I have always been semi-mortified about special requests in restaurants. Meg Ryan’s orders in When Harry Met Sally still fill me with third-party embarrassment. When I was in high school, my friends and I decided, instead of going to junior prom, we’d spend our ticket money on a fancy dinner in San Francisco instead. I anticipated it for weeks, poring over the menu in advance like it was some kind of ancient codex. After much deliberation, I picked the black pepper-crusted tuna steak—which, of course, arrived raw.
What to do? Amazingly (this being California in the 90s), I hadn’t yet eaten raw fish and wasn’t planning to start then. But, determined to be accommodating I picked at the seared edges of the tuna until a friend noticed, rolled her eyes, and asked our waiter to re-fire it. I watched him parade the plate back to the kitchen, as if announcing to the room, “That girl in the corner table is so uncultured, she didn’t know tuna is served rare, and we are all paying the price.”
My tolerance for special requests has improved since then (It helps that I’m no longer in high school, when even the wrong nail polish was the apex of embarrassment). And whatever I order, I know it will never compare to the culinary demands of the Marquis de Sade, who showed as much disregard for dining conventions as he did for sexual ones—that is, pretty much none whatsoever.
For one thing, if I were in prison, I assume that I wouldn’t have a lot of input about the food; you get what you get. Not so the Marquis. In one of his many jail stints, he counseled the chef of the Bastille about the daily menu: it had to include a custard (vanilla or coffee flavored only), baked apples, and “an excellent soup (I will not repeat this adjective; soups must always be excellent.” Try this today, and I bet you’d get a big fat of soup in your face. It would not be the excellent kind, either.
I also admit that I’ve never once ordered cookies shaped to specific dimensions. The Marquis was all over this one. His requests to the Bastille are charming compared to the letters he wrote his wife, Renee, from prison, which listed his extensive food needs, including biscuits “six inches long by four inches wide and two inches high.” He was not only particular about his sweets; his appetite for them was insatiable. Another letter to Renee asked for “four dozen meringues; two dozen sponge cakes (large); four dozen chocolate pastille candies, vanillaed, and not that infamous rubbish you sent me in the way of sweets last time.”
And woe unto the person who forgets the chocolate. “The next time you send me a package … try to have some trustworthy person there to see for themselves that some chocolate is put inside,” he snarked. He may have been a libertine in the bedroom, but in the dining room with the Marquis, you don’t fool around.
* * *
As a fellow chocolate fiend, my biggest annoyance is when baked goods labeled “chocolate” just don’t taste like it. My favorite cakes are the ones with only a whisper of flour and sugar, where chocolate loudly makes its presence known. So I can relate to one of the Marquis most common complaints: more chocolate, please. “The sponge cake is not at all what I asked for,” he wrote to Renee. “I wanted it to be chocolate inside, of which it contains not the slightest hint.”
So how should a chocolate cake taste, Marquis? “It ought to have the same taste as when you bite into a bar of chocolate. I wish it to be a chocolate cake, and of chocolate so dense that it is black, like the devil’s arse is blackened by smoke.” Leave it to him to take “sinfully delicious” to a whole new level.
If that hasn’t put you off dessert, try these. They’re “cakes”, sure, but only for a moment—until you break into them and they become just what the Marquis called for, a melted chocolate bar.
(Adapted from Cooking Light, ironically enough)
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
5 teaspoons instant espresso powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 (2.6-ounce) bar dark (71% cocoa) chocolate (such as Valrhona Le Noir Amer), finely chopped
Pomegranate seeds, for garnish (optional)
1. Grease 10 (4-ounce) ramekins. In a small bowl, sift together flour, cocoa, espresso powder, baking powder, and salt.
2. Place butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed 1 minute. Add granulated and brown sugars, beating until well blended, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, and vanilla, beating until well blended.
3. Fold flour mixture into sugar mixture; fold in chocolate. Divide batter evenly among ramekins; arrange ramekins on a jelly-roll pan. Cover and refrigerate 4 hours or up to 2 days.
3. Preheat oven to 350°F. Remove ramekins from fridge and let stand at room temperature 10 minutes. Uncover and bake for 12 minutes or until cakes are puffy and slightly crusty on top (do not overbake – trust me, they’re done). Let sit for 1 minute, then unmold. Top with pomegranate seeds if using; serve immediately. If you can’t wait to unmold them, just eat them out of the ramekin. It’s not a sin.