I once got excited about Valentine’s Day. And I do mean “once”, as in, one time in my whole life. The first boyfriend I had was during my junior year of high school, and I was thrilled when he invited me on a trip with his mom on V-Day weekend. Unfortunately, my best friend, whose birthday was on the 13th, was not so thrilled when I asked whether she would mind moving her party to the following weekend so that I could attend. She then didn’t speak to me for a week, which was especially awkward since she drove me to and from school every day, 45 minutes each way. (I had failed my driving test three times.) And after all that, the boyfriend’s mom ended up uninviting me, because she hated me (she didn’t say as much, but it was obvious). Even though I spent V-Day at Buca Di Beppo with my friend-instead of sipping hot chocolate by the fire with my boyfriend-I don’t think she ever forgave me. My friend, that is. I know the mom never forgave me.

Since then, I play it safe, and have practiced rolling my eyes and drawling, “Hallmark holiday” whenever the touchy topic of V-Day arises.

There is one thing that I do appreciate about V-Day, however: that it is considered obligatory to gorge oneself on champagne and chocolate, or even better, prosecco and a gooey, chocolaty dessert. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the way to a woman’s is through her chocolate stomach (yes, we have a separate stomach for chocolate; take note, boys).

As far as gooey, chocolaty desserts go, it doesn’t get much better than a brownie sundae…

…unless the brownie recipe comes from Thomas Keller. (And the ice cream is homemade and flecked with vanilla bean and fresh black pepper, the whole thing tricked out with blood orange reduction, cocoa nibs and flaky salt.) Called “bouchons” for their semblance to corks, these cakes have the nostalgic flavor and slight chew of brownies made from a box, only they’re way better because they’re French. Just kidding. They’re way better because they’re made with high quality cocoa powder, chocolate, butter, and enough salt to make them completely addictive. Their light-yet-dense, moist texture, which comes from whipping whole eggs with sugar until thick and then forcing in an unconscionable amount of butter, is what every brownie wants to have.

I scored this cake recipe from my days at  Farallon, where we served the bouchons atop an espresso sauce with milk chocolate ice cream and salted pecans. While we sold more of these cakes than any other dessert, occasionally someone would request it sans sauce, and with vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate. At first I thought this blasphemy, but when I tasted the combination, I had to admit that the fresh, clean flavor of the vanilla complemented the dark richness of the cakes better than the chocolate ice cream did.

Inspired by Molly Wizenberg’s book A Homemade Life, I decided to pair the cakes with vanilla-black pepper ice cream. Molly got the idea from Mallard Ice Cream, a fabulous shop in the fabulous town of Bellingham, Washington, that I had the pleasure of visiting during a trip several years ago. Those were enough creds for me-I made my favorite vanilla ice cream recipe, stirring in the black pepper just before churning as per Molly’s instructions. Don’t fear the pepper; the vanilla comes through as the prominent flavor, with a kicky finish. Blood orange reduction adds a note of brightness to the dish without overwhelming, and cocoa nibs and flaky salt provide addictive crunch.

If you’re bojon this V-day, you probably don’t a have a ton of lettuce to drop at some overpriced restaurant where everybody and their mistress is dining. Instead, why not impress your date by baking him or her these rich little cakes?

On second thought, maybe you should give them to your best friend instead.

Chocolate Bouchons with Black Pepper Ice Cream and Blood Orange Reduction

10 servings

The amounts of sugar, butter and salt in the cake batter might seem excessive, but I assure you the flavor and texture turn out just right. I once made these gluten-free, by subbing sweet rice flour for the all-purpose, with excellent results. I’ve always used dutch-processed cocoa powder for these cakes, and don’t know whether they’d work with the “natural” stuff; Valrhona and Guittard both make good dutch-processed cocoa.  Be sure the melted butter is still very warm when you add it to the cake batter; otherwise, the cakes won’t develop the prettily glazed cracks on top (they’ll still taste great, though!). Make the ice cream base the day before you plan to serve the cakes, as it benefits from resting in the fridge overnight, and needs to firm up for a few hours  after spinning. (A wise woman once said, “You can’t hurry ice cream, no, you just have to wait”… or something like that.) If you lack an ice cream maker, or didn’t plan ahead, don’t fret; make a batch of crà­ ¨me anglaise and grind 1/4 teaspoon or so of black pepper into the cooled custard. All the components can be made in advance; the cakes keep well for several days, and reheat beautifully in the oven or toaster oven. Should you be so lucky as to have 3″ ring molds, use them to bake 8 cakes, omitting the cocoa-dusting step.

