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Milk Street French Showstopper Desserts (Ep 409)

Bête Noire

Start to finish: 1 hour 40 minutes, plus cooling and chilling | Servings: 12

Bête noire is a flourless chocolate cake that gets its silky, ultra smooth, almost custard-like texture from the sugar syrup in the base, as well as from gentle baking. We bring a uniquely complex flavor to our version by caramelizing sugar with black peppercorns before dissolving the caramel with orange juice and bourbon. A combination of bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate yields a rounder, richer finish than just one type of chocolate, while Angostura bitters lend a spiciness and depth that balance the sweetness of the dessert. We forgo the classic ganache coating and opt to use quickly candied orange zest for a garnish that adds contrasting color and texture. Though the cake requires at least 4 hours of chilling to fully set, it’s best served at room temperature, so be sure to remove the cake from the refrigerator at least two hours before serving. For neat slices, dip the knife in hot water, then wipe it dry before each cut.

Don’t use a whisk to combine the ingredients for the batter; a large silicone spatula is better. A whisk incorporates air, which leads to bubbles rising to the surface during baking and marring the smooth, shiny surface. Also, don’t forget to run a knife around the edges of the cake the moment it comes out of the oven; loosening the edges from the sides of the pan prevents the cake from cracking as it cools. Finally, don’t cover the cake before refrigerating, as a cover may trap condensation that can drip onto the cake.


  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter, cut into 16 pieces, plus more for the pan
  • 12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1 large navel orange
  • 160 grams (¾ cup) plus 70 grams (⅓ cup) white sugar
  • ½ cup bourbon
  • 3 tablespoons black peppercorns
  • 2 tablespoons Angostura bitters
  • 6 large eggs, beaten
  • Whole-milk Greek yogurt, to serve


Heat the oven to 275°F with a rack in the middle position. Coat the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with butter. Line the bottom of the pan with kitchen parchment, then butter the parchment. Set a wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet. In a large bowl, combine the bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolates and the butter; set a fine mesh strainer across the bowl, then set aside.

Using a vegetable peeler, remove just the outer zest of the orange, not the white pith beneath, in long strips; set the strips aside. Halve the orange and juice it into a liquid measuring cup. Measure 3 tablespoons of the juice into a medium saucepan. Add the bourbon to the remaining juice in the measuring cup, then add enough water to equal 1 cup total liquid; set aside.

Add the 160 grams (¾ cup) sugar to the juice in the saucepan, then add the zest strips and peppercorns. Set over medium-high and cook, without stirring but occasionally swirling the pan, until the sugar dissolves, 1 to 2 minutes. Continue cooking, swirling the pan often, until the sugar caramelizes to deep mahogany brown and the peppercorns begin to pop, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and carefully pour in the orange juice–bourbon mixture; the caramel will bubble up and harden. Set the pan over medium, bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the caramel has dissolved and the peppercorns no longer stick together, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the bitters.

Immediately pour the hot sugar syrup through the strainer into the chocolate-butter mixture; reserve the strained solids. Jostle the bowl to ensure the chocolate and butter are fully covered with syrup, then let stand for 2 to 3 minutes. Using a silicone spatula, gently stir until the mixture is well combined and completely smooth; it should be barely warm.

Add the beaten eggs to the chocolate mixture and stir with the spatula until homogeneous and glossy, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour into the prepared springform pan. Gently tap the sides of the pan to remove any air bubbles, then use the back of a spoon to smooth the surface. Set the pan on the prepared baking sheet and bake until the cake barely jiggles when the pan is gently shaken, about 45 minutes.

While the cake is baking, transfer the zest strips from the strainer to a small, shallow bowl, removing and discarding any peppercorns stuck to them. Sprinkle the strips with the 70 grams (⅓ cup) sugar, then toss until the strips are completely coated. Cover loosely and store at room temperature until ready to serve.

Remove the cake from the oven and immediately run a thin, sharp knife around the edges to loosen the sides of the cake from the pan. Cool to room temperature in the pan, then refrigerate uncovered for at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours.

