Accounting for Taste and a Chocolate Truffle Cake
“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
~ Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste
I happen to love cardamom. You might even say I’m a bit infatuated with the deeply fragrant spice. My friend Lisa K. loves it too. We recently devoured a loaf of Finnish Cardamom Bread in twenty-four hours. Our skinny jeans screamed “no”, but shamefully our ardor for cardamom won out. Ever had cardamom in your coffee? Try it. It imparts a sweet, subtle woodsy note that I start thinking about the moment my eyes open in the morning. Another friend, who must remain anonymous, swears that I make the best coffee. I didn’t disclose my secret ingredient to her, because, well, she’s told me too many times that she hates cardamom. Hmmm.
My sister doesn’t think she likes cardamom. “But maybe I’m thinking of a different spice,” she said when she saw the disappointment on my face last December. Her uncertainty keeps her from trying any recipe that calls for enough cardamom to earn the spice a spot in the recipe title–like this cake. She also hates goat cheese and of this she is certain. Her husband hates it too. And so do their three adult children. Research suggests that there’s a genetic component to taste. Perhaps there’s a gene for liking goat cheese.
Why do we like what we like, and hate what we hate when it comes to food? This has always been a mystery to me. Does the answer lie in our taste buds, our gene pool, or our psyche? In his April 13, 2010 New York Times article, Harold McGee reported that our likes and dislikes are often a matter of experience:
“If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety.”
This explains why cilantro is such a polarizing food. Even Julia Child hated the stuff that many haters claim tastes like soap. The good news is that those initial, negative impressions can be overcome if you don’t give up after the first attempt:
“every new experience causes the brain to update and enlarge its set of patterns, and this can lead to a shift in how we perceive a food.”
McGee’s article gave me hope for green peppers. I’ve hated them since I was a kid, but I make a point of trying them every now and again when they’re prepared in a way I’m not familiar with, forever optimistic that I’ll discover a means to mask their intense bitterness. This try and try again method worked for my husband Greg. He tried beets–a longstanding favorite of mine–on three separate occasions prepared three different ways without experiencing a love connection. He fell for them on his fourth try–my goat-cheese-hating sister’s blue ribbon pickled beets. Such persistence in the name of food is high on the list of reasons why I love that man. If only he would apply the same sensibility to eggs with runny yolks–the only food he still refuses to eat.
My childhood food nemesis was the onion. I hated onions even more than green peppers. My oldest sister (who happens to love goat cheese) hated onions too, and I cherished anything that bound us together. I still do. I reconciled with onions in my 30s by drawing a hot and cold line between those I’d eat and those I wouldn’t. Today, I can’t imagine cooking without onions, but please don’t ask me to sprinkle a handful of raw onions on my bratwurst. My sister’s hatred for onions runs deeper. Go ahead and cut her tomato with your tainted onion knife; I dare you. Fortunately, our connection runs deeper than a vegetable, and it’s strengthened by a shared love for she-crab soup, and of course goat cheese. I’ve long suspected it’s this very concept of connection that fuels the disdain my nieces feel towards goat cheese. The bond it secures between them and their dad likely warms their hearts in ways that even the most delicious cheese cannot.
So perhaps it’s not so much the physiology of taste at work, but rather the psychology of taste. We are what we eat in the physical sense, but we often define, even label, ourselves by the relationships we have with our food. Are the foods we love, hate, or avoid at all costs merely an expression of our individuality?
Take my friend Clark, The Man Who Wouldn’t Eat Vegetables. He hates–H.A.T.E.S.–vegetables, all vegetables, any shape, any color. He gestures wildly with his arms when he orders a chicken sandwich, “no garnish, no garnish.”
“I don’t eat vegetables,” I’ve heard Clark say countless times.
The person making the inquiry typically responds with disbelief naming all the vegetables they can think of, “Asparagus? Broccoli? Carrots? Lettuce…”
All the while Clark emphatically shakes his head “no” and ends with this, “Yes, really, I hate all vegetables, believe me, I’ve tried.”
Yet each time he repeats those last words, I detect a faint note of pride in his voice. For Clark, it’s not a matter of taste. It runs deeper than that. It’s a way of life–it’s who he is.
I may never understand how someone can despise all vegetables; how an entire family can detest a tangy cheese; or even why I adore cardamom. Unlike Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, I cannot tell you who you are just by knowing what you eat. But then again, aren’t the mysteries in life what make it so interesting?
Chocolate Truffle Cake with Cardamom and Espresso
Adapted from Ottolenghi, The Cookbook by Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi. Resist the urge to skimp on chocolate with this cake; use the best you can find. If you’re feeling particularly naughty, serve this up with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a generous dollop of whipped cream.
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
13 ounces dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces (I use Ghiradelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chips.)
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
1/4 cup water
5 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
cocoa powder for finishing
8-inch springform pan
- Preheat the oven to 325°F.
- Put the butter and chocolate in a large heatproof bowl. Stir the brown sugar and water together in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over moderate heat. Immediately pour the boiling syrup over the chocolate and butter and stir until they’re completely melted. Mix in the egg yolks one at a time. Add the cardamom and espresso powder.
- Butter the bottom and sides of the springform pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
- Whisk the egg whites with the salt until soft peaks form. Gently fold about a third of the beaten egg whites into the melted chocolate. Fold in the remaining whites.
- Pour two-thirds of the batter into the prepared cake pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake for 40-45 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out almost clean. Allow cake to cool completely.
- Flatten the top of the cake with the back of a spoon. (It’s okay for the crusty bits to break.) Pour the remaining batter on top and smooth the surface again. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until a few moist crumbs remain on the toothpick.
- Remove the cake from the pan when it’s completely cool and dust with cocoa powder.