My sweaty hands were making it nearly impossible to open the package of crackers that I’d stashed away in my carry-on prior to leaving my house that morning. Embarrassed by all of the racket I was making, I resorted to using my teeth and then, in a final Hail Mary attempt at opening the thing, my car keys did the trick. But not, incidentally, without sending a few crackers tumbling down to the ground, cracking and shattering their orange shards all over the airport floor.
Oops! Sorry about that. I’d said to the person next to me, as I attempted to sweep up the crumbs with the long edge of my trashy magazine. We were both waiting for our flight to Portland to show some signs of life, hoping to hear that it would be taking off at some point in the not too distant future and that it wouldn’t be cancelled altogether. I’d been delayed in the Minneapolis airport for a number of hours and my flight had been walking the line between cancelled and delayed for the better part of the morning. Will we make it? Will I have to get a hotel here … Alone … in MINNESOTA?!? Do I even know how to do that?
But alas, fate seemed to be on our side that day and I eventually found myself shuffling up to the ticket counter, ready as could be to hand the nice lady my boarding pass.
Well ma’am, it appears to be your lucky day! We appreciate your patience, what with all of the delays, and we’re going to bump you up to first class! Have you ever flown in first class before?
<< shakes head from side to side >>
Well, you’re going to love it.
The man seated two rows in front of me was from Sheboygan, WI. The newlyweds directly behind me were from Providence … the man to my left and up a row was from Virginia, like me. Where exactly, I’m not sure. The woman seated directly to my right was from Sudan. SUDAN!? Wow! What brings you to Minnesota? I’d responded goofily when she told me. She smiled politely at my eager enthusiasm. It was just that I’d never met anyone from Sudan before and I’m the type whose enthusiasm tends to lead my reactions, pulling wide-eyed facial expressions and exclamatory statements out before I have a chance to give them a proper filtering. I was only seventeen in this particular instance, on the plane with the lovely woman from Sudan, so my excessive enthusiasm affliction was especially acute.
“Excuse me, Miss? Would you care for another slice of chocolate cake? You can never have too much cake, right?” The friendly steward winked at me.
I nodded my agreement to both questions and happily took the oversized piece of cake that he brought out “from behind the curtain,” just for me. There was no tray, no pushcart filled with plastic-wrapped packages of food – just a single plate upon which sat the most perfect slice of chocolate cake. FIRST CLASS CHOCOLATE CAKE! This cake looked like it had been sliced for no one but yours truly, with the utmost love and care by the dear men and women from behind the curtain. Up until that point, I’d been fighting the urge to tiptoe down the aisle to sneak a quick peek of whatever it was that existed just beyond that curtain. What I did know was that it smelled GOOD. Too good for a plane ride, really. Was this what first class always felt like? I didn’t remember a plane ride ever smelling quite like this. Like chocolate … Let’s just say that The Great and Powerful Oz has nothing on whoever was making magic behind THIS curtain.
“If you think the food airline companies serve up is bland or unappetising, it’s not necessarily their fault. Essentially, you leave your normal sense of taste behind at the airport departure gate. Get on board a plane and cruise to a level of thousands of feet, and the flavour of everything from a pasta dish to a mouthful of wine becomes manipulated in a whole host of ways that we are only beginning to understand.” – Katia Moskvitch, BBC
I recently read an article detailing the reasons why food tastes different on airplanes … and by different, I mean not as good. According to Oxford University Experimental Psychology Professor, Charles Spence, there are several factors that alter the way food tastes in the air. Essentially, almost every aspect of the in-flight experience, from the altitude and low humidity to the background noise and cabin pressure, can effect our ability to taste food properly. The first thing I thought about after reading the article, was chocolate cake.
Gazing down at the endless fields and farms and tiny roads to nowhere that charmingly blanket the flyover states … the amber waves of grain … I ate my weight in chocolate cake on that Minnesota-to-Portland flight. I savored the experience to the fullest. So apparently altitude, air pressure and lacking humidity are no match for the enthusiasm of a teenage girl. Yes, my taste buds that day seemed to be firing on all cylinders, and it would appear that the novelty of my experience overpowered all of the negative factors when it came to that chocolate cake. So, I’ll see your 30,000 feet and raise you seventeen years of teenaged giddiness. I was so excited to be sitting in first class eating that special chocolate cake, that I somehow managed to overcome all of those pesky taste-blocking hurdles and thoroughly enjoy each and every bite of each and every slice of that cake. Exactly how many slices I ate is a truth I will not divulge. Never ever.
But I can tell you that the lovely Sudanese women to my left also partook in that cake, sharing in my enjoyment of the whole thing. At one point, we even clinked forks and had a laugh at our unexpected good fortune that day. One minute we were stuck in a crowded airport terminal, awaiting a flight that seemed positively doomed to cancellation and the next thing we knew, we were flying high above the clouds, happily en route to the west coast, and enjoying the best chocolate cake we’d ever tasted. Fate you are a funny, funny thing.
Best Ever Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake RECIPE
*Adapted from Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” chocolate cake recipe
This, to me, is the best chocolate cake ever. Everyone says this about their favorite things, I realize. But it’s hands down the best one I’ve ever had and that is saying something because I make and eat an absurd amount of cake (too much, if I’m being honest). Similar to what airline chefs do to better satisfy their diner’s tainted palates at 30,000 feet, I bump up the flavorings in this cake to make it as good (read: as chocolatey) as I can. A little extra vanilla. Coffee. Dark chocolate. These things play so well together in this cake and make it something special. It is incredibly moist thanks to the hot coffee and coconut oil, and it has the best deep dark, intensely chocolate color thanks to the dark cocoa powder (which can be found at most supermarkets these days). I frost it with my favorite chocolate frosting that, in this case, I spike with a healthy amount of salted caramel. I’ve had dreams about this cake, I kid you not.
1/2 cup salted caramel sauce (see prep directions below)
Chop the chocolate and add it to a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water (makeshift double boiler). Stir the chocolate just until it’s melted and set it aside until it has cooled to room temperature.
Using an electric hand mixer or a stand mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes (I use the whisk attachment). Add the egg yolk and vanilla and continue beating for 2 more minutes. Turn the mixer speed down to low, and gradually add the confectioners’ sugar. Now, beat at medium speed, scraping down the bowl as needed, until smooth and creamy. Dissolve the coffee powder in 2 teaspoons of the hot tap water.
With the mixer on low, add the cooled chocolate, the coffee, and 1/4 cup of the salted caramel (this is really to taste, you can do more or less caramel here) to the butter mixture and mix until well-blended. Spread on the cooled cake.
for the salted caramel sauce (makes about a cup):
Over medium heat, heat the sugar in a heavy-bottomed, medium saucepan with high sides, stirring constantly with a heat-proof rubber spatula or wooden spoon. The sugar will clump up and then melt into a golden brown liquid (just be careful that you don’t burn it). Takes about 3 – 4 minutes.
When the sugar has totally melted, add the butter. It will bubble up rapidly, and this is what you want. Stir the butter into the caramel until totally melted.
Slowly drizzle in the heavy cream, stirring constantly as you do so (it will bubble rapidly again). Boil for one minute. Remove the caramel from the heat and add the salt, stirring to dissolve. Cook completely before adding to the chocolate frosting (it will ruin the consistency otherwise, by melting the butter). This stores well in the fridge for up to two weeks.