About 2 hours before serving, remove the cake from the refrigerator. Remove the zest strips from the sugar and shake off excess sugar; reserve the sugar for another use. Cut the strips lengthwise into thin strips. Remove the sides of the springform pan. Arrange the zest slivers on the cake around the edges. Slice the cake and serve with small spoonfuls of yogurt.

French Almond-Rum Cake (Gâteau Nantais)

Start to finish: 3¼ hours (25 minutes active) | Servings: 12

Gâteau Nantais originated in Nantes in western France. Made with generous amounts of butter, eggs and almond flour, the cake’s crumb is rich, moist and pleasantly dense, and becomes even more so after it’s brushed with a rum syrup. The classic finish is a rum icing, but we opted instead for a bracing lemon glaze that brings out the lemon zest in the cake. You can serve the cake as soon as the glaze sets, but its flavor and texture improve if allowed to rest overnight at room temperature. If storing for longer, cover and refrigerate (up to three days), but bring to room temperature before serving. If you have a dark, non-stick cake pan (which transfers heat more quickly than lighter aluminum) reduce the temperature to 325°F and bake for the same time.

Don’t use a small saucepan to make the syrup, and don’t forget to remove the pan from the burner before pouring in the rum. These steps help ensure that the alcohol won’t ignite. After removing the cake from the pan, don’t re-invert it—leave it bottom side up, as the perfectly flat surface is easy to glaze. Finally, don’t allow the cake to cool before brushing on the syrup; absorption is better if the cake is still hot.

INGREDIENTS For the cake

  • 16 tablespoons (2 sticks) salted butter, room temperature, plus more for the pan
  • 6 large eggs
  • 300 grams (1⅓ cups) white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
  • 250 grams (2½ cups) almond flour
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 80 grams (½ cup plus 2 tablespoons) all-purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons dark rum

For the rum syrup

  • 38 grams (3 tablespoons) white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon whole allspice
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • ½ cup dark rum

For the lemon glaze and garnish

  • 186 grams (1½ cups) powdered sugar
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice, plus more if needed
  • 47 grams (½ cup) sliced almonds, toasted

INSTRUCTIONS To make the cake, heat the oven to 350°F with a rack in the middle position. Generously butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan. In a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, beat the eggs.

In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, white sugar and lemon zest on medium until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes, scraping the bowl as needed. Add the almond flour and salt, then beat on medium just until incorporated. With the mixer running, gradually add the eggs and beat until homogeneous, scraping the bowl as needed. Increase to medium-high and continue to beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping the bowl once or twice. With the mixer running on low, gradually add the all-purpose flour and mix until incorporated, then slowly add the rum and beat just until combined. Scrape the bowl to ensure no pockets of flour or rum remain. The batter will be thick.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, then spread in an even layer and smooth the surface. Bake until deep golden brown and the center of the cake springs back when gently pressed, 50 to 55 minutes.

Meanwhile, to make the rum syrup, in a large saucepan combine the white sugar, ⅓ cup water, allspice and peppercorns. Bring to a boil over medium-high, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then boil for 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the rum. Bring to a simmer over medium and cook for 2 minutes. Pour the mixture though a fine mesh strainer set over a small bowl; discard the solids and set the syrup aside.

When the cake is done, let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Invert the cake onto another wire rack; do not re-invert. Immediately brush the top and sides of the cake with all of the rum syrup. Cool to room temperature, about 1 hour. Transfer the cooled cake to a platter.

To make the lemon glaze, in a medium bowl, whisk together the powdered sugar and salt, then gradually whisk in the lemon juice; the glaze should be smooth, with the consistency of yogurt. If it is too thick, whisk in additional lemon juice ½ teaspoon at a time to attain the proper consistency.

Pour the glaze onto the center of the cake, then use an offset spatula or the back of a spoon to spread the glaze toward the edges, allowing just a small amount to drip down the sides. Sprinkle with the toasted almonds. Let stand at room temperature to set the glaze, about 1 hour.

© 2020 Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street. All Rights Reserved.