Warm Chocolate Cakes: (Adapted from the Bouchon Bakery via Farallon)

2 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) sugar
2/3 cup (2 3/4 ounces) dutch-processed cocoa powder, plus more for dusting the pans
1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) flour
2/3 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and kept warm
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I use 72%), coarsely chopped (a scant cup)

For serving:
Blood Orange Reduction (below)
Vanilla-Black Pepper Ice Cream (below)
powdered sugar
cocoa nibs
flaky salt
freshly ground pepper

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 º. Brush 10 of the muffin tins with some of the melted butter and dust with cocoa powder. (The cleanest way to do this is to place about a tablespoon of cocoa powder in each tin, and, holding it over a large sheet of parchment paper, knock it around to the best of your ability, tapping out the excess onto the parchment. Use the parchment to slide the extra cocoa into your measuring cup for the cake.)

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until very thick and pale, 5 – 10 minutes. When you lift the paddle from the bowl, the egg goop should form a mound on the surface of the goop in the bowl for a second before disappearing.

While the eggs are doing their thing, sift together the cocoa, flour and salt into a medium bowl.

Beat the vanilla into the egg mixture. With the mixer on the lowest speed, add 1/3 of the dry mixture, beating until combined. With the mixer still running, drizzle in 1/2 of the warm, melted butter, mixing until combined (slowly drizzling in the butter ensures that it emulsifies into the eggs, resulting in a smooth, not greasy, texture). Keep going like that until all the stuff is in there. Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in the chopped chocolate. The batter should be fairly runny and shiny, like that of brownie batter.

Immediately divide the batter among the buttered and cocoa-ed muffin cups (a spring-loaded ice cream scoop makes quick work of this), filling them about 2/3 of the way full. Bake the cakes, rotating once, until shiny on top and a tester comes out with lots of moist crumbs (there may be melted chocolate from the chunks on there, too-don’t let it fool you), about 20 minutes. Let the cakes cool for 5 minutes. Invert a cooling rack over the cakes, then grab the pan and the rack and flip everything over together. Give the pan a rap on the table, then remove it, so that the cakes are sitting upside-down on the rack. Turn the cakes over to cool right-side-up.

To serve, dust the cakes with powdered sugar. Drizzle the blood orange reduction on plates, and place a warm cake atop each plate. Make a small pile of cocoa nibs next to or on top of the cakes, and top with a scoop of ice cream. Garnish the ice cream with ground black pepper, a few flecks of flaky salt and a few cocoa nibs.

The cakes will keep for up to 5 days in an airtight container at room temperature. Reheat in a 350 º oven for 3 – 5 minutes before serving.

Vanilla-Black Pepper Ice Cream: (Adapted from A Homemade Life)

Makes about 1 quart

The easiest way to measure the black pepper is to grind it onto a piece of creased paper, then use the paper to slide the pepper into the measuring spoons.

Save the egg whites for making  brown-butter financier cakes. They will keep in the fridge for up to a week, or in the freezer for several months.

1 1/2 cups half and half
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped
1 cup cold heavy cream
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
pinch salt
1 1/4 teaspoons freshly and finely ground black pepper

In a medium saucepan, heat the half and half with the vanilla bean and scrapings until steaming and small bubbles appear around the sides of the pan. Cover and steep for 20 minutes.

Pour the heavy cream into a quart-sized container, such as a mason jar, and set aside. If you have an instant-read thermometer, have it handy.

Place the egg yolks in a medium bowl set on a damp towel to stabilize it. Add the sugar and salt, whisking to combine. Reheat the half and half to a bare scald. Whisking constantly with one hand, pour the hot dairy very slowly into the yolks. (This is called tempering, and prevents the yolks from scrambling.) Pour the mixture back into the pot and set over a medium-low flame. Cook, stirring constantly with a heat-proof rubber spatula, scraping the sides and bottom of the pot, until the custard just begins to “stick” (or form a thickened film) on the bottom of the pot (you will have to tilt the pan to see the bottom), or registers 170 º on an instant-read thermometer, 5-10 minutes.

Immediately pour the custard into the container of cold cream, stir to combine, and chill in the fridge for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

Place the ice cream base in the freezer for 30 minutes, stirring 2 – 3 times, to get it really cold. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve, and stir in the black pepper, then process in an ice cream maker. ‘Cure’ in the freezer for at least 2 hours for a firmer, scoopable consistency.

Homemade ice cream is best eaten within the first few days of being made, but will keep for a month or two in the freezer.

Blood Orange Reduction:

Use any leftover syrup to make blood orange sodas; just stir a bit of syrup into a glass of sparkling water (or prosecco!).

1 cup freshly squeezed, strained blood orange juice (from 3 or 4 blood oranges)
1/2 cup sugar

Combine the juice and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook at a simmer, swirling occasionally, until syrupy and reduced by about half, 5 – 10 minutes. You can “test the set” and determine whether the sauce is thick enough to hold a line on a plate by dripping a drop of the reduction onto a chilled plate. Cool and store in the fridge for up to several weeks.

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