One of our good friends, a busy journalist and college professor, entertains more often than anyone I know and does so effortlessly and with much pleasure.
Her success, I've discovered, is due to several factors.
First, she plans simple menus, many of which include quickly grilled or sauteed meats accompanied by roasted seasonal vegetables. And even though she loves to cook, she has no reservations about supplementing her homemade fare with an appetizer from a neighborhood deli or a dessert from a local bakery. Finally, she often shares the cooking with a friend.
I turned out to be one of her fellow cooks for a fall dinner for eight. My friend had bought savory wine and pepper-scented crackers and topped them with creamy cheese to offer as appetizers.
Earlier in the day she had sauteed chicken with lemon and capers, cooked green beans and tossed them with bacon, and baked a potato gratin. I arrived with a chocolate cardamom cake to end the menu.
All through the cool, crisp New England evening, I noticed how relaxed my friend was. She spent as much time as the guests savoring wine and appetizers, then left the room for a few minutes to reheat the main course, which was presented buffet style. At dessert time, she brewed coffee while I brought the cake to the table.
The rich chocolate cake turned out to be a fine finale to the meal and, like the other dishes, was not complicated to prepare. This flourless confection takes a generous addition of fragrant ground cardamom. The latter adds a subtle but distinctive note. The cake needs about a half-hour in the oven, but the center should still be slightly moist when a tester is inserted into it. As it cools the cake firms but the center remains soft. I served each slice with a scoop of vanilla ice cream plus a drizzle of bittersweet chocolate sauce. Although I expected leftovers, there weren't any.
As we left, the host whispered to me that my helping out had made a big difference to her. "I cooked from 11 to 1," she confided, "then set the table and relaxed for the rest of the day." No wonder she entertains so frequently. She's found a winning formula.
Sauteed chicken with lemon and capers; green beans tossed with bacon; potato gratin; chocolate cardamom cake
CHOCOLATE CARDAMOM CAKE WITH WARM CHOCOLATE SAUCE
Serves 8 to 10
12 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate, chopped
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, diced
1/4 cup sugar, divided use
2 teaspoons ground cardamom (see note)
7 large eggs, separated
6 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup half-and-half
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liqueur
confectioners' sugar, for garnish
1 pint best-quality vanilla ice cream
mint sprigs, optional
Line an 8-inch springform pan with a sheet of parchment paper, then butter the paper.
To make the cake, melt the chocolate and butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly. When smooth, remove from heat and cool slightly. Stir together 2 tablespoons sugar with cardamom in a small bowl. Place egg yolks in a mixing bowl and, with an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat them several seconds. Gradually add the sugar-and-cardamom mixture, then beat until mixture has thickened and increased in volume, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce speed to low, add the melted-chocolate mixture, and beat just to combine.
With an electric mixer with clean beaters on high speed, beat egg whites until foamy, then gradually add remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Beat until soft peaks form, 1 to 2 minutes more. Stir or whisk 1 1/2 cups egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Then fold in remaining egg whites in 3 equal additions. Spoon batter into prepared pan and bake on center rack of preheated 325-degree oven until cake puffs and top is set, 30 to 35 minutes. A tester inserted in the center will still be slightly wet. Cool to room temperature. Cake will deflate as it cools.
Run a knife around inside edge of pan and remove the sides. Carefully invert cake onto a serving plate, then remove and discard the parchment paper. Cover cake with foil or a cake dome and leave at cool room temperature. (Cake can be prepared 1 day ahead.)
To make the sauce, melt chocolate and half-and-half in a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat until smooth. Remove from heat and stir in Grand Marnier or other liqueur. (The sauce can be prepared 1 day ahead; cool, cover and refrigerate. Reheat over low heat, stirring.) To serve, dust the cake with confectioners' sugar. Place a slice of cake on a dessert plate along with a scoop of ice cream. Drizzle both with Warm Chocolate Sauce. Garnish with mint sprig, if desired.
Note: Use the freshest ground cardamom available. It should be fragrant when you open the bottle or package. Buying small amounts from stores that sell it in bulk helps ensure that it is fresh.
Per serving: 526 calories, 10 grams protein, 44 grams fat, 24 grams saturated fat, 38 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams fiber, 203 milligrams cholesterol, 79 milligrams sodium. Nutrition analysis by Jodie Shield, a registered dietitian.