love, and both witness actual historical events. Unlike Candide, however, Diego also voyages through time. He's a gourmand, not a philosopher. He ends up at a Día de los Muertos festival, not in a garden. And he has a dog.

Also, the book is about chocolate.

About chocolate:
There's something called red velvet cake that I didn't discover until I moved to Maryland. Apparently it's a Southern thing. They think it's chocolatey. It is not.

There's something called a Texas sheet cake that is slightly more chocolatey, but it's still pretty wimpy.

Chocolate, my friends, can be assertive and even rough. It can be deep and rich and smooth. But it should never be bashful. It should never be milky, for heaven's sake. And it's not about the sugar. Cocoa content of 72% is good, but 85% is better, and 100% is just fine with a bit of coarse salt. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

[Flourless chocolate cakelet.
Raspberries and candle are optional.]
Back in 2009, I posted a recipe for a seriously fortified Texas sheet cake. The previous year I posted a recipe for flourless chocolate cakelets, whose chocolate content is even more intense. Both recipes still work. Try them. I can't promise that they'll make you immune to death, like Diego's elixir in The Discovery of Chocolate, but who knows?
*Clarification: I have degrees in French; Runcie earned a first in English from Cambridge University. I'll bet he was thinking, not of Candide (1759), but of Gulliver's Travels (1726). It's possible that Voltaire was thinking of Gulliver's Travels too--he was living in England when it was published. Take your pick. The point is, The Discovery of Chocolate is an 18th-century novel with sly 21st-century allusions. And it's about chocolate.


annie turner said...

Wow--food, time travel and chocolate! What's not to like?

Janet Tkachuck said...

There is a third way to make chocolate cake, and that is Ina Garten's Chocolate Cake with Ganache, which calls for a whole 16 oz. container of chocolate syrup. My innovation: not noticing that my container of chocolate syrup held 22 oz. until I had emptied it all into the batter. Result: 15 minutes more baking time and the most delicious, moist, fudgy chocolate cake imaginable. See? At least when it comes to chocolate, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds!

Simona Carini said...

I am a fan of Masterpiece's Grantchester and of James Norton (is there anybody who isn't) which is how I learned about the novel. And yes, 100% is the best: I slowly got from 80% to it and I can't say that's the only one I eat, but it's definitely how you taste whether the cacao is good and roasted well. It sounds like you had a busy time! I hope you'll join us for the current edition of Cook the Books.