Other people’s recipes: Ming Tsai’s Chocolate five-spice flourless cake

I do not know when I first saw this recipe, but I do know where: it was on Ming Tsai’s PBS series Simply Ming, and that season he was still doing the “Asian ingredient, Western ingredient” thing. The featured ingredients for that episode were chocolate and five-spice powder, a combination of ground spices including star anise commonly used in Chinese cooking. I have a printout from the Web site — there’s a PostScript error message on one side, thankfully not obscuring anything important — with the very simple recipe. This notion of a “flourless chocolate cake” was still in its heyday (it seems now to have rather gone by the wayside, although there’s a lot to recommend it even for people who like baked goods with wheat flour, occupying a culinary niche somewhere between super-sugary desserts like fudge and super-rich chocolate tortes. It’s also not horribly high-calorie, unlike most cakes and tortes, so those of us who are watching our calorie intake can indulge without making too much of a sacrifice.

Half of the chocolate is chopped
It starts, of course, with chocolate. (I suppose a flourless cake could be made with cocoa, but call me dubious.) This recipe uses both bittersweet chocolate (I used Valrhona Caraïbe 66%) and unsweetened (I used Callebaut) — although, strangely enough, it then adds more sugar to the chocolate after it’s melted by mixing in a simple syrup. Before melting, the chocolate must be chopped up, and I find a cleaver works best for this.

Weighing out the chopped bittersweet chocolate
I always re-weigh chocolate after chopping — there’s no telling how much you lose when little bits scatter across the counter, fall on the floor, etc. — and in this case I was a little short, and had to make it up with a different kind of chocolate (Callebaut 70-30-NV in broken bits from the Whole Foods cheese department).

Weighing out the chopped unsweetened chocolate
I weighed the two chocolates in separate containers, although if I had read ahead in the recipe (which is a short one) I would have noticed that they are melted together in a double boiler, so I could have saved myself some cleanup.

Prepared 10-inch cake pan
The recipe headnote says that a 9- or 10-inch cake pan can be used, but the actual instructions specify a 10″ pan explicitly, and calls for it to be prepared “by greasing, lining with parchment and greasing again”. I used my usual technique of baking spray to stick the parchment to the pan and then baking spray again on top. I made a parchment collar (since the recipe calls for “lining” the pan and not just covering the bottom) by cutting two-inch strips of parchment using a straightedge and ruler. (Pre-cut parchment rounds are readily available for smaller cake pans, but I don’t bake cakes so frequently that I would have them ready to hand, and cutting a round from a square sheet of parchment is not that hard.)

Lots of five-spice powder
As befits the theme ingredient of the episode this recipe came from, there is a lot of five-spice powder in the recipe. I measured it out and came up with 17 grams — more than half an ounce — which may save you a few seconds measuring if you should try to make this recipe yourself.

Weighing out the butter
There’s also a lot of butter in this cake — a surprising amount, really, more than half a pound.

Melting the butter and chocolate in a double boiler
The two chocolates and the butter are melted together in a double boiler over simmering water. I don’t have room in my kitchen for a double boiler when a simple Pyrex bowl sitting atop a saucepan of water works just as well.

Almost completely melted
The chocolate-butter mixture is almost completely melted — you can still see a few chunks of unmelted butter. Once the butter is completely melted, a 1:1 simple syrup (made in a separate saucepan) is whisked into the mixture to sweeten it up.

Six fresh organic eggs
The recipe calls for six extra-large eggs. Most recipes call for regular large eggs. The difference between the two sizes is fairly small, but since I had to buy eggs anyway, I bought a half-dozen extra-large eggs. These were clearly good quality and fresh, based on the appearance.

Egg-and-sugar foam
The eggs and more sugar are whipped together “until tripled in size” — I assume Tsai means “tripled in volume” here, since there’s no other plausible meaning. Whipping the eggs with sugar creates a foam that gives the cake its final texture, and also helps to protect the eggs from curdling when the still-hot chocolate-butter mixture is folded into it.

Egg mixture after beating
This is what the eggs look like after being beaten into a foam with the sugar. You can see that they are significantly lighter. (Actually, I didn’t process these photos for absolute colorimetry, but trust me on this: the eggs are quite a bit lighter in color.)

Batter after folding chocolate into egg mixture
After folding in the chocolate, you get something that I guess can be called a “batter”, although it’s a bit of an odd one in that regard since it contains no starches at all — the entire structure, to the extent it has one, comes from the egg foam. (But it’s not a mousse, nor a custard, nor a soufflé, all of which are constructed differently.)

Filled cake pan ready for baking
OK, here’s the “this is what it looks like before it goes in the oven” photo that I almost always forget to take. Note how high the batter comes up the edge — I might have had a bit of trouble fitting all that cake into a standard 9″x2″ cake pan, although a 9″x3″ springform would have been just fine (modulo adjustments in cooking time). The recipe calls for cooking this in a water bath — I had to buy a disposable aluminum roasting pan as this 10-inch cake pan is now the largest non-disposable pan I own!

Finished cake cooling on rack
And now it’s done and cooling on the rack. The recipe says 50–70 minutes at a very low 275°F; if I recall correctly, I gave it about 65 minutes.

Tip of paring knife used to test cake
The recipe also gives a somewhat unusual doneness test. Tsai says “check that batter clinging to the knife has a spongy, pudding-like consistency” — I think I got that here.

What happened to the bottom of the cake?
So I turned the cake out onto my biggest cutting board — what happened to the bottom there? Well, the creases are clearly transferred from the parchment lining the bottom of the pan — one of the selling points, I suppose, of those pre-cut parchment rounds — but the rest of it is a mistake on my part. You see, I ignored the advice of EVERY BAKER EVER and put the cake pan in the roasting pan before I poured in the hot water for the water bath — and of course some of it splashed over into the cake pan and somehow (luckily!) ended up underneath the parchment lining. Next time, I too will remember. Because it was still a pretty damn good cake and certainly good enough for there to be a next time. (And if the snow ever stops, I’ll bring some into work and share with my colleagues. Assuming I haven’t eaten the rest by then.)

Cake with slice
To slice this cake really demands a clean, warm knife for every cut. I got twelve slices quite easily — the recipe doesn’t specify, but for a ten-inch pan that’s a pretty reasonably number. (A thicker cake baked in a nine-inch pan might be a challenge to get that many slices from, so I’m glad I splurged and bought the 10″ pan just for this recipe.) I could see a restaurant baking individual cakes in ramekins, probably 12 to 16 per recipe, which might be an easier option for home cooks as well — if you have that many ramekins to begin with.

PS: I’d include a link to the recipe on Tsai’s Web site, ming.com, but it doesn’t appear to be available any more. I’ve asked about it on Twitter; we’ll see if anything comes of that.


There’s actually (surprisingly) no salt in this recipe, so if I’m not mistaken it meets FDA guidelines as a “low-sodium food”.

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1/12 cake
Servings per recipe: 12
Amount per serving
Calories 447 Calories from fat 270
% Daily Value
Total Fat 30g 47%
 Saturated Fat 15g 75%
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 165mg 55%
Sodium 35mg 1%
Potassium 0mg
Total Carbohydrate 36g 12%
 Dietary fiber 4g 16%
 Sugars 27g
Proteins 6g 12%
Vitamin A 15%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 2%
Iron 5%
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