Some people follow recipes as strictly as they might a tax form if an IRS agent were watching. Others simply use them as a guide, adding more of one ingredient and less of another. And still others can't be bothered with recipes at all.
Alex Turbant falls into the latter camp. But the accomplished French chef hasn't always been so confident. For many years, he paid his dues in the traditional manner - working as an apprentice in French restaurants from Paris to Provence.
Chef Turbant is first and foremost an artist. He studied photography and gravure at L'École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, the renowned art school in Paris, before deciding that gastronomy was his preferred medium. And today, the masterpieces he is most proud of are those he creates in the kitchen.
Exchanging a camera for a whisk came easily for Turbant. "It felt natural," he says. "Cooking, like other arts, involves working with materials to create something that brings pleasure and interesting experiences."
His current Mona Lisa is a three-layer cake, a sensational rendezvous of chocolate, almond, and orange flavors. Turbant, now a caterer in Marseille, France, came up with the recipe when he was asked to bake a birthday cake for a party of 50 guests. The host's only request was that it be "special." After experimenting a bit, Turbant went with the flavors he likes best.
As a new friend of Turbant's family, I was fortunate to sample his signature dessert at a recent gathering in Montpellier, France. As soon as I put down my fork, I picked up my pen. But to jot down this recipe, I needed a little help from an interpreter (his brother-in-law) and a metric conversion chart.
Thankfully, the extra effort paid off. I have since made Turbant's cake for friends in the US, and it swiftly disappeared from their plates.
I've promised them the recipe, but with a word of warning: If you want to be in and out of the kitchen fast, stick with Betty Crocker. Nothing about Turbant's cake is quick. But when you taste the result, you won't regret the hours (about three) spent making it. And for a special occasion, it's sure to wow your guests.
I'm convinced that the best recipes reflect a cook's passion for flavors, the savvy to harmonize them well, and a flair for artistic presentation.
Clearly, Alex Turbant is someone who can keep his cookbooks on the shelf.
Basic cake recipe - for each layer
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
5 egg whites, stiffly beaten
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
(You will need 3 times the above amounts)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, for vanilla layer only
1/4 cup almond paste, for almond layer only
2 tablespoons top-quality dark cocoa powder, for cocoa layer only
1-1/4 cups semisweet chocolate
2/3 cups butter
2/3 cups crème fraîche
1 cup strong coffee (cold and fresh)
1 tablespoon mint flavoring (optional)
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
6 oranges, juiced
1-1/2 cups sugar
Good-quality orange marmalade
Cocoa powder for dusting
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
For each cake layer, beat 5 egg yolks in a bowl, then mix them with 1/2 cup sugar. In a separate bowl, beat 5 egg whites until they form soft peaks. Fold egg whites into the egg-yolk-and-sugar mixture. Add 1/4 cup flour, and mix well. Add the vanilla extract, almond paste, or cocoa powder and mix thoroughly. Line three rectangular cake pans (9 by 13 by 2 inches) with parchment paper sprinkled with flour. Pour batter for each cake layer into its own pan. (If you don't have 3 pans, bake layers one at a time, cleaning the pan each time.)
Bake cake layers in 375 degrees F. preheated oven for 10 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let layers sit for a few minutes before removing them from the pan. Gently peel off parchment paper and let sit until cool.
When cake layers have cooled, stack the vanilla cake layer on a large rectangular plate or tray. Spread a layer of orange marmalade on top on the vanilla layer and then place the almond layer on top of the marmalade. Put the cocoa layer on top of the almond layer.
To make the chocolate ganache, melt butter and chocolate in a double boiler. Add the coffee. Separately boil the crème fraîche with mint, if desired, and the vanilla. When the crème fraîche mixture boils, pour it into the chocolate-coffee-butter mixture. Line a rectangular cake pan with parchment paper and pour the chocolate ganache into it. Let cool and harden. Flip ganache over onto the top (cocoa) layer. Peel off the parchment paper.
To make the orange sauce, cook sugar over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until slightly caramelized. Add the freshly squeezed orange juice. Boil mixture for about 3 minutes, stirring. Remove from heat, and let it cool completely.
Trim edges of cake to give it a finished look. If desired, dust top of cake with dark cocoa powder and spread an additional batch of chocolate ganache on the sides. Serve cake slices with a couple of tablespoons of orange sauce on the side of each plate.
Serves about 20.