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Accounting for Taste and a Chocolate Truffle Cake

April 21, 2012

cardamom and espresso 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


  1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
  2. 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.
  3. Butter the bottom and sides of the springform pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Remove the cake from the pan when it’s completely cool and dust with cocoa powder.
18 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2012 8:59 am

    I adore cardamom – one of my favourite flavours (see my cardamom cookies). This truffle cake looks ridiculously good – ridiculously. I had to pin it :D. Beautiful flavourings.

  2. April 21, 2012 9:51 am

    This cake..oh my god. You are my new best friend..the end.

    • April 21, 2012 11:41 am

      I agree with both Nick and Brittany above. Cardamom makes you a hero, Bob, and this cake looks divine!

  3. April 23, 2012 3:36 am

    I stayed away from green peppers too as a kid. But over time I’ve learnt to love them. Gorgeous photographs.

    Aren’t flourless truffle cakes life-changingly good?! And isn’t Yotam Ottolenghi a genius?

  4. April 23, 2012 12:07 pm

    I love all vegetables. Literally all of them. And fruits, too. I’ve never been picky when it comes to food.

    This cake looks amazing, plus I love the addition of cardamom (one of my favorite). Well done!

  5. May 3, 2012 9:26 am

    Beets are the one vegetable I really want to like, mostly because they are so beautiful. I have tried them every which way, but it just tastes like earth in my mouth and I can’t swallow them. Maybe Greg will share his next batch of pickled beets? I used to be a cilantro hater, but now I actually love it! Keep trying on the green peppers, it may happen yet.
    That cardamom cake looks so yummy!

  6. Shannon permalink
    May 20, 2012 2:34 pm

    I’m going to try this recipe this weekend but with a llittle twist: instead of adding the last third of the chocolate truffle batter, I am planning to add a layer of cheesecake. Where I’m stumped is at the timing. The first two thirds of chocolate truffle batter cooks for aprox 40 min. and appears to be fully cooked when it goes back in the oven to cook the top layer. Can the bottom layer become overcooked? If I cook the bottom layer for 25 min. and then add my cheesecake layer to cook for 30 min. at 300 degrees do you think that will be sufficient to cook the bottom well or would you just go with the original 40 min. timing formthe first batter and do the second cheesecake baking round at 30 min.?

    • May 22, 2012 8:14 am

      Hi Shannon–sorry for the late reply–the garden was calling! The bottom layer isn’t fully cooked after the first baking, but better to err on the side of an under-cooked chocolate cake, than an over-cooked one. I absolutely love the idea of putting the cheesecake on top. The timing would also depend on the thickness of the cheesecake layer. I’d start with 30-35 minutes for the chocolate cake. Did you try it? I’d love to know how it turned out.

  7. Shannon permalink
    May 23, 2012 12:36 pm

    Thanks! I’ll let you know how it comes out 🙂

  8. June 16, 2012 3:12 pm

    I got a little confused, it’s the sugar and water not butter and water in step 2 to Omar the syrup. Pouring the syrup over the butter hand chocolate was not going to melt it, so it put it all in a bowl over a pan of water, seemed to do trick. Anyway it’s baked and looks divine, as fifth tiny bit I tried, test will be tomorrow and I can’t wait. Thanks for a great recipe, I lov cardamon!

    • June 21, 2012 9:38 am

      Jo–thank you so much for pointing out the typo. It’s fixed now. Strange though that the hot syrup wasn’t enough to melt your chocolate. Maybe it’s a matter of how small the chocolate pieces are. Hope you enjoyed it!

  9. Shannon permalink
    June 17, 2012 10:39 am

    I forgot to post about how my version with the cheesecake layer turned out! I made it for Memorial Day weekend and it was a big hit. I regularly use the Burt Wolf recipe for cheesecake (which is the BEST cheesecake recipe ever) and I replaced the second layer of the truffle cake with the cheesecake and served it with chocolate and strawberry syrups. It really tasted amazing. I cooked the first layer for about 35 min. and then had to do an hour for the cheesecake (the one fault in my copy of the Burt Wolf recipe that I keep forgetting to correct is that the cooking time is twice as long so I was thinking half the cake would be a half hour when it was really an hour. It takes nearly two hours for a full cheesecake). The bottom layer did not overcook, it was nice and moist. I made a little torte out of the remaining batter that would have gone on top for the second baking if I had followed the recipe as given. Served with the strawberry syrup, the chocolate truffle cake on its own is absolutely delicious. Thanks for this recipe! Now I have an added little fancy cake recipe up my sleeve for when I really want to impress people 🙂

    • June 21, 2012 9:33 am

      Hi Shannon–thank you for the update. It sounds like it was a big hit. I’m going to try it out for my cheesecake-lovin’ husband very soon.

  10. June 21, 2012 3:33 pm

    Oh it was delicious!!! The cardamon taste was quite subtle and I think next time I make it I’ll add a tiny bit more cardamon and a tiny bit less coffee.